Photo of the Day

Purple Finch feeding on Green Ash seeds.
It seems a bit early, but Purple Finches are indeed beginning to transit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed on their way south. This one is feeding on the abundance of seeds produced by a Green Ash that has, at least thus far, survived the Emerald Ash Borer invasion.

Photo of the Day

Zabulon Skipper on Pickerelweed
A female Zabulon Skipper visits a cluster of Pickerelweed blossoms.  The Zabulon Skipper is a small butterfly of our streamsides, riversides, damp meadows, and other moist grassy spaces.  The Pickerelweed is an emergent plant of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.  Add it to your next project to improve water quality and help pollinators like the Zabulon Skipper.  You may even attract a hummingbird or two!   

Shakedown Cruise of the S. S. Haldeman

First there was the Nautilus.  Then there was the Seaview.  And who can forget the Yellow Submarine?  Well, now there’s the S. S. Haldeman, and today we celebrated her shakedown cruise and maiden voyage.  The Haldeman is powered by spent fuel that first saw light of day near Conewago Falls at a dismantled site that presently amounts to nothing more than an electrical substation.  Though antique in appearance, the vessel discharges few emissions, provided there aren’t any burps or hiccups while underway.  So, climb aboard as we take a cruise up the Susquehanna at periscope depth to have a quick look around!

Brunner Island as seen from the east channel.
Close-in approach to emergent Water Willow growing on an alluvial Island.
The approach to York Haven Dam and Conewago Falls from the west channel.
A pair of Powdered Dancers on a midriver log.

Watertight and working fine.  Let’s flood the tanks and have a peek at the benthos.  Dive, all dive!

American Eelgrass, also known as Tapegrass, looks to be growing well in the channels.  Historically, vast mats of this plant were the primary food source for the thousands of Canvasback ducks that once visited the lower Susquehanna each autumn.
As is Water Stargrass (Heteranthera dubia).  When mature, both of these native plants provide excellent cover for young fish.  Note the abundance of shells from deceased Asiatic Clams (Corbicula fluminea) covering the substrate.
Mayfly nymph
A three-tailed mayfly (Ephemeroptera) nymph and a several exoskeletons cling to the downstream side of a rock.
Comb-lipped Casemaker Caddisfly larva and case.
This hollowed-out stick may be a portable protective shelter belonging to a Comb-lipped Casemaker Caddisfly larva (Calamoceratidae).  The larva itself appears to be extending from the end of the “case” in the upper right of the image.  Heteroplectron americanum, a species known for such behavior, is a possibility. 
Rusty Crayfish
In the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) is an introduced invasive species.  It has little difficulty displacing native species due to its size and aggressiveness.
Rusty Crayfish
A Rusty Crayfish.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Summers with conditions that promote eelgrass and stargrass growth tend to be big years for Virginian River Horn Snails (Elimia virginica).  2022 appears to be one of those years.  They’re abundant and they’re everywhere on the rocks and gravel substrate in midriver.  Feeding almost incessantly on algae and detritus, these snails are an essential component of the riverine ecosystem, breaking down organic matter for final decomposition by bacteria and fungi.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Bits of debris suspended in the flowing water streak by this Virginian River Horn Snail.  The spire-shaped shell is a streamlining adaptation for maneuvering and holding fast in the strong current.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
A young Virginian River Horn Snail following a mature adult.  Note the green algae growing among the decaying plant and animal remains that blanket the river bottom.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Two of a population that may presently include millions of Virginian River Horn Snails living downstream of Conewago Falls.
Susquehanna Snails: Virginian River Horn Snails and Lesser Mystery Snails
Virginian River Horn Snails with Lesser Mystery Snails (Campeloma decisum), another native species commonly encountered at Conewago Falls and in surrounding waters.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: River Snail and Virginian River Horn Snail
A River Snail (Leptoxis carinata), also known as a Crested Mudalia, hitching a ride on a Virginian River Horn Snail.  The two species are frequently found together.
Mollusks of the Susquehanna: Yellow Lampmussel and River Snail
A River Snail cleaning the shell of a native freshwater Unionidae mussel, Lampsilis cariosa, commonly called the Yellow Lampmussel or Carried Lampmussel.  Because of their general decline in abundance and range, all Unionidae mussels are protected in Pennsylvania.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Banded Darter
The Banded Darter (Etheostoma zonale) is a member of the perch family (Percidae).
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Smallmouth Bass
A Smallmouth Bass in strong current.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Spotfin or Satinfin Shiners
Along the edge of an alluvial island at midriver, Cyprinella (Spotfin or Satinfin) Shiners gather in the cover of an emergent stand of Water Willow.  The closely related Spotfin Shiner (Cyprinella spiloptera) and Satinfin Shiner (Cyprinella analostanus) are nearly impossible to differentiate in the field.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Spotfin or Satinfin Shiner
A breeding condition male Cyprinella (Spotfin or Satinfin) Shiner.
Fishes of the Susquehanna; Juvenile Channel Catfish
A juvenile Channel Catfish.

We’re finding that a sonar “pinger” isn’t very useful while running in shallow water.  Instead, we should consider bringing along a set of Pings—for the more than a dozen golf balls seen on the river bottom.  It appears they’ve been here for a while, having rolled in from the links upstream during the floods.  Interestingly, several aquatic species were making use of them.

River Snail cleaning a golf ball.
River Snail cleaning a golf ball.
Net-spinning Caddisfly (Hydropsychidae)
A golf ball used as an anchor point for silk cases woven by Net-spinning Caddisfly (Hydropsychidae) larvae to snare food from the water column.
Freshwater Snails (Gastropods) of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species)
A Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species), a tiny gastropod also known as a Coolie Hat Snail, River Limpet, or Brook Freshwater Limpet, inhabits the dimple on a “Top Flight”.
Freshwater Snails (Gastropods) of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species)
A closeup view of the Creeping Ancylid.  The shell sits atop the snail’s body like a helmet.
We now know why your golf balls always end up in the drink, it’s where they go to have their young.

Well, it looks like the skipper’s tired and grumpy, so that’s all for now.  Until next time, bon voyage!

Monarch an Endangered Species: What You Can Do Right Now

This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) added the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its “Red List of Threatened Species”, classifying it as endangered.  Perhaps there is no better time than the present to have a look at the virtues of replacing areas of mowed and manicured grass with a wildflower garden or meadow that provides essential breeding and feeding habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of other species of animals.

Monarch on Common Milkweed Flower Cluster
A recently arrived Monarch visits a cluster of fragrant Common Milkweed flowers in the garden at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Milkweeds included among a wide variety of plants in a garden or meadow habitat can help local populations of Monarchs increase their numbers before the autumn flights to wintering grounds commence in the fall.  Female Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, then, after hatching, the larvae (caterpillars) feed on them before pupating.

If you’re not quite sure about finally breaking the ties that bind you to the cult of lawn manicuring, then compare the attributes of a parcel maintained as mowed grass with those of a space planted as a wildflower garden or meadow.  In our example we’ve mixed native warm season grasses with the wildflowers and thrown in a couple of Eastern Red Cedars to create a more authentic early successional habitat.

Comparison of Mowed Grass to Wildflower Meadow
* Particularly when native warm-season grasses are included (root depth 6′-8′)

Still not ready to take the leap.  Think about this: once established, the wildflower planting can be maintained without the use of herbicides or insecticides.  There’ll be no pesticide residues leaching into the soil or running off during downpours.  Yes friends, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a private well or a community system, a wildflower meadow is an asset to your water supply.  Not only is it free of man-made chemicals, but it also provides stormwater retention to recharge the aquifer by holding precipitation on site and guiding it into the ground.  Mowed grass on the other hand, particularly when situated on steep slopes or when the ground is frozen or dry, does little to stop or slow the sheet runoff that floods and pollutes streams during heavy rains.

What if I told you that for less than fifty bucks, you could start a wildflower garden covering 1,000 square feet of space?  That’s a nice plot 25′ x 40′ or a strip 10′ wide and 100′ long along a driveway, field margin, roadside, property line, swale, or stream.  All you need to do is cast seed evenly across bare soil in a sunny location and you’ll soon have a spectacular wildflower garden.  Here at the susquehannawildllife.net headquarters we don’t have that much space, so we just cast the seed along the margins of the driveway and around established trees and shrubs.  Look what we get for pennies a plant…

Wildflower Garden
Some of the wildflowers and warm-season grasses grown from scattered seed in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.

