Delaware

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Evelyn Williams, Certified Naturalist and Volunteer Guide

Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

During the fall and winter months one of our the most frequent sightings in the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge marsh is of Red-winged Blackbirds sitting on grasses or making short, low flights in small flocks from plant to plant.  Male red-winged blackbirds have black, glossy feathers with red and yellow shoulder patches on their wings. Females are a streaky brown color.

The male Red-winged Blackbird is glossy-black with a red and yellow patch on the wing called an epaulet. The female is streaky brown, and can be mistaken for a sparrow. Note her long, pointed bill, which a sparrow would not have.

The male Red-winged Blackbird is glossy-black with a red and yellow patch on the wing called an epaulet. The female (behind the male in this photo) is streaky-brown, and can be mistaken for a sparrow. Note the long, pointed bill, which a sparrow would not have.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

Red-winged Blackbirds are year round residents in this area. In the winter, Red-winged Blackbirds may also be seen flying as part of huge mixed flocks of over a million birds.  These enormous flocks also contain Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings.  The flocks roost together at night in marshes and then head out to forage for food during the day.  The Delaware Bay region is known as a huge staging area for blackbirds in the fall and spring.  In fact, most of the entire northeastern North American population of these species stop in the Bay area…over 500 million birds.  (Birds of Delaware, Blackbird Roosts in Delaware.  J.T. Linehan.  pp. 523-4).  Watching these enormous flocks flying overhead is a sight to behold, and really one of the greatest natural spectacles in Delaware.  Listen as they go overhead, and hear the loud “whoosh” as the huge flocks drift past like smoke.  Just don’t open your mouth when you look up!

Some people think of these blackbirds as “ugly” or “dirty”.  Take another look at the individuals.  Grackles and Starlings have beautiful glossy plumage with an iridescence that changes with the light.  Who can deny the brilliant splash of red and yellow on a Red-winged Blackbird’s shoulder?  Appreciate them as adaptable beneficiaries of landscapes altered by human beings; allow yourself to be wowed by their impressive flights; take a finer look at a nearby individual and open your eyes to their subtle beauty.

In winter, Red-winged Blackbirds may fly 40 miles from their night-roosts in Delaware Bay marshes in search of food.  They seek out agricultural areas where they try to gorge on spent corn, as well as a wide range of weed seeds and any insects they can get on the ground.

Red-winged blackbirds are at home in the treeless environment of the marshes at the Dupont Environmental Education Center (DEEC) and perch during the daytime in grasses and cattails.  When spring comes they will nest low among the new shoots of these same marsh plants. Come out to DEEC and see if you can find a few, or a few thousand!

By Jim White: Senior Fellow for Land and Biodiversity

The Christina River has been one of my favorite Delaware canoeing and kayaking destinations for many years. Cruising with the tide on a late summer day is about as relaxing as it can get.  However, if you are like me, the best part of the experience is searching for wildlife such as American Beaver, Great Blue Herons or basking Northern Red-bellied Cooters and soaring Ospreys.  In the last several years, thanks to my friend Hal White (no relation) I have become very interested in dragonflies and the Christina River is a great place to see several of our common species. Scanning the spatterdock and cattails and other shoreline vegetation can result in observing colorful species such as Green Darner, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Spangled Skimmer and Blue Dasher. However, my favorite species that makes the Christina its home is the Russet-tipped Clubtail.

A Russet-tipped Clubtail photographed by Jim White on the Christina River.

A Russet-tipped Clubtail photographed by Jim White on the Christina River.

This large species of dragonfly is only found on tidal freshwater rivers and is not particularity common elsewhere in Delaware. Hal White, in his book Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies, wrote that this species was not recorded in Delaware until 2003 when a University of Delaware student collected it on the Christina River for his required insect collection. Why the species was not recorded earlier is a bit of a mystery but Hal speculates that large tidal rivers are not a place that most skilled dragonfly enthusiasts think of checking for uncommon species.  Since the 2003 lucky find, Hal has confirmed that the Russet-tipped Clubtail is actually fairly common on the river from August through mid-October.  However, although I had been up and down the Christina River many times over the years, I had never noticed this what I now consider, a rather conspicuous insect. That is, until 2008 when Hal and I mounted a mini-expedition by canoe to photograph this handsome dragonfly for his upcoming book.   It did not take long after putting-in, that we observed several Russet-tipped Clubtails patrolling low over the water.  But photographing flying dragonflies from a shaky canoe is a bit of a challenge to say the least.  Lucky for me though, one of them perched on an overhanging branch just long enough for me to get a few photos – mission accomplished.  So if you have a chance to get out along the Christina River keep your eyes peeled for Russet-tipped Clubtails.

A Russet-tipped Clubtail in flight, photographed by University of Delaware Professor, Dr. Michael Moore.

A Russet-tipped Clubtail in flight, photographed by University of Delaware Professor, Dr. Michael Moore.

Check out the next canoe trips on the Christina from the DuPont Environmental Education Center and see what you can find: Saturday, September 26 and Saturday, October 17

Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies  by Hal White available at the Ashland Nature Center, DuPont Environmental Education Center, or on Amazon.com.

By Hank Davis, Delaware Nature Society Board Member and Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

In Delaware, after the summer-time Ruby-throated Hummingbird has high-tailed it to the tropics, other species of hummingbirds move in…from western North America!  This fall and winter has been a banner year for western hummingbird species in our area.  Once thought to be an anomaly of migration, more and more western hummingbirds seem to show up in the mid-Atlantic every year in late fall and early winter.  In order to study this migration phenomenon, licensed bird banders attempt to band as many of them as they can.  Through banding, it has been found that some individual western hummingbirds travel east to the mid-Atlantic, then head south to the Gulf Coast, then back to their western breeding grounds in the spring.  Some repeat this cycle for years.

