These unique holiday gift ideas have a First State focus

December 17, 2012 under CANR News

blanket_yarnHaven’t finished your holiday shopping yet? You’re not alone. Only 47 percent of Americans have their shopping wrapped up by the second week of December, according to the National Retail Federation. But the clock is ticking.

No worries. We’ve rounded up some great gift ideas. Best yet, many of these choices have a uniquely Delaware focus. Some – like soil test kits and garden gloves – are tailor-made for outdoorsy types. Other gifts – like Delaware wool blankets — work equally well for couch potatoes who just gaze at the landscape from their windows.

Sure-fire way to get owls in the backyard

The young – and young at heart – will love Hoot the Owl, a chubby creature made from sunflower seed, with apple and apricot rings for eyes and an almond for the mouth.

“I stuck one in my backyard and set up a time-release camera,” says Charles Shattuck, who, with his wife Kathy, owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin. “I’m getting a wide variety of birds feeding at it. By late December, I expect ‘Hoot’ and my other feeders will be attracting white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches; downy, red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers; and yellow-bellied sap suckers.”

At $9.50, Hoot the Owl is a good choice for a stocking stuffer or gift exchange at work.

Wild Birds also stocks black oil sunflower seed in bulk that is grown locally, by Jamie Hicks of Kennett Square, Pa. Buy a pound or several pounds for the birdwatcher on your list.

Most serious birdwatchers prefer black oil seed. It has a higher oil content than other varieties so it provides the birds with more calories. Plus, small birds have an easier time cracking its thinner shell.

Or, consider a $22 hand-painted ornament by Dover artist Marcia Poling. Choose images of bluebirds, woodpeckers and warblers, as well as deer, rabbit and other mammals.  “They’ve been selling well,” says Shattuck.

Warm and woolly choices

The University of Delaware’s flock of Dorset ewes are sheared every spring before going out to summer pasture. Previously, their wool was sold at a regional auction to wool processors. Then farm superintendent Scott Hopkins and Lesa Griffiths, professor of animal and food sciences, put their heads together and, soon after, Blue Hen Blankets and Yarn was born. Now, after the sheep are sheared, the wool is sent to a Canadian mill to create cozy blankets.

A lap throw style, the blanket has plenty of heft — each requires four pounds of wool. Get one for $100 at the UDairy Creamery on UD’s South Campus. For creamery hours go to the website.

Hori hori knives and other garden gear

When it comes to garden tools, Carrie Murphy is a minimalist. A UD Cooperative Extension horticulture agent, Murphy gets by with a few common tools plus one that’s a bit more exotic. “I use my hori hori knife all the time,” she says.

In Japanese, the word “hori” means to dig and that’s exactly what Murphy does with her knife, plus pruning and weeding and a whole lot more. It’s the Swiss army knife of gardening.

At Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin, the hori hori is usually just called a soil knife, says owner Peg Castorani. She likes it for dividing perennials. A stainless steel version in a case costs $39.99.

Finding garden gloves that fit well can be hard, especially for women, but Castorani likes Womanswork brand. “They make form-fitting, athletic style garden gloves,” she says. The $25 gloves come in purple, lime green and other bright colors.

A plastic bag sounds like an odd present until you learn what that bag can do. Gateway stocks test kits from the University of Delaware Soil Testing Program. The $10 kits include plastic bags to obtain the necessary samples. After UD analyzes the samples, your gardener will know whether pH or fertility problems are making it more difficult to grow plants.

Bring the outside in

Native Americans used birch bark to make canoes and cover their wigwams. Today hobbyists continue to take advantage of birch’s flexible nature to craft household items, ranging from baskets to picture frames. Wilmington resident Danielle Quigley makes handcrafted wood items when she’s not working as a photographer for UD. (Quigley regularly shoots the photos for this column.) One of her best-selling items is a $325 table light featuring a birch bark shade mounted on a vintage glass base. Quigley’s personal favorite is a $150 luminaire made from silver birch bark. Check them out at the website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Birds aren’t flocking to backyard feeders this winter

February 13, 2012 under CANR News

What’s in short supply this winter? If you said snow you guessed the first (and obvious) answer. But you may not have noticed what else has been scarce — birds at backyard feeders.