Here’s a closer look…

Lance-leaved Coreopsis
Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), a perennial.
Black-eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Black-eyed Susan "Gloriosa Daisy"
“Gloriosa Daisy”, a variety of Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Purple Coneflower
Purple Coneflower, an excellent perennial for pollinators.  The ripe seeds provide food for American Goldfinches.
Common Sunflower
A short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual and a source of free bird seed.
Common Sunflower
Another short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual.

All this and best of all, we never need to mow.

Around the garden, we’ve used a northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  It’s a blend of annuals and perennials that’s easy to grow.  On their website, you’ll find seeds for individual species as well as mixes and instructions for planting and maintaining your wildflower garden.  They even have a mix specifically formulated for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Annuals in bloom
When planted in spring and early summer, annuals included in a wildflower mix will provide vibrant color during the first year.  Many varieties will self-seed to supplement the display provided by biennials and perennials in subsequent years.
Wildflower Seed Mix
A northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  There are no fillers.  One pound of pure live seed easily plants 1,000 square feet.

Nothing does more to promote the spread and abundance of non-native plants, including invasive species, than repetitive mowing.  One of the big advantages of planting a wildflower garden or meadow is the opportunity to promote the growth of a community of diverse native plants on your property.  A single mowing is done only during the dormant season to reseed annuals and to maintain the meadow in an early successional stage—preventing reversion to forest.

For wildflower mixes containing native species, including ecotypes from locations in and near the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, nobody beats Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania.  Their selection of grass and wildflower seed mixes could keep you planting new projects for a lifetime.  They craft blends for specific regions, states, physiographic provinces, habitats, soils, and uses.  Check out these examples of some of the scores of mixes offered at Ernst Conservation Seeds

      • Pipeline Mixes
      • Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
      • Cover Crops
      • Pondside Mixes
      • Warm-season Grass Mixes
      • Retention Basin Mixes
      • Wildlife Mixes
      • Pollinator Mixes
      • Wetland Mixes
      • Floodplain and Riparian Buffer Mixes
      • Rain Garden Mixes
      • Steep Slope Mixes
      • Solar Farm Mixes
      • Strip Mine Reclamation Mixes

We’ve used their “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” on streambank renewal projects with great success.  For Monarchs, we really recommend the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It includes many of the species pictured above plus “Fort Indiantown Gap” Little Bluestem, a warm-season grass native to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, and milkweeds (Asclepias), which are not included in their northeast native wildflower blends.  More than a dozen of the flowers and grasses currently included in this mix are derived from Pennsylvania ecotypes, so you can expect them to thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed, a perennial species, is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It is a favorite of female Monarchs seeking a location to deposit eggs.
Monarch Caterpillar feeding on Swamp Milkweed
A Monarch larva (caterpillar) feeding on Swamp Milkweed.
Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  This perennial is also known as Butterfly Milkweed.
Tiger Swallowtails visiting Butterfly Weed
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the dozens of species of pollinators that will visit Butterfly Weed.

In addition to the milkweeds, you’ll find these attractive plants included in Ernst Conservation Seed’s “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”, as well as in some of their other blends.

Wild Bergamot
The perennial Wild Bergamot, also known as Bee Balm, is an excellent pollinator plant, and the tubular flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds.
Oxeye
Oxeye is adorned with showy clusters of sunflower-like blooms in mid-summer.  It is a perennial plant.
Plains Coreopsis
Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), also known as Plains Tickseed, is a versatile annual that can survive occasional flooding as well as drought.
Gray-headed Coneflower
Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), a tall perennial, is spectacular during its long flowering season.
Monarch on goldenrod.
Goldenrods are a favorite nectar plant for migrating Monarchs in autumn.  They seldom need to be sown into a wildflower garden; the seeds of local species usually arrive on the wind.  They are included in the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix” from Ernst Conservation Seeds in low dose, just in case the wind doesn’t bring anything your way.
Partridge Pea
Is something missing from your seed mix?  You can purchase individual species from the selections available at American Meadows and Ernst Conservation Seeds.  Partridge Pea is a good native annual to add.  It is a host plant for the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly and hummingbirds will often visit the flowers.  It does really well in sandy soils.
Indiangrass in flower.
Indiangrass is a warm-season species that makes a great addition to any wildflower meadow mix.  Its deep roots make it resistant to drought and ideal for preventing erosion.

Why not give the Monarchs and other wildlife living around you a little help?  Plant a wildflower garden or meadow.  It’s so easy, a child can do it.

Planting a riparian buffer with wildflowers and warm-season grasses
Volunteers sow a riparian buffer on a recontoured stream bank using wildflower and warm-season grass seed blended uniformly with sand.  By casting the sand/seed mixture evenly over the planting site, participants can visually assure that seed has been distributed according to the space calculations.
Riparian Buffer of wildflowers
The same seeded site less than four months later.
Monarch Pupa
A Monarch pupa from which the adult butterfly will emerge.

Photo of the Day

Leafcutter Bee Visiting Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
A Leafcutter Bee (Megachile species) visits the blossoms of a Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), a native wildflower also known as Bee Balm or Horsemint.  Like Mason Bees (Osmia species), leafcutters will readily nest in the tubular cavities provided inside man-made bee houses.  As their names suggest, Mason Bees use mud to construct and seal the cells for their eggs while leafcutters harvest leaves for the task.  Female Leafcutter Bees, including this individual, can be recognized by the accumulation of pollen carried on the underside of their abdomen.  Within each nest cell, a female will lay an egg atop a supply of pollen and nectar.  These provisions will nourish the larva through development and transformation into an adult.

Photo of the Day

Pickerelweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
An Eastern Carpenter Bee visits the flowers of an emergent Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  Each Pickerelweed blossom has conspicuous yellow spots on its uppermost petal, an adaptation shared with the Great Rhododendrons featured in a post earlier this month (July 1).  For each of these species the purpose of these pollen look-a-likes is the same, to attract bees to the pistils and stamens of the flower.  Do these lures work?  Just take a look at the pollen accumulated on the rear leg of this bee.

Blooming in Early July: Great Rhododendron

With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire?  Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), also known as Rosebay.

Great Rhododendron
The Great Rhododendron is an evergreen shrub found growing in the forest understory on slopes with consistently moist (mesic) soils.  The large, thick leaves make it easy to identify.  During really cold weather, they may droop and curl, but they still remain green and attached to the plant.

Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife.  The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Pinxter Flower in bloom
A close relative of the Great Rhododendron is the Pinxter Flower, also known as the Pink Azalea.

Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging.  Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants.  In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions.  Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth.  A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed.  In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site.  These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees.  In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) may be particularly sensitive to the loss of winter shelter and travel lanes provided by thickets of Great Rhododendron and other members of the heather/heath family.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens.   Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.

Great Rhododendron Flower Cluster
Great Rhododendrons sport an attractive blossom cluster.  The colors of the flower, especially the markings found only on the uppermost petal, guide pollinators to the stamens (male organs) and pistil (female organ).
Bumble Bee Pollinating a Great Rhododendron Flower
To this Bumble Bee (Bombus species), the yellowish spots on the uppermost petal of the Great Rhododendron may appear to be clumps of pollen and are thus an irresistible lure.  

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron.  One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves.  Go have a look.  You’ll be glad you did.

Great Rhododendron along Route 125 near Ravine
Great Rhododendron along Route 125 along the base of the north slope of Second Mountain north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Great Rhododendron along Swatara Creek
Great Rhododendrons beginning to bloom during the second week of July along Swatara Creek north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Note how acid mine drainage continues to stain the rocks (and pollute the water) in the upper reaches of this tributary of the lower Susquehanna.

