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Archive for January, 2014

Spectacular Quest for Snowy Owl

by Debbie Beer, Engagement Manager

Snow-covered marshlands sparkled under the low winter sun as our group gathered for a special “Quest for Snowy Owls” at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Atlantic County, NJ, on the last Sunday in January. More than 30 people attended, braving frigid temperatures for the chance to see this elusive species along with other winter avian specialties. Magical and majestic, Snowy Owls have flocked to Eastern PA and coastal New Jersey in unprecedented numbers this winter, providing a historic opportunity for thousands of people to observe, study, and enjoy this arctic inhabitant.

Formerly known as Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, Forsythe was established in 1939 for the protection of breeding American Black Ducks and Brant. It currently encompasses more than 47,000 acres along the Jersey coast, and protects important marshland habitat for myriad bird species and other wildlife.

Quest-Forsythe-RobYohannan-01With bird checklists in hand, we organized ourselves into caravan, and embarked upon the eight-mile auto loop with high hopes for an exciting experience. Refuge volunteer Ann Marie Morrison advised that freshwater impoundments and brackish saltmarsh were mostly frozen solid.  We were pleased to find scattered open patches sustaining a variety of interesting waterfowl, including Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, and several dozen Gadwall. Just one pair of Northern Pintails were seen and a handful of American Black Ducks, though thousands of these two species overwinter at Forsythe.

A collective “wow” arose from the group when a flock of 1,000+ Snow Geese lifted from the ice and flew south in an inspiring display of flight and sound. Nearby Tundra Swans raised their heads in curiosity, but were content to stay put, surrounded by hundreds of Canada Geese. Farther down the road, we stopped to scope the Peregrine hack box and were thrilled to see two birds on their nesting site—one peeked its head out from the box, while its mate perched on the corner of the tower. As people took turns peering at the falcons through the scope, an Eastern Meadowlark jumped up from the grass in front of us, flashing its bright yellow bib. It posed for a few minutes, giving great looks, and earning it a “trip favorite” bird for some. A half-dozen Northern Harriers [photo below] soared low over the marshland around us, dipping and turning in search of rodents in the grasses. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to find these “marsh hawks” and we were delighted with the show.

Harrier-Forsythe-GregGardAt each stop, co-leader Becky Laboy and I scanned the marshlands, searching keenly for Snowy Owls. It wouldn’t be easy to find a white-feathered bird in the snow, but we were determined to try! Long-range scopes revealed a flock of Brant paddling in open channels along the edge of the bay, and numerous Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls standing on ice or hunting for shellfish.

Along the far side of the auto drive, we spent a long time admiring a pair of Peregrine Falcons circling and soaring overhead. These two adults—the same pair seen previously on their hack box—were focused on a duck carcass frozen in an icy channel, providing great close-range photo opportunities of their acrobatic maneuvers.

The last leg of the loop took us through the woods, where we logged the usual winter suspects: Northern Cardinal, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and a hardy Hermit Thrush. As we pulled back into the parking lot to say goodbye, the leaders received word that a Snowy Owl had been seen about an hour ago by another group visiting the Refuge. Unfortunately, many in our group had to leave after a long morning, but 10 people had the time to try a second drive around the auto loop, in search of the coveted targeted.

Forsythe NWR - Snowy Owl Quest - 2014-0126 - Debbie Beer 01 -LRWe set out quickly, and tried not to become discouraged after our first, fruitless scan. We’d had a wonderful morning, seeing 39 species with some spectacular sightings. Would we actually achieve our quest for a Snowy Owl? When we saw a cluster of cars and pointing birders, our hearts raced with anticipation.

The Snowy Owl was sitting on a grassy ridge! It looked calm and unconcerned, turning its head occasionally to scan the wind-swept saltmarsh. Frozen fingers were forgotten as we took turns observing and photographing the majestic bird through the spotting scope, admiring its ability to thrive in arctic conditions and an ever-challenging world.

Fortunately, there are habitats like Forsythe Refuge: protected for the wildlife, cherished by people. And such places provide public access for research like the Project SNOWstorm initiative launched recently to study Snowy Owls.


Though it wasn’t a “life bird” for me, my quest for a Snowy Owl at Forsythe NWR is one of the best species experiences ever, and will be remembered for a long time to come!


Photographs by Rob Yohannan, Greg Gard, Debbie Beer and Mark Bohn.

Snowy Owl photo by Mark Bohn was taken at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on January 17, 2014.

Enjoy Winter! Use your noggin.

