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Archive for April, 2011

Mariton: More on Bird Houses

I am guilty of taking for granted that people understand why we utilize bird houses, or nest boxes. I stopped using the term Bird House some time ago. It gives the impression that birds use boxes to stay warm during nasty weather, or that they might live there all year. I have had birds sleep in nest boxes during the winter, but it is a temporary arrangement. A bird house is not a home.

Nest box more accurately describes a bird’s use of the structure: it builds its nest there. Nursery box is even more accurate. Because, once the young leave the nest and are actively flying, the birds (parents and children) don’t return. Even with Bluebirds, that might raise two broods in a summer, they rarely use the same box for the second brood. That is why it is not a bad idea to have a few boxes, even if they are closer together than what the “book” says they should be. 

A nest box is just an artificial cavity. A cavity is just a hole in a tree. Why is this important?  Well 50 to 70 years ago, we noticed that species like Eastern Bluebirds, Chickadees, and Wood Ducks were disappearing from our yards, and our woods, and our creeks. At that time the forests in Pennsylvania were very young.  Firewood was at a premium.  Wooden fenceposts had been replaced with steel posts and wire. There just weren’t very many dead trees in the landscape with holes. Instead of waiting for the forest to mature, some people thought of testing artificial cavities. They worked! Whether they are made out of boards, PVC pipe (or even buckets for Wood Ducks) nest boxes have returned several species from the brink. Another conservation success story brought to your by people that observed nature and experimented, instead of wringing their hands. 

Now here is the surprise for most people. Most birds don’t nest in bird houses.  Most birds build nests on tree branches, in crotches of trees, or even on the ground.  I don’t care how well you decorate a bird house, a Cardinal will not move in, because Cardinals aren’t cavity nesters. 

Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Chickadees, Tufted Titmouses, Woodpeckers, House Wrens, Nuthatches, Screech Owls, and Wood Ducks are a few of the cavity nesting species. They can all benefit from arificial nest boxes built to proper dimensions, and placed in the correct location and habitat.

(All photos by Carole Mebus.)

Mariton: Nesting Activity

Activity in the nest boxes is heating up.  The bluebird nest that was started a few week ago has been completed.  Now there are 4 eggs in the nest.  In this photo, you can just see the eggs shielded by the grass from the nest. 

Bluebird nest w/eggs

Chickadees  are building two different nests.  Their nests are made mostly of moss, and usually have deer hair or animal fur as a top layer.  You can see that this nest isn’t quite finished, because it lacks the layer of hair on top. 

Chickadee nest

In the old days, I would have been comfortable calling this a Black-capped Chickadee.  But in the last few years Carolina Chickadees have moved farther north and now breeding in this area, which was traditionally only used by Black-capped Chickadees.  Bird experts feel that the two species are learning each other songs, which always helped us differentiate Carolinas from Black-caps.  Now ornithologists feel that in some places that the two species may actually be interbreeding.  On most bird censuses in this area, the two are combined into one category:  Chickadee.  I am not hearing Carolina Chickadee songs at Mariton, but I don’t have to travel very far south before I do.

Crow’s Nest: Spring Progress

Here’s the latest report on spring at the preserve: hawthornes (Crataegus sp.) are blooming. I’ve never paid much attention to them before now but there are several nice ones in the area around the pond. I saw a yellow warbler in this one yesterday.

Also blooming now are the redbud trees, nodding trillium, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

On Sunday morning I heard my first ovenbirds and wood thrushes calling.  I saw the first hummingbird of the year (thanks for the heads-up, Tim). I heard gray treefrogs calling. And now on the pond in addition to the spring peepers and American toads I hear an occasional green frog.

The pollen is blowing thickly in the air. When I walked the dog last night I saw pollen blowing in the glow of my headlamp, like the particles you see floating past the camera in undersea video.


Mariton: Changes

Our first bird walk was full of new sights and sounds.  We heard a Yellow-throated Vireo right at the beginning.  Soon after, we heard a Scarlet Tanager.  The Wood Thrushes were singing up a storm, as were the Ovenbirds.  We got a great view of an Ovenbird as it walked along a log, then later flew up in full view to throw its head back and sing.  We also had a great view of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Some of the new warblers being heard are Parula, Black-throated Green, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Rufous-sided Towhees were singing as we walked around the meadows.  We heard Common Yellowthroats in the meadow also.  We saw Bluebirds and Chickadees checking out nest boxes.

