The Gasoline and Gunpowder Gang’s Biggest Holiday of the Year

For members of the gasoline and gunpowder gang in Pennsylvania, the coming two weeks are the biggest holiday of the year.  Cloaked in ceremonial orange, worshippers of the White-tailed Deity are making their annual pilgrimage into the great outdoors to beat the bushes in search of their idol.  For the fortunate among the faithful, their devotion culminates in a testosterone/adrenaline-charged sacrifice of the supreme being.

The White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity

Remember, emotions run high during this blood-letting festival—sometimes overwhelming secular attributes like logic and rational decision-making.  You don’t want to be in the crossfire—so stay out of the woods!

Eastern Gray Squirrel
Rifle season…it’s a good time to be a squirrel.

Photo of the Day

Northern Mockingbird
From a lookout atop an Eastern Hemlock, a Northern Mockingbird maintains a vigil over a garden full of berry-producing plants. To assure their survival during cold weather, these bold birds will vigorously defend winter food supplies on hollies, viburnums, poison-ivy, bittersweet, and other fruit-producing trees, shrubs, and vines, often swooping in to startle and flush birds and other animals that approach its stores too closely.

Today’s Golden Eagle Flight

Here are several of the Golden Eagles seen migrating in this morning’s stiff north-northwest wind along Second Mountain in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.

Hatch-year/Juvenile Golden Eagle
A hatch-year Golden Eagle, also known as a first-year or juvenile bird.  After December 31 of the year of its birth, it will be known as a second-year Golden Eagle.
Hatch-year/Juvenile Golden Eagle
A hatch-year Golden Eagle reveals no molt of its juvenile flight feathers.  Neat and trim.
Hatch-year/Juvenile Golden Eagle
A hatch-year Golden Eagle displays faded median secondary upperwing coverts, but not the ofttimes mottled tawny “bars” seen on birds after their first year, such as the individual shown in the last image of this post.
A second-year Golden Eagle
A second-year Golden Eagle, also known as a Basic I immature bird.
A second-year Golden Eagle
The same second-year Golden Eagle, just beginning molt of the juvenile flight feathers in the wings.
A second-year Golden Eagle
The second-year Golden Eagle passes the lookout.
A topside (left) and underside (right) view of a probable fourth-year Golden Eagle.
Two views of a third-year (maybe older) Golden Eagle, topside (left) and underside (right).  Note the conspicuous tawny bars on the topside of the wings (present in all birds after their first year) and a trace of white in the tail (present in birds prior to adulthood).  The two-toned appearance of the underside of the wings resembles that of a Turkey Vulture and is an adult trait Golden Eagles begin acquiring as early as their third year.  Some birds in their third year retain noticeably longer juvenile secondaries, making the trailing edge of the wings appear jagged.

To learn more about determining the age of a Golden Eagle on the wing, click the “Golden Eagle Aging Chart” tab at the top of this page, then get to a hawk watch and have a look.

Photo of the Day

White-tailed Deity
Spent some time in the woods last evening visiting with the wild ungulates.  Throughout autumn, this big guy has been teasing not only the members of the gasoline and gunpowder gang, but dozens of other White-tailed Deity worshipers as well.  With hormones raging, he’s looking for love, so we left him to his business.

Black-capped Chickadee Invasion

Our cute lovable chickadees are resident birds, remaining in the same general area throughout the year, often throughout their lives.  In the Mid-Atlantic States, there are two species.  The tiny Carolina Chickadee is at the northern limit of its geographic range in the Piedmont Province of southcentral Pennsylvania.  The slightly larger Black-capped Chickadee is a year-round resident mostly to the north of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Within the Susquehanna basin, an intergrade zone of the two species occurs in the mountains and bottomlands of the southern portion of the Ridge and Valley Province just to the north of the Pennsylvania cities of Carlisle, Harrisburg, and Lebanon.  The range of the Carolina Chickadee, as well as the hybrid zone, has gradually crept north during the last fifty years—as much as twenty or thirty miles—while the range of the pure-bred Black-capped Chickadee has simultaneously withdrawn almost entirely from the lower Susquehanna, particularly in the valleys.

