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Crow’s Nest: A big night?

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

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Spring is running late and we haven’t yet had any nights of (relatively) warm rain when the yellow-spotted salamanders and wood frogs begin their migration to vernal pools for breeding. If any of today’s rain is still falling tonight, or if tomorrow night brings rain, will the wild phenomenon begin?

The weather has to be in the 40’s or warmer, and the rain needs to fall so the critters don’t dry out. If these conditions are met the spectacle will occur. Watch out for the critters on the roads, and if you don’t have to go out on these first warm wet nights of spring, stay off the roads! Instead grab a flashlight and carefully walk around looking for them. There’s nothing else like it!

Remember that even though water runs downhill, not all wetlands are at the bottom of hills near creeks. Several perched wetlands can be found at high elevations around French Creek State Park and the migrations take place where the amphibians are moving from their forested homes to these temporary, seasonal pools. (Vernal pools—ponds that dry up later in the spring—don’t support fish that would otherwise prey upon eggs or young.)

Not only is this migration a milestone of spring, but it is a unique opportunity to see wildlife that lives all around us but is usually unseen.

Crow’s Nest: Up in the air

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

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Today we borrowed the lift to do some tree work. Although I was trained on it last year this was the first time I’d used it—and there’s no substitute for just doing it. Have I mentioned I have a healthy fear of heights? That’s my death grip on the handlebar, above.

While we weren’t able to get all of the work done—many of the places we would have had to put outriggers down were on waterlogged soils that I didn’t trust—we pruned some places that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach.

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Cody rode up in the bucket with me, and Aubrey and I practiced driving it from one site to another—so now I am much more comfortable using it.

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While I was up there I snapped a couple photos from angles I don’t normally see. It’s not that high, really, but still a unique view.

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Owl box spring cleaning (and story update)

By Mike Coll, Hildacy Farm Preserve Manager

Almost every day this winter our resident female, red phase Screech Owl roosted in the box behind the spring house. This is the continuation of a story that has been ongoing for the past 5 years since I initially placed an owl box in that location (and then replaced it with a box that included a camera). For the first 3 years a gray phase male Screech Owl roosted in the box. Each spring he called from the entrance of the box but did not successfully attract a mate. This changed last year in early April with the appearance of a red phase female. Following her arrival the pair spent a few days together in the box. About two weeks later the female had laid a clutch of 3 eggs (laying one egg every other day). For the next 29 days the red female diligently incubated the eggs, leaving the box for only a few minutes each night. During this period her mate did the hunting, constantly bringing mice, frogs and insects to the box and feeding her.
However, for reasons unknown to me, none of the eggs hatched. It appeared that the female owl ate each of the eggs exactly 29 days (the expected incubation time) from the date that the eggs were laid (also eating only one every other day). I can only surmise that she somehow knew that the eggs weren’t viable (maybe they became cold?) and her instinct was to not let an available source of protein go to waste.

After the failure of the eggs, I didn’t see either owl for nearly a month. But at some point the red female began to roost in the box again and since then she has been a fixture there, usually sticking her head out to catch the last few rays of sun each evening before going out for the night.

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In fact, the presence of the Red Owl has been so consistent that I haven’t wanted to disturb her by cleaning out the box. So when I looked at the camera yesterday and noticed that she was roosting elsewhere, I jumped at the opportunity to clean the box and do some repairs. Some of the metal flashing that prevents squirrels from climbing into the box needed to be reattached and I also added a bungee cord around the trunk to further support of the box itself.

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The inside of the box was littered with 15-20 owl pellets and the feathers of what appeared to be a Downy Woodpecker, a Blue Jay and possibly some others. I scraped all of this out of the box and then added an inch or so of fresh wood chips. I then replaced a good number of the feathers that were in there because they seemed like an interior design choice that the owls had made. I first noticed feathers in the box just before the eggs were laid and I expect that she may use them as bedding.

This morning I was happy to see the female back in the box. I hope she likes what I did with the place.

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I expect that the male has remained in the area even though I haven’t seen him. We should know by the first few weeks of April if the pair will make another attempt at breeding.

Mariton: Spring Cleaning Time

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

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Bluebird photo by Carole Mebus

Just a friendly reminder:  it is time to clean out nest boxes for bluebirds and other species.  It will probably be a month before birds start nesting this year.  (I had them nesting as early as March 20 one year.)  The day length has triggered hormone changes, and I have already seen birds “home hunting”.  Birds are checking out prospective nest sites, and I want my nest boxes to be attractive for prospective feathered tenants.  It takes time to repair or replace boxes and evict mice and other unwanted tenants, so now is the time to get those jobs done.

cleaning nest boxes in March

I donned snow shoes to check Mariton’s boxes earlier this week.  It is maple syrup weather (warm days and freezing nights).  The snow is compacting, but the snowpack is still over 18 inches deep in the woods and fields at Mariton.  Even with snow shoes on, you can see how deeply I sank into the snow.