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

Mom was right:  “I don’t want you going outside without a hat.”  They say that we lose up to 90% of our body heat through the head.  That obviously varies from person to person.  When my hair was longer, I used to ski a lot with just a band to keep my ears warm.  Now that I keep my hair short, I definitely need a hat during cold weather.

Winter Hats

(From my selection of winter hats.)

Activity and temperature determines what hat I take off the peg in the morning.  For most things, I wear a wool stocking cap during the winter.  I can cover my ears if they get cold.  Or I can sit it on top of my head like a beanie if I get too warm.  I have a lighter weight stocking cap for more strenuous activities like splitting wood.

If it is snowing, I have a wool cap with a visor (think Radar O’Reilly) to keep the snow off of my glasses.  I even have an Elmer Fudd cap with pull down ear flaps for cold and windy conditions.  Finally I have a fur “trooper” hat for extreme cold and stationary activities. Remember winter fashion is all about function.

In the past, I never cared for hoods.  They block my peripheral vision, and they really reduce hearing, but I finally discovered their utility. They help block the wind on my neck.  They also help regulate heat (and heat loss) from my head.  So, while I don’t use them a lot, I like having a jacket with a hood.

We can lose a lot of heat through our faces and it is really vulnerable to frostbite and cold damage.  I used to grow a beard every winter and it really protected my face from the cold and chapping.   Now I rely on a scarf, turtle neck, or high collar to cover my chin on exceptionally cold days.  A trick I learned a long time ago was applying hand lotion to my face as a barrier to the cold.  Sun block would accomplish the same thing and is probably better during the winter.  I have gotten sunburns (and probably windburn) on my face from skiing on blindingly sunny days.  In a pinch, I have  applied lip balm to my cheeks and nose.

A hat helps our body retain heat, but we don’t want our heads to get so hot that we take off the hat and get chilled.  So, the perfect hat helps us regulate our body’s heat based on what we are doing and how cold it is outside.  Mom and Randy Newman were right:  “You can leave your hat on.”

Enjoy Winter! The Feet – Part II

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

Comfortable footwear starts with socks, especially in the winter.  Warmth is something we want from our socks in the winter.  If your feet are dry they will also be more comfortable.  So, we want socks that wick away moisture when our feet sweat during activity, and also insulate.

For me it is wool.  I wear ragg wool socks in winter and summer.  Wool keeps my feet dry and insulated, whether it is cold or hot.  Besides my everyday wool socks, I keep merino wool socks in different weights and heights.  For extreme cold, stationary activities like ice fishing, stand hunting, or wildlife watching I will don a pair heavy-weight knee-high merino wool socks.  (Knee socks add an extra layer on my calves that warms circulating blood.)

I truly feel sorry if you are allergic to wool, because it is an unbelievable material.  If you are just wool averse, you should check out some wool products again.  If you haven’t tried wool in some time, Merino wool is much softer than you might imagine.  (I’ve been told alpaca wool is even softer.)  Some manufacturers weave merino into a pile-type fabric that is really soft.  Filson, Smart Wool, and Ullfrotte are three manufacturers that use this type of wool fabric for socks and thermal underwear.  There are also wool/synthetic blends that might work for some people.  Wool products can be expensive, but wool wicks moisture away from your feet and provides insulation, (everything we want in a sock).  And it is a renewable resource!

If you can’t wear wool, alternatives would be some type of synthetic (fleece, polypro, acrylic, etc.).  You could use a thin silk (a natural product) liner under any of these other materials.  (I feel silk wicks away moisture better than the synthetics, but that may vary for you.)  There are a new (to me) array of synthetics now, and I still don’t have a favorite.  So, you are going to have to experiment to find what works best for your feet.  One thing to remember:  cotton socks are bad for winter activities.  Cotton holds moisture against your feet, and actually transfers heat away from your body – making your feet wet and cold.  Brrrrrrr.  Another no-no is wearing so many pairs of socks that the circulation is cut off to your feet in tight fitting boots.

If I am moving, I usually don’t have a problem with cold feet.  If I am stationary for a while my feet will begin to feel cold.  (Think plowing snow on the tractor for long periods.)  If you have chronically cold feet, or plan to do stationary activities, try chemical heat packs.  Toe Warmers are shaped specifically to the task, and stick to the bottom of your socks.  I have found them to be a boon in the few pursuits where my feet do get cold.

Boot selection

I’m the Imelda Marcos of boots.  (The photo above is just a selection of boots I might wear in the winter depending on conditions.)  Your boots should help keep your feet dry from the elements outside.  In the winter, I also want a boot with moderate insulation (200 – 600 grams).  I like removable liners, but also have boots with built-in insulation.