Same Story, Different Ending

Once upon a time, a great panic spread throughout the lower Susquehanna region.  A destructive mob of invaders was overtaking our verdant land and was sure to decimate all in its path.  Clad in gray and butternut, they came by the thousands.  Flashing their crimson banners, they signaled their arrival at each new waypoint along their route.  The Pennsylvania government called upon the populace to heed the call and turn out in defense of the state.  Small bands of well-intentioned citizens tried in vain to turn back the progress of the hostiles—none succeeded.  But for a cadre of civic-minded elites and some small groups of college professors and their students, few responded to a call to confine the invasion along designated lines of containment.  Word spread quickly throughout the valley that farms had been overrun by waves of the merciless intruders.  Agrarians reported that their orchards had been stripped; they had lost all of the fruits of their labor.  Stories exaggerating the hideous appearance of the approaching aliens struck fear into the faint-of-heart.  The growing sentiment among the terror-stricken residents: this horde must be stopped before pestilence is visited upon everyone in the state!

And so, on the evening of June 28, 1863, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, the wooden Susquehanna River bridge at Columbia-Wrightsville was set ablaze just as Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s brigade of the invading Army of Northern Virginia approached the span’s west entrance preparing to cross to the eastern shore.  Thus, the rebel tide was turned away from the Susquehanna at the point some contend to be the authentic “High-water Mark of the Confederacy”.

Just one among an army of Spotted Lanternflies marching westbound across the Susquehanna River on the present-day Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge.  Same story, different ending.          

Photo of the Day

Damselflies and dragonflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Fragile Forktail
Fragile Forktail damselflies have matured from their aquatic nymphal stage (see “Photo of the Day” from April 24, 2022) into flying adults.  This breeding pair in the “wheel position”, male above and female below, were photographed this week along the edge of the pond at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  You can identify the odonates you see during coming weeks by clicking the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.  There, a gallery of images that includes the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s most frequently encountered species will be at your fingertips for easy perusal.

Photo of the Day

Mollusks of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Garden Slug
The Gray Garden Slug (Deroceras reticulatum) is an invasive inhabitant of places subjected to human disturbance, especially cultivated farmland and, as the common name suggests, gardens.  They are most active at night, hiding beneath plant litter, trash, and rocks during the daytime.  This inch-long specimen was photographed while out and about on a recent dreary and damp afternoon.  Natural enemies of terrestrial slugs include birds, toads, frogs, snakes, and some beetles in the family Caribidae.  In the field and vegetable patch, keeping leaf litter and other debris away from the base of young plants can reduce damage caused by these hungry mollusks.

Early May Migration

National Weather Service radar showed a sizeable nocturnal flight of migrating birds early this morning.  Let’s go for a short stroll and see what’s around.

Radar returns from State College, Pennsylvania, display several bands of light rain and a massive flight of migrating birds.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Catbird
After coming in on an overnight flight, Gray Catbirds were numerous at dawn this morning.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Black-and-white Warbler
Masses of Neotropical migrants are just beginning to arrive.  This Black-and-white Warbler was found feeding on insects in a Green Ash tree that, so far, has survived Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) infestation.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Veery
The Veery is a Neotropical thrush that nests in understory vegetation on forested slopes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Orchard Oriole
Orchard Orioles are here.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Baltimore Oriole
And Baltimore Orioles are here too.  Vibrant colors like these are what many observers find so wonderful about many of the Neotropical species.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Double-crested Cormorants
Not all migrants move at night.  While you’re out and about, keep an eye on the sky for diurnal fliers like these migrating Double-crested Cormorants, seen this morning a full ten miles east of the river.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Carolina Wren
While many birds are still working their way north to their breeding grounds, resident species like this Carolina Wren are already feeding young.  This one has collected a spider for its nestlings.

Photo of the Day

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Fragile Forktail nymph
The aquatic larval stage of a damselfly is commonly known as a nymph.  It feeds on small underwater invertebrates, then, as an adult, transitions to grabbing flying insects in midair.  While many species inhabit streams, Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita) nymphs are found primarily in wetlands and small pools of water. This one was produced from eggs laid last summer among submerged vegetation in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  In just a few weeks, it will climb a stem or cluster of leaves and transform into a colorful adult-stage damselfly known as an imago.  To see a photo gallery featuring this and other species of odonates found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, click on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.

Photo of the Day

The shade-loving Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) is a common species of resident dragonfly in the lower Susquehanna basin.  Females deposit their eggs on aquatic vegetation in clean still waters, including those found in marshy sections of streams, beaver ponds, and even, on occasion, garden pools, as long as they aren’t overpopulated with large fish.  Shadow Darners are the most likely of the dragonflies to be noticed cruising in search of prey at dusk and are the last to be seen during the season, sometimes still found hawking small insects on warm days in November.  As you may have guessed, they are quite fond of consuming mosquitoes.

Photo of the Day

A migrating Monarch butterfly takes a break to feed on nectar from the blooms of a Frost Aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), a common autumn wildflower also known as Heath Aster.

Migration Update

Can it be that time already?  Most Neotropical birds have passed through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed on their way south and the hardier species that will spend our winter in the more temperate climes of the eastern United States are beginning to arrive.

Here’s a gallery of sightings from recent days…

During the past two weeks, thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, including this adult bird, crossed the skies of the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to Central and South America for our winter.
A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk passes into the sunset during its first autumn migration.
Blackpoll Warblers are among the last of the Neotropical species to transit the region.  They’ll continue to be seen locally through at least early October.
Blue-headed Vireos are the October vireo during the fall, the other species having already continued toward tropical forests for a winter vacation.
The lower Susquehanna region lies just on the northern edge of the wintering range of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species found nesting locally among treetops in deciduous woods.  Look for their numbers to swell in coming days as birds from further north begin rolling through the region on their way south.
Sharp-shinned Hawks delight visitors at ridgetop hawk watches during breezy late-September and early-October days.  They allow closer observation than high-flying Broad-winged Hawks due to their habit of cruising just above the treetops while migrating.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk glides over a lookout.
Late September/early October is falcon time at area hawk-counting stations, the Peregrine Falcon often being the most anticipated species.
Pale “Tundra Peregrines”, a subspecies that nests in the arctic, are strictly migratory birds in the Mid-Atlantic States.  They are presently passing through on their way to South America.  Like Neotropical songbirds, their long flights provide them with the luxury of never experiencing a winter season.
This Carolina Saddlebags and other migratory dragonflies, which normally leave the area by mid-September, are still lingering in the lower Susquehanna region, much to the pleasure of the falcons that feed upon them.
An male American Kestrel in pursuit of dragonflies found swarming around the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
A male American Kestrel stooping on a dragonfly.
Osprey will be among the birds of prey passing hawk watch sites during the coming two weeks.  The first week of October often provides the best opportunity for seeing the maximum variety of raptors at a given site.  On a good day, a dozen species are possible.
Seeing cinnamon-colored juvenile Northern Harriers is symbolic of the October migration flights.
Bald Eagles always thrill the crowd.
In addition to raptors, resident Common Ravens are regularly sighted by observers at hawk watches and elsewhere during the fall season.
Hawk-counting stations sometimes log movements of Red-bellied Woodpeckers during late September and early October.  This species has extended its range into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed only during the past one hundred years, making these seasonal migration movements a recent local phenomenon.
Blue Jays are currently on the move with breeding birds from the forests of Canada and the northern United States moving south.  Hundreds can be seen passing a given observation point during an ideal morning.
Blue Jays find a pile of peanuts to be an irresistible treat.  Provide the unsalted variety and watch the show!

Be sure to click on these tabs at the top of this page to find image guides to help you identify the dragonflies, birds, and raptors you see in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed…

    • Damselflies and Dragonflies
    • Birds of Conewago Falls
    • Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Raptors

See you next time!

Smoky Skies in the Lower Susquehanna Region

During the coming two weeks, peak numbers of migrating Neotropical birds will be passing through the northeastern United States including the lower Susquehanna valley.  Hawk watches are staffed and observers are awaiting big flights of Broad-winged Hawks—hoping to see a thousand birds or more in a single day.

During its passage through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, an adult Broad-winged Hawk sails over Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
A hatch-year/juvenile Broad-winged Hawk gazes toward hawk watchers on the ground.

Broad-winged hawks feed on rodents, amphibians, and a variety of large insects while on their breeding grounds in the forests of the northern United States and Canada.  They depart early, journeying to wintering areas in Central and South America before frost robs them of a reliable food supply.

The Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina), this one photographed at Second Mountain Hawk Watch on September 8th, is the rarest of the lower Susquehanna region’s migratory dragonflies.  Autumn Broad-winged Hawk movements coincide with southbound flights of the Carolina Saddlebags and the more numerous migratory dragonfly species: Common Green Darner, Wandering Glider, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, and Black Saddlebags.  “Broad-wings” will often eat these and other dragonflies during migration and can sometimes be seen catching and feeding upon them while still soaring high overhead.