Here are just some of the things I found while inspecting boxes.  About 80% of the boxes had mice nests of some sort.  The nest below is made almost completely with milkweed seed fuzz.  This looks pretty warm.  Unfortunately, the mouse nest would make it unappealing to a Bluebird.  That is why it is important to clean your boxes now.

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The photo below has some Bluebird down in it.  This signals to me that bluebirds used it during the winter as a night time roost to cuddle together and conserve heat.  I can see this box from my house and I was fortunate to watch four bluebirds go into it late one afternoon.  That night the mercury dropped to a record low.

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Mariton: Meal and a Movie

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Mariton’s Meal and Movie Night is this Saturday (3/14) at 7:30 p.m.  This is a potluck, so I am asking folks to let me know if they plan to attend, and what they are bringing.   Last year, we had a lot fun tasting the array of dishes that people brought.  Among other things, Maureen is bringing pie (because it is pi day).

During dinner, some of our birders will share their bird photos.  This prelude is quite a treat in itself.  During the slideshow, there will be time to chat with the other folks and catch up after a snowy winter.  As the dining winds down, we will take a short break to rearrange tables and chairs.

The feature presentation is A Birder’s Guide to Everything.  This small budget film got good reviews from the NY Times, NPR and other sources.  I was impressed by the trailer, so I bought the DVD.  It is a touching film about high school aged bird watchers, who are dealing with all the things adolescents must face and more.

Last year, we featured The Big Year.   That movie dealt with adult birders dealing with adult issues.  Many of us could relate to some of the issues in The Big Year, and we all could relate to being a little “different” when it comes to bird watching.  I think  A Birder’s Guide compliments last year’s film perfectly.  While some of us weren’t birders when we were in high school, from conversations I know that most of us were a little different because we loved the outdoors and nature more than our peers during those awkward years.  Like last year’s movie, I think this will touch people.  It is a bittersweet humorous film, and it has a happy ending.  This movie was in and out of local film houses so quickly that everyone missed it on the big screen.  So, this is your chance to sit with a bunch of birders to view this touching movie.

Crow’s Nest: Snow pictures

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

Rumor has it that it will keep snowing until our editor has enough photos of the preserves in snow… so here goes!

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The valley of Crow’s Nest Preserve with French Creek State Park rising in the background. On a smaller scale, the footprints of a bird and a mouse (note the tail drag marks).

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This has not been a typical March for work projects so far. Normally we’re cutting back perennials and mulching the beds. Wildlife is feeling it too. By this date some years the birch, alder, and skunk cabbage are blooming (this last probably is under all that snow). And some years we are already hearing spring peepers by this date.

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It has been beautiful but, enough already. Below, the shadow of the barn and silo lean over the landscape.

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Mariton: Snow and Rain

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

We are running about an inch below average for the first two months of the year.  January was near average with 3.70 inches of precipitation (3.47” is the average).  We had a fair amount of snow in January, but most of the precipitation came as rain and freezing rain.  That is not totally surprising.   Melting snow doesn’t generate a lot of liquid.  For instance, the 1.2 inches of dry snow we received on January 7 only yielded 0.06 inches of water when it was melted.  Even the 5 inches of wet snow that we received on January 24 only yielded 0.79 of liquid.  As a rule of thumb, it would take about 37 inches of snow to yield the 3.70 inches of liquid that we received in January.  (We didn’t get anywhere near that amount of snow!)

February seemed like a very snowy month, but it ended up below average for precipitation.  I recorded 1.96 inches of precipitation at Mariton.  (The average is 3.07 inches.)

The cold temperatures this winter has given us a pretty good snow pack.  That makes it tough to get around the woods without snow shoes or skis.  It is also making it challenging to find room to pile the snow.  (We still have lots of parking spaces at Mariton, but I lost a couple spaces to the plow piles.)  I, along with a lot of Mariton’s wildlife, am looking forward to seeing the ground again, but we need to be patient.

Ideally, when it warms up this weekend it will happen slowly enough to allow the snowmelt to be absorbed into the ground.  Not only does that help recharge aquifers, but it keeps basements dry.  If we assume that over 5 inches of water is tied up in the snow pack, we definitely don’t want it to melt all at once (especially since the ground is frozen and impermeable).