Every few years, presumably when their numbers are too great for the sustenance available from the wild food crop in their home range, Black-capped Chickadees invade the more southerly range of both Carolina Chickadees and the hybrids in the intergrade zone.  This appears to be one of those years.  Black-capped Chickadees are working their way south and showing up at feeding stations stocked with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and/or peanuts—sometimes in flocks numbering five to ten birds or more.

Let’s take a closer look at the two species…

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the Carolina Chickadee is the resident species from the Great Valley (Cumberland/Lebanon Valley) south into Maryland.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed from the Great Valley (Cumberland/Lebanon Valley) south into Maryland, the Carolina Chickadee is the resident species of “tit”.
The Black-capped Chickadee is slightly larger than the Carolina Chickadee.
The Black-capped Chickadee, usually a resident of highlands to the north of the lower Susquehanna valley, is slightly larger than the Carolina Chickadee. The most conspicuous difference is the extensive amount of white in the “black-cap’s” wings, both on the edges of the flight feathers and on the set of coverts at the “shoulder”.  Black-capped Chickadees often appear longer tailed and bigger headed than Carolina Chickadees and the edge of the black bib is often more ragged.  The buffy wash on the flanks is usually more noticeable on the Black-capped Chickadee than on a Carolina.  Hybrids from the intergrade zone, having a varying blend of characteristics, are more difficult to identify.

Not only is now a good time to carefully check the chickadees you see, but it’s an opportune time to watch for other invaders from the north, specifically the “winter fiches” including Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra), and White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera).  During recent weeks, each of these species has been reported by observers at hawk-counting stations on local ridgetops, an indication that they too are experiencing inadequate food resources in their home ranges.

So, as winter approaches, you’ll want to keep an eye on those feeders—and don’t forget to keep an ear on the pines and hemlocks.  The rewards could be many!

White-winged Crossbills during an invasion of the lower Susquehanna region in February 2009. 
White-winged Crossbills during an invasion of the lower Susquehanna region in February 2009.  Previously unnoticed in the shade, the sounds of their bills crunching the cones led to the discovery of this female (left) and male (right) among a small flock of six crossbills found feeding on Eastern Hemlock seeds at ground level.

Northwest Winds in November Bring Big Birds

With colder temperatures arriving on gusty northwest winds, the next couple of days will be ideal for seeing migrating birds of prey along the ridges of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  It’s still peak time for movements of four of our largest species: Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, and Golden Eagle—so let’s grab our binoculars and have a look!

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk gliding past a ridgetop hawk counting station.
A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk gliding past a ridgetop hawk-counting station.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk headed south for winter.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk headed south for winter.
A juvenile Bald Eagle.
A juvenile Bald Eagle is an attention-getter.
 Golden Eagle
The regal Golden Eagle always creates excitement among observers at regional hawk watches.

Be certain to click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper” tab at the top of this page to select a lookout for observing and enjoying the passage of these spectacular late-season raptors.  To improve your chances of seeing a Golden Eagle, visit a counting station in the Ridge and Valley Province, but do bundle up—it’s cold on those mountaintops.

Photo of the Day

Yellow-rumped Warbler
By November, as insects become more difficult to come by, migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are seldom found far from a supply of berries.  This one was in the vicinity of the white fruits of Poison Ivy vines.

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Eastern Comma
The frosted wing edges let you know that this is the winter form of the Eastern Comma butterfly.  Adult commas, also known as anglewings, will soon enter crevices in dead and living trees to begin hibernation.  On some occasions, they’ll seek shelter from the cold among voids in man-made structures.  Look for commas on mild winter days when they awaken to zip around sunny woodlands and gardens.  You may even see these speedy little fliers pausing to feed on tree sap or carrion.

Nocturnal Migrants in Moonlight

Happening right now, in the bright moonlight on a crisp autumn night, there is a massive movement of nocturnally migrating birds indicated on National Weather Service Radar from State College, Pennsylvania.  Notice the dense wave crossing the lower Susquehanna River watershed from northeast to southwest.  The coming morning may reveal plenty of new arrivals after daybreak.  Look for robins, native sparrows, etc.

(NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Photo of the Day

Shadow Darner
If you happen to see a large dark dragonfly cruising around on a sunny November afternoon, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a Shadow Darner.  These hardy odonates often persist even after the flights of migratory species have ended for the year.  Shadow Darners are particularly fond of patrolling the shady edges of woodlands where they snag insects and devour them in midair.  Though they are most often found breeding in beaver ponds and other quiet waters, we’ve had them successfully reproduce in the fish-free frog and tadpole pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.

Tree Identification

As deciduous trees lose their foliage in coming days, it’s an excellent time to pick up and examine some samples from the species you encounter during your autumn strolls.  Uncle Tyler Dyer is assembling the leaves he finds into a guide for identifying the most common wild and naturalized trees, shrubs, and woody vines of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  To use it, click on the “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines” tab at the top of this page and check out…

Click this image to visit “Ty Dyer’s Kaleidoscope of Color”.

…better known as Uncle Tyler’s leaf collection.

Thinking about doing some planting on your property during the fall or in the spring?  Before you do, peruse the gorgeous colors offered by the native species shown on Uncle Ty’s page.  You might never go back to those short-lived high maintenance cultivars of imported species ever again.  And by choosing a variety of native plants, you’ll be helping wildlife too.

Oh, by the way—thanks Uncle Ty.  Yes, it is far out!

Happy Halloween

Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy Halloween.  It’s a much-anticipated day of excitement capped by surprise visits from strange-looking hideous creatures you’ve never seen before.  They don’t stop by for a chat.  Nope, not a word.  Just a little bit of nearly imperceptible buzzing when the move around.  You see, the little sneaks have hatched a plan.  They want to eat your stuff and maybe trash the place before they go.  And when you finally get rid of them, more start showing up—dozens and dozens, then hundreds.  The more you have, the more you attract.  You’ll be shocked that there are that many living in your neighborhood.  It’s like a scene from “Nightmare on Maple Street”.  The invasion drives some people mad, but you’re just going to love it.  So, get ready, because here they come.  Trick or Treat!

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Q:  What’s scariest thing about having Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs over for Halloween?
Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and Spotted Lanternfly
A:  They bring along their friends.

Red Maples

Red Maple
Many cultivars of ornamental maples for the home garden are derived from this native species, and it’s easy to see why.  Despite the variation in the foliage of each, every tree in this view is a Red Maple (Acer rubrum).
Red Maple Leaves
The Red Maple is the most common and widespread tree in all of eastern North America.  It is easily recognized by its three-lobed leaves.  Not only do the fall foliage colors vary among a population of trees, but some individual specimens have a well-stocked palette of their own.  This collection came from a single Red Maple.  Visit a forested area today and check them out!

Photo of the Day

Northern Walkingstick
The harmless, herbivorous Northern Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), also known as the Common Walkingstick, is well camouflaged when among the twigs and stems of deciduous trees.  As foliage drops in autumn, these wingless insects often descend to ground level and sometimes venture into view.  This individual was found in the vicinity of ideal habitat: a portion of forest including Black Cherry and Black Oak (Quercus velutina) trees.  Juvenile Northern Walkingsticks feed on the leaves of the former, adults on those of the latter.

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Eastern Ratsnake Crossing a Road
With cold weather settling in, reptiles including this Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) are making their way to winter den sites.  Many will be crossing roads, trails, and lawns, unknowingly subjecting themselves to the mercy of the more than one million merciless people living in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Don’t behave like a sociopath, please refrain from murdering, molesting, or kidnapping them.  Turn over a new leaf this fall and give them a brake.  Then leave them alone.

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Double-crested Cormorants
Double check those big flocks of southbound geese flying high overhead, especially if they’re silent.  Double-crested Cormorants are currently passing through the lower Susquehanna basin and are often seen far from water during their autumn movements. Look for tails that are nearly as long as the head and neck.

Select Your Berry-producing Plants Now

You probably know that fall is an excellent time for planting.  Roots continue to grow in the warm soil even after the air becomes cool and leaves change color, setting the stage for your new trees and shrubs to sport splendid foliage and flowers in spring.