While migrating, Broad-winged Hawks climb to great altitudes on thermal updrafts and are notoriously difficult to see from ground level.  Bright sunny skies with no clouds to serve as a backdrop further complicate a hawk counter’s ability to spot passing birds.  Throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the coming week promises to be especially challenging for those trying to observe and census the passage of high-flying Broad-winged Hawks.  The forecast of hot and humid weather is not so unusual, but the addition of smoke from fires in the western states promises to intensify the haze and create an especially irritating glare for those searching the skies for raptors.

Smoke from fires along the California coast and in central Utah can be seen streaming east this morning.  (NOAA/GOES image)
Smoke from western fires and humid air creates a band of haze in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and states to the south this morning.   (NOAA/GOES image)

 

A migrating Broad-winged Hawk in the glare of a hazy sky.  In addition to visibility problems, swarms of Spotted Lanternflies above the treetops make distant hawks difficult to discern for hawk watchers scanning the horizon with binoculars.

It may seem gloomy for the mid-September flights in 2021, but hawk watchers are hardy types.  They know that the birds won’t wait.  So if you want to see migrating “Broad-wings” and other species, you’ve got to get out there and look up while they’re passing through.

Migrating Ospreys typically fly low enough and are large enough to be spotted even during the haziest of conditions.
Bald Eagles like this fourth-year bird can ascend to great altitude, but their size usually prevents them from sneaking past a lookout unnoticed.
Peregrines escape notice not due to hazy sky conditions, but because they pass by so quickly.  They’re being seen at local hawk watches now through October.

These hawk watches in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are currently staffed by official counters and all welcome visitors:

    • Rocky Ridge County Park Hawk Watch—3699 Deininger Road off Mount Zion Road (Route 24) northeast of York, Pennsylvania.
    • Second Mountain Hawk Watch—off Cold Spring Road on the grounds of Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
    • Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch—where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

—or you can just keep an eye on the sky from wherever you happen to be.  And don’t forget to check the trees and shrubs because warbler numbers are peaking too!  During recent days…

Northern Parula at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Black-and-white Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.
Cape May Warbler at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Bay-breasted Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.

Warblers Passing Through the Lower Susquehanna River Valley

Neotropical birds are presently migrating south from breeding habitats in the United States and Canada to wintering grounds in Central and South America.  Among them are more than two dozen species of warblers—colorful little passerines that can often be seen darting from branch to branch in the treetops as they feed on insects during stopovers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Being nocturnal migrants, warblers are best seen first thing in the morning among sunlit foliage, often high in the forest canopy.  After a night of flying, they stop to feed and rest.  Warblers frequently join resident chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches to form a foraging flock that can contain dozens of songbirds.  Migratory flycatchers, vireos, tanagers, and grosbeaks often accompany southbound warblers during early morning “fallouts”.  Usually, the best way to find these early fall migrants is to visit a forest edge or thicket, particularly along a stream, a utility right-of-way, or on a ridge top.  Then too, warblers and other Neotropical migrants are notorious for showing up in groves of mature trees in urban parks and residential neighborhoods—so look up!

A Black-and-white Warbler descends into the tangles of the forest understory to search for a morning meal of insects or creepy-crawlies.
Success!  Looks like a cranefly (Tipulidae).
A Black-throated Green Warbler high in the treetops.
Warblers often travel and feed in the company of other Neotropical species like this Red-eyed Vireo.
Get out and look for those Neotropical migrants now because, like this Canada Warbler, in just a few weeks they’ll be gone.

Be sure to visit the “Birds of Conewago Falls” page by clicking the tab at the top of this page.  There, you’ll find photographs of many of the lower Susquehanna valley’s bird species, including the warblers and other Neotropical migrants.

Damselflies and Dragonflies Galore at Gifford Pinchot State Park

Some of of you may have been wondering why there has been no new content for a while.  Well, rest assured that your editor has been replumbed and rewired by some of the best in the business during his recent stay at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and he is getting a little stronger every day.  More field trips will be on the way soon!

In the meantime, have a look at some of the wide variety of dragonflies gathered along the shoreline at Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County, Pennsylvania.  The lake was drained during the winter to perform some maintenance projects and has yet to refill because of the dry spring and early summer we’ve been experiencing.  These photos show species seen mostly in the vegetated shallows near the dam.

An ever-on-the-wing Common Green Darner.
A Unicorn Clubtail (Arigomphus villosipes).
A Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus).
A male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta).
A male Slaty Skimmer.
A female Slaty Skimmer.
A female Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) ovipositing.
Very common damselflies, Familiar Bluets (Enallagma civile), a breeding male (right) and female (left) in wheel position.
Another common damselfly, a male Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta).
Breeding Great Blue Skimmers (Libellula vibrans) in wheel position.
Lancet Clubtails (Phanogomphus exilis), a male (above) and a female (below) in wheel position.
Black Saddlebags, a male (right) clasping a female (left).

There are lots of others there too.  Do have a look.

Be on the Lookout for Mississippi Kites

Common sense tells us that Brood X Periodical Cicada emergence begins in the southern part of the population zone, where the ground temperatures reach 64° first, then progresses to the north as the weather warms.  In the forested hills where the lower Piedmont falls away onto the flat landscape of the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Maryland’s Cecil and Harford Counties, the hum of seventeen-year-old insects saturates a listener’s ears from all directions—the climax nears.

Periodical Cicadas, mostly Magicicada  septendecim, are well into their breeding cycle along the Piedmont-Atlantic Coastal Plain border right now.  Love is in the air.

With all that food flying around, you just knew something unusual was going to show up to eat it.  It’s a buffet.  It’s a smorgasbord.  It’s free, it’s all-you-can-eat, and it seems, at least for the moment, like it’s going to last forever.  You know it’ll draw a crowd.

The Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), a trim long-winged bird of prey, is a Neotropical migrant, an insect-eating friend of the farmer, and, as the name “kite” suggests, a buoyant flier.  It experiences no winter—breeding in the southern United States from April to July, then heading to South America for the remainder of the year.  Its diet consists mostly of large flying insects including beetles, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and, you guessed it, cicadas.  Mississippi Kites frequently hunt in groups—usually catching and devouring their food while on the wing.  Pairs nest in woodlands, swamps, and in urban areas with ample prey.  They are well known for harmlessly swooping at people who happen to get too close to their nest.

Mississippi Kites nest regularly as far north as southernmost Virginia.  For at least three decades now, non-breeding second-year birds known as immatures have been noted as wanderers in the Mid-Atlantic States, particularly in late May and early June.  They are seen annually at Cape May, New Jersey.  They are rare, but usually seen at least once every year, along the Piedmont-Atlantic Coastal Plain border in northern Delaware, northeastern Maryland, and/or southeastern Pennsylvania.  Then came the Brood X Periodical Cicadas of 2021.

During the last week of May and these first days of June, there have been dozens of sightings of cicada-eating Mississippi Kites in locations along the lower Piedmont slope in Harford and Cecil Counties in Maryland, at “Bucktoe Creek Preserve” in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, and in and near Newark in New Castle County, Delaware.  They are being seen daily right on the lower Susquehanna watershed’s doorstep.

Today, we journeyed just south of Mason’s and Dixon’s Delaware-Maryland-Pennsylvania triangle to White Clay Creek State Park along Route 896 north of Newark, Delaware.  Once there, we took a short bicycle ride into a wooded neighborhood across the street in Maryland to search for the Mississippi Kites that have been reported there in recent days.