You can make your regular hiking boots into winter boots with a couple accessories.  First off, waterproof them again (even if they have a waterproof liner such as Gore-tex).  A pair of gaiters will keep snow out, and keep the uppers dry.  Gaiters also keep feet warmer by adding another layer of insulation.  Are your boots slipping in the snow?  Try snow shoes, or check out these recommendations in The Feet – Part I.

Take care of your feet.  They get us around.  Our feet are the farthest thing from our heart, and thus the first thing to get cold.  If you can keep your feet warm and dry you will find it much easier to enjoy winter.

Enjoy Winter! The Feet – Part I

by Tim Burris, Mariton Preserve Manager

It looks like we are having a real winter this year.  I thought I would start a Web Log Series of tips that I have learned from years spent working and playing outside during the winter.  This is not about surviving winter, but rather about sharing things that work to make winter enjoyable.  And winter is more enjoyable if you can comfortably spend time outdoors.


Normally, I would start from the inside and work out, but for my first offering, I would like to start from the outside.  A very affordable, must have for anyone spending time outside (even walking from your car to the office) is a pair of ice creepers, grippers, or some sort of traction device.  I am not talking crampons for ice climbers, but rather light duty rubbers that pull on over your shoes that are equipped with little studs, chains or cables.  These are easy to put on and take off and make walking in the winter so much safer – and more enjoyable too.

Ice Trekkers

Two close friends recently suffered nasty breaks from slips on the ice.  Both slips occurred while doing normal things around the house and hitting a patch of unseen ice.  If it is at all slippery, I will don my Ice Trekkers.  Maureen prefers her Yaktrax.  We usually keep a pair in the car and one by the backdoor.  My dad keeps a set on his “chore” boots during the winter, so when he goes to feed the birds or bring in firewood, he slips out of his shoes and into his boots.


You might not need them once you are out in the deep snow, but they are small and can be stuffed in a pocket or fanny pack.  Fear of falling is a real impediment to getting outside in the winter.  Plus breaking a bone in a fall will really put a crimp in your activities, and make winter very miserable.  These little traction devices really add confidence to your step.

Crow’s Nest: For the Birds

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

Winter is hard on the wildlife around us, yet they are amazingly adapted to it. We put out bird seed, suet, and have a heated bird bath—along with planting lots of native plants—to improve the habitat in our yard, and to give ourselves an opportunity to observe them up close.

I’ll be giving a talk exclusively for Natural Lands Trust members on February 4 at Crow’s Nest as part of Your Big Year: New Birders Workshop Series. We’ll talk about food, water and shelter but also the big picture: what native plants to add to your landscape that support birds directly or that feed the insects that birds eat.

Please note that this meeting will be held in our barn workshop at 401 Piersol Road, Elverson; parking is available behind the barn (this is about a third of a mile north on Piersol Road from the visitor center barn). Registration for the event is limited: please pre-register here.

Crow’s Nest: It’s not all plowing and shoveling

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

While plowing and shoveling took a bite out of the week, we’ve got other projects going on. Winter is when we monitor our conservation easements, check in on our unstaffed preserves, and maintain equipment. We didn’t get out to do much in the way of invasive plant management or winter pruning this week but we did get outside.

This upturned beech beauty is at our Iron Bridge Preserve. (I photographed the same root mass in 2007 from the other side.)


Among the conserved lands I monitor is a field undergoing succession to forest; the landowners have made these beautiful paths through the cedars and maples. Which path should I take?


We also spend some time in the workshop, as here we are struggling to replace a torn tie rod dust boot that is no longer available. Thanks to David Casteneda and Sean Quinn for getting us this far. And thanks to Aubrey Smith who is taking over the annual maintenance of the major equipment.

JD 5300 inner tie rod boot

The cold doesn’t deter the kids. Even with school closed by the snow we held all of our WebWalker, WebWanderer, and WebWiggler programs at the preserve this week. The kids went sledding and didn’t complain about the cold. Many thanks to Educator Molly Smyrl and several volunteers for making these programs possible no matter what the weather (photo below by Molly Smyrl).

photo from Molly

For the latest information about the activities our our kids’ programs check out Crow’s Nest Preserve on Facebook.

Crow’s Nest: The Leopold Chair

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


Each year, usually around the holidays, I try to treat myself to a special project to complete at the preserve. Some years it has been building a new footbridge, or installing a bench at an overlook—something outside of the normal routine of land management.

This year I thought I’d build a Leopold bench, or a few as time permits. It’s after the holidays now, and time to buckle down on conservation easement monitoring, mowing meadows, and other winter projects before the burst of spring work. But I finished one bench and started two more.