But did you know that autumn can be the best time to visit your local nursery/garden center to select the native trees and shrubs that produce berries for attracting and feeding overwintering birds and other wildlife?  Here are three of our favorites.  Each is looking its best from now through at least the first half of winter.

American Holly
American Holly is a favorite small evergreen tree for winter beauty in the landscape.  The showy red berries are produced only on female plants, so you’ll need to select at least one of each gender to grow fruit.  They do best in acidic soils, responding well to a mulching of plenty of dead leaves each fall.
American Robins Feeding on American Holly
American Robins eating American Holly berries in February.
Common Winterberry
Common Winterberry is a slow-growing deciduous shrub and a member of the holly family; you’ll need both a male and a female plant to get a crop of berries.  It just so happens that fall is the best time to visit the nursery for selecting a female that’s a good fruit producer.  Winterberry is at its best under full sun in moist, acidic soils.  These plants are very happy to receive the water from your downspouts and a mulching from the leaves in your garden.
American Robin Feeding on Common Winterberry
An American Robin feeds on Common Winterberry on a snowy February evening.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a low-growing arching deciduous shrub of sunny locations in various well-drained soils.  It is a plant of the southern United States that, given current temperature trends, will thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, particularly on south-facing slopes.  And yes, it does well in mass plantings on embankments.
American Beautyberry
The fruits of American Beautyberry may be the most colorful of any native species.

There’s still time to get the shovel dirty, so visit your local native plant dealer this week and invest in some fruit-producing trees and shrubs.  Fall is also a good time to plant pines, spruces, and hemlocks.  Who knows, you might just get a good end-of-season deal.

White Pines, Norway Spruces, and Eastern Red Cedar
When planted in mixed clumps, conifers like these White Pines, Norway Spruces, and Eastern Red Cedar provide excellent winter food and cover for birds and other wildlife.

Photo of the Day

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Like a flycatcher, the petite Ruby-crowned Kinglet sometimes darts from its perch in pursuit of airborne insects.  More frequently, you’ll see them quickly searching twigs and foliage for tiny invertebrates to snack upon.  Though common in woodlands during autumn migration, only a few will remain for winter, mostly in the vicinity of pines and often in small flocks with other small birds such as chickadees and Brown Creepers.  During freezing weather, kinglets probe beneath peeling bark and chunks of rotting wood for overwintering insects, including their eggs and larvae.  On rare occasions, they will visit bird feeding stations to nibble on suet.

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Wild Turkey
A warm weekend will give foraging Wild Turkeys a chance to continue finding protein-rich grasshoppers and crickets before freezing weather forces them to transition to seeds, berries, acorns, hickory nuts, and other fare for sustenance.  Watch for gobblers and hens in forest clearings while you’re out and about having a gander at the fall foliage.

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Monarch
After somehow finding refuge from freezing temperatures during recent nights, Monarch butterflies were on the move in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this afternoon. This one was photographed taking a break to recharge on nectar from flowering Frost Aster, also known as Heath Aster.

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Merlin
Lightning fast, a migrating Merlin quickly passes a raptor counting station’s lookout.  The falcons are on their way south right now, so be certain to click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper” tab at the top of this page to locate a hawk watch near you.  Then pack a snack and go sit for a while to enjoy the birds and the autumn foliage.

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Hermit Thrushes
Earlier today, these migrants were found feeding on berries along the edge of a forest clearing in northern Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  Can you find the three Hermit Thrushes among the early successional growth seen here?   For extra credit, identify the three species of berry-producing pioneer plants that are shown.  For additional credit, which one of these plants is a non-native invasive species?   Click the image to see how you did.

Photo of the Day

Northern Flicker
The Northern Flicker is one of four migratory woodpeckers currently working their way south through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Flickers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, not only transit the area each spring and fall, but remain in lesser numbers for the winter.  And while a population of each of the first three are regular breeders in our region, thus allowing observers to see these species year-round, the sapsucker nests only to our north.

