Ashland Nature Center

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Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Many visitors to Ashland Nature Center have been enjoying our newest attraction – a bird blind! The bird blind overlooks a cluster of bird feeders along Wildflower Brook and is the perfect place to view birds and other wildlife up close.

These excited campers look out from inside the bird blind. The blind was conceived by Joe Sebastiani and built by our ‘Dream Team’. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

These excited campers look out from inside the bird blind. The blind was conceived by Joe Sebastiani and built by our ‘Dream Team’. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

As long as you sit quietly you can watch dozens of birds come to the feeders, bathe in the brook, or just hang out in the trees nearby, and since they are so close you don’t even need binoculars. This makes blinds an excellent way to get children interested in nature since even youngsters can enjoy watching the birds going back and forth. Having said that, just a basic pair of binoculars lets you see a lot more details of the different birds like their beak shapes and feather colors so try borrowing a pair from the visitor center if you don’t have your own. Blinds are also excellent opportunities for photographers as the nearness of the birds means you don’t need an expensive camera with a super-zoom lens – all you need is patience! If you’re lucky you may also see a Red Squirrel visiting from the nearby hemlocks or perhaps a cute little Eastern Chipmunk, both of which are uncommon mammals in the Piedmont. Imagine how memorable it would be this winter to watch a Red Squirrel searching for food in the snow while you’re sheltered inside the blind!

A Purple Finch occupies every port of this popular feeder! Photo by Hank Davis

A Purple Finch occupies every port of this popular feeder!
Photo by Hank Davis

The blind looks out over several types of feeders stocked with different seed mixes and suet cakes which each attract different species of birds. This variety adds a fascinating insight into how different birds feed – some birds like House Finches and Goldfinches perch happily at the feeders and chomp away until they are done while others like Chickadees and Tufted Titmice zoom in and grab one seed before carrying it away to a nearby tree and hammering it open. Woodpeckers and Nuthatches have a remarkable ability to hang upside down on suet cake cages and peck away at the contents while bigger birds like Blue Jays can’t perch very well and prefer to grab whole nuts from table-top feeders.

This Carolina Chickadee feeds on a hanging-dish type feeder. Check out its leg – it’s banded! Photo by Hank Davis

This Carolina Chickadee feeds on a hanging-dish type feeder. Check out its leg – it’s banded!
Photo by Hank Davis

Visiting Ashland’s bird blind will inspire you to buy your own bird feeder or give one to somebody else (they make great Christmas presents for anyone regardless of where they live in the city or countryside). Just hang them from a tree or pole at least a meter from a window (to minimize window strikes) and see which birds you attract. It is probably best to fill them with black oil sunflower seeds since this will attract many birds although some species prefer millet or nyger (thistle). Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin is a great local specialty store for bird food and feeders though most supermarkets also sell seed and suet cakes.

This male Downy Woodpecker is hammering away on a suet cake! Photo by Hank Davis

This male Downy Woodpecker is hammering away on a suet cake! Photo by Hank Davis

For me, watching birds at feeders is both entertaining and soothing and a bird blind stocked with several feeders is the sum of human happiness, as well as a relaxing way to connect people of all ages with nature. Next time you have a free hour or so come and hang out at the Ashland bird blind and see what I mean!

By: Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Delaware birders are out in full force at this very moment and one of their main targets is migrating warblers. Warblers are small, colorful songbirds which flit actively from tree to tree picking off insects with what the field guides usually describe as thin pointed beaks (also known as ‘bills’). But are warbler beaks really all small and pointed? We have handled several warblers during the Delaware Nature Society’s bird banding project and a closer view reveals a surprising amount of variation in the size, shape and color of their beaks.

The Northern Parula is one of the smallest warblers and has a very thin and pointed beak which it uses like fine tweezers to glean tiny arthropods from leaf surfaces.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

The Prairie Warbler also has quite a sharp beak but it is shorter and more rounded than the Parula’s. Its beak is jet black unlike many of the other warblers which have brownish two-toned beaks with the upper mandible being darker than the lower.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

The Mourning Warbler has a fairly substantial bill for a warbler. Mourning Warblers tend to feed on or near the ground and perhaps eat larger insects or grubs.

Mourning Warbler.

Mourning Warbler.

Waterthrushes are relatively dull, streaky warblers that live along streams where they pick arthropods from the surface of the mud and rocks. There are two species, the Louisiana and the Northern, which look very similar but can be partly distinguished by their beak length. The Louisiana was once known as the ‘large-billed waterthrush’ and you can see from these photos that their beak is indeed longer and a little heavier than the Northern.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

The American Redstart has an unusual beak for a warbler. When seen from above (or more commonly, from below!) its beak is broadly triangular and looks more like that of a flycatcher than a warbler (see the photo below). It’s probably no coincidence that Redstarts often feed by leaping off branches and grabbing insects in mid-air. The conspicuous bristles around the base of their beak may help them trap these insects.