I first saw the plans in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Organic Gardening magazine. It’s a simple, elegant design that conservationist Aldo Leopold designed for his shack using scrap lumber. The OG plans make it easy to build. I didn’t recall seeing this kind of bench before, but apparently I have, since I found this photo of me standing in front of one at Aldo Leopold’s shack in Wisconsin while attending the Land Trust Alliance Rally in 2005:


Note that the one at the shack features a dadoed-in seat and uses oversized oak planks—built to last. Ours are made of simple Douglas fir and spruce boards available from any home center. I opted for untreated wood, since I don’t like the idea of people sitting on and coming in frequent contact with the chemicals in pressure-treated lumber. I chose instead a water-based natural wood treatment that I applied myself, that makes the boards look weathered and is supposed to offer protection from decay. I’ll let you know how that goes.

I think the preserve would benefit from a few of these sprinkled around in various places where visitors can enjoy them: along trails with nice views, in the visitor center barnyard garden, in the kids’ natural play area (so we counselors have a place to relax while the kids play). I’ll build them as I have time and can obtain more wood. (If you have some wood lying around that you’d like to pass along, the bench uses 2×6, 2×8, and 2×10 boards.)

Coincidentally, or perhaps with editorial purpose, the same issue of Organic Gardening features the home garden of horticulturists Dan Benarcik and Peggy Ann Montgomery in Wilmington, Delaware. Dan Benarcik—a long-time gardener at Chanticleer, a premier public garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania—has also made a mission of promoting the De Stijl-style Garden Chair, also known as the Wave Hill Chair. Both are adaptations of the “Red Blue Chair” by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1918 and now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. These chairs don’t look very comfortable because they’re made with flat planks—but they are actually very comfortable. You recline a bit and your knees are higher than your hips, but unlike Adirondack chairs, they’re easy to get up out of. You see them at Wave Hill, Chanitcleer, and other fine gardens—including in the barnyard at Crow’s Nest Preserve.


Here’s a photo of ours, which I built for myself during a summer vacation, taken when they were new in 2003. They’re built of naturally rot-resistant cedar, with glued joints and stainless-steel screws, and have held up extremely well outdoors without maintenance for more than ten years. They’re a little more formal and take longer to build than the Leopold chair, so I think it is the Leopold chair that you’ll see here and there on the admittedly-rustic Crow’s Nest Preserve.

Crow’s Nest: The end of winter(berry)

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


Today is the day that the robins will finish off the winterberry holly fruit. Yesterday was the day they started. There’s always one or two days each year during which the shrub is stripped bare either by robins or bluebirds.

Our winterberry holly is well positioned outside our kitchen window. We first get to enjoy the beautiful fruit of this native shrub (Ilex verticillata), then we get to enjoy the flurry of activity as the birds enjoy eating them. The fruit must reach a point in ripeness that they are all taken at once.

Today is a big day here for birding. George Tallman has organized another survey of the red-headed woodpecker, and teams are deployed around the preserve to observe them using a very specific, consistent and repeatable protocol. The data will be compared with November’s survey and will add to the documentation of this unique occurrence.

Right now George is pacing outside the barn, waiting for the teams to return with the data, like an expectant father outside a maternity ward. We’re all excited to hear the report, especially since we’ve reliably been hearing and seeing the red-headed woodpeckers every day. We are grateful to all the volunteers who make this research possible.


Diabase Farm Preserve

Winter on the Farm

Winter on the Farm




Mariton: Micro-Organisms of the Raritan Estuary

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Megan with students

(Getting ready to do the field work.)

Learn more about aquatic systems, especially those in the Raritan Estuary.  Dr. Megan Rothenberger will present some of her research findings on Friday, January 24 at 8:00 p.m. in Mariton’s Nature Center.  Dr. Rothenberger is a professor at Lafayette College.  She has been studying phytoplankton and several other ecological indicator species in the Raritan Bay.  Sounds complicated.  It is, but many of the species she is studying are the building blocks of aquatic food chains.  So they affect water quality, fish, fishermen, boaters, and swimmers.  It affects all of us.  That is why it is important and fascinating.

Dr. Rothenberg

(Dr. Rothenberger in her field office.)

Most of us were brainwashed at some point to think that scientists were stuffy people in lab coats with no sense of humor, and no common sense.  Funny thing is I know quite a few scientists and they aren’t like that at all.  They are funny.  They are really good at explaining their research in ways that everyone can understand.  They are passionate about their studies and make learning exciting.

I hope you’ll join us for Dr. Rothenberger’s presentation on Friday, January 24 at 8:00 p.m.  I can’t think of a better person to tell us about how these systems work and why it matters to us.


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