UD Extension Specialist Shares Favorite Spots for Outdoor Fun

May 31, 2013 under CANR News

Crystal and Quinn Phillips pick strawberriesDot Abbott has fond memories of picking strawberries with her dad as a child. They would head out on early summer weekends, with buckets that her grandfather had made, and not return home until they had 12 quarts – enough for homemade jam, shortcakes, and eating out of hand. She recalls spotting lady beetles on the plants, hearing birdsong in nearby woods, and noticing that the berries hidden under leaves weren’t fat, red and juicy the way that berries exposed to the sun were.

Today, on summer weekends, Abbott has a hunch that many kids are inside, in front of TV or computer screens, rather than outside enjoying activities with their families.

“Staying inside is the default mode; it’s the new norm for most kids. A child is three times more likely to play video games regularly than to ride a bike,” says Abbott, a renewable resources agent with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “But studies show that regular, unstructured playtime in nature makes kids smarter, calmer, more self-disciplined and cooperative.”

Plus, getting outside is just plain fun – especially during the long, sunny days of summer. If you’re short on ideas of where to go and what to do, Abbott is happy to help. Here’s what she suggests for outdoor fun this summer:

Eerie Evenings at Trap Pond

It looks like a lake [but] a short paddle away, it begins to turn into a swamp and there are loads of lily pads and bald cypress trees and the water starts looking really murky and it feels like you might run into an alligator or something. You definitely don’t want the canoe to tip over in here.

–Review of Trap Pond State Park on TripAdvisor.com

“Boating amid the bald cypress trees at Trap Pond is kind of eerie, especially at night or on foggy mornings,” says Abbott. “As they get older, it can be harder to get kids excited about family outings but even middle schoolers and teens should love a night boat ride at Trap.”

Families can learn about “the eerie sounds and spooky creatures” of Trap’s cypress swamp during special evening pontoon tours June 12, July 10 and Aug. 14.  The state park, near Laurel, is home to the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees in the U.S.

The park also offers daytime pontoon tours on weekends, as well as guided kayak and canoe eco-tours. Plus, you can rent rowboats, pedal boats, canoes and kayaks and go out on your own. Boat rides and rentals are available through Labor Day weekend.

For more info, call the park at 875-5153.

Who Knew? Fishing at State Forests

Delaware’s state forests are one of the best-kept secrets for family fun. They’re managed primarily for forest management, so don’t expect to see a concert stage or water park, like at some of the state parks. But you will find trails for walking, running, biking or horseback riding at Blackbird and Redden state forests, plus ponds for catch-and-release fishing. Taber, the smallest of the three state forests, is used most often for hunting. Abbott likes the fact that Blackbird, located on the border of New Castle and Kent counties, has a paved nature trail designed for wheelchair accessibility. To learn more about the state forests, go to http://dda.delaware.gov/forestry/forest.shtml/.

Forget Route 66 – Route 9 is Where It’s At 

If you’re bored some Sunday afternoon, hop in the car and head to Route 9. This 52-mile stretch of meandering country road parallels the western shore of the Delaware River and Bay and offers views of the largest area of preserved coastal marshland on the East Coast.

There are several great spots to stop and view wildlife on the route, says Abbott, including the Port Penn Interpretative Center, where she enjoys taking a short hike into the marsh. At the other end of Route 9, close to the John Dickinson Plantation in Dover, is the new Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve (DNERR) Education Center at St. Jones Reserve. Like Port Penn, it features a boardwalk into the marsh. And don’t miss Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge, near Smyrna, says Abbott. There are several trails through this 16,000 acre refuge, including the Black Swamp Trail, which is handicapped accessible. Plus, kids will love the fact that three of the trails have observation towers.

Overnight Camping at State Parks

Tell ghost stories around a campfire on the beach. Gaze at the stars with a telescope (plus, with a naturalist who can tell exactly what you’re looking at). Snuggle into sleeping bags as your kids enjoy their first campout of the summer – or perhaps their first campout ever.

You can do all this with “Delaware Outdoor Family,” a new overnight camping program offered at Bellevue, Brandywine Creek and Delaware Seashore state parks this summer. It’s offered in conjunction with the Children in Nature/No Child Left Inside initiative, a state effort to get kids outside more.

Family camping on your own is available throughout the summer at Lums Pond, Killens Pond, Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Trap Pond state parks. But “Delaware Outdoor Family” is a guided experience, led by park staff, giving campers access to astronomy programs and other special experiences. For more info, go to www.destateparks.com.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Native Delaware: Early signs of spring are popping up in Delaware

February 28, 2013 under Cooperative Extension

Spring has sprung – or, if you’re an optimist like Dot Abbott it has.

