Delaware Delights

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Another post about my trip last week to NJ, DE, and VA refuges….

After getting off the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, the first stop was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The first critter seen, and one that would be seen over and over again in Delaware, was a bunny. So many rabbits along the refuge roadsides – where all all the predators? Surprisingly, in a week’s worth of refuge visits, I did not see the one mammal I would expect – White-tailed Deer. The mammal fauna, other than rabbits, muskrats, and a couple of Chincoteague species, remained hidden for the week. There was a clue though as to why warm-blooded critters might be hiding – deer flies and no-see-ums were out in force. So, after a quick walk around some refuge trails, it was on to Slaughter Beach to check on the Horseshoe Crabs, one of the main reasons I had made this trip at this time of year.

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach 2

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach (click to enlarge)

The tide was coming in and the moon close to full in May, perfect timing to see the annual spectacle of Horseshoe Crabs coming ashore to mate in Delaware Bay. I made a lucky stop at the DuPont Nature Center in Mispillion Harbor where I met some birders getting ready for a shorebird program. A couple gave me a tip on a local beach access where the crabs were mating in large numbers. A short drive and there they were, Horseshoe Crabs by the thousands lining the beach. There is so much to share I will do a separate post on this incredible phenomenon later this week.

View from observation tower at Bombay Hook NWR

The next day I spent a cloudy morning with the Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds at Slaughter Beach and then headed to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge about 40 minutes north. The sun came out (eventually), the wind picked up, so life was good. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge’s 16,000 acres are mostly marsh, but also include freshwater impoundments and a variety of upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife. Most visitor opportunities are located along the 12-mile Wildlife Drive so that was the main part of the visit.

Snapping Turtle at Bombay Hook NWR

Snapping Turtle (click to enlarge)

Instead of the cute bunnies seen at Prime Hook, the greeting committee at this refuge was a bit more formidable – a huge Snapping Turtle near the Visitor Center, the first of several to be seen along the roadsides here.

Baby Mud Turtle underside 1

Baby Mud Turtle (click to enlarge)

Not all the turtles on the roads were quite as large as that snapper – this tiny baby Mud Turtle was crossing at a culvert between swampy areas. One of the ever-present deer flies stopped in for the pic as well.

American Redstart

American Redstart (click to enlarge)

I picked up a copy of the Delaware Birding trail map and guide (see also http://www.delawarebirdingtrail.org/). The description for the Boardwalk Trail at Bombay Hook reads – “the woods at the beginning of the boardwalk trail can be particularly good for migrant songbirds. The boardwalk trail itself is a great place to see breeding Marsh Wrens…” Talk about truth in advertising! Right after getting out of the car there were birds everywhere – Orchard Orioles, a Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, House Wren, Northern Flicker, male American Redstart, Tree Swallows, and the ubiquitous Gray Catbird.

Marsh Wren male singing head-on view 2

Marsh Wren male singing (click to enlarge)

A walk out the short trail led to some shorebirds and the first Black-necked Stilt of the day. But it was the songs of the Marsh Wrens that caught your attention. A photographer coming off the boardwalk told me he had seen tons of “baby Carolina Wrens, and they had let him get close for photos”. Turns out the boardwalk over the marsh was instead full of the warbles and displays of male Marsh Wrens. Territorial males have an interesting behavior that makes them quite visible – they vigorously sing from one side of their marshy territory for a few minutes and then fly over to to the other side and sing there for awhile. Once in awhile they perform a so-called song flight display, where they fly up a few feet above the grasses, and then flutter down and straddle some plant stalks giving their song all the while. If you just stand within the territory boundaries, you will be serenaded and displayed to at close range.

