Coverdale Farm Preserve

All posts tagged Coverdale Farm Preserve

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, and Dave Pro, Ashland Property Steward

The Delaware Nature Society is in the process of converting some of the Coverdale Farm Preserve grassland areas from cool-season, exotic agricultural grasses to native warm-season grasses and wildflowers.  The process takes years, but is well worth the wait.  Our goal is to convert over 50-acres, which will provide a diversity of native meadow species, and create much better habitat for a wide variety of mammals, birds, insects, and much more.  Dave Pro and I led a group of DNS members on a walk through the meadow last week to showcase how it is coming along.  The answer…beautifully!  Wildflowers such as Wild Senna and Partridge Pea were in full bloom, as were native grasses such as Purpletop, Indian Grass, and Big Bluestem.  Wild Bergamot was just finishing up its bloom, and multiple species of butterflies were still nectaring from these plants.

The Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow restoration as it appeared during the second week of August, 2015.

The Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow restoration as it appeared during the second week of August, 2015.

The scale of this project is impressive.  For a project of this size, 50 seeds per square foot are planted, representing over 20 native plant species.  The federal government, through a “habitat restoration lease”, pays the Delaware Nature Society to do this project through the Early Successional Habitat program.  To prepare the site for seeding, we first had to wipe out the existing non-native, cold-season grass that existed here.  Then, the meadow was seeded over late-fall, and a cover crop Winter Rye, was also planted to prevent weeds from getting established.  We then had to mow the new meadow several times in the first year to prevent any annual weeds that did get established from flowering.  The young meadow plants don’t really start to show themselves until the second year of growth.  Now that the meadow is established, we were able to conduct a prescribed burn this spring.  This helped to remove built up thatch from previous winter mowings, giving the young native plants room to grow and photosynthesize.

Wildlife has responded to the meadow transformation.  Many species of birds can be found in this location now, and include nesting Eastern Meadowlark, American Kestrel, and a variety of sparrows, warblers, and other species such as Orchard Oriole.  With the abundance of flowering plants available, butterfly numbers have increased.  Monarch butterflies were easily seen on our walk last week as they nectared on the remaining Wild Bergamot.  Great Spangled Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Tiger Swallowtail, and Black Swallowtail were all swarming the meadow as well.  In the past, with few flowering plants, we would have had a tough time finding these species here.

A Black Swallowtail is pictured here nectaring on Wild Bergamot in the Coverdale Farm Preserve Meadow.

A Black Swallowtail is pictured here nectaring on Wild Bergamot in the Coverdale Farm Preserve Meadow.

Another butterfly, the Variegated Fritillary, is a common sight in the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow in August.

Another butterfly, the Variegated Fritillary, is a common sight in the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow in August.  Disclaimer: this one is feeding on Red Clover, which is an unwanted weed in the meadow.

Some of the wildflower species that we planted in this meadow include Bush-clover, Tall White Beardtongue, Early Goldenrod, Black-eyed Susan, Marsh Blazing-star, Partridge Pea, and Wild Senna.  Now, other native plants are coming in on their own as well, including Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed.

Wild Senna is a large wildflower that has formed drifts of yellow across parts of the meadow.

Wild Senna is a large wildflower that has formed drifts of yellow across parts of the meadow.

A lucky group of Delaware Nature Society members were able to enjoy the guided walk through the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow last week.

A lucky group of Delaware Nature Society members were able to enjoy the guided walk through the Coverdale Farm Preserve meadow last week.

This is just one of the many habitat restoration projects that the Delaware Nature Society is conducting on properties including Ashland Nature Center, Coverdale Farm Preserve, Middle Run Natural Area, Dupont Environmental Education Center, and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  We will offer more free walks for members in the coming months, and we would love to show you some of these wonderful places.

By Dan O’Brien, Community Supported Agriculture Farmer:

Spring is officially here in Delaware! At Coverdale Farm Preserve on the first day of spring we welcomed five new porcine pals to our ever-growing farm family. Between 5:00pm – 10:00pm on March 20th our black-spotted sow, a heritage cross-breed of Gloucestershire Old Spot and Tamworth, delivered a litter of five healthy and robust piglets. Farm Manager Michele Wales and CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien were on hand to help the laboring mother through her first farrowing.

The piglets will be used for Coverdale Farm education programs as part of the living classroom.  Students will learn about the farm habitat, animal behavior, and the husbandry needs of these highly intelligent creatures.

The piglets will be used for Coverdale Farm education programs as part of the living classroom. Students will learn about the farm habitat, animal behavior, and the husbandry needs of these highly intelligent creatures.

