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Crow’s Nest: Legacy plantings

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

I am not particularly fond of forsythia, the non-native shrub that has too-garish flowers now and is nondescript the rest of the year. It’s not supporting much wildlife, and I particularly detest it when it’s pruned into hedge balls or flat-topped umbels.

That said, I just moved into a house on the preserve that has a large clump of it along the road. I don’t hate it. When pruned by removing canes at the base, it can be a lovely, wispy sight much needed after a long winter. Or ignored as this clump is, it becomes a thicket that remains best ignored.


The new plantings I’m planning here are all native, chosen for their wildlife value. But this thicket screens the road and can stay for now, a reminder of landscapes past and appreciated simply for what it is even as it takes up space from that which otherwise could be there.

Crow’s Nest: And add to that…

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

In just the day since I last wrote about what’s blooming you can add trailing arbutus (Epigaea reopens) and the first of the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) flowers.

Crow’s Nest: Spring Green and Night Hike

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

prescribed fire

After only a week the meadow near the parking lot is showing signs of bright green grass poking up through the black. In this photo you can see the trail we left unburned.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers have started: round-lobed hepatica has been blooming in the Deep Woods, and just yesterday  I saw the first bloodroot of the season (not open all the way since it was a cloudy day). Also I saw the Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) for the first time yesterday; I’ve been checking every day and it came up late but fast. Red maple trees are also blooming, adding a haze of red to the floodplain forest canopy.

Spring peeper’s calls have mostly quieted for the season, giving way to the trill of American toads.

Spring is finally here so I’m trying not to miss a moment of it.

One opportunity for getting out here is coming up on Saturday, April 25: a night hike and dessert potluck. Sign up on our website or on the Natural Lands Trust Facebook page. The event is free, just bring a dessert to share. We’ll explore the preserve as nighttime settles in, 7:30 – 9:00 pm.

It looks like a duck…and, how!

By Debbie Beer, Natural Lands Trust Engagement Manager

I recently had the pleasure of serving as a judge of Pennsylvania’s 2015 Junior Duck Stamp contest on Thursday, March 19th.

Before I say more about my experience, here’s a little background about the program:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced the Junior Duck Stamp Program 20 years ago to encourage children to investigate what is fun, unique and mysterious about waterfowl and wetlands in North America–particularly those within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Junior Duck Stamp curriculum stresses wildlife observation, nature journaling, photography, and enjoying and exploring the outside world. It culminates in an opportunity for students to use their nature observation skills– the Junior Duck Stamp Design Contest. Students who participate in the Junior Duck Stamp education program are invited to submit a drawing, painting, or sketch of an eligible North American waterfowl species (they don’t have to be ducks) for a chance to have their artwork featured on the following year’s Junior Duck Stamp. Proceeds from Junior Duck postage stamps go to state environmental and conservation programs.

The state-level competition in Pennsylvania is held each year at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, which is a part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, is the largest urban refuge in the nation (1000 acres!), and contains the largest freshwater marsh in the state.

Located near the Philadelphia International Airport, Heinz Refuge is a great place to go birding (Bald Eagles are nesting there currently), and I have volunteered there as an event organizer and leader (including the Duck Stamp Contest, but never before as a judge!) and member of the Friends of Heinz Refuge for about 12 years.

PA Junior Duck Stamp Judging 2015-0319 -Debbie Beer 01

I was one of a five-member panel, with many fine organizations represented alongside Natural Lands Trust, that were (from left to right) Ned Connelly of Friends of Heinz Refuge, Bert Myers of the PA Game Commission, Ms. Ryan Grech of Audubon PA, and Richie Perello of Student Conservation Association.

Together we reviewed 138 impressive entries submitted from youth all around the state. The students’ skills in painting ducks in their native habitats, sometimes depicted in pairs or with ducklings, were truly impressive–we were amazed!

It was not an easy task to choose winning artworks from such talented young artists, but we awarded three 1st, three 2nd, and three 3rd place prizes in each of 4 different age categories .

PA Junior Duck Stamp Best-of-Show 2015-0319 artist Bradly Diamond cropped


Bradly Diamond, age 17, of Myerstown, Pa. won “Best of Show” for his stunning painting of a pair of Blue-winged Teal, above.

We were proud that Bradly’s painting will represent Pennsylvania in the national contest level, where only one painting is chosen to be depicted on the next official “Junior Duck Stamp.” Bradly was mentored by teacher Wayne Hagy, of the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center, in Lebanon PA.

The judges also enjoyed the inspiring conservation messages submitted by students,  including,“Conservation is a simple action with a complex reaction” by Benjamin Ortolani, age 14, of North Wales.

