Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

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By Matthew Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Spring is in full bloom here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center!  Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, frogs are croaking, and fish are biting.  While spring brings plenty of excitement for nature enthusiasts of all passions, there are a few birds that have arrived here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center that we hold near and dear to our heart.

The first “birds of spring” that arrived were the largest member of the swallow family, Purple Martins. These birds will spend the winter in South America and then migrate all over North America during their mating season. Adult females have a lighter breast than the adult males, and both take part in building nests and feeding young.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects.  Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Purple Martins taking a break from chasing insects. Photo by Matt Babbitt.

Populations that migrate to the Eastern United States are completely dependent on man-made structures, like the ones pictured above, for nesting. Researchers theorize that this is due to conditioning over many generations, as early writings from European settlers note that Native Americans placed whitened gourds near their crops and dwellings to attract Purple Martins in order to take advantage of their voracious appetite for insects.

Not long after the Purple Martins arrived, their cousins and the most common member of the swallow family, Barn Swallows announced their arrival with flashes of glossy blue wings and their chitter-chattery calls. They winter in Central and South America and then make their way back to North America during their mating season. Barn Swallows are also largely dependent on man-made structures to build their nest upon, which they make out of a mixture of mud and grass. In the communities of Tangier and Smith Island, located in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen and their families affectionately call these birds “Shanty Birds”, due to the multitude of nests that are built each spring under their crab shanties that sit just above the water on pilings.

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott's Mill.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Later in the year, the Barn Swallows will be raising their families in mud cup nests attached to the barn, mill, or house here at Abbott’s Mill. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Barn Swallows have the deepest forked tail of the swallow family, and you can catch a glimpse the bright white dots that highlight their tail when it is fully fanned out. Their swooping and diving through the air isn’t for naught, as all members of the swallow family are aerial insectivores, meaning they dine solely on flying insects. The adult male has bolder colorings and a darker throat than the adult female, and soon we will be seeing the pale-yellow beaks of their young.

Finally, just this past week we spotted the first pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fluttering about in the native plant demonstration garden just in front of our Visitor Center. The only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern United States, this short-footed, fast-flapping bird spends its winters in Central America, sometimes crossing the Gulf of Mexico during its migration. Adult males, like the one pictured below, are easily identified by their eye-catching, iridescent throat. All hummingbirds are uniquely adapted to feeding on the nectar of flowers with elongated beaks and wings that flap up to 53 times per second. Not only are they the smallest species of bird known, but they are also the only species that can both fly backwards and hover in place.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Derek Stoner.

If you have a hummingbird feeder at home, making your own “nectar” is an easy process. Start by combining mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, with occasional stirring to aid the dissolving process, and then let it cool. Don’t add food coloring or honey to your nectar mixture. It may be harmful to them, and all they want is sugar-water.  Clean your feeder once a week with a weak bleach and water solution to prevent and kill mold.  While hummingbirds will also dine on nature’s nectar, keeping your feeder out until their latest migration period, usually late September to early October, will help ensure your viewing pleasure and a final dose of energy for their long flight south. Additionally, research has found that these fascinating birds even remember where you put your feeder from year to year, so make sure to place your feeder in an optimal viewing area for you and your family and mark the spot when you take it down for the winter.

By Matt Babbitt, Director of Abbott’s Mill Nature Center:

As Mother Nature ushers in the warmth and rain of spring, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on the winter here at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.

A view of Abbott’s Mill from across the Pond.

A view of Abbott’s Mill from across the Pond.

This year’s winter held a tight grip on southern Delaware, bringing a few feet of snow, and steady dose of cold, crisp air. Despite the Old Man’s best efforts though, we had several visitors that helped ease the freeze. Abbott’s Pond was frozen until early March, but hosted quite a large flock of Ring-necked Ducks diving for vegetation to prepare them for the migration to their northern mating grounds.

Ring-necked Ducks paddling across Abbott’s Pond.

Ring-necked Ducks paddling across Abbott’s Pond.

There was a Red Shouldered Hawk that kept constant watch over the forest surrounding Johnson’s Branch.

A Red Shouldered Hawk perches in wait for prey.

A Red Shouldered Hawk perches in wait for prey.

Even the trees and plants, barren of leaves and succumbed to winter’s cold blow, were able to share their beauty.

The sun breaks through the swampy tree line of our Issacs-Greene Preserve.

The sun breaks through the swampy tree line of our Issacs-Greene Preserve.

Our giant 5 in 1 Tulip Poplar stretches for the heavens, gleaning the day’s fading rays of sun.

Our giant 5 in 1 Tulip Poplar stretches for the heavens, gleaning the day’s fading rays of sun.

Our giant 5 in 1 Tulip Poplar stretches for the heavens, gleaning the day’s fading rays of sun.

One of our first signs that spring was on its way was the little purple and green heads of Skunk Cabbage popping up through the snow, literally and figuratively melting the snow away.

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is able to heat itself to almost 60° F through an internal chemical process.  This heat not only melts the snow as it emerges, but provides a warm hiding spot for insects.