Periodical Cicadas filled the treetops and the airspace just above them.
It wasn’t long before Mississippi Kites appeared over the trees along a hilltop clearing to snatch up cicadas for a morning meal.
This kite glides on autopilot as it holds a captured cicada in its talons and tears it apart with its hook-shaped bill.
At least ten Mississippi Kites have been seen simultaneously at this site or in nearby Newark during recent days. This morning, we saw six.
All the Mississippi Kites we saw today were second-year birds.  The banded tail is characteristic of both hatch-year (juvenile) and second-year (immature) Mississippi Kites.  Of course, at this time of year, hatch-year birds are still in the nest and not flying around pigging out on Periodical Cicadas.
The banded tail, gray underside, and white head of a second-year Mississippi Kite.  Though known as immature or subadult birds during their second year, there are records of Mississippi Kites successfully breeding at this age.  Recent wanderings into the Mid-Atlantic States and New England have led to a spotty expansion of the nesting range there.
Mississippi Kites in their second year undergo molt of their flight feathers. The timing can vary greatly among individual birds with diet among the factors affecting the process.  This bird is just beginning the replacement of its juvenile remiges and rectrices.
Tail molt beginning on this second-year Mississippi Kite.  These banded juvenile tail feathers will be replaced by a set of all-dark adult rectrices.
A second-year Mississippi Kite with an all-dark adult tail feather (rectrix).  An abundance of protein-rich cicadas should provide ample nutrition to keep the molt process going for this maturing bird, at least for another couple of weeks.  Relocating inland on the Piedmont could keep this and other kites well-nourished for even longer.

Will groups of Mississippi Kites develop a taste for our seventeen-year cicadas and move north into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed?  Ah, to be young and a nomad—that’s the life.  Wandering on a whim with one goal in mind—food.  It could very well be that now’s the time to be on the lookout for Mississippi Kites, especially where Brood X Periodical Cicadas are abundant.

Identification of the Three Species of Brood X Periodical Cicadas

The emergence of Brood X Periodical Cicadas is now in full swing.  If you visit a forested area, you may hear the distant drone of very large concentrations of one or more of the three species that make up the Brood X event.   The increasing volume of a chorus tends to attract exponentially greater numbers of male cicadas from within an expanding radius, causing a swarm to grow larger and louder—attracting more and more females to the breeding site.

Holes in the ground where emerging Brood X Periodical Cicadas have come to the surface.
The exuvia of Periodical Cicadas that, following emergence from the soil, have ascended the trunk of an Eastern White Pine.  The exuvia is the exoskeletal remains of the cicada’s final molt from a nymph into a flying adult.

Each Periodical Cicada species has a distinctive song.  This song concentrates males of the same species at breeding sites—then draws in an abundance of females of the same species to complete the mating process.  Large gatherings of Periodical Cicadas can include all three species, but a close look at swarms on State Game Lands 145 in Lebanon County and State Game Lands 46 (Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area) in Lancaster County during recent days found marked separation by two of the three.  Most swarms were dominated by Magicicada septendecim, the largest, most widespread, and most common species.  However, nearly mono-specific swarms of M. cassinii, the second most numerous species, were found as well.  An exceptionally large one was northwest of the village of Colebrook on State Game Lands 145.  It was isolated by a tenth of a mile or more from numerous large gatherings of M. septendecim cicadas in the vicinity.  These M. cassinii cicadas, with a chorus so loud that it outdistanced the songs made by the nearby swarms of M. septendecim, seized the opportunity to separate both audibly and physically from the more dominant species, thus providing better likelihood of maximizing their breeding success.

Some of the tens of thousands of M. cassinii Periodical Cicadas in a concentration on State Game Lands 145 northwest of Colebrook in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  This swarm occupied deciduous and evergreen trees on several acres of a south-facing hillside.  To provide protection from predators and assure the chance of finding a mate “in the crowd”, lesser numbers of this and the rarer species, Magicicada septendecula, would need to merge into the swarms of the abundant M. septendecim Periodical Cicadas to breed.

The process of identifying Periodical Cicadas is best begun by listening to their choruses, songs, and calls.  After all, the sounds of cicadas will lead one to the locations where they are most abundant.  The two most common species, M. septendecim and M. cassinii, produce a buzzy chorus that, when comprised of hundreds or thousands of cicadas “singing” in unison, creates, when heard from a distance, a droning wail that can carry for a quarter of a mile or more.  It’s a surreal humming sound that may remind one of a space ship from a science fiction film.

Listen to the songs of individual cicadas at close range and you’ll hear a difference between the widespread M. septendecim “Pharaoh Periodical Cicada” and the other two species.  M. septendecim‘s song is often characterized as a drawn out version of the word “Pharaoh”, hence the species’ unofficial common name.  As part of their courtship ritual, “Pharaoh Periodical Cicadas” sometimes make a purring or cooing sound, which is often extended to sound like kee-ow, then sometimes revved up further to pha-raohM. cassinii, often known as “Cassin’s Periodical Cicada”, and the least common species, M. septendecula, often make scratchy clicking or rattling calls as a lead-in to their song.  Most observers will find little difficulty locating the widespread M. septendecim “Pharaoh Periodical Cicada” by sound, so listening for something different—the clicking call—is an easy way to zero in on the two less common species.

To penetrate the droning choruses of large numbers of “Pharaoh” and/or “Cassin’s Periodical Cicadas”, sparingly distributed M. septendecula cicadas have a noise-penetrating song consisting of a series of quick raspy notes with a staccato rhythm reminiscent of a pulsating lawn sprinkler.   It can often be differentiated by a listener even in the presence of a roaring chorus of one or both of the commoner species.  However, a word of caution is due.  To call in others of their kind, “Cassin’s Periodical Cicadas” can produce a courtship song similar to that of M. septendecula so that they too can penetrate the choruses of the enormous numbers of “Pharaoh Periodical Cicadas” that concentrate in many areas.  To play it safe, it’s best to have a good look at the cicadas you’re trying to identify.

M. cassinii Periodical Cicadas “singing” from a treetop at Colebrook, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  Clicking phrases are sure sign of the presence of this species and/or M. septendecula, the least likely of the three species to be encountered.  When in close proximity to a swarm, a listener will often notice the rising and falling volume of a chorus in a cycle that repeats every few seconds, an effect caused by cicadas attempting to synchronize their songs in a harmony with others in the group.  When courtship and mating is complete, female Periodical Cicadas will begin laying eggs in slits made in fresh new growth at the ends of branches on deciduous trees like the one seen here.

Visually identifying Brood X Periodical Cicadas to the species level is best done by looking for two key field marks—first, the presence or absence of orange between the eye and the root of the wings, and second, the presence or absence of orange bands on the underside of the abdomen.  Seeing these field marks clearly requires in-hand examination of the cicada in question.

Observing a perched Brood X Periodical Cicada can sometimes provide a view of the key field marks needed for identification of the species.  On the M. septendecim “Pharaoh Periodical Cicada” seen here, the orange patch between the eye and wing root and the orange bands on the underside of the abdomen are visible.
The abdomen of this perched M. cassinii “Cassin’s Periodical Cicada” appears, when viewed through the wings, to have orange bands.  But, examination in hand would show an all-black abdomen with glossy surfaces shining in the sunlight.  For accuracy, the up-close-and-personal look is necessary.
In the hand, cicadas can be better studied for key field marks.  M. septendecim (top) is larger than M. cassini (bottom) and M. septendecula, but the difference is not always apparent, particularly when a direct comparison cannot be made.

To reliably separate Brood X Periodical Cicadas by species, it is necessary to get a closeup view of the section of the thorax between the eye and the root (insertion) of the wings, plus a look at the underside of the abdomen.  Here’s what you’ll see…

Magicicada septendecim—“Pharaoh Periodical Cicada”

M. septendecim has an orange patch between the eye and the root of the wings.
The underside of M. septendecim’s abdomen has orange bands or stripes along the trailing edge of each segment. The width of the bands can vary, but is typically wider on males (left) than on females (right).

Magicicada cassinii—“Cassin’s Periodical Cicada”

The thorax of M. cassinii is black between the eye and the wing insertion.
The underside of M. cassinii’s abdomen is all black without orange bands or stripes in both the male (left) and female (right).

Magicicada septendecula

M. septendecula’s thorax is black between the eye and root of the wings.
The underside of M. septendecula’s abdomen has narrow orange bands or stripes along the trailing edge of each segment.  The width of the bands can differ.  Those of this male (left) are minimal and the bands on this female (right) are near the maximum for the species.

There you have it.  Get out and take a closer look at the Brood X Periodical Cicadas near you.

The abundant and widespread “Pharaoh Periodical Cicada” (M. septendecim).
It’ll all be over before long.  Accumulating remains of M. cassinii “Cassin’s Periodical Cicadas” beneath an Eastern White Pine at the site of the Colebrook State Game Lands swarm.

