Delaware Nature Society

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Story and Photos by Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

What happens on a Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip? This spring’s adventure to Montana and Yellowstone featured lots of Black Bear, Grizzlies, Bison babies, over 150 species of birds, and world-class scenery. Throw in a few overnights in haunted hotels, cute mountain towns, and great food, and you have the recipe for an eco-trip to remember for a lifetime.
Forrest Rowland from Rockjumper Birding Tours led the trip. Forrest leads groups around the world, but lives in Montana. Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, accompanied the Delaware Nature Society group to experience one of America’s most wild and beautiful areas.  Many fans of the Ashland Hawk Watch know Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher during our 2007 inaugural season.  Now he is in charge of New World Operations for Rockjumper, and a highly sought-after guide.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel looks like a pint-sized Prairie Dog. This one is barking at our group!

Our trip started in the short-grass prairie ecosystem around Billings, and focused on finding the birds of the region.  Many prairie species are declining, and some of the rare ones take inside knowledge of where to find them.  Luckily, Forrest lives in the area, and is tuned-in to where pockets of decent prairie habitat remains that supports birds.

Some of the highlights include watching the breeding displays Sprague’s Pipit, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well as Long-billed Curlews chasing Golden Eagles.  Curlew disdain for eagles is known right away, as they scold and chase the larger eagles, America’s most powerful predatory bird, across the prairie.  Rare prairie nesting species we encountered included Ferruginous Hawk and Baird’s Sparrow.  A few species I thought I would never see in my life.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs fly up in the air and parachute back to the ground on wings held high, impressing feathered and human onlookers.

We were lucky to encounter a Plains Hog-nosed Snake which allowed us some close-up looks.

After the prairies, our group ventured into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana.  Our base was Livingston, and we enjoyed the town and hotel as much as the adventures.  The Murray Hotel, downtown, allowed us to experience an old, western, authentic establishment, that is famously haunted, especially on the third floor, where my room was!  After returning from an old burned-over woods containing Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and visiting a wonderful bird feeding station with Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, Red Crossbills, and many others, the Murray awaited.  The rooms were well-appointed in Western and Native American decor.  Old photos of folks dressed in long-ago outfits decorated the walls.  I did not have a supernatural experience that night, but others in the group might have been in touch with the spirit world.

We visited two fantastic feeding stations, allowing opportunities to view hard to find species such as the Evening Grosbeak, a large finch.

Forrest Rowland, our Guide, enters the Murray Hotel in Livingston, with its famously haunted 3rd floor, where my room was.

Our group eagerly awaited Yellowstone National Park.  Large mammals abound, not to mention otherworldly hot springs and geothermal features.  Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, which bubbles up boiling water, creating a beautiful cascade of dissolved limestone that reforms when in contact with the air at the surface.  Said to look like an inside-out cave, Mammoth Hot Springs is a beautiful sight, combined with sulphury smells, hot steam, and swirling colors.

Mammoth Hot Springs

We took one of the longest hikes of the trip here, partially to find Dusky Grouse and Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We found the Grouse by listening for its soft, low, cooing calls, produced by pinkish air sacs on the side of the male’s neck.  Forrest heard it, located it, and had us making concentric circles around the bird, without making eye contact with it, until we were right on top of it, taking a seat feet from the bird.  It went about its business, unconcerned by our proximity, so it seemed.

This male Dusky Grouse allowed us to sit practically next to it, as it made low, soft cooing sounds from the air sacs on its throat.

Along the walk, a few of us were looking at a butterfly, trying to identify it, when a brown figure was seen walking up a side trail towards us.  EEEEK!  It was a bear!  We noticed it when it was about 25 feet away, which is rather close.  We quickly stumbled away from it, walking at first, then moved with a little more urgency towards Forrest, who had the can of bear spray.  Hearts were racing, and there might have been a little pushing, but it turned out to be a young male cinnamon-colored Black Bear, only interested in getting a drink at the nearby creek, and eating some flowers.

This mild-mannered cinnamon Black Bear certainly startled a few of us on the trail, as we did not notice it until it was very close to us.

After our Bear encounter, we moved on to some of the large, open valleys in the park to seek other large forms of wildlife.  One way to do this is to stop where other people are on the side of the road looking at something.  One of our first “wildlife jams” on the road was caused by a mother Grizzly Bear and her two cubs tearing apart an elk that she had just killed.  As we watched them feed (300 yards away through the scope), you could see them tearing meat off the carcass…a brutal reminder there are animals here that are one step higher up the food chain than you.

For many of us, it was the herds of Bison that made the show at Yellowstone.  These hump-backed, woolly cow-like creatures plod around grasslands, roll in the dirt, walk down roadways, butt heads, and move along with young calves, right in front of you.  The calves are extremely cute, and allowed us fabulous looks.

In early June during our trip, it was “Cute Calf Season” for the Bison.

During our last few days in the park, continued our search for wildlife.  Sightings included Coyote, White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Moose, Pronghorn, and many species of birds including Harlequin Ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneye which inhabit the fast-moving rivers in the park.  One thing we missed by 10 minutes, however, was Gray Wolf.  We gave it a good effort, but didn’t end up seeing them.

Coyote are apparently more difficult to see in Yellowstone that Gray Wolves. We missed the wolves, but had this Coyote walk right past us.

Finally, although it was early June, we couldn’t leave the Rocky Mountains without at least one shot of snow.  Beartooth Pass, at nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, was closed to vehicular traffic up until the day we needed to cross it.  Finally, on June 3rd, hours after it opened, we ascended to the top.  Snow was falling, as was the thermometer in the car as we climbed.  At the top, the temperature was 31 degrees, the wind howled, and we dressed in every layer we brought.  We drove through canyons of snow 20 feet deep, as the road snaked its way over the barren top of the pass.  Considered one of the most scenic roads in the Lower 48,  it was a perfect way to cap off the adventure to the Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

The weather at Beartooth Pass finally allowed for some blue sky and clouds, after 31 degrees, snow, and high winds earlier in the day.

The next Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip is to Ecuador to see hundreds of species of birds in the Andes Mountains, where you will have the opportunity to surpass the elevation on the Yellowstone trip.  From 13,000 feet down to about 5,000 feet, sample the best of birding, eco-lodges, food, and natural beauty in one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries.  Sign up today!!!

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!

 

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!