“Our customers are talking about the fact that fewer birds are coming to feeders this winter,” says Charles Shattuck who, with his wife, Kathy, owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin. “I’ve heard reports of fewer birds at feeders across the East Coast.”

Although no one can say exactly why birds are staying away, Shattuck has a hunch that lack of snow and mild temperatures are at least part of the reason.

When Shattuck takes a walk through his 14-acre property, he sees plenty of birds in bushes and brambles. But not so many at the feeders, seed logs and suet feeders near his deck and kitchen windows. “Think about this past Wednesday, when it was 60 degrees,” says Shattuck. “The birds can still find bugs to eat when it’s that warm. They don’t need to come to my suet feeders.”

“It’s been a very light winter in terms of bird activity at feeders,” concurs Derek Stoner, an avid birder and naturalist at the Delaware Nature Society. “The big flocks of songbirds — sparrows, juncos, cardinals, titmice, chickadees — are around, but they are dispersed widely. Since we’ve not had extended periods of cold or snow cover, the birds have been fine and doing well with what nature provides.”

When northern Delaware did have a light dusting of snow Jan. 21, the birds decided to pay Shattuck a visit. “Even a small amount of snow drastically changed the activity level at my feeders,” he says.

Several northern species, like red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins, haven’t arrived in Delaware at all – probably because weather conditions and food supply have been adequate in their breeding grounds in the boreal forests, says Chris Williams, a University of Delaware associate professor of wildlife ecology.

“Pine siskins sometimes appear in Delaware in great numbers; this kind of irregular migration is known as an irruption,” says Williams. “We had such an irruption in 2009.”

The fact that some northern species are staying away and resident birds are staying in the woods and fields doesn’t bode well for the Great Backyard Bird Count. A joint project by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other partners, the count has become one of the largest citizen-scientist efforts in the nation. This year’s count starts Feb. 17 and concludes Feb. 20 and provides a real-time snapshot of where birds are across the U.S. and Canada.

Last February, 11.4 million birds were counted. This year’s numbers could be lower unless more participants venture out of their backyards. Any bird sighting can be reported to the Great Backyard Bird Count, not just those in the backyard.

“Last year, I saw a common merganser in the Red Clay Creek and vultures in the supermarket parking lot and included both on my checklist,” says Shattuck, who has participated in the count for eight years. His store, along with Wild Birds Unlimited’s other franchise stores, co-sponsor the count.“You can count birds at a park, go on a guided hike or simply make note of birds in a parking lot – any bird seen during the four days of the count qualifies,” he says.

Williams says he believes that the count offers useful data for ornithologists.  Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in flux. No researcher or team of researchers working alone could document the distribution and movements of so many species the way the Great Backyard Bird Count does, he says.

Solny Adalsteinsson is a graduate student in Williams’ research group and a self-avowed “bird nerd.” Growing up in Wilmington and later Kennett Square, Pa., she enjoyed the blue jays, northern cardinals and white-breasted nuthatches in her backyard in wintertime. As an undergraduate at Penn State, she liked to hike in the mountains and look for common ravens, which aren’t found in Delaware.

When she worked in Kauai, Hawaii, in 2009 and 2010, the seasonal shift in birds was subtler. “Many seabirds spend their lives out on the ocean and return to land only to breed so the return of the Laysan Albatross is a sign of ‘winter,’” notes Adalsteinsson. “In November, the albatross pairs return to their nest sites on Kauai and begin their courtship dances, sometimes right in residents’ backyards.”

You’re not going to spot albatrosses in Delaware but there are plenty of other interesting birds you might see if you join the Great Backyard Bird Count.

A screech owl, yellow-bellied sap sucker and brown creeper were on Shattuck’s tally sheet last year. Other birds spotted in Delaware during the 2011 count include a peregrine falcon, orange-crowned warbler and Baltimore oriole.  More frequently spotted birds were common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows.

To register for the Great Backyard Bird Count, or for more info, go to this website. While you’re there, print out a regional bird checklist to help identify what you see. There also are many good bird identification apps to figure out what you’re looking at, says Shattuck.

Learn more:

Breakfast and the Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 17, 8 a.m.-11 a.m. Help count birds and enjoy breakfast, too, at this program at Ashland Nature Center. To register, call 239-2334.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Derek Stoner

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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