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Birdwatching provides an intimate connection between people and their natural environment. People who share a connection with nature and spend time observing wildlife have a stake in ensuring its preservation. Over 90 species of breeding birds have been documented within the White Clay Creek watershed. Spend a few hours watching and listening for these birds in the Preserve and you will be rewarded!

The Great Blue Heron is a common year-round visitor to the Preserve. If you see one, sit down and watch. It is a great show to see them fishing and eating. Herons swallow their prey whole. They eat the bones because there the calcium and other nutrients in whole prey items are great nutrition for the birds. Herons are able to digest almost all of the prey that they swallow, but will cast out indigestible pellets. They have very acidic stomach secretions that protect their stomachs from being punctured by sharp bones: Herons swallow the fish whole, so the bones aren’t exposed at first, and by the time the bone ends are exposed, they’ve been softened by acids. Often you can watch the fish wiggling within the neck of a Heron!

Blue-grey Gnatcatchers provided quite a breeding display on the Penndel Trail at the Preserve. There was an extended chase with intense aggression between two males involving soaring aerial confrontations. Breast-to-breast two birds would fly straight up in line 20 to 30 feet high, then hover as they fought. When not engaging in breeding behavior they are busy foragers among the trees; hopping, flitting, preening, and moving constantly. Thank you to PJ Perna for sharing such fabulous photos.

Listen. “Drink your teeeee” and a loud “Towhee”, the woods are alive with the Eastern Towhee calling for a mate. Normally they are well hidden on the forest floor, busily turning leaves over but not today!! It’s mid-March and spring is in the air.

More about Bird Song Mnemonics

Turkey Vultures commonly soar above the White Clay Creek Preserve. In the 1930s pipe workers at Union Oil Company of CA noticed that Turkey Vultures would gather at pipe leak locations. They have an excellent sense of smell (not a trait we think of for birds). The gas that leaked from fractured pipes contained traces of the same chemical, ethanethiol, that turkey vultures use to sniff out their food source, decomposing bodies. Union Oil decided to artificially boost the quantity of this chemical in the gas. This way the vultures were enlisted in helping to locate leaks. Even today, if you leave the gas on at home you will smell ethanethiol. (“The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs” by Tristan Gooley) 

Have you heard this noisy bird that flies up and down White Clay Creek? Its piercing rattle can be heard as they scan the water for food. Kingfishers live near streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and estuaries. They nest in burrows that they dig into soft earthen banks, usually adjacent to or directly over the water. Kingfishers spend winters in areas where the water doesn’t freeze so that they have continual access to their aquatic foods. They seem to enjoy the main branch of our creek.

A nesting pair of this secretive warbler was sighted along the PenDel trail (7/3/19). What a treat! Their olive-brown back and black-streaked breast blend well with the forest floor, but its bold white eye-ring gives them away. If you are lucky you will also see a dull orange crown stripe. You may have heard their loud staccato song that builds in volume: “TEA-cher, TEA-cher, TEA-cher!” as you hiked along. The Ovenbird is somewhat like our thrushes but smaller and it deliberately walks instead of hops. In the summer, they hunt insects near the ground in leafy woods like the White Clay Creek Preserve. In the winter they migrate to Central America. Ovenbirds get their names from the dome-shaped nests they build that look like old-fashion ovens.

They nest on the ground, often near hiking paths. This makes them vulnerable to loose dogs. Next time you encounter a dog off leash in the Preserve and the owner calls out “Oh, he’s fine”, tell them about ground-nesting birds. The preserve is for wild animals.

Louisianna water thrush

Yellow-shafted flicker -photo by Michael McCloskey

Cat bird – Photo by David Spitzer

Brown creeper – Photo by David Spitzer

Pileated woodpecker

White-throated sparrow

Rusty blackbird

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-breasted nuthatch. Photo by David Spitzer

Eastern phoebe. Photo by Wayne Hunter

Cedar waxwing

Brown thrasher