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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

April 26, 2008

Incidentally, I am not a morning person. I’m not one of those lucky few who can get up ridiculously early at o’dark thirty and jump into the fray. Given my preference, I’d rather stay up late and sleep in late. However, sometime after graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, I also lost the knack for staying up all night long and into the day. To say that my alarm clock going off at 1:30AM was a bit of a shock is a bit like saying that flicking the nose of a Copperhead can have undesirable results. Nevertheless, I hauled myself out of bed and headed down to shower. Suitably refreshed, I was soon dressed, out the door and on the road, having wisely packed the car a few hours earlier. My first surprise of the morning was to discover that the Dunkin Donuts was no longer open 24 hours. Thus, without coffee I slipped onto I-476 and headed south.

There are a few themes developing around this rail trip. For one, we’ve never had a bad trip. Win Shafer and Bob Shaffer are often involved, and most of the field trip participants inexplicably beat me to the meeting location. This morning was no different. I arrived at South Reedy Point Rd after a small detour inspired by a lack of caffeine, only to find Win Shafer driving slowly down the road with his windows open. He told me Bob Shaffer was already at the Thousand Acre Marsh. I want it on record, though, that I was on time; these guys were just early! Another theme is that some contingent of the field trip is always late, and I got a call from Sam Perloff who said he was running about a half hour late. The great thing about this trip, though, is that when someone’s late there’s little chance we’ll miss each other. There’s just not much room to get lost out there.

With Sam running late, we had no choice but to start without him. I mean, what else are you going to do at 3:30AM in the marshes of Delaware? Already, there were singing COMMON YELLOWTHROATS, MARSH WRENS and SWAMP SPARROWS. A few singleton Spring Peepers and some American Bullfrogs contributed to the evening chorus. We hit the Thousand Acre Marsh first and soon ticked off a calling COMMON MOORHEN. A SORA later made a brief but emphatic call. Then a VIRGINIA RAIL reluctantly offered a few complaining calls. It probably had been unable to get coffee as well. The next call was Sam, who had just arrived, and we all walked back to the cars and drove to the Reedy Point Bridge to try for King Rails.

We parked just before the turn off for South Reedy Point Rd. Immediately, upon crossing the highway, we were greeted to the sounds of calling KING RAILS. The birds were quite vocal. Around 3-5 King Rails were calling in the marsh at about 4:00AM, and there would still be two King Rails calling there when I made a stop on the way home around 10:00AM. It was quite extraordinary to listen to these birds calling back and forth, and even more so to hear them later on in the light of day. After a prolonged visit with the King Rails, we went back to the Thousand Acre Marsh. In no time at all, we were able to get Sam the birds he had missed. The highlight of this excursion was a fairly excited SORA, though we seemed very lucky to hear VIRGINIA RAIL at all this time. Fearing daylight’s approach, we then made our way to Grier’s Pond. Neither rails nor moorhens called from that area. We also didn’t hear any Least Bitterns, and we didn’t see any American Beavers. However, we did have an interesting encounter with a mammal out that way. A medium-sized mammal swam up to the near shore of Grier’s Pond while we stood on the roadside. At first, someone identified it as a Beaver, but it was too small and lacked the flattened paddle-shaped tail. I thought it was a Muskrat at first, but then it was pointed out to me that the rodent seemed too big for Muskrat. I took a second look. The animal did indeed have a hairless rat-like tail, but it wasn’t laterally flattened like a muskrat. In addition, it was big: too small for beaver, but too big for muskrat. It was easily twice the size of the typical muskrat. Then I looked at the head; the snout was long and rectangular, like a narrow shoebox, too long for muskrat or beaver. Both those mammals also have a rounded look to the head. The shape of the head put the final piece of the puzzle into place: this was a NUTRIA. The Nutria was a life mammal for everyone on the trip. Immediately after we got over the joy of seeing a species we’d never before encountered in the wild, we turned to contemplating how unfortunate it actually was to have this destructive invasive exotic species showing up in New Castle County, DE. I knew that Nutria had infiltrated southern Delaware, but I had no idea they had expanded their range so far north.

Soon afterwards, the sky began to lighten and the chorus of birds picked up, adding Northern Flicker, American Robin, Mallard, American Crow, Fish Crow and more to the list until the diversity of song was mind-blowing. It was difficult to focus on a single species in the midst of all that singing. A pair of WOOD DUCKS and some GLOSSY IBIS flew overhead. We made our way back to the Reedy Point Bridge area and watched FORSTER’S TERNS, GLOSSY IBIS, GREAT BLUE HERON and GREAT EGRET moving past that area of the marsh. A Muskrat tinkered around the shoreline. LAUGHING GULLS, KILLDEER and GREATER YELLOWLEGS called, and YELLOW WARBLERS sang from the sides of the road. Win suggested we try Fort DuPont State Park for some land birds, and it seemed like an excellent idea.

A brief walk around Fort DuPont turned up some nice seasonal birds including GRAY CATBIRD, BARN SWALLOW, GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER, PRAIRIE WARBLER and BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER. A WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH called softly from the treetops. WHITE-EYED VIREOS sang from a number of hiding places, and a lone female PURPLE FINCH was perched on a bare branch. After completing our circuit of the park, we hit Augustine Wildlife Area near Port Penn. There we had 2-3 calling NORTHERN BOBWHITES, a shy RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET that most missed seeing and a pair of EASTERN PHOEBE. A GREEN HERON was the first of the year for most of us, and we saw a PIED-BILLED GREBE from the road. More GLOSSY IBIS flew past, and a few OSPREYS patrolled the skies. We listened to a COMMON YELLOWTHROAT singing right in the open on a tree near the path. Later, a very cooperative WHITE-EYED VIREO sang from a low tree, letting everyone get a good look at him. We returned to the Port Penn Visitor Center where we’d parked, added CHIPPING SPARROW and HOUSE FINCH to the list, and parted ways.

Bob and I went on to Augustine Beach, finding little of note there except a Mourning dove going through its courtship maneuvers. I left Bob to his breakfast, and headed home. I did stop again at the Reedy Point Bridge area, because I thought I’d seen some turtles from the road. That’s when I heard the King Rails still calling. I did see a nice Snapping Turtle wallowing in the mud of the Thousand Acre Marsh, but the turtles I’d stopped to see turned out to be rocks. Walking back to the car, I was treated to a small flock of PECTORAL SANDPIPERS heading towards the Delaware River, which was a nice ending for this excellent trip to the New Castle County marshes.