They’re Here

The Magi have arrived.   Emanating from the shadows of a nearby forest, you may hear the endless drone of what sounds like an extraterrestrial craft.  Then you get your first look at those beady red eyes set against a full suit of black armor—out of this world.  The Magicicada are here at last.

This exuvia, the leftover from a cicada’s final molt, tells us they are here.
A Brood X Periodical Cicada soon after emergence and final molt.
Not to worry, cicadas are harmless and docile when handled.  This is Magicicada septendecim, the largest and most common of our three species of Brood X seventeen-year cicadas.  They are currently emerging along south-facing borders of forests and wooded parks and lawns.
Magicicada septendecim can be recognized by the orange on the thorax behind each eye and in front of the wing insertions.  The smaller M. cassinii and M. septendecula have no orange coloration between the eye and wing.
Magicicada septendecim (seen here) has broad orange stripes on the abdomen.  M. cassinii has an all black abdomen and M. septendecula, the rarest species, has narrow well-defined orange stripes.

If you go out and about to observe Periodical Cicadas, keep an eye open for these species too…

Spotted Lanternflies, one of our most dreaded invasive species, have hatched.  These tiny nymphs about 5 millimetres in length were found feeding on a Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a native vine in the grape family (Vitaceae).
Deer Ticks, also known as Black-legged Ticks, are hanging around on vegetation of all kinds looking to hitch a ride on a suitable host.  Don’t let it be you.  This adult female, less than 5 millimetres in length, was washed loose during an after-hike shower.

Seventeen Years Ago Today

Back in the spring of 2004, members of the Tri-County Conewago Creek Association (T.C.C.C.A.), a non-profit conservation group founded to improve water quality in Conewago Creek and its tributaries in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties in Pennsylvania, were, in order to better understand the status of the flora and fauna in the watershed, frequently spending their weekends surveying the animal and plant life found in the drainage basin’s forests, streams, and farmlands.  This effort identified populations of several species of concern and helped supplement the more formal assessment that was used to determine the placement, scale, and scope of projects needed to reduce nutrient and erosion impairment in the Conewago’s waterways.

These regular outings happened to coincide with the Brood X Periodical Cicada emergence of 2004.  Back then, as the record keeper for the T.C.C.C.A.’s weekly survey forays, your editor decided to shade a map of the Conewago Creek Watershed showing where the group’s volunteers encountered choruses of the Brood X cicadas.  Fortunately, the map is still in the editor’s pile of stuff, and is reproduced here for you.

T.C.C.C.A.’s brochure map of the Conewago Creek Watershed (the Conewago east of the Susquehanna River), shaded with red ink in 2004 indicating locations where noisy choruses of Brood X Periodical Cicadas were found.  The range of the insects closely mirrors the forested areas of the watershed.  The nearly contiguous range along the southeast border includes the heavily wooded areas of Mount Gretna, State Game Lands 145, and the northwest slope of the diabase ridge that separates the Conewago from neighboring watersheds in Lancaster County.

A notation on the map (visible just above the cap on the pen) indicates May 16 as the emergence date for the cicadas in 2004—seventeen years ago today.

So why no seventeen-year cicadas yet in 2021?  The answer is ground temperature.  This year, by mid-April, Brood X Periodical Cicadas were just below the leaves and rocks, ready to break the surface.  But a cold month since then has stalled their emergence.  A thermometer pushed into the forest soil today showed readings of 60 degrees and less—at least four degrees below the temperature needed to get the nymphs crawling out of the dirt to climb rocks and vegetation where they’ll molt, dry, and take flight.

In the forested hills east of Conewago Falls, in the Conewago Creek Watershed, soil temperatures were as low as 54 degrees Fahrenheit today.

A warm week ahead with daytime temperatures in the eighties and nighttime lows in the fifties and sixties, instead of in the forties, should get the woodland soils warming.  Brood X Periodical Cicadas will be out and about in a jiffy—and you’ll hear all about it.

Coming up, The Great Eastern Brood.

Conowingo Dam: Cormorants, Eagles, Snakeheads and a Run of Hickory Shad

Meet the Double-crested Cormorant,  a strangely handsome bird with a special talent for catching fish.  You see, cormorants are superb swimmers when under water—using their webbed feet to propel and maneuver themselves with exceptional speed in pursuit of prey.

Like many species of birds that dive for their food, Double-crested Cormorants run across the surface of the water to gain speed for a takeoff.  Smaller wings may make it more difficult to get airborne, but when folded, they provide improved streamlining for submerged swimming.

Double-crested Cormorants, hundreds of them, are presently gathered along with several other species of piscivorous (fish-eating) birds on the lower Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam near Rising Sun, Maryland.  Fish are coming up the river and these birds are taking advantage of their concentrations on the downstream side of the impoundment to provide food to fuel their migration or, in some cases, to feed their young.

Double-crested Cormorants, mostly adult birds migrating toward breeding grounds to the north, are gathered on the rocks on the east side of the river channel below Conowingo Dam.  A Great Blue Heron from a nearby rookery can be seen at the center of the image.
Bald Eagles normally gather in large numbers at Conowingo Dam in the late fall and early winter.  Presently there are more than 50 there, and the majority of them are breeding age adults.  Presumably they are still on their way north to nest.  Meanwhile, local pairs are already feeding young, so it seems these transient birds are running a bit late.  Many of them can be seen on the rocks along the east side of the river channel,…
…on the powerline trestles on the island below the dam…
…in the trees along the east shore,…
…and in the trees surrounding Fisherman’s Park on the west shore.

In addition to the birds, the movements of fish attract larger fish, and even larger fishermen.

Anglers gather to fish the placid waters below the dam’s hydroelectric powerhouse .  Only a few of the generating turbines are operating, so the flow through the dam is minimal.
Some water is being released along the west shoreline to attract migratory river herring to the west fish lift for sorting and retention as breeding stock for a propagation program.  The east lift, the passage that hoists American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) to a trough that allows them to swim over the top of the dam to waters upriver, will begin operating as soon as these larger migratory fish begin arriving.

The excitement starts when the sirens start to wail and the red lights begin flashing.  Yes friends, it’s showtime.

Red lights and sirens are a warning that additional flow is about to be released from the dam.  Boaters should anticipate rough water and persons in and along the river need to seek higher ground immediately.
Gates are opened at mid-river to release a surge of water through the dam.
The wake from the release quickly reaches the shoreline, raising the water level in moments.
Experienced anglers know that the flow through the dam gets fish moving and can improve the catch significantly, especially in spring when many species are ascending the river.

Within minutes of the renewed flow, birds are catching fish.

A Double-crested Cormorant with a young Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus).
A Double-crested Cormorant fleeing others trying to steal its Channel Catfish.
Another Double-crested Cormorant eating a Channel Catfish.  Did you realize that Channel Catfish were an introduced species in the Susquehanna River system?
An Osprey with a stick, it’s too busy building a nest right now to fish.
Great Blue Herons swallow their prey at the spot of capture, then fly back to the nest to regurgitate a sort of “minced congealed fish product” to their young.

Then the anglers along the wave-washed shoreline began catching fish too.