Michele was cool under pressure and knew exactly what to do at all the right times, an experienced pig midwife. Dan took lead as an enthusiastic assistant, learning the ropes and capturing the process in pictures. We made certain to keep the bedding clean as the sow made mounding nests during delivery. Next came the mounting of a heat lamp to warm the tiny piglets as they entered the world. As each piglet was born we kept watchful eyes to ensure the new arrivals were breathing freely, seeking and receiving mother’s milk, and huddling under the heat lamp together. Our eyes were also fixed on the sow. Post-delivery, it is vital to see her move around, drink water, and eat food. Healthy piglets only remain healthy if the mother is strong!

The new piglets are very hungry!

The new piglets are very hungry!

After a few cold, dark hours, all of the piglets had finally arrived and aggressively pursued the mother’s swollen teats and the warmth of her body. Total success! With all of the new baby piglets safely piled upon one another for warmth, Farmers Michele and Dan were able to call it a night knowing that the new happy family would be safe and sound in their warm straw bed. Over the next few days the little piglets have become more active and will continue to grow at the rate of around one pound per day.  Enjoy this short video of the piglets getting their first meal.

Come and visit these piglets along with our other farm babies on May 9! Coverdale Farm will be OPEN for visitation each Saturday beginning May 9 through September 26, 9:00am – 4:00pm.

By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Coordinator

On the morning of Saturday, December 27, 2014, our band of birders gathered in the parking lot at Coverdale Farm Preserve, eager for a morning of bird surveying as participants of the Wilmington Christmas Bird Count. From this vantage point, we observed three juvenile Bald Eagles perched in trees overlooking the farmyard, which seemed like a good omen. Near one on the barns we came across a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the ground, staring down the nearby House Sparrow flock. Our traditional stop to check on the Wood Duck boxes beside Coverdale Pond yielded close looks at two gray-phase Eastern Screech-owls. At this point, we seemed to be on a “Raptor Roll” but little did we know what awaited us at our next stop.

As we approached the stand of Eastern Red Cedars that we always search for roosting owls, I gave the customary guidelines of “Move slowly. Look for whitewash and pellets. Get low and look upward for dark outlines.” In past years we’ve found Screech-owls in this thick evergreen stand, and one winter a lucky observer found a Saw-whet Owl roosting there.

With the usual high hopes, we slowly entered the cedars. I took the route through the middle, while my birding partners fanned out on the left and right. After walking about 50 feet into the thicket, I stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes had detected the shape of an owl and I knew the bird’s identity without raising my binoculars for confirmation. With a loud whisper I alerted Amy, Kathleen, Dawn, and Judy, who joined me in staring wide-eyed at this incredible Long-eared Owl. I managed to focus the spotting scope (a brand-new Christmas gift that Judy had brought for its first trip afield!) on the owl and we marveled at its striking yellow eyes with coal black pupils. Kathleen noticed that the owl had frozen drops of water clinging to the rictal bristles around its beak, and she went to work with her camera to document this amazing discovery…

The owl as first observed at discovery, looking a more like a long dark lump in the tree rather than a Long-eared Owl. The many cedar branches concealing the owl helped it blend into the background incredibly well.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

The owl as first observed at discovery, looking a more like a long dark lump in the tree rather than a Long-eared Owl. The many cedar branches concealing the owl helped it blend into the background incredibly well. Photo by Derek Stoner.

Celebrating the first-ever Long-eared Owl observed at Coverdale Farm Preserve, and the first of this species well-documented by photos in New Castle County.  Maryann, Amy, Dawn, Kathleen, Amy and Judy are all smiles.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

Celebrating the first-ever Long-eared Owl observed at Coverdale Farm Preserve, and the first of this species well-documented by photos in New Castle County. Maryann, Amy, Dawn, Kathleen, Amy and Judy are all smiles. Photo by Derek Stoner.

By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

Over the next few days after the initial discovery by Derek Stoner and his birding team, Jim White discovered that there were actually four Long-eared Owls using this roost at Coverdale Farm Preserve.  Long-eared owls frequently roost communally in the winter, which is really exciting to find, but nothing abnormal for the bird.  Roosts with as many as 20 owls are not uncommon with this species.  Long-ears tend to roost in very thick cover for protection from larger predators like Great Horned Owls, as well as the benefits of thermal cover.