“The skunk cabbage is popping up and will leaf out soon. Groundhogs and skunks are active again. And the spring peepers will be calling any day now,” says Abbott, a renewable resources agent for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Spring doesn’t officially arrive until March 20, but early signs of the season are evident – that is, if you’ve been outside and observant enough to notice.

If you haven’t spent time outside recently, get out there now, and take the kids with you, says Abbott.

Native Delaware Spring has Sprung“Today’s kids spend twice as much time indoors as their parents did,” notes Abbott, a board member of the Delaware Association for Environmental Education. “It’s important to be exposed to nature education at school but it’s even better to experience nature with your parents or other caregivers.”

Although the earth appears to be in winter slumber, it’s teeming with life and activity. Abbott suggests these ways to get the kids outside to spot the earliest signs of spring:

Track animals

Do your kids love mud? Then they’ll love looking for animal tracks. Tracks are easiest to find in mud (as well as snow). Throughout the winter, you can see tracks from white-tailed deer, fox, squirrels, muskrats and beavers – all of which are active year-round.

Now, as spring draws near, you can spot groundhog and skunk tracks, too. Delaware has few true hibernators but in winter groundhogs, skunks and some other mammals exist in a semi-hibernation state known as torpor.

Lately, the groundhogs and skunks have been out and about, especially on days when temperatures climbed above the mid-40s. A groundhog track is pretty easy to identify. Look for imprints with four toes on the front paws and five toes on the back. They will be spaced 4-12 inches apart.

Skunk tracks show five toes on both the front and back foot. The front tracks usually show claw marks farther ahead of the toe marks than the rear prints do. These longer front claws help the skunk dig up roots and insects.

Search for stream critters

Macro invertebrates are a good indicator of a stream’s health. They’re also a great way to see if spring has sprung.

Head to a pond or stream and take a close look at the water, says Abbott. The nymphs of dragonflies, mayflies and stoneflies are active all winter, often living beneath the ice. They feed and grow throughout the cold weather months to emerge as adults in early spring. If you have a smart phone, pull up photos of the adult form of these insects and see if your kids can spot any new adults in the water.

Increase your chances of seeing this transformation by scooping up a bucketful of nymphs and creek water. Place the bucket in a sunny but cool room of your house. If you’re lucky, you may get to witness some nymphs metamorphosize into adults.

Take a night hike

As winter heads into spring, the woods become noisier at night. Owl breeding season is underway, and with it, a cacophony of calls.

“Great horned owls started defending their territory and looking for mates at the end of January. They were the first calls I heard. Next, came the barred and barn owls. The last few nights, I’ve also heard screech owls,” says Abbott.

“Yet in between the owl calls, it can become so quiet that you can hear every leaf that crackles underfoot,” she notes.

It’s this combination of silence punctuated by mysterious sounds that makes Abbott love a night hike this time of year. Owls are just the start. Abbott often hears red foxes. These voluble creatures produce a variety of barks, howls and whines. Some are sharp yaps; others are long, mournful howls.

Spot the first robin of spring (or not)

Have you seen a robin? It feels more like spring, doesn’t it?

We hate to burst your bubble but robins stick around all year. Formerly a migratory bird, large numbers of robins now over-winter in Delaware. Abbott first noticed this phenomenon in the early to mid-1990s, though she’s quick to note that she’s not an expert on the subject.

Robins have been able adapt to Delaware winters. They switch from their summer diet of insects to eating seed in wintertime. Because they are fairly large birds, they’re usually able to withstand cold snaps.

Not every bird adapts so easily. For example, a homeowner called Abbott last month to report dead goldfinches in her backyard. Goldfinches normally migrate south but a half-dozen or so stragglers hung out in this Dover backyard during the fall and into winter. Unfortunately, when bitter cold weather hit, they weren’t able to survive.

Now that spring is drawing near, the robins have changed up their behavior. The early pollinators like skunk cabbage have appeared, and with them, insects. Robins can now be found feeding on invertebrates in grassy and disturbed areas.

Abbott enjoys birding at Wyoming Mill Pond. Other good birding spots include the St. Jones River, Mispillon River, and the many millponds found in Kent and Sussex counties. Be on the look out for resident robins, as well as some of the earliest returning migrants, says Abbott.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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