Mebus Chickadee Nest box

The wildflowers are loving this weather and a lot of flowers have popped up seemingly overnight.  The Jack-in-the-Pulpits are already flowering, and I didn’t even see leaves yesterday morning.  Celandine Poppy and Rue Anemone are blooming.  Solomon’s Seal has flower buds, as does the White Baneberry, and some of the Perfoliated Bellwort.  The blossoms from the Spicebush (which were prevalent last week) are all gone and the shrubs are leafed out.  Here is photo of what I believe to be a Wake-Robin or Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum).

Mebus Trillium

Have you ever seen a  Sassafras blossom?  It is a flower that comes and goes so quickly, that most of us probably miss it.  Here is a great photo.  All photos by Carole Mebus.

Mariton: More Birds Arriving

This morning I heard Wood Thrushes rejoicing in the woods.  Out past the bird blind, Ovenbirds were singing their emphatic teacher teacher teacher.  A Black-throated Green warbler was also singing.  Tomorrow’s Bird Walk should be exciting.

Crow’s Nest: Welcome Seamus and Duffy!

Seamus and Duffy are not our summer interns—those folks start next month. These guys are goats, 7 and 8 year old Nubian wethers (fixed males) that we are planning to use to help control multiflora rose and mile-a-minute on the preserve.

They are part of a prescribed grazing program that will also include a couple steers. Cattle eat only a little multiflora rose so the addition of goats might help clear these areas.

Seamus and Duffy are pets with a job. They come to us from Amazing Acres Goat Dairy in Elverson, a farm that is currently for sale.

Clearing land with goats is both a state-of-the-art management technique and the oldest idea around. I had read about managing them in natural areas for years but wanted to be sure they would help us achieve our specific land management objectives. Last year during a review of stewardship objectives we identified this as something we’d like to try. While we may not necessarily set up a mobile goat herd “strike team” we will see how they work out here.

Goat grazing is a form of “biocontrol” for invasive plants that—unlike the insect biocontrols usually considered throughout the world—can be withdrawn if not working out or when finished. But unlike successful insect biocontrol goats are not target-specific: they will eat almost any vegetation so careful location choices and fencing need to be in place.

Unlike a mechanical brushcutter or bush hog, goats don’t directly require fossil fuels to do their job. They can work on uneven terrain and places not accessible to tractors. I decided to try goats here because although I cleared it once, I know I don’t have time to return to this site to clear it every year—which is what it would take to bring the invasive plant population down to a manageable size.

While the goats will receive all the credit for the work they do, there was a lot of background labor that went into preparing for them. I would like to thank goat consultant Yvonne Post who examined our site and confirmed that it would be suitable land for them. Jess Moore from Brandywine Conservancy shared with me how goats were used at their Laurels Preserve.

Jack Stefferud, a member of Natural Lands Trust’s Land Protection Staff (and a farmer at heart) and his son Erik (last summer’s intern) spent several cold, wet days this spring building fences for the goats.



Thank you also to members of NLT’s Building Stewardship Staff: Steve Holmburg, Scott DeBerardinis and Luke DeBerardinis, who managed to fit into a few hours of their busy schedule the time to build a beautiful run-in shed for the goats, mainly out of materials we already had and inexpensive lumber they found locally.


Many thanks go to Mary McCabe who located the available goats for us and as a large-animal vet, volunteering to look after their health. I’d also like to thank neighbor Katie Bartlett who picked up the goats in her trailer and brought them here. Thanks in advance to all of those who have offered to help look after the goats when I go away; I’ll be calling on you!

And a special thank you to Debbie Mikulak and Fred Bloom from Amazing Acres for offering us these marvelous goats.

You may see Seamus and Duffy when you visit the preserve. They are incredibly friendly. Please don’t try to pet them over the electric fence—we don’t want you or them to get shocked. You may pet them through the gate (but don’t climb on it) but please don’t interrupt them too long from their important work. Please don’t enter the pasture unless a Natural Lands Trust staff member is present. If they have gotten out, there are phone numbers on the gate for whom to call to bring them home.