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is able to heat itself to almost 60° F through an internal chemical process. This heat not only melts the snow as it emerges, but provides a warm hiding spot for insects.

Lastly, this year’s winter also brought a new Manager to Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. Matt Babbitt joined us in December 2014 and brings with him a passion of teaching and exploring by way of Virginia, California, New York, the islands of Chesapeake Bay, and most recently, Washington, DC. Now that Old Man Winter’s grip has finally loosened, we invite you to come visit us at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center and explore our 500 acres of forest, swamp, meadow, pond, stream, and wetland ecosystems. The wonders of spring wait for your arrival!

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, located at 15411 Abbotts Pond Road, Milford, DE, is open Monday through Friday from 9 am – 4 pm, with public trail access 7 days a week from dawn until dusk. Starting this April, the Visitor Center will also be open on Saturday and Sunday from 12 – 4 pm.

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, located at 15411 Abbotts Pond Road, Milford, DE, is open Monday through Friday from 9 am – 4 pm, with public trail access 7 days a week from dawn until dusk. Starting this April, the Visitor Center will also be open on Saturday and Sunday from 12 – 4 pm.

By Robert Fisher, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Intern

Southern Delaware’s lingering drought received a brief respite on July 19th.  At 2pm severe thunderstorms rolled into the Milford area, bringing heavy rainfall. This steady inundation brought much needed moisture to stressed plants. While the rain was a blessing for most plants, the storm’s associated lightning and wind had a dramatic effect on some of the Milford Millpond Nature Preserve’s  trees.

This Tulip Tree was struck by lightning during the July 19th storm.

Abbott’s Mill naturalists prepping for a Native American program in the Lindale Tract encountered an abundance of tree debris and also discovered an impressive lightning strike on a large tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera), also known as yellow poplar.  The trees appears to have survived, but it will bear the marks of the strike for the rest of its days.

 

Path of the lightning through the tree.

The long scar, which runs the length of this impressive tree, tells us about lightning attraction and how trees handle it.  Tulip trees, being one of the tallest and fastest growing hardwood species in the eastern United States, have a  high biomass.  The combination of height and girth make these trees excellent conductors of lightning in the forest.  However, sap is a poor conductor and in a lightning strike, is superheated, becoming steam.  From this rapid expansion of liquid to a gas, an explosion occurs. The photo below shows fragments of bark and sapwood blown off of the tree, accounting for the exposed wood.  Shards of wood were found over 50′ from the tree and throughout the sub-canopy forest layer.

Debris from the strike covers the surrounding area.

The high visibility location of this tulip tree on the Lindale Loop Trail will serve as a teaching point for years to come.  If you are interested in seeing the tree for yourself, stop by Abbott’s Mill Nature Center and pick up a trail map highlighting our miles of hiking trails.  However, you might want to check out the chance of thunderstorms in the area before you venture afield!

 

Shard of the tree spiked in the ground.

By Jason Beale, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland is a popular location for naturalists in the winter.
Blackwater NWR near Cambridge, Maryland is a top location for winter wildlife watching on Delmarva. Photo by Ellen Sebastiani.

As the days shorten and leaf fall continues, birdwatchers begin to focus in on the legions of returning waterfowl and wintering raptors that fill the marshes and fields of the Delmarva Peninsula.  Few destinations are as unique and productive than Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge, Maryland.  Along with legions of Ducks, Geese, and Swans, the refuge hosts a tremendous number of wintering Bald Eagles – more than any other site on the East Coast, north of Florida.  But wait, there’s more!  Each year a few Golden Eagles find the vast, open habitats suitable for making a living during the winter.  In and around the forest, another distinct species keeps busy – the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  This large, grizzled-gray squirrel only makes it home on the peninsula in scattered patches of open forest.

Despite being well-known winter residents, experiencing the sights and sounds of thousands of Snow Geese in close proximity is exhilarating. Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

Once again, Delaware Nature Society is offering a trip to Blackwater on Wedneday, December 7th.  Groups will depart from both Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford and the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington.  Both groups will depart from their respective sites at 7:30am and return around 4:30pm.

Tundra Swans are one of Delmarva's largest bird species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

We’ll stop briefly at the visitor’s center before beginning our tour.  We’ll then travel the wildlife drive auto tour, with periodic stops and short hikes in wooded areas.  After a short lunch, we’ll tour the refuge perimeter and open marshes that fringe the Chesapeake Bay area.  Time permitting, we’ll venture to the Cambridge waterfront to look for Canvasback, Redhead, and other bay ducks that winter in the area.

Golden Eagles, like this juvenile, regularly winter at Blackwater. Photo by Derek Stoner

Blackwater Wildlife Tour

Wednesday, December 7th

Abbott’s Mill Nature Center: 7:30am-4:30pm

Member/Non-Member: $22/$30

DuPont Environmental Education Center: 7:30am-4:30pm

Member/Non-Member: $22/$30

To register, contact Fiona Smith at (302) 239-2334 x. 134. Dress for the weather and bring a bag lunch.