Crow’s Nest: Volunteer Day Sunday

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

As improbable as it seems given the current weather situation, we are still planning to hold a volunteer workday at Crow’s Nest this Sunday, 1 – 3 pm. Let’s get through this (last) storm of the winter and by Sunday it will seem balmy. Plan on wearing muck boots as there will be a lot of melting going on.

If you have cabin fever from this winter this Sunday will be a good time to get out and move around. We’ll be cutting vines and multiflora rose at Crow’s Nest so dress appropriately and bring a pair of pruners, loppers, or hand saw.

See you then!

Mariton: Spring’s Here

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

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I have been snow shoeing on Mariton’s trails quite a bit this winter.  It has been great to get outside, even if it was cold in February.  I have some friends that are real winter enthusiasts, but this winter seems to be wearing them down.  That puzzled me, since I felt last winter was worse.  It was definitely harder to get around last year with the deep snow.  Last year, I spent more time managing snow.  When I wasn’t plowing a recent snowfall, I was moving piles around to make room for the next snow – and that was draining.  We also had some intense cold spells last winter.

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So I pondered this one day while out on the trails and realized that January 2015 was a cloudy month.  Checking my work journal, I have some days marked as sunny, but I can’t recall many of them.  I think the extended cloudiness of January really affected peoples’ psyches and it has carried over through the winter.  As I get older I find I am more sensitive to the effects of short and cloudy winter days.  They call it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  It can be debilitating for some people and this January seems to have affected a lot of people I know.

This winter didn’t bother me as much as last year.  I think the difference is that I did a lot of easement monitoring in January.  I think all the extra physical activity got me through January.  Then February has been sunny.  Yes, it’s been cold, but the sun shone almost the entire month!  It just made me want to get outside.

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Today is the end  of meteorological winter.  Spring starts tomorrow (even though the equinox is still a few weeks off).  Daylight savings starts in another week.  Your body craves sunshine at this time of the year, so go outside.

Crow’s Nest: On my night table (or rather my coffee table)

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

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I have been enjoying the text and photographs of a recent book, The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. I have enjoyed books by both authors—separately—before and think this new collaboration is just great. We have a copy of Rick Darke’s The American Woodland Garden (2002) and also Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (2007). Both of these books celebrate the native landscape, both as it occurs in nature and how we can recreate it in our yards to benefit wildlife.

Rick Darke is a landscape consultant, lecturer, and photographer who has also been Curator of Plants at Longwood Gardens. Darke’s earlier book noted above is a study of patterns in nature and seasonal change and how we might apply these principals to our planted landscapes. This creates beautiful landscapes that are also functioning ecosystems. The second part of that book contains profiles of the many native plants we could be using—but historically were not as available in nurseries.

Dr. Tallamy is a professor in Entomology at University of Delaware (and member of Natural Lands Trust’s Board of Trustees). His 2007 book turned horticulture on its head: up until then plant lovers would seek out ornamental plants—often non-native—that were least prone to insect damage so as to avoid tattered and chewed leaves. Tallamy points out that insects are the base of the food web and that if we want to attract and support wildlife we need to plant and grow those species that support the insects that feed the rest of the wildlife. There’s no point planting something that attracts butterflies with its flowers unless we also have something to feed their young: caterpillars eating leaves. And if we want to attract birds to the garden, it isn’t enough to plant something that seasonally might have fruit that they eat—we need to grow plants which support the insects that feed them during their growing and mating seasons. So plant a diversity of native plants to support those herbivores, Tallamy writes, so that damage on any one species isn’t so noticeable.

Darke and Tallamy had already contributed to a renaissance in native landscaping. Compare the availability of native plants in garden centers today with just ten to fifteen years ago.

Honestly, almost any book on landscape design will have parts that interest me. But when the focus is on native plants and naturalistic plantings, all of it interests me. The Living Landscape covers communities—what plants tend to grow in association with each other, as well as landscape layers, timing and opportunity. It is filled with photos that inspire and stories that explain why these landscape choices are important. A guide in the back details includes the ecological and landscape functions for many native species.

Over the years I enjoyed landscaping with native plants around the visitor center barn and tenant house at Crow’s Nest. There were successes and failures, and some of my first choice native plants were not widely available at the time I started planting. As I have recently moved to another home on the preserve that is largely a blank slate, I will turn to this book to inform my planting choices. And as the preserve itself is a managed landscape (but not landscaped) this book helps show what natural areas should look like—with low-maintenance transitions from meadow to woods, free from invasive plants and supporting a diversity of wildlife.

I’m also looking forward to attending a lecture by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, The Living Landscape Lecture and Book Signing on March 12 at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Jointly sponsored by the Academy and Natural Lands Trust the evening promises to be entertaining. I’ve heard each of these writers speak individually and am excited to hear them lecture together.

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