This young man led off a flurry of catches that would last for the remainder of the afternoon.
Though Gizzard Shad are filter feeders that don’t readily take baits and lures, they are regularly foul-hooked and reeled in from the large schools that ascend the river in spring.
Gizzard Shad are very abundant in the lower Susquehanna, providing year-round forage for many species of predatory animals including Bald Eagles.
A Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a Gizzard Shad.
This angler soon helped another fisherman by landing his large catch, a Northern Snakehead (Channa argus).
The teeth of a Northern Snakehead are razor sharp.  It is an aggressive non-native invasive species currently overtaking much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Anglers are encouraged to fish for them, catch them, keep them, and kill them at the site of capture.  Never transport a live Northern Snakehead  anywhere at any time.  It is illegal in both Maryland and Pennsylvania to possess a live snakehead. 
Northern Snakehead advisory sign posted at Exelon Energy’s Conowingo Fishermen’s Park.
A stringer of Northern Snakeheads.  This species was imported from Asia as a food fish, so it has excellent culinary possibilities.  It’s better suited for a broiler or frying pan than a river or stream.
Another stringer of Northern Snakeheads.  It’s pretty safe to say that they have quickly become one of the most abundant predatory fish in the river.  Their impact on native species won’t be good, so catch and eat as many as you can.  Remember, snakeheads swim better in butter and garlic than in waters with native fish.
This foul-hooked Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), a native species of sucker, was promptly released.
Striped Bass are anadromous fish that leave the sea in spring to spawn in fresh water.  They ascend the Susquehanna in small numbers, relying upon the operation of the fish passages at the Conowingo, Holtwood, Safe Harbor, and York Haven Dams to continue their journey upstream.  During spring spawning, Striped Bass in the Susquehanna River and on the Susquehanna Flats portion of the upper Chesapeake Bay are not in season and may not be targeted, even for catch-and-release.  This accidental catch was immediately turned loose.
After removal from the hook, this hefty Smallmouth Bass was returned to the river.  Many anglers are surprised to learn that Smallmouth Bass are not native to the Susquehanna basin.
This angler’s creel contains a Northern Snakehead (left) and a Walleye (right).  Did you know that the Walleye (Sander vitreus) is an introduced species in the Susquehanna watershed?
By late afternoon, anglers using shad darts began hooking into migrating Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris), a catch-and-release species in Maryland.
Hickory Shad are recognized by their lengthy lower jaw.  They are anadromous herring that leave the sea to spawn in freshwater streams.  Hickory Shad ascend the Susquehanna as far as Conowingo Dam each year, but shy away from the fish lifts.  Downriver from the dam, they do ascend Deer Creek along the river’s west shore and Octoraro Creek on the east side.  In Pennsylvania, the Hickory Shad is an endangered species.
A Hickory Shad angled on a dual shad dart rig.  During the spring spawning run, they feed mostly on small fish, and are the most likely of the Susquehanna’s herring to take the hook.
Simultaneous hook-ups became common after fours hours worth of release water from the dam worked its way toward the mouth of the river and got the schools moving.  Water temperatures in the mid-to-upper-fifties trigger the ascent of Hickory Shad.  On the Susquehanna, those temperatures were slow to materialize in the spring of 2021, so the Hickory Shad migration is a bit late.
Catch-and-release fishing for Hickory Shad appears to be in full swing not only at the dam, but along the downstream shoreline to at least the mouth of Deer Creek at Susquehanna State Park too.
Many Hickory Shad could be seen feeding on some of the millions of caddisflies (Trichoptera) swarming on the river.  These insects, along with earlier hatches of Winter Stoneflies (Taeniopterygidae), not only provide forage for many species of fish, but  are a vital source of natural food for birds that migrate up the river in March and April each year.  Swallows, Ring-billed Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls are particularly fond of snatching them from the surface of the water.
A Winter Stonefly (Taeniopterygidae) from an early-season hatch on the Susquehanna River at the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.  (March 3, 2021)
Just below Conowingo Dam, a lone fly fisherman was doing a good job mimicking the late-April caddisfly hatch, successfully reeling in numerous surface-feeding Hickory Shad.
You may have noticed the extraordinary number of introduced fish species listed in this account of a visit to Conowingo Dam.  Sorry to say that there are two more: the Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) and the Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus).  Like the Northern Snakehead, each has become a plentiful invasive species during recent years.  Unlike the Northern Snakehead, these catfish are “native transplants”, species introduced from populations in the Mississippi River and Gulf Slope drainages of the United States.  So if you visit the area, consider getting a fishing license and catching a few.  Like the snakeheads, they too are quite palatable.

The arrival of migrating Hickory Shad heralds the start of a movement that will soon include White Perch, anadromous American Shad, and dozens of other fish species that swim upstream during the springtime.  Do visit Fisherman’s Park at Conowingo Dam to see this spectacle before it’s gone.  The fish and birds have no time to waste, they’ll soon be moving on.

To reach Exelon’s Conowingo Fisherman’s Park from Rising Sun, Maryland, follow U.S. Route 1 south across the Conowingo Dam, then turn left onto Shuresville Road, then make a sharp left onto Shureslanding Road.  Drive down the hill to the parking area along the river.  The park’s address is 2569 Shureslanding Road, Darlington, Maryland.

A water release schedule for the Conowingo Dam can be obtained by calling Exelon Energy’s Conowingo Generation Hotline at 888-457-4076.  The recording is updated daily at 5 P.M. to provide information for the following day.

And remember, the park can get crowded during the weekends, so consider a weekday visit.

Coming Soon, Very Soon: Brood X Periodical Cicadas

Yesterday, a hike through a peaceful ridgetop woods in the Furnace Hills of southern Lebanon County resulted in an interesting discovery.  It was extraordinarily quiet for a mid-April afternoon.  Bird life was sparse—just a pair of nesting White-breasted Nuthatches and a drumming Hairy Woodpecker.  A few deer scurried down the hillside.  There was little else to see or hear.  But if one were to have a look below the forest floor, they’d find out where the action is.

Not much action in the deer-browsed understory of this stand of hardwoods.
Upon discovery beneath a rock, this invertebrate quickly backed its way down the burrow, promptly seeking shelter in the underground section of the excavation.
A closeup of the same image reveals the red eyes of this Periodical Cicada (Magicicada species) nymph.  It has reached the end of seventeen years of slowly feeding upon the sap from a tree root to nourish its five instars (stages) of larval development.

2021 is an emergence year for Brood X, the “Great Eastern Brood”—the largest of the 15 surviving broods of Periodical Cicadas.  After seventeen years as subterranean larvae, the nymphs are presently positioned just below ground level, and they’re ready to see sunlight.  After tunneling upward from the deciduous tree roots from which they fed on small amounts of sap since 2004, they’re awaiting a steady ground temperature of about 64 degrees Fahrenheit before surfacing to climb a tree, shrub, or other object and undergo one last molt into an imago—a flying adult.

Here, approximately one dozen Periodical Cicada nymphs have tunneled into pre-emergence positions beneath a rock.  Seventeen-year Periodical Cicadas, sometimes mistakenly called “seventeen-year locusts”, are the longest-lived of our insects.
Note the wings and red eyes beneath the exoskeleton of this Periodical Cicada nymph. Within weeks it will join billions of others in a brief emergence to molt, dry, fly, mate, and die.
Adult (imago) Periodical Cicadas.  Brood X includes all three species of seventeen-year Periodical Cicadas: Magicicada septendecim, M. cassinii, and M. septendecula.  All Periodical Cicadas in the United States are found east of the Great Plains, the lack of trees there prohibiting the expansion of their range further west.  Seventeen-year life cycles account for twelve of the fifteen broods of Periodical Cicadas; the balance live for thirteen years.  The range of Brood X includes the lower Susquehanna basin and parts of Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.  (United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service image)
The flight of Periodical Cicadas peaks in late-May and June.  Annual Cicadas like this Silver-bellied Cicada emerge later in the season, peaking yearly in July and August,

The woodlots of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed won’t be quiet for long.  Loud choruses of male Periodical Cicadas will soon roar through forest and verdant suburbia.  They’re looking for love, and they’re gonna die trying to find it.  And dozens and dozens of animal species will take advantage of the swarms to feed themselves and their young.  Yep, the woods are gonna be a lively place real soon.

Did you say Periodical Cicadas?  We can hardly wait!

Forest vs. Woodlot

Let’s take a quiet stroll through the forest to have a look around.  The spring awakening is underway and it’s a marvelous thing to behold.  You may think it a bit odd, but during this walk we’re not going to spend all of our time gazing up into the trees.  Instead, we’re going to investigate the happenings at ground level—life on the forest floor.