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Eastern Phoebe
This migrating Eastern Phoebe is on the lookout for flying insects, a scarce find on cold autumn mornings.  Eastern Phoebes are the hardiest of our flycatchers and are among the last of our insectivorous birds to head south in the fall.  They’ll return in mid-March feeding on stoneflies and other early-emerging insects along streams and rivers.

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Lesser Angle-winged Katydid
The Lesser Angle-winged Katydid (Microcentrum retinerve) is a common late-summer and early-autumn inhabitant of treetops.  Males like this one are recognized by the brown spot seen dorsally just behind the head.  Most active at night, they are sometimes attracted to artificial light.  But owing to their affinity for arboreal life and their superb leaf-like camouflage, these and other katydids are more often heard than seen.  The song of the Lesser Angle-winged Katydid is a set of two or three rattles given in quick succession and repeated at one second intervals.  In response to decreasing temperatures during the fall, the song becomes progressively slower and the interval between sets of rattles increases.  A hard frost ends the chorus for the year.

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Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar
During autumn, fuzzy caterpillars crossing roads and trails are a familiar sight throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  In oak-hickory forests you may encounter the stunningly beautiful Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) caterpillar, but don’t touch it; the spine-like bristles are mildly venomous.  Some people react with skin irritation and rashes after contact.  This native species rarely defoliates its host trees.  When it does, it’s usually just weeks before the deciduous leaves would fall, so the overall health of the plant is little affected.  To balance the population, there are numerous avian and terrestrial predators that feed upon both the larval and adult stages of the Hickory Tussock Moth.

Photo of the Day

Yesterday, October 7th, 2022, was hardly a date which will live in infamy, but it was the day that our late-season Ruby-throated Hummingbird fueled up on nectar, bathed in sunshine, and then terminated its layover in the garden at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to resume its flight to tropical wintering grounds.  Farewell little friend, have a safe journey.

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Butterflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Horace's Duskywing
A small butterfly with flights extending into October, the Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) is an easily overlooked inhabitant of forest clearings in the vicinity of oaks, particularly Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), a favorite larval foodplant.

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Yellowjacket Hover Fly
With today’s abundance of sunshine, the storm-related cold snap has come to an end and autumn insects were again out and about in the lower Susquehanna region.  Yellowjacket Hover Flies (Milesia virginiensis) are important pollinators, feeding on flower nectar along the edges of forests and in meadows.  These harmless mimics of yellowjacket wasps not only resemble their ill-tempered lookalikes in appearance, but they produce similar buzzy wing sounds too.  Yellowjacket Hover Flies are known colloquially as “news bees” due to their habit of lingering around people and constantly “giving them the news”.  The larvae are as beneficial as the adults, feeding on decaying plant matter in rotting wood.  Larvae of some other members of their family, the Syrphidae, feed on aphids.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Having arrived yesterday during a break in the storm, this Ruby-throated Hummingbird spent a rain soaked fourth of October feeding on nectar among the abundant blooms covering the Mexican Cigar plants at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  When the remains of Hurricane Ian finally depart the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, it’ll resume its flight to the tropics for the winter.  And yes, October is late for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in our region.  Throughout autumn, each passing day increases the likelihood of a hummingbird found here being one of the hardy species from western North America, so look carefully at any you see this fall.

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Golden Eagle
An early-season Golden Eagle passes the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, today.  This eagle is not an adult.  White in the tail indicates that it has not yet reached its fifth year of life.  It may have spent the summer wandering well south of breeding grounds in northeastern Canada, then, upon commencing autumn migration, arrived here well ahead of the nesting birds.  To learn more about determining the age of Golden Eagles, click the “Golden Eagle Aging Chart” tab at the top of this page.  Though the large flights of Broad-winged Hawks are done for 2022, the greatest number of other raptors, including Golden Eagles, will be passing local counting stations during the coming five weeks, so be certain to also click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper” tab to find details on regional sites that you can visit.

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Mammals of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: A White-footed Mouse Peers from its Nest
Uncle Tyler Dyer reminds all his vegetarian friends to speak clearly when ordering the “House Salad” in a noisy restaurant, otherwise you may go hungry.  Unlike Uncle Ty, the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), seen here in its nest, is omnivorous, so it seldom goes hungry.