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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“Anything Once” reporter finds shearing sheep is hard work

April 4, 2011 under CANR News

Shearing sheep is not an easy spring task on the farm.  On March 22, Justin Williams, a reporter with the News Journal found out just how back breaking it can be.

Williams writes a column for the News Journal called “Anything Once” where he travels around Delaware shadowing people with interesting jobs.  He joined UD farm employees, Scott Hopkins and Larry Armstrong, at the Webb Farm on March 22 to try his hand at sheep shearing.

The full article can be viewed online by clicking here.

To see the accompanying YouTube video, click here.

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Changing seasons provide varied birding opportunities

January 10, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

One of the things that Derek Stoner likes most about living in Delaware is that every season brings new things to see and enjoy outdoors. Birding is a great example of nature’s diversity throughout the year.

“Birding in January, when owls are breeding, is a lot different than birding in July, when shorebirds flock to the Delaware Bay during their southward migration,” notes Stoner, the past president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society.

Here are some of the avian highlights that each season brings. How many of these birds will you spot in 2011?

Winter

As the New Year begins, the woods come alive with the calls of owls. Delaware’s most-common woodland owl, the great-horned owl, begins nesting now. Listen for its territorial hooting calls at night. The Eastern screech owl is also active and makes a trilling call. So how do you identify all those trills and hoots? Before heading out, Stoner suggests listening to owl calls at this website.

In February, take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project throughout the U.S. and Canada. Last year’s count tallied more than 11 million birds of 602 species. Beyond the important scientific data that’s collected, the count generates excitement for birders, notes Chris Williams, UD assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Get involved by visiting this website.

Spring

In late April and the first half of May, birders flock to White Clay Creek State Park, where warblers, tanagers, orioles and other migrants are attracted to the large expanse of healthy woodlands. The best time to see lots of migrants, says Stoner, is after a night with steady winds from the south.

If you want to see red knots in the spring, there’s one place to go — Mispillion Harbor on the Delaware Bay, which attracts up to 90 percent of all the red knots in the world during this time period. Red knots fuels up on horseshoe crabs at the harbor. Check them out from the observation deck of the DuPont Nature Center. For a map and directions, visit the DuPont Nature Center website.

Summer

Summertime to Carrie Murphy means the return of the American goldfinch. This small finch is attracted to native perennials in her garden, including echinacea, black-eyed Susan and hardy ageratum. In its spring plumage, the brilliant yellow-and-black male looks like he belongs in a tropical rain forest instead of a Delaware backyard. Murphy, horticultural agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says the goldfinch also likes annual sunflowers.

In July, look for blue grosbeaks, gorgeous blue birds with silvery bills. Doug Tallamy finds a pair nesting in his dogwood tree every July. “The male sings from May to September every morning for two hours,” says Tallamy, the chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Applied Ecology.

Want to attract blue grosbeaks to your own yard? “Blue grosbeaks like to include snake skins in their nests, so if you hang a snake skin up on a fence, you’re more likely to get them,” notes Tallamy.

Late summer is prime time for migrating shorebirds all along the Delaware Bay. Visit the impoundments at Fowler Beach and Broadkill Road of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to see black-necked stilts, black-bellied plovers and many varieties of sandpipers.

Fall

“I like watching hawks fly out of trees to kill unsuspecting rodents during the fall,” says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with UD Cooperative Extension. If the thought of watching hawks feasting on rodents makes you lose your lunch, just keep your eyes skyward. The northern tip of Delaware is the place to see hundreds of migrating broad-winged hawks on their way to South America. Check out the Ashland Hawk Watch page.

In November thousands of ducks, geese and swans funnel into the First State to take advantage of the abundant food and resting places. Places like Thousand Acre Marsh, Woodland Beach Wildlife Area and Silver Lake in Rehoboth offer great viewing.

Wrap up the year by taking part in the Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running biological survey. Seven Christmas Bird Counts take place in Delaware. Learn more at the Delmarva Ornithological Society website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

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