Monthly Archives: February 2015

Maple Sugaring

People love tree sap! We put it on our food, eat it as candy, and some people even clean their skin with it!

Bag collecting Maple Sap - unknown photo credit

Bag collecting Maple Sap – Ashland Nature Center

I’m talking about the sap from the sugar maple tree, that delicious treat we know as maple syrup or maple sugar. We take the sap and boil out the water until it makes syrup, then take the syrup on our pancakes in the morning, cook it into cupcakes and cookies. We take the syrup and cook it even more until it turns into sugar, and then add it to fancy soap that we can scrub our faces with (the bumpy sugar helps scrub away dead skin cells), or just eat it plain.  No one’s quite sure when people started using it, but we know that Native Americans were enjoying this sweet treat before the Europeans discovered this continent. They used it to flavor almost everything they ate, like we use salt today.

Maple Syrup! - photo credit unknown

Maple Syrup! – Ashland Nature Center

No one knows exactly how they found out that some trees have tasty sap, but there are a few different legends. One Iroquois legend says that a chief’s wife discovered maple syrup, when sap from a maple sugar tree fell into her bowl and she decided to make soup using the sap instead of going to get water. When the soup turned sweet, she realized that she had found a new, very good source of food.

The Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) have a very different legend about maple syrup. In their story, the maple tree gave maple syrup as a present to the woodpeckers in exchange for eating the bugs that lived under the tree’s bark, and all the other animals were able to drink the sap as well. Humans learned about the maple tree’s gift by watching the animals, and then learned how to boil the sap down into sugar.

Before the Europeans came, the Lenni Lenape and other Native Americans didn’t have metal pots to boil maple sap in. How do you think they were able to make maple sugar?

Make a guess here! For parents and children 1&1/2 to 5 years old, you might enjoy our Maple Magic program on Monday, February 23rd, 9:30-11am at Ashland Nature Center.  You will visit some maple trees to collect sap and make some maple syrup to taste over an open fire.  Sign up for our Maple Magic program here and come visit us on the 23rd for an exciting and delicious program!

Birds of Prey

Hey everybody! We’ve got an exciting program coming up, so I thought it might be nice to talk a little bit about these fantastic birds!

Even though it’s cold, there are still lots of birds here in Delaware! On a short bird walk the other day, I saw about ten different species of birds! There were robins and woodpeckers and sparrows and warblers, but the most impressive birds we saw were the raptors. Raptors are birds of prey, like eagles and hawks, that eat only meat. Many of them will kill their own prey, but some (like vultures) usually go looking for dead animals to eat.

Bald Eagle - Photo by Jim White

Bald Eagle – Photo by Jim White

Bald eagles are a large raptor, with a white head and bright yellow beak and talons. Bald eagles are in the sea eagle family, which is a group of eagles that have white tails, legs that are not covered in feathers, and eat mostly fish. They also eat small mammals, and carrion (dead animals). Sometimes if you’re driving along the road, you can see them eating roadkill!

They’re one of the most recognizable birds of prey in the United States, because they’re our national bird and are often used in images that represent the US. In the 1960s, the number of bald eagles in the United States was so low that it was placed on the endangered species list, and in the 1980s there were only three bald eagle nests in the entire state of Delaware! Now, however, there are nearly a hundred, and people spot bald eagles every day! (source


Red-tailed Hawk - photo by Joe Sebastiani

Red-tailed Hawk – photo by Joe Sebastiani

As you can probably imagine, Red-tailed Hawks have a very distinctive red tail. They’re some of the most common and easiest to identify hawks in North America, with red tail feathers, a pale underside with brown marks, and a reddish brown back. You can find them flying high above fields, where they’re looking for rodents, birds, rabbits, and carrion.

The cry that they make is very distinctive, and has been used frequently in movies and television shows. In fact, if you’ve heard an eagle scream in a movie, you’ve probably actually heard a red-tailed hawk! They’re also very popular birds for falconers, people who train birds of prey to hunt for them.

Eastern Screech Owl - Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Eastern Screech-owl – Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Owls are also birds of prey. They’re nocturnal, so they’re not considered raptors, but they have many features in common with raptors. They have sharp talons, and hooked beaks. Owls also have some fantastic adaptations for hunting at night. Even little Screech Owls, like the one in the picture above, are skilled night time hunters.

Owl wings are covered in soft, ragged feathers. They let air pass more easily through the bird’s wings while it flies, which means that it makes less noise. If you want to see how that works at home, take a piece of stiff paper and wave it through the air. Then cut fringes into the edge of the paper and wave it through the air again. Can you hear a difference?

Owl eyes are able to pick up on very small amounts of light, and they can fly around in rooms that are so dark a human would think there wasn’t any light at all. Their eyes are huge, and have huge light-collecting structures inside them. This means that their eyes have to be shaped more like a lightbulb than a sphere, so they can’t move them. Thankfully, owls have extremely flexible necks and can turn their head in all sorts of different directions.

Even though they look a little bit like they have ears on top of their head, those tufts are just longer feathers. Their sensitive ears are hidden on the sides of their head. No one’s quite sure why so many owls have those tufts, but some people think that they help camouflage the owl by making it look even more like a dead branch.

If you’d like to go on an owl prowl and look for these silent night flyers with your family, come on out on February 7th from 6:30-8:30 pm. The program is $7 for members, and $12 for non members. If you’re interested in learning more about owls, click here to register!