Delaware Nature Society

All posts tagged Delaware Nature Society

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

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 Sally O’Byrne, Teacher Naturalist

In August, five intrepid boys joined intern AmandaWerner and I for a week of camping, conservation, and science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the Summer at Hawk Mountain camp.  We arrived and set up camp at one of their Adirondack Shelters, our home for 3 days and nights.

Our Adirondack Shelter at Hawk Mountain.

Our Adirondack Shelter at Hawk Mountain.

We met Dr. Goodrich, one of the biologists at Hawk Mountain, on our first afternoon, and learned of the international raptor research taking place.  Wednesday was devoted to our ‘service learning’ project – in other words, doing some grounds maintenance to pay for our week.  Cutting back road vegetation to comply with county requirements was our job, and the boys grabbed the clippers and chopped and bagged for the morning.

Working on our service project at Hawk Mountain.

A trip to the river for a swim was the afternoon refresher.

We swam in the Little Schuylkill River.

We swam in the Little Schuylkill River.

 Thursday was the first day of the Hawk Mountain Fall Migration count, and we were there, helping to see the first raptors traveling south along the Kittatinny Ridge.

We watched the skies for migrant raptors on the first day of the fall migration count.

We watched the skies for migrant raptors on the first day of the fall migration count.

 We then hiked one of the most challenging trails, tackling boulders along the ridge-top and then downhill to the River of Rocks.  We found it was a super snake finding day, and we spotted 3 different species along the trail.  Here is the Copperhead we found, the first one documented at Hawk Mountain for many years.

We found a copperhead on the trail, the first documented at Hawk Mountain in years.

We found a copperhead on the trail, the first documented at Hawk Mountain in years.

After that ‘athletic day’, everyone slept well.

We were exhausted and slept-in after all the activities!

We were exhausted and slept-in after all the activities!

 And after campfire breakfast of leftover chile and black beans, we cleaned our site and headed back to Ashland.

Here we enjoyed a late, leisurely breakfast.

Here we enjoyed a late, leisurely breakfast.

 I hope to see some enthusiastic Raptor counters and campers next year for another Summer at Hawk Mountain trip!


By Michele Wales, Farm Program Coordinator

Spring has just arrived…HOORAY! However, at Coverdale Farm, we have been working as if this verdant season has been here for weeks! Our 352-acre preserve is a dream-come-true for the green thumbs on staff that grow food for our CSA members; grow gardens to teach children about food plant life cycles; grow feed for our livestock; and manage the natural areas for biodiversity.

Timing is everything to make these gardens and fields thrive. Working early in the cold winter months we comb through seed catalogs; make field maps and garden plans; and devise management strategies to generate abroad range of desired products: organic vegetables, plant based “classrooms,” nutritious hay, and wildlife habitat.

Here’s a brief peek into what it takes to make the farm a booming center for food and ecology.

Community Supported Agriculture Program

By the time we have rung in the New Year, CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien has already ordered his seeds, planned his field rotations, and created his planting timeline. Several weeks ago Dan sowed several hundred vegetable seeds indoors in starter trays sandwiched between heat mats and lights. He worked with a local grower in Pennsylvania to raise thousands of plants that will eventually find their way into our 7-acre CSA site. Within the last month, as soon as the soil could be worked, Dan was out preparing the field for planting. He has already sown hearty cool- loving crops like peas, potatoes, carrots, and beets.

In February Dan and DNS Land Management staff members Steve and Josh, built a 2,000 square foot hoop house. This unheated, protective structure will allow Dan to extend the season of certain crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. The hoop house enables these “high summer” crops to be transplanted out earlier in the spring and remain in the field longer in the fall. In addition to this new house, Dan has 2 other hoop houses that he will use for season extension and seed germination. We still have shares available for the 2013 CSA season. Please visit our website under “conservation corner” for registration details.

CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien with his shiny, new hoop house. Photo by Steve Johnas.

Education Gardens

Grey winter months set Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales to dreaming of purple carrots, orange eggplant, and hundreds of heirloom tomatoes in all colors but red. Striving to show the genetic diversity of common and not-so-common foods that can be grown in our region, Michele focuses primarily on growing heirloom varieties. The goal of the 1 ¼ -acre education garden is to show all stages of the plants’ life from seed to flower, to fruit, and back to seed. This area of the farm grows an endless list of earthly delights like strawberries, rhubarb, and grapes to tomatoes, basil, potatoes, saffron, and lots of flowers. Seeding begins in the dark days of winter in an 80-degree greenhouse space generously provided by Gateway Garden Center. Michele sowed close to 900 seeds in mid-March, will transplant the thriving seedlings in April, and bring them to the farm in May. The garden will come alive through the work of children and farm education staff sowing seeds and heeling in transplants after the danger of frost has passed.

