By Ian Stewart

Delaware Nature Society has over 200 nest boxes spread around the properties we own or help manage which we installed to provide nest sites for a variety of birds. Every summer these boxes are monitored by a team of volunteers who track over 100 nesting attempts by 5-6 bird species (and we are always looking for more people to help with this – please get in touch if you’d like to get involved!). You’d be wrong to think the boxes stand idle throughout the winter however – it’s just that most of the action now takes place at night!

Several birds often roost in them during the winter, including Screech Owls, Eastern Bluebirds and some woodpeckers, which they probably do to protect them from the elements such as wind and rain. It is likely several degrees warmer inside a nest box than outside of it and for a small bird on a very cold night this could be the difference between life and death. Bluebirds take this a little further and are famous for ‘bundling’, where several birds squeeze into the same box for the night, probably keeping each other warm with their body heat.

A male bluebird entering a nest box

A male bluebird entering a nest box in winter

This year we’re making a special effort to check our boxes during the winter too. Sometimes it’s obvious that birds have been roosting in our boxes as they leave their droppings behind. The droppings in the photo below were almost certainly from a bluebird that has been eating Oriental Bittersweet. Bluebirds usually eat insects but at this time of year these are hard to find so they switch their diet to berries, and this exotic invasive vine is one of the few local plants that still has berries on it in February. You can help bluebirds in winter by planting berry-producing native bushes and shrubs such as Winterberry, Viburnums and Hollies. We will be following these boxes all through the year to see if bluebirds end up nesting in the same boxes that were used in winter.

Bluebird droppings inside a nest box

Bluebird droppings show they have been using this nest box

It’s also worth checking nest boxes in winter for less-desirable occupants. About 10% of our nest boxes are occupied by white-footed or deer mice during the winter. These nocturnal mice build fluffy nests inside boxes and sleep in them during the day. We always dump out mice and their nests during the winter, which may seem unkind but if left in place their urine and feces can damage boxes or carry disease, and birds won’t use boxes already occupied by mice. If you do this yourself, don’t use your hands to dislodge mice and their nests in case you pick up any disease or get bitten, but instead gently ease out the box contents with a stout stick.

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

Two deer mice fast asleep in this box

This box at Coverdale Farm Preserve contained a furry nest with no fewer than 15 uneaten hickory nuts, which was interesting as this is not a common tree at the Preserve. These had probably been stored in the box by a Flying Squirrel, a nocturnal mammal which does not hibernate and requires food all winter. The squirrel cached the nuts here to provide a food supply for later in the winter, so to be sure the little guy wouldn’t go hungry we left the nuts below the box.

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

Hickory nuts cached in this nest box by a flying squirrel

So just because you never see anything going inside your nest boxes in winter, don’t assume they aren’t being used!

Ian Stewart

Sparrows are a mystery to most non-birders (and many birders too!) and it’s not hard to see why. The great majority of them are small, brown streaky birds that at this time of year are usually just glimpsed as they disappear into a tangle of undergrowth, so much so that sparrow sightings often get lumped into the catch-all category of ‘Little Brown Bird’ (hastily scribbled as ‘LBB’ in field notebooks from here to Alaska).

This is a great pity as sparrows are an under-appreciated group of birds in my opinion, and Delaware is awash with them during the winter because several species that breed as far away as northern Canada flood into our area and flock together with our resident sparrows. Tangled brush piles and weedy fields might not be attractive to an average human but they are very popular with sparrows who love to scuffle through them in search of seed as well as take cover in them if a hawk appears. On a good winter’s morning you might see more than half a dozen species of sparrow just by slowly walking along the edges of these brush piles and fields and waiting for them to appear.

A simple first step to identifying sparrows is to look at their breast as this lets you place them into one of two broad categories: those with streaked breasts and those with unstreaked breasts. The collage below is composed of sparrows banded during DNS’s Bird Conservation Program and up close you can see the differences between species in breast patterning, as well as the eyebrow stripes, moustaches and thin crown stripe found in many sparrows.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox, Savannah 2nd row. Lincoln’s, Field, American Tree (showing ‘stickpin’ in breast) 3rd row. Swamp, Chipping (winter), Slate-colored Junco 4th row. White-crowned, White-throated (adult), White-throated (immature)

The collage below shows the diversity of sizes, shapes and colors seen in sparrows’ beaks. For example, the beak of Song Sparrows is intermediate in length and depth while Fox Sparrows have a short but stout beak and both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows have long, thin beaks. Some sparrows have all-brown beaks while others have beaks that are gray (White-throated), orange (Field), pink (Junco) or jet black (Chipping Sparrow during the breeding season). The American Tree Sparrow has the most distinctive beak of all, being dark brown above but yellow below. There is also quite a lot of variation in the angle of the forehead, the size of the eye, and the curvature of the upper beak.

Top row (L to R). Song, Fox (with 2 ticks!) and Field 2nd row. Chipping (summer), Chipping (winter), Savannah 3rd row. Lincoln’s, Swamp, American Tree 4th row. White-throated, Slate-colored Junco, White-crowned (immature).