This year, the number of late-season, western hummingbirds in our area has been amazing. In nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware, dozens of Anna’s, Calliope, Rufous, and Allen’s Hummingbirds have made appearances at backyard sugar water feeders since November.  The most common of these has been the Rufous.  Check out the map of Rufous Hummingbird sightings in our area courtesy of www.ebird.org.

Hank Davis, a Delaware Nature Society Board Member and professional wildlife photographer, has been seeking out these birds and taking photos recently. Last Thursday, he made up his mind to see as many as he could in a day.  Here is his story:

It was Wednesday night when I got the idea to go see all the Hummingbirds that I was aware of in Delaware, shortly after I had seen the report of the newly banded hatch-year male Rufous Hummingbird in Chadds Ford, PA.  I checked the weather for Thursday and it was supposed to be fine. I was fortunate enough to know of two birds that are in private yards which are not accessible to the public. My goal was to see the Anna’s Hummingbird in Newark, a hatch-year female Rufous Hummingbird in Prices Corner, and another Rufous Hummingbird and possibly a Calliope Hummingbird that were at the same yard in Wilmington. If time allowed, I would check on the Rufous Hummingbird in Chadds Ford, PA as well.

This Rufous Hummingbird has been in a back yard in Prices Corner.

This Rufous Hummingbird has been in a back yard in Prices Corner.

I set out at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday with a short drive to Prices Corner. Within seconds of locating the feeder in its new location, I saw the Rufous Hummingbird leave the protected box which the homeowner made to keep the nectar from freezing. I stayed for about 45 minutes, seeing the bird multiple times. Now on to Newark to try for the Anna’s Hummingbird that had put on quite a show in 2012, a first Delaware record, which has been seen by many birders. Upon walking to the back yard, I heard the bird in the evergreens. I headed up to the deck where I waited for about 20 minutes. This hatch-year female came to the feeder and her favorite perch in the rose bushes above the arbor. While there, Armas Hill stopped by. Waiting for the Hummingbird to come back; we talked about many aspects and people of the birding world. It was quite fun. The Anna’s cooperated nicely by coming back a few more times. Two down, and two or three to go.

Many birders have been able to see and enjoy this Anna's Hummingbird near Newark.  It is Delaware's first and only record of this species, normally found out west.

Many birders have been able to see and enjoy this Anna’s Hummingbird near Newark. It is Delaware’s first and only record of this species, normally found out west.

Now off to Wilmington, the site of the Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. These birds were found in November of 2012, and until recently, it was undetermined which species the Rufous might be.  Unless it is an adult male, the Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbird can be extremely difficult to tell apart.  Usually, the species is determined by banding the bird and measuring tail feathers.  Recently, Bruce Peterjohn, director of the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab was able to determine that this bird was indeed a Rufous Hummingbird by examining good photographs. While I was talking with the homeowner, the Rufous came in for a good look. I thought this was a good omen. The Calliope never showed up, so I left after two and a half hours. Still with plenty of sunlight left, I headed to Chadds Ford to see the recently banded Rufous. After about 15 minutes the bird came in to the feeder. That was my fourth hummingbird of the day. I felt like I had been to the tropics and back!

My second Rufous Hummingbird, out of 3 for the day, has been coming to a feeder at a home in Wilmington.

My second Rufous Hummingbird, out of 3 for the day, has been coming to a feeder at a home in Wilmington.

I took pictures of all the birds which are included here. A number of folks were responsible for identifying these birds. They are in no particular order: Michael Moore, Andy Ednie, Maurice Barnhill, Tyler Bell, Andy Urquhart, Derek Stoner, Bruce Peterjohn and Sheri Williamson. Through photos and banding, most were identified to species. Bruce Peterjohn banded the Anna’s in Newark and the Rufous in Prices Corner. He tried for the Rufous and Calliope in Wilmington with no success. The Calliope was heard but not seen on the day Bruce tried to band them, December 2nd. He plans to try to band it again soon.  Nick Pulcinella banded the Rufous Hummingbird in Chadds Ford on Wednesday, January 2nd.

This has been a crazy season for these western birds. I am thankful to have been a part of these birds’ lives and to spread the photos around so others can see these special birds. Special thanks to all the homeowners for allowing me to have access to see and photograph them.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

A Great Blue Heron holds a large fish in its beak at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, in May 2009. Image by Derek Stoner.

After bellying up to the Thanksgiving table yesterday and filling up on too much food, many of us probably feel like we’ve eaten more than humanly possible.

For a bird, though, our consumption rate relative to our body size may not seem like much.  Many birds routinely eat 10 to 20 percent or more of their body weight each day.  Imagine an average-size human eating 20 pounds of food at a sitting!  That’s extreme!

Today’s photo shows a Great Blue Heron that may have grabbed more than it can swallow.  A large fish shows evidence of the heron’s stabbed with its beak, but with no teeth to cut the fish into pieces, the heron is struggling to swallow the fish whole.  I did not witness the conclusion of this heroic eating attempt, but we can only guess that the heron tried its best to devour the fish!

Prize Alert!

Can you identify the species of fish to its proper family?

The first correct answer posted in “Comments” will receive a copy of Delaware’s Freshwater and Brackish-Water Fishes