Thanks to Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin ( for the greenhouse space and seeds to help our gardens grow!

Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales seeding heirloom tomatoes. Photo by Jim Wolfer.

Feed Hay Fields

In late January and early February, Farm Steward, Jim Wolfer keeps his eyes on the ground and ears tuned to weather forecasts. Jim is looking for snow-free acreage and temperatures that reach above the freezing point. During periods of freezing and thawing, Jim will sow the seeds of red clover in our 9-acres of feed hay fields. This is known as frost seeding and is a method that this plant needs for successful germination. By March, on dry ground days, he is mowing down crop “residue” like corn and sunflower stalks from last year as well as spreading our farm-generated compost. By late May he will be mowing the hay, bailing it, and storing over 15 TONS of it in the stone barn to feed our cows and sheep next winter.

Farm Steward Jim Wolfer surveying the winter hayfield. Photo by Dan O’Brien.

Native Warm Season Grass Meadows

In the late fall of 2012, Land Manager Dave Pro was drilling the seeds of over 15 species of native grasses and wildflowers into 25 rolling acres of former agricultural fields. For the last 15 years Dave has been working to transition farm fields into native meadows that provide rich habitat for ground nesting-birds, mammals, and a wide diversity of insects including native pollinators. Gearing up for the growing season, Dave spent hours in March mowing down last year’s growth to open the landscape to the sun’s rays and to control woody shrub invasion. In addition to mowing, these native meadows thrive and excel against competitors through the implementation of fire. Dave schedules the early spring prescribed burn by paying attention to several key factors: wind speed, wind direction, humidity, precipitation, and the emergence of new plant growth. Once these factors have aligned, a regional team of highly trained wildfire fighters descend upon the preserve to artfully and safely employ this management technique. If all of the necessary criteria are met Dave and his skilled crew will be setting fire to 6-acres of well established meadow as early as this Thursday, March 28 or a date to be determined the week of April 1. We invite you to witness this exciting event. Please call 302.239.2334 to register. Space is limited. This very spontaneous offer is FREE with details to be communicated as soon as we have them to share.

Land Manager Dave Pro keeping a few steps ahead of a meadow fire. Photo by Derek Stoner.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader

Early spring is hiking time around here.  The winter weather has eased, flowers are blooming, and hiking conditions are ideal.  Meadow grass is green, but not so high you can’t walk through it, and temperatures are not too hot, not too cold.  So, during the past few weeks, I led three of our most popular exclusive day-hikes.  I say exclusive because these walks cross private property where the Delaware Nature Society has permission to lead walks occasionally. 

The Ashland to Coverdale Farm Preserve loop hike is 4 miles through oak-hickory forest, meadows, and involves a wet-foot crossing of Burrows Run.  The Ashland to Bucktoe Creek Preserve hike is 6 miles, and crosses rolling open hills of spectacular piedmont scenery.  Finally, the Flint Woods Preserve to Granogue Estate hike is 3 miles through some of the best old-growth woods in Delaware, and ends atop the Granogue water tower where you can see north to Downingtown, PA and south to Delaware City, DE.  Enjoy the photos of these walks below.

The group of Delaware Nature Society hikers prepares for the Ashland to Coverdale Farm Preserve loop hike. Photo by Tom Davis

The wet-foot crossing of Burrows Run is always a memorable moment. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Some hikers opt to cross Burrows Run without the wet feet. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Hiking from Ashland to Bucktoe Creek Preserve is a commitment of 6 miles, which was a 600-calories hike for one of our participants who had a calorie watch.  This hike features the Delaware Nature Society’s Red Clay Floodplain property, Auburn Heights State Park and Preserve (not open to the public…yet), several private properties, and finally, the 300-acre Bucktoe Creek Preserve (also private).  Luckily, after the hike, we take a van back to Ashland and don’t have to retrace our steps.

The route of the Ashland to Bucktoe hike passes this rock cut, where we are able to examine Piedmont rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The Ashland to Bucktoe hike also passes the 8th PA/DE border marker from 1892. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Finally, the very popular Flint Woods to Granogue hike starts with a gourmet meal prepared by Michele Wales, Coverdale Farm Program Coordinator.  It ends atop a stone water tower at Granogue, one of the most famous duPont estates.

Michele Wales describes the food she has prepared for participants of the walk at the Flint Woods Preserve. Gourmet and yummy! Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Dave Pro, Ashland Property Manager, finds an old pot at a historic dump along the walk. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Our goal is in sight. The Granogue Water Tower. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Looking north from the tower, we gaze up the Brandywine Valley to Downingtown, PA. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

If you are more interested in the short version of these hikes, register for the Evening Walk Series which features 6 hikes at many of the above locations on Thursday evenings, May through July.  More information on these hikes can be found here.