This finding is significant for several reasons.  First of all, Long-eared Owls are rare in Delaware, or at least they are rarely encountered.  They only occur here in the winter, and return to northern areas to breed.  Second, Long-ears choose to roost in dense stands of conifers surrounded by good feeding habitat such as native meadow.  Over the last decade, many of the former agricultural fields at Coverdale have been converted to native warm-season grass meadows.  These native meadows provide ample habitat for the Long-eared Owl’s favorite food, the Meadow Vole.  Their presence here speaks well to the habitat management and improvements being made at Coverdale Farm Preserve by the Delaware Nature Society.

If you would like an opportunity to see these owls, there are several guided trips being offered soon.  Coverdale Farm Preserve is a closed preserve, not open to the public except for guided tours.  Here are your opportunities for viewing these owls:

Owls and Winter Raptors program, Sunday, February 22, 8am to 7pm.  Join Jim White to find the Long-eared Owls, and search for as many as 7 other species wintering in our area such as Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, Barn, Short-eared, Snowy, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  $30 for DNS members, $45 for non-members.  Register at www.delawarenaturesociety.org.

Other Long-eared Owl outings are being offered on Thursday, February 19; Sunday, February 22; and Saturday, February 28.  All three events are at 4pm and will take 1 hour.  These are free, but are for DNS members only.  Register by calling (302) 239-2334 ext 0.  Limited space is available for each walk.  Photography opportunities are limited.  We will contact you about the meeting location.

One of the Long-eared Owls roosting at Coverdale Farm Preserve this winter.  Photo by Jim White

One of the Long-eared Owls roosting at Coverdale Farm Preserve this winter. Photo by Jim White

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator and Jared Judy, Flintwoods Preserve Land Manager

The field of warm season grasses on March 29, 2011, just prior to burning. Image by Derek Stoner.

A new type of land managment tool is arriving in the Piedmont of Delaware, and this is one of the most simple techniques with which to revitalize grassland habitats:  Fire!

This past Spring, on March 29, for the first time in known memory a prescribed fire was conducted in the Piedmont region of Delaware.  The challenge of managing a fire and timing it safely so as not to damage surrounding habitats is crucial.  When the right conditions arrived in late March, the call was made for the fire crew to assemble and get to work.

Delaware Nature Society Land Steward Dave Pro lays down a line of fire using a drip torch, igniting the dry grasses behind him. Image by Derek Stoner.

Prescribed fire specialists from the Delaware Forest Service teamed up with staff from Flintwoods Preserve (led by land manager Jared Judy) and Delaware Nature Society Land and Biodiversity staff to conduct a prescribed fire on a 6-acre planted plot of native warm season grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indian Grass) at Coverdale Farm Preserve.

Immediately after the last flames died out, the field resembles a black landscape of scorched ground. Image by Derek Stoner.

The burn went extremly well, and in less than 20 minutes, 6 acres of dried grasses were reduced to black ashes and a patch of ground that looked empty.  The ashes would help fertilize the growth of grasses from the rootstocks underground, and within just a few days the field would turn green and lush with  new plant life.

The idea for this prescribed fire came from Jared Judy, who brings extensive experience with this managment technique from his time in Texas working as a land manager of  extensive grassland habitat.  Jared writes:

I received my training in prescribed fire along the Gulf Coast of Texas with the Nature Conservancy.  Nationally, the Nature Conservancy has adopted the standards of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) for their prescribed fire operations, allowing them to partner with state and federal agencies to conduct burns.  Land managers and conservation staff within the Texas chapter are encouraged to obtain NWCG certification and training.  When a land manager had units on their preserve ready to burn they would put out the call and the other land managers would travel from around the state to assist with the fire.  It was termed the “fire militia”, as we all had other job responsibilities but understood that if we wanted to burn on our preserve we had to be there to assist others. 

When discussing warm season meadow establishment and management, prescribed fire must be part of the conversation.  The scale of fire will be very different on the Delaware Piedmont than it was from the Texas Coast, but its role in meadow management should remain undiminished.  Without the use of fire in our meadows on the Piedmont, their diversity and usability for wildlife will never reach its full potential. 

Prescribed fire associations, a collection of land managers and property owners interested in using fire as a management tool, are becoming common in many areas of the Midwest.  The establishment of such an association allows for each landowner involved to dip into a collective pool of resources and personnel to accomplish a burn on their property.  Also, grants are available to such associations to build an equipment cache to be shared among the members.  Developing a burn association in the Delaware Piedmont could be an effective way to reintroduce fire into the system on a broad scale.

Enjoy this fascinating video of the whole process of the prescribed fire at Coverdale Farm Preserve– you can hear the fire crackle and almost feel the heat!    And stay tuned for an update of how the field re-generates immediately after the fire.