American Redstart (left) and Northern Waterthrush Beaks

Comparison of beak thickness in American Redstart (right) and Northern Waterthrush (left)

Another warbler with an unusual beak is the Yellow-breasted Chat. The Chat is a large, stocky bird that some people do not even consider a warbler, and it has a correspondingly huge, stout beak with a rounded upper mandible. Chats have such a big beak that they can chomp on insects such as grasshoppers that that are too big for the other warblers and can also eat berries.

Male Yellow-breasted Chat

Male Yellow-breasted Chat

Insects and other arthropods are the staple food of all warblers and yet the variation in the size and shape of their beaks suggests that each species eats different prey. This partly explains why some species are usually seen actively hunting in the upper canopy of either deciduous or pine trees while others creep slowly around on the ground, perhaps waiting for an arthropod to emerge. Warblers are passing through Delaware as we speak so next time you see one, take a good look at its beak and see if you can guess what it feeds on!

By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree” (Joyce Kilmer, 1913).

Trying to identify trees is a lot of fun and can be done by anyone with both patience and a good field guide because almost all trees belonging to the same species have the same general appearance in terms of their size, bark, and leaf shape and arrangement. Still, sometimes one comes across a specimen that stands out from the others, perhaps because of its unusual appearance or location. These are my four favorite trees found on DelNature lands.

1) This massive American Sycamore is affectionately known as “Old Mr Knobbles” and is a much-visited centerpiece of the Ashland Nature Center floodplain. Although there are several huge Sycamores growing along the creek they all have a single vertical trunk whereas this specimen has two equally thick trunks, one of which seems to defy gravity by growing almost horizontally!

American Sycamore, Ashland Nature Center

“Old Mr Knobbles” American Sycamore, Ashland Nature Center

2) This Gray Birch stands alone in the corner of the hilltop behind Coverdale Farm. There was a pair of Gray Birches standing side by side here for many years but one was blown down by a storm in the spring of 2016, leaving this distinctively-colored tree standing forlornly against a dramatic backdrop of sweeping fields.

Gray Birch, Coverdale Farm Preserve

Gray Birch, Coverdale Farm Preserve

3) The great majority of trees have just one trunk but this monster Bitternut Hickory hidden away in the woods of Coverdale Farm Preserve has no fewer than six! Although one of the trunks is fairly small and another two are joined at the base it is still an unusual tree as the six trunks form a neat crown that supports the many branches.

Bitternut Hickory with Six Trunks, Coverdale Farm Preserve

Bitternut Hickory with Six Trunks, Coverdale Farm Preserve

4) Swamp Oak. This striking pale gray tree is tucked away in a dark corner of Burrows Run Preserve. As with White Oaks the trunk is relatively smooth near the base but begins to peel and flake further up the tree. However the peeling is so pronounced on Swamp Oaks that the bark seems to hang in sheets like plates of armor!

Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

The Plate-Like Bark of a Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

The Plate-Like Bark of a Swamp Oak, Burrows Run Preserve

There are many beautiful trees scattered around our properties. Next time you walk our trails be sure to look carefully into the woods – you may find your own favorite tree!

By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Bird banding is in full swing at both Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and our mist-nets are becoming dominated by Gray Catbirds! Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are grouped with Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers as ‘mimic-thrushes’ as all three are slender thrush-like birds with long tails and loud, elaborate songs. Indeed, catbirds get their name because of the peculiar cat-like ‘miaow’ call they often give while hidden low in a bush! Catbirds are by far the most common of the three mimic-thrushes however, and can be so abundant that many birdwatchers don’t give them a second glance. This is a pity, because catbirds have several interesting features which are particularly obvious when you are holding them during the banding process.

The first of these is the conspicuous rictal bristles around the base of their bill. Several other groups of birds have rictal bristles (especially flycatchers) and although their exact purpose is unknown they are thought to either have a sensory function or to prevent captured insects from scratching a bird’s eyes while they are being held in their bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird's bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird’s bill.

The second distinctive Catbird character is their crimson ‘crissum’. This is the patch of feathers underneath their tail which isn’t always easy to see in the field as Catbirds tend to stay fairly low to the ground. The third interesting plumage character of Catbirds, which can also be seen in the picture below, are the fairly obvious growth bars in their outer tail feathers. Growth bars appear as alternating light and dark bands and each pair of bands represents one 24 hour period of feather growth.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Not surprisingly, Catbirds were by far the most frequently caught species during the pilot banding project we conducted last summer at Ashland and Bucktoe. In just 3 months we caught 152 catbirds, of which 87 were juveniles likely hatched locally. So far this year we have recaptured 3 of the catbirds we banded last year and hope to recapture even more as the season progresses. It’s truly amazing to think that these 3 birds spent their winter over a thousand miles away in the south-eastern US or the Caribbean and yet came back to the same few hundred acre spots in DE and PA the following year!

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

So be sure to take a longer look at a Gray Catbird next time you see one. They are more interesting than you might think!

Public bird banding sessions are held at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Bucktoe Creek on Wednesday, both from 8am – 11am, though banding does not take place if it is raining or windy, out of concerns for the birds’ safety.

Note that there will be no banding this Monday (May 30th) due to the Memorial Day Holiday.