Mariton: Hummingbird Feeders

Don’t forget to put out your Hummingbird Feeders.  With the number of migrating birds that I am seeing, Hummingbirds will be in the mix.  I make my own “nectar” mix using 1/4 cup of sugar for every cup of water.  (You don’t want to use confectioner’s sugar, honey, maple syrup, or dyes.)  I just mix the sugar into very hot water.  I usually mix up a half gallon batch, and store it in the refrigerator.  That way if they begin feeding heavily, I have a supply to refill feeders.

Hummingbirds feed on more than just nectar from flowers and feeders.  They need protein like any other animal. I have watched hummingbirds perched on our clothes line as they fly out and catch insects on the wing, similar to a Phoebe or an Eastern Peewee. 

I love this photo by Carole Mebus of a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a branch. 

Mebus R-t Hummigbird

Crow’s Nest: More blooms

Shadbush (amelanchier, serviceberry) is blooming right now at Crow’s Nest, with many visible at the woods edge along Piersol Road. It’s flowering time is short but glorious. Here’s a closeup:

And along the banks of Piersol Road you can also see the small flowers of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). They’re white with just a hint of pink.

If wildflower hunting is your thing, this weekend will be a great time for you to get out to the preserves.

Mariton: They Are Coming

Mariton’s Tuesday Morning Bird Walks start on Tuesday, April 26 at 7:30 a.m.  While I don’t expect to see lots of warblers, I am beginning to see new neo-tropicals everyday.  This is a great time to get used to the binoculars again, spot some easy birds before the leaves emerge, and start tuning the ear to bird songs.

The neo-tropical migrants are indeed returning.  I have  been hearing Black and White Warblers for about a week.  The other day I heard an Ovenbird in the distance.  Yesterday, I came across some Palm Warblers while working on the trails.  Later in the day, I found a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers near the Nature Center.  Gnatcatchers have a nasal buzzing pssst that is quite distinctive, but easily dismissed as an insect.  This morning, I looked up and saw a kettle of  a dozen Broad-winged Hawks. 

Yesterday morning, I walked into a flock of about 20 Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Technically we can see Yellow-rumpeds during the winter, however, these birds acted like they had been migrating all night.  They visited every Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) blossom looking for insects.  Because the Yellow-rumpeds were feeding in Spicebush, they were at eye level.  Here is a photo that Carole Mebus sent me from last year.  You can see that these are quite pretty birds, and now is a good time to see them.

Mebus Yellow-rumped Warbler

Honor Earth Day by Planting a Tree

Trees offer us so many benefits, it’s hard to list them all in one blog post! Trees absorb air pollutants, offer shade that can reduce cooling costs, provide habitat and food for wildlife, and slow stormwater run-off.

But did you know trees can save you money and add value to your home? A report from the USDA Forest Service indicated trees added more than 18% to the average sale price of a suburban residence. Another study by American Forests reports homeowners who properly place trees in their landscape can save up to 56% on daytime air conditioning!

April 22 marks the 41st anniversary of Earth Day. Why not celebrate by planting a tree? Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Consider where the tree will live. Is it sunny, shady, or a bit of both? Is it wet, dry, or in between? Is the soil sandy or heavy clay? Not all tree species are able to adapt to a range of soil and sunlight conditions, so these factors are important in choosing a tree that will thrive in the location you’ve selected.
  2. Decide which species to plant. Good choices are native tree species that are growing well in nearby woodlands with similar habitat features. Natural Lands Trust’s Stewardship Handbook for Natural Lands in Southeastern Pennsylvania(available for purchase in hardcopy or for a free download) provides a list of nature tree species, their habitat preferences, and the wildlife that benefit from them.
  3. Find a nursery that sells native tree species that are not hybrids or cultivars, and preferably that are grown from local seeds or cuttings (several nurseries are listed in the above-referenced Stewardship Handbook). If possible, select trees that are six to eight feet tall to help ensure that they can “out compete” invasive plants and that some of their foliage and buds are above the reach of browsing deer. Container trees are easier to plant and have a higher survival rate than bare-root trees.
  4. Dig, plant, stake, water, and mulch. Refer to the diagram below developed by Northeastern Area of the U.S. Forest Service for guidance about how to plant a balled-and-burlapped tree. Be sure to water well at the time of planting and monitor the planting frequently for the first summer, watering when conditions become dry.
  5. Protect newly planted trees from deer browse using tree shelters for plants less than six feet in height. Install tree wraps to protect trees over six feet in height.


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