Rotting logs and leaf litter create the moisture retaining detritus in which mesic forest plants grow and thrive.  Note the presence of mosses and a vernal pool in this damp section of forest.
The earliest green leaves in the forest are often those of the Skunk Cabbage (Simplocarpus foetidus).  This member of the arum family gets a head start by growing in the warm waters of a spring seep or in a stream-fed wetland.  Like many native wildflowers of the forest, Skunk Cabbage takes advantage of early-springtime sun to flower and grow prior to the time in late April when deciduous trees grow foliage and cast shade beneath their canopy.
Among the bark of dead and downed trees, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) hibernates for the winter.  It emerges to alight on sun-drenched surfaces in late winter and early spring.
Another hibernating forest butterfly that emerges on sunny early-spring days is the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), also known as the Hop Merchant.
In a small forest brook, a water strider (Gerridae) chases its shadow using the surface tension of the water to provide buoyancy.  Forests are essential for the protection of headwaters areas where our streams get their start.
Often flooded only in the springtime, fish-free pools of water known as vernal ponds are essential breeding habitat for many forest-dwelling amphibians.  Unfortunately, these ephemeral wetland sites often fall prey to collecting, dumping, filling, and vandalism by motorized and non-motorized off-roaders, sometimes resulting in the elimination of the populations of frogs, toads, and salamanders that use them.
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) emerge from hiding places among downed timber and leaf litter to journey to a nearby vernal pond where they begin calling still more Wood Frogs to the breeding site.
Wood Frog eggs must hatch and tadpoles must transform into terrestrial frogs before the pond dries up in the summertime.  It’s a risky means of reproduction, but it effectively evades the enormous appetites of fish.
When the egg laying is complete, adult Wood Frogs return to the forest and are seldom seen during the rest of the year.
In early spring, Painted Turtles emerge from hideouts in larger forest pools, particularly those in wooded swamps, to bask in sunny locations.
Dead standing trees, often called snags, are essential habitats for many species of forest wildlife.  There is an entire biological process, a micro-ecosystem, involved in the decay of a dead tree.  It includes fungi, bacteria, and various invertebrate animals that reduce wood into the detritus that nourishes and hydrates new forest growth.
Birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker feed on insects found in large snags and nest almost exclusively in them.  Many species of wildlife rely on dead trees, both standing and fallen, during all or part of their lives.

There certainly is more to a forest than the living trees.  If you’re hiking through a grove of timber getting snared in a maze of prickly Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and seeing little else but maybe a wild ungulate or two, then you’re in a has-been forest.  Logging, firewood collection, fragmentation, and other man-made disturbances inside and near forests take a collective toll on their composition, eventually turning them to mere woodlots.  Go enjoy the forests of the lower Susquehanna valley while you still can.  And remember to do it gently; we’re losing quality as well as quantity right now—so tread softly.

The White-tailed Deity in a woodlot infested by invasive tangles of Multiflora Rose.

A Visit to Rocky Ridge

Early October is prime time for hawk watching, particularly if you want to have the chance to see the maximum variety of migratory species.  In coming days, a few Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys will still be trickling through while numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, and falcons swell to reach their seasonal peak.  Numbers of migrating Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are increasing during this time and late-season specialties including Golden Eagles can certainly make a surprise early visit.

If you enjoy the outdoors and live in the southernmost portion of the lower Susquehanna valley, Rocky Ridge County Park in the Hellam Hills just northwest of York, Pennsylvania, is a must see.  The park consists of oak forest and is owned and managed by the York County Parks Department.  It features an official hawk watch site staffed by volunteers and park naturalists.  Have a look.

The hawk watch lookout is reached by following the well-marked trail at the north side of the large gravel parking area in the utility right-of-way at the end of the park entrance road (Deininger Road).
The Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch lookout includes outcrops of bedrock, a viewing deck, and grassy areas suitable for lawn chairs.
The bedrock at the lookout is an unusual quartz-cemented conglomerate that forms the Hellam Member at the base of the Cambrian Chickies Formation.
Experienced hawk watchers conduct an official count of raptors and other birds during the autumn migration in September and October each year.  Visitors are welcome.  The view is spectacular.  Check out the concrete columns glowing in the sun to the north of the lookout.
It’s the cooling towers at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station and the smoke stacks at the Brunner Island Steam Generating Station.  Conewago Falls is located between the two.
Interpretive signage on the hawk watch deck includes raptor identification charts.
A migrating Osprey glides by the lookout.
Throughout the month, migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks will be flying in a southwesterly direction along ridges in the region, particularly on breezy days.  They are the most numerous raptor at hawk watches in the lower Susquehanna valley during the first half of October.
A Peregrine Falcon quickly passes the Rocky Ridge lookout.  These strong fliers often ignore the benefits provided by thermals and updrafts along our ridges and instead take a direct north to south route during migration.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk soars by.
And a little while later, an adult Red-tailed Hawk follows.
Bald Eagles, including both migratory and resident birds, are seen regularly from the Rocky Ridge lookout.
Other diurnal (daytime) migrants are counted at Rocky Ridge and some of the other regional hawk watches.  Massive flights of Blue Jays have been working their way through the lower Susquehanna valley for more than a week now.  Local hawk watches are often logging hundreds in a single day.
The utility right-of-way within which the Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch is located can be a great place to see nocturnal (nighttime) migrants while they rest and feed during the day.  Right now, Eastern Towhees are common there.
An uncommon sight, a shy Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) in the utility right-of-way near the hawk watch lookout.  This and other nocturnal migrants will take full advantage of a clear moonlit night to continue their southbound journey.

If you’re a nature photographer, you might be interested to know that there are still hundreds of active butterflies in Rocky Ridge’s utility right-of-way.  Here are a few.

A Gray Hairstreak.
An American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas),

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be certain to visit hawkcount.org

Fire and Ice at Conewago Falls

This morning, the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed experienced remotely the effects of fire and ice.

At daybreak, the cold air mass that brought the first freeze of the season to northernmost New England gave us a taste of the cold with temperatures below 50 degrees throughout.

The air temperature at daybreak in the Gettysburg Basin east of Conewago Falls.

At sunrise, the cloudless sky had a peculiar overcast look with no warm glow on buildings, vegetation, and terrain.  Soon, the sun was well above the horizon, yet there was still a sort of darkness across the landscape.

Smoke from massive wildland fires in the Pacific Coast States created a haze that persisted throughout the day in the Susquehanna valley.
Away from traffic and the odors of agriculture and urban life, the smell of wood smoke was easily detectable.  The haze from fires almost 3,000 miles away made it appear to be an overcast day at Conewago Falls.
Due to the sudden cold, there were no insects flying above the Susquehanna during the first hour of daylight this morning, so swallows gathered in the trees to conserve energy until the hunt would be more productive.
The diabase boulders at Conewago Falls retain heat and provide an even better refuge from the cold than a dead tree on a chilly morning.  Here, a juvenile and an adult Tree Swallow (center) are surrounded by Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Hundreds of each of these migratory species were feeding at the falls today.
Two dozen or more Barn Swallows, including this juvenile, were seen among the swarming birds.
Several late Bank Swallows, including this one (bottom center), were among the flocks of migrants at Conewago Falls this morning.  One Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) was seen as well.
A Great Egret (Ardea alba) and a Great Blue Heron.
An Osprey searching the clear pools and rapids for a morning meal.
A juvenile Bald Eagle with the same goal in mind.
The same Bald Eagle keeping a close watch on the Osprey.  Bald Eagles frequently ambush Ospreys to steal their catch.  For a young eagle, acquiring the skill of fish theft may improve its chances of survival, at least until the Ospreys head south.

All that bright filtered sunlight was ideal for photographing butterflies along the Conewago Falls shoreline.  Have a look.

During the late morning, dozens of Monarch butterflies migrated past Conewago Falls.  This one paused to feed.
The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is a Monarch mimic.  Its appearance fools would-be predators into thinking it is a Monarch and possesses the same foul flavor as the milkweed-raised model.
This Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) was among the late-season butterflies at Conewago Falls.
The Common Buckeye is presently just that, very common on flowers and moist sandy soil around the falls.
The Painted Lady is a regularly-occurring migratory species of butterfly.
The Red Admiral is typically a common to abundant migrant.  So far in 2020, they are scarce in the lower Susquehanna valley. 

A Visit to Second Mountain

If it can fly, there’s a pretty good chance it was at Second Mountain today.

What follows is a photographic chronology of some of today’s sightings at Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  We begin with some of the hundreds of migratory songbirds found at the base of the mountain along Cold Spring Road near Indiantown Run during the early morning, then we continue to the lookout for the balance of the day.

A Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) searching the trunk of a tree for insects.
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
A Blackburnian Warbler high in the forest canopy.
A Black-throated Green Warbler bouncing from branch to branch as it feeds.
A Chestnut-sided Warbler lurks among the foliage.
A Magnolia Warbler.
One of a hundred or more Red-eyed Vireos found swarming the treetops, and occasionally the