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Archive for September, 2015

The continuing story of the Hildacy Screech Owls…

By Mike Coll, Hildacy Farm Preserve Manager

When I last wrote about the owls in the Hildacy nest box it was in March of this year and I was hopeful that the pair would attempt to breed again and would this time be more successful than they were in 2014. The pair in fact did make another attempt but unfortunately this year’s nest again produced no young.

The particulars of this year’s story begin with the female owl (the red phase owl) roosting in the box every day this spring except for one and on that day I observed the gray male owl in the box. I took this to be a sign that the pair had mated again and a week or so later the female began laying eggs.

However, unlike the previous year, this year I never saw the male owl again. The female, who should have been spending almost all of her time incubating the eggs (while being fed by the male), was instead forced to go out at night and hunt for herself. I once even observed her calling from the box, which is the opposite of the secrecy that birds usually display once they have laid eggs. My guess is that the male owl met an unfortunate fate. He may have been hit by a car or killed by a local Great-horned Owl, but it seems very unlikely that he would have abandoned his mate at such a crucial point.

When it became apparent that the male owl was not going to return, I made a somewhat futile attempt to act in his stead. Adult owls consume about one mouse per night, so I decided (after discussing the situation with wildlife rehabers at the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center) that I would purchase frozen mice online (normally marketed to people feeding pet snakes) and supplement her diet the way the male owl would have. Each night I thawed out a mouse, waited for the owl to leave the box, and tossed the mouse into the box with the help of a long pole. It seemed like she started to expect these feedings and was able to spend much more time incubating and less time hunting. Eventually I decided that it would be less invasive to place the mouse out in front of the box and let her come grab it herself. Here is the slow-mo footage of her coming to get a mouse, captured with an infrared camera:

I continued feeding her for the better part of a month but the eggs never hatched and one day she simply abandoned the nest. I think it is likely that the eggs were either never actually fertilized by the male or that they were unable to survive the first few cold nights (before I started feeding her) when the owl was out hunting.

While this is obviously a disappointing result, I think it illustrates how precarious each year’s breeding cycle is. All factors must be accounted for in order for a species to successfully reproduce and many times this does not occur for one reason or another.

But, there is always next year and with that in mind I took the opportunity to replace the old box with a new more structurally sound version that also contains an upgraded HD camera.







The new camera has a larger bank of infrared lights, higher resolution and provides much more clear audio than the previous one.
After abandoning her nest, I didn’t see the owl at all during the summer. But a few nights ago I heard a Screech Owl calling from behind my house and then on 9/27 she spent the day roosting in the new box.

Hopefully, this owl will continue to use this box as a roost throughout the winter and then locate a new mate in the spring.

Crow’s Nest: Invisible Management

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


I tell our volunteers and staff that when we do our job well, it looks like no one was here at all. This is an area of the preserve where we have done extensive management removing invasive species and native wildflowers have filled in well.


The drying stems of Joe Pye weed frame the asters and goldenrod while alder, dogwood, and maples fill the background. I liken our work to editing (I was, after all, an English major). We remove those plants which are not consistent with our management goals, add a few others if necessary, and generally stand out of the way of nature taking its course. If we have done our jobs well our work is almost invisible.

Crow’s Nest: More than one entrance

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


If you’ve traveled all the trails at Crow’s Nest you know that there is more than one way to enter and leave the preserve—our trails connect to others in the neighborhood: Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, State Game Lands #43, and access from local roads near the preserve.

The main place to enter the preserve is the parking lot in the field beyond the barn at 201 Piersol Road. There you find the kiosk with trail maps; from there you can easily reach the Creek Trail or head south to find the more remote Deep Woods and Fox Hill Trails. But there are “You are Here” signs at a couple other access points where you might enter the preserve from adjacent lands. And if you enter from the Baptism Creek Trail at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, you are greeted by this graceful arched tree over a boardwalk built by AmeriCorps volunteers for Hopewell a few years ago.

And don’t forget, if you have downloaded the free “Explore NLT” app you can see on your phone where you are on the preserve and the major trails. Very handy, particularly as you start to explore some of the less-traveled trails.


Crow’s Nest: Plants we love/white snakeroot

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


Right now goldenrod is blooming, and it is glorious. But I’m really attracted to the more subtle flowers blooming right now, those of white snakeroot. Last time I was looking at this species it was categorized as Eupatorium rugosum. Now it is Ageratina altissima. I still like it, whatever the name.

Crow’s Nest: Food always tastes better outdoors…

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

…though these pancakes would have been great anywhere!


On Saturday morning we had a lovely event at Crow’s Nest where we took a hayride to a meadow at the preserve where staff and volunteers prepared a pancake breakfast promoted as one of the many events Natural Lands Trust held this weekend. Here Cody Hudgens tends the fire for the hot coals over which Eloise Smyrl ladles the pancakes. Mmm.

(The sod was set aside when the fire pits were dug and the site has been remediated… until the next time we cook out.)

Managing for Nature In Rights of Ways

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


I’ll be giving a talk next week for Penn State Extension in Berks County on the subject of managing utility rights-of-way for natural habitat.

Obviously the construction of pipelines and power lines can have profound negative effects on natural habitats, particularly as they go through forested lands, causing fragmentation of the forest. But there are also undesirable effects from soil disturbance, and rights-of-ways can serve as pathways upon which invasive plants travel, helping them creep into adjacent natural areas.

We at Natural Lands Trust are not managing our lands for edge species that thrive on these transitional areas between meadow and forest—those are species that are already doing well since most of suburban development already creates edge habitat: deer, bluejays, and raccoons, to name a few. We’re managing our forested lands for interior forest-dwelling species such as the neotropical migrant songbirds that are currently in decline. We’re managing our open lands as meadows for grassland-nesting species of birds that are also undergoing precipitous decline worldwide. And we’re managing specific habitats for rare species and communities. The introduction of a linear disturbance through these spaces is a challenge for most of these goals.

But these rights-of-ways, where they exist, can be managed in ways that reduce their impact, by creating plant communities on them that resist invasion by canopy-species of woody plants (that interfere with the utilities) and weeds that interfere with the natural communities of plants and animals that make our region unique.

I’ll be talking about strategies to create native warm-season grass meadows on these lands that require minimal maintenance, and the use of planted shrublands that shade out many of the species that would grow too tall under wires. Ideally these strategies require less herbicide and labor to maintain and result in lands that are better for wildlife.



Crow’s Nest: Pardon our appearance

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

Not only has the electricity been out all week while new wiring is going into the barn, but at the moment the walkway to the barn has been ripped up to replaced with a newer, better one. Here is a “before” photo.


We’ll keep you posted over the next week as the new path goes in and we make more progress on the addition to the barn.

For now here’s a glimpse at the addition from the creek side of the barn:


It’s not a large addition but it has resulted in a great deal of regrading around the barn.

Crow’s Nest: And speaking of rocks…

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

Sometimes it seems like moving rocks is what we do (see post below). This weekend we had a very successful volunteer day at Crow’s Nest, repairing sections of the Creek Trail with gravel. Since access is limited except at either end of the trail, Force of Nature volunteers moved the gravel by wheelbarrow and bucket to the places on the trail that needed it.


We had a good turnout and got finished in record time. We also did some pruning along that trail and a hedgerow alongside another nearby. This is certainly not a project I would have wanted to do all by myself!

Crow’s Nest: New native perennial garden

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager


A narrow strip of ground in an otherwise inhospitable space (clay fill, rain shadow of house, hot western exposure at top of hill) is going to be a demonstration place for native prairie plants that thrive under these difficult conditions. In addition to a few tough wildflowers the planting is mainly warm-season grasses: little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and a clump of switchgrass. I added a fountain for a refreshing feeling and some aural separation between the different units’ entrances.

(Here’s a very much before photo—May 1st of this year:) Wow, we have removed a lot of rocks since then.


Crow’s Nest: Welcome Brittany Grabois

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager

We are pleased that Brittany Grabois will be our next intern at Crow’s Nest, doing land stewardship and environmental education through our long-term residential internship program.


Brittany comes to the preserve following a year in Oregon in a leadership training position with AmeriCorps doing projects including riparian restoration and trail maintenance. She has also been a school teacher and is a trained Natural Lands Trust Force of Nature volunteer. She will be taking on maintenance and restoration projects in land stewardship at Crow’s Nest and helping out with our Nature Clubs and Summer Camp programs. Welcome, Brittany!


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