Hopefully these photographs have convinced you that sparrows are more different and beautiful than you had thought. My advice is to slowly explore the undergrowth on a crisp, still winter’s morning and try to get a good look at every species you see. Rest assured, you will be rewarded!

 

Autumn among the beeches

Ian Stewart

If life is getting you down or you’re feeling particularly stressed why not take a gentle afternoon stroll through a beech wood? Walking through a beech wood in the fall is a serene experience that will instantly melt away your troubles. And if you look closely, the beeches have a few surprises in store…..

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a fairly common tree across almost all of the eastern United States and is easily recognized by its smooth, pale gray bark and its above-ground ‘knees’ formed by the tops of its shallow roots. We have several stands of old, large beech trees around our DNS sites because early settlers tended to leave them alone as they often grow on hillsides which aren’t attractive sites for home building or farming, and also because their hard wood is difficult to cut.

At this time of year the ground beneath a beech wood is littered with a carpet of their golden leaves and if you wait long enough you will see a variety of mammals and birds rustling though them in search of fallen beech nuts. These distinctive triangular nuts emerge in pairs from their tough, furry husks when ripe and are beloved by deer, squirrels and Blue Jays and were apparently the favored food of the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Beech nuts are edible to humans once they have been peeled although they are apparently bitter and may even be toxic in large quantities so we do not recommend that you eat them.

Part of the reason beech woods are so attractive to walk through is that they are remarkably open, with very little understory of bushes or shrubs to navigate through. This is because beech trees are thought to be allelopathic, meaning they exude a chemical into the soil around them which inhibits the growth of other plants. Sometimes the only plant you see growing near a beech tree is a ring of ‘root sprouts’ growing around its trunk, which is a direct way through which beech trees spread in addition to their nuts.

Still, despite their placid outward appearance beech woods are tinged with intrigue. If you get down on your hands and knees you will notice that most of the trees have a circle of mysterious brown weedy stems around their base. These are known as Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and are among a handful of plants that don’t photosynthesize but instead live parasitically by burrowing into the roots of beech trees and extracting their nutrients.

So please take the time to explore a beech wood this fall, but be sure to appreciate the small struggles going on underneath these giant trees!

By Shannon Giordano, Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator

Fall is a prime time for planting trees, and Delaware Nature Society has planted quite a few in the last three weeks. Planting trees in the fall can be the best time because the trees are going dormant for the winter and the ground is often very moist, which means when spring comes and the soil starts to warm, the trees will be ready to grow.

In the past several weeks, Delaware Nature Society has planted over 600 trees at three locations. On October 27 at Coverdale Farm Preserve, the planting of 12 enormous Red Oaks and Bicolor Oaks with 9 foot root balls and full canopies began. They were brought in one at a time by truck and are being placed in a section of field that is currently used for feed hay. This planting is part of Coverdale’s 10-year Master Plan. The field the trees were planted in will be turned into a grazing pasture that will house movable animal shelters. These trees were planted in a specific area in order to create a buffer for the Farm’s neighbors, and provide shade and forage for the livestock. All 12 of the trees have been put into the ground and other areas of the farm are designated for reforestation in the future. A big thank you goes to Hank Davis who not only funded the purchase of the trees, but hand selected the trees and is also funding their installation. Hank is a true champion of Coverdale Farm Preserve, and for that we are ever grateful.

Last weekend, two large tree planting events were held on Saturday morning. The first event took place at Middle Run Natural Area where approximately 150 volunteers helped to plant 400 trees. The tree planting is just one aspect of the biodiversity management project that Delaware Nature Society manages at Middle Run under contract with New Castle County. Jim White, DelNature’s Senior Fellow for Land Biodiversity Management, heads up the planting efforts each year. “We are working to increase the park’s forest habitat as well as to increase stream buffers next to Middle Run, which is a tributary of White Clay Creek,” says Jim. Increasing forest habitat provides food and shelter for a wide variety of native wildlife. Stream buffers slow down and filter pollutants and help to reduce erosion. Tree planting also has many other benefits, including making a positive impact on climate change. County Executive, Matthew Meyer also attended the event, lending a hand with the planting. Since 1991, thousands of volunteers have helped to plant about 55,000 trees at this New Castle County park, which is located near Paper Mill and Possum Park roads in Newark.

The second planting event last weekend was held at DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC). The Rotary Club of Wilmington planted 200 trees in the Russel Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge with staff from the DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife.  The project was funded by members of the Rotary Club who donated $2,000 for the trees along with funding from DNREC. The tree planting is part of an effort over the past 20 years to restore the freshwater tidal marsh with native plants to provide habitat for waterfowl, song birds, deer, raccoon, beaver, and even river otter. The Rotary Club of Wilmington planted the trees as part of a challenge to all Rotary Clubs across the globe. International Rotary President, Ian H.S. Riseley challenged every Rotary club to make a difference by planting one tree for each of its members between the start of the Rotary year on July 1, 2017 and Earth Day on April 22, 2018.

A sincere thank you to everyone who was a part of each of these events!