Many thanks to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for serving as State Coordinators for the Junior Duck Stamp initiative, and inviting Natural Lands Trust to participate in the judging process. It was a great experience to connect with others who share our passion for preserving resources that waterfowl and other wildlife need to thrive.

The winner of the national 2015 Junior Duck Stamp contest will be announced on Friday, April 17th. Be sure to check the Junior Duck Stamp webpage then to find out who won and to view more absolutely beautiful entries from kids across the country–and wish Bradly luck!


Crow’s Nest: Catching up with (prescribed) fire

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


After four years without prescribed fire at Crow’s Nest, we had a great day of controlled burns here yesterday. For the last several years we’ve taken our turn low on the list for prescribed burns—there are an extremely limited number of days where the weather meets our prescription—and Natural Lands Trust has plant communities on several of our our preserves where prescribed fire is the best management.

We burned half of the meadow below the parking lot—a great place to watch how plants respond to fire, and a savannah at the northern end of the preserve. Prescribed fire closely replicates a natural process and creates the conditions for the desired plants to thrive.

I’m very impressed with and grateful for the work of my colleagues on the burn crew. Over the weekend we realized that with rain coming the rest of the week this would likely be the first and last possible day for prescribed fire at Crow’s Nest this year: the ground is finally dry now, but things will green up fast, and it is already late in the burn “window.” When they woke up Monday morning my colleagues did know if or where they’d be doing prescribed fire that day, but a 6:30 am email summoned them. New members of the team are working out great and the team communicates well.

Mariton: White March

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

The precipitation totals are near average at the end of the first quarter.  In March, we received 4.83 inches of precipitation at Mariton, bringing the total for the year to 10.49 inches.  (10.66” is average.)  It is interesting that it snowed here on both the first and last day of the month.    The March 1st snow came down quickly and really made roads slippery.  The March 31st snow started as rain and never stuck to the pavement, but did coat the ground.  It was interesting to look out on April Fool’s Day to see white.  Of the two events, the end of the month was more lamb-like, but March never felt warm to me.  There was a bit of snow in March.  We didn’t get a single big event, but we had several snowfalls.  The ground temperature kept plowing to a minimum, but the snow pack on the trails delayed a lot of jobs I have planned.

It also rained a bit during March, including a thunderstorm on March 26th.  I recorded 0.89 inches the next morning, but a lot of that came during a short period of time.  It came down so quickly that the next morning Sunnyside Road looked like a street sweeper had come through.  The road was completely clear of all the cinders and bits of debris that accumulated during the winter.  Fortunately, the gully washer didn’t scour the trails similarly.

I hope we get rain during April – at night.  All of the preserve managers have a lot of catch up to do this month, and wet days won’t help us.

Chimney Swift Nest Tower at Hildacy

By Mike Coll, Hildacy Farm Preserve Manager

Chimney swifts are a unique species in many ways.  Swifts do not perch on branches as other birds do, instead they have evolved to cling like bats on vertical surfaces (except facing upwards).  They mate “on the wing” and then build tiny half-cup nests, adhered with their saliva to crevasses in interior walls, usually chimneys.  In the fall they gather into huge communal roosts before migrating to their wintering grounds in the jungles and caves of South America.  But perhaps the most intriguing attribute of chimney swifts has been their ability to adapt their nesting practices to accommodate the ubiquitous impact that human deforestation and development has had on available structures.

Prior to European settlement, the majority of eastern North America was old growth forest.  In that type of ecosystem there would be both very old trees and even older dead trees that were still standing.  In these huge standing dead trees would have existed suitable cavities for chimney swifts to nest.  However, since the 1600s virtually the entire continent has been deforested by humans.  In it’s place humans have built houses and buildings, many of which have chimneys.  Chimney swifts (only present during the summer months when chimneys are rarely used) were able to transition a large portion of their population to these brick and mortar substitutes.  While natural cavities are still used by some percentage of nesting chimney swifts, the vast majority of the current population is believed to reproduce in human made structures.

The problem is that brick and mortar chimneys are increasingly being replaced by smoother materials and/or covered by “pest guards”, both of which preclude swifts from being able to attach their nest to an interior wall.  Likely because of this trend and other challenges faced by aerial insectivore species, chimney swifts have shown consistent decreases in population.  Since 1966 a cumulative decline of 65 percent has been reported by the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  Among other warning lists, the species is considered a “common bird of steep decline” in the 2014 State of Birds Report.  Although overall population numbers have not yet decreased enough to put this species on a threatened or endangered list, the current rate of decline is profound.

In attempt to combat these declines, the Chimney Swift Conservation Organization has created these plans for a chimney swift nest tower as a substitute nesting structure.  With the help of volunteer Brian Bernero and my new assistant Gabrielle LeBlanc, we were able to construct a tower and hope to have it installed at Hildacy before the swifts return to search for nest sites in early May.

Below is my construction process from diagram to finish.  I plan to mount it to an existing tree stump as a base.  The only thing not shown in my plan is that the bottom panel has a square opening (about 10″x 10″) that is covered by a metal screen that will allow both airflow and nest monitoring.




The interior walls are T1-11 siding.  It is important to give a horizontal ledge for swifts to attach the nest.  Panels are attached with screws and exterior wood glue to treated 2x4x12’s



Brian next to one of the interior panels.   It is important for the nesting structure to have depth because swift nests are often found as far as 6′ down from the upper opening.



We then used treated 2x4x8’s to connect the walls.



Assembled interior



Because swifts want cooler temperatures at their nest sites, 3/4″ foam board insulation is added to the space between the inner and outer walls.  This tower will be placed in an area that is at least partially shaded and there may be some airflow drawn through it.



Outer walls added-  1/2″ treated ply.



I couldn’t find any suggested measurements for the upper opening but the pictures looked about like this.  The recommendations are just that the new opening is not more than half the size of the original opening; and that it is closest to the North facing side of the tower.  Again I think the purpose of this is to reduce temperatures in the tower by allowing less of the southern sun to penetrate the interior.



Swift stencils so that the birds (and other interested parties) will know what this thing is for.


A predator guard of metal flashing will also be added before the tower is put into place.

One somewhat disheartening aspect of this construction process is that at best, this 12 foot tall tower will support ONE PAIR of nesting chimney swifts.  While swifts often roost communally (especially just prior to migration), within each structure only one pair of swifts will build a nest.

If one does, I may be repeating this process in the future.

Crow’s Nest: Something to gnaw on…

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


They’re back! There is a very little bit of fresh beaver sign along the Creek Trail. I thought we had a really big one on our hands until Tim Burris pointed out that the beaver was probably standing on snowpack or accumulated ice at the edge of French Creek.

We’ll keep an eye out for fresh signs. While we are sad to see individual trees felled, or have standing water kill floodplain trees, the wetland habitats beavers create are valuable for a wide variety of animals.

Crow’s Nest: Looking for spring

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

You have to look long and hard for signs of spring this year. Nothing is green yet, none of the spring ephemeral wildflowers are blooming (other than skunk cabbage, but that’s been blooming—even under the snow—for a couple months now). Round-lobed hepatica, usually the first, was last seen only in bud. No bloodroot nor Dutchmen’s breeches yet. We’re a couple weeks late compared to some years.

But the fauna hasn’t fallen too far behind. Many migrating birds have arrived. We’ve already had a “big night” of amphibian migration, perhaps all that much larger because it was late, compressed into a shorter time period.


Spring peepers are calling from our wetlands. Usually our first observation of spring peepers is a week to ten days after they have been heard at Natural Lands Trust’s main office, Hildacy Preserve, in a slightly more southern location and closer to the urban heat island of Philadelphia. But this year we heard them here about the same time they started there.

Usually the wood frogs start calling a bit before the peepers, and this year they too started at the same time. You can’t hear them everywhere at Crow’s Nest, but if you follow the Creek Trail to the culvert, you can hear their squabbling calls in the wooded wetlands beyond.

Remember this is a complex dance, choreographed so that the plants and animals have the resources they need when they need them. When they don’t, populations ebb and flow based on this availability of their food and habitat.

Mariton: Some Perspective

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

I thought that this was the winter that wouldn’t stop, but this week helped put things in perspective.  I started mowing Mariton’s meadows on Monday.  This has been an annual ritual at the end of March for over 20 years.  When you spend a couple days going around the fields with a tractor and brush hog you have plenty of time to think.

Monday on the Brush hog

There was still a little snow in the fields, and more in the woods.  Of course, as I mowed I recalled other years when there was snow at the bottom of the fields.  On Tuesday, I started early and finished before the rain.  The rain turned to snow before day’s end  and actually coated the ground.   In years past, I have mowed through snow squalls.   This year I was bundled up with four layers, heavy mittens, and a wool cap.  In the past more often than not, I wore insulated coveralls over all of that to stay warm.  We often get some shirt sleeve weather in March (not this year), but I have never mowed the meadows in shirt sleeves.

Snow the end of March

With twenty years of brush hogging the fields, I remember some warmer years.  However the cold years are the ones that stick in my mind, and there were quite a few.  Going around the fields I watched Bluebirds checking out the nest boxes and was reminded that April always follows March mowing, and is always warmer.


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