Marsh Wren nest

Marsh Wren nest (click to enlarge)

Male Marsh Wrens construct several partially completed nests within their territory (much like our Carolina Wrens back home) in the hopes of seducing a female (or two – male Marsh Wrens are polygamous). The nests are readily visible as balls of grasses and reed woven together (about the size of a softball) a few feet off the ground with an entrance hole in one side. If a female finds one to her liking she will finish it off with soft liner materials. If not, she will make her own within a male’s territory. I could have definitely spent more time watching and listening to these energetic songsters (and hoping for some sunshine for photos), but there was still a lot of ground to cover.

Black-necked Stilt 5

Black-necked Stilt (click to enlarge)

Along one of the impoundments I saw the bold black and white of a Black-necked Stilt feeding in the marsh. This is one of my favorite shorebirds although I have seen them only a few times. They are just so boldly patterned and they look like they shouldn’t function quite right with those long skinny reddish-pink legs. They supposedly have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (flamingos are the winner in the proportional long-legged bird department). A couple of nests could be seen on the marsh flats and watching a stilt fold its legs up to sit on the eggs is entertaining. One pair aggressively approached a Great Egret that walked too close to their nest until the much larger bird shied away. I wish I could go back in a week and see the tiny speckled tan fluff balls on sticks that are the young birds.

Common Yellowthroat male

Common Yellowthroat male (click to enlarge)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird (click to enlarge)

The marshes and impoundments along Wildlife Drive produced great views of a number of other species including Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Kingbird, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, and, of course, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Eastern Wood Peewee

Eastern Wood-peewee (click to enlarge)

The woodland and forest edge portions of the drive were also productive – Eastern Wood-peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush.

Tree Swallow in nest box

Tree Swallow in nest box (click to enlarge)

The road through the open fields produced more Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Bobwhite, a Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, and Tree Swallows at almost every nest box.

Great Blue Heron in marsh

Great Blue Heron in marsh along Wildlife Drive (click to enlarge)

Bombay Hook NWR is, indeed, a delight, and a place I look forward to revisiting.

A Most Aptly Named Bird

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass (click to enlarge)

I think Delaware got it wrong. The Blue Hen is the official state bird of this fine state, but in both color and species they have missed the boat. My vote would be for the Red-winged Blackbird. Displaying males are the most common species seen at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges. They are much easier to approach and identify than the other most common birds, a couple of species of shorebirds, which number in the thousands for the next couple of weeks.

Red-winged Blackbird displaying

Male Red-winged Blackbird displaying (click to enlarge)

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have jet-black bodies with a bright red shoulder patch (epaulet) bordered by a yellow stripe at the bottom. And to make it even easier to find them, the males are almost always displaying this time of year.  The most noticeable display is the so-called song spread where a perched male arches forward, spreads its wings to the side and exposes his red epaulets while letting out his distinctive song (usually described by a variation on the phrase konk-a-ree!). This display is meant to defend his territory from rival males and attract a female.

Red-winged Blackbird male on tree sapling

Red-winged Blackbird male displaying (click to enlarge)

I was also able to watch some other interesting behaviors: the sexual chase where a female flies erratically while being pursued by one or more males – this serves to bond the female with her mate; and the song flight – a slow, stalling flight by the male with epaulets exposed, tail spread, accompanied by his song.

Red-winged Blackbird female

Red-winged Blackbird female (click to enlarge)

While displaying males were everywhere along the refuge roadsides, the females were much harder to find. They could be seen briefly darting across the roads pursued by males as described above. And occasionally you could spot one skulking about in the reeds beneath the watchful eyes of the resident male.  Once they start feeding young in a few weeks, they will become much more visible as they tend to be the primary caregivers of the nestlings and will be coming and going to the nest with beaks full of bugs.

Red-winged blackbird flock

Red-winged blackbird flock at Pocosin Lakes in winter (click to enlarge)

I now have an even greater appreciation of one of my highlight birds at my favorite North Carolina refuge, Pocosin Lakes, Each winter, Red-winged Blackbirds congregate on the refuge fields by the tens of thousands and put on an amazing display of synchronized take-offs and flights as they forage and elude the many raptors hunting the refuge. Now I know where at least some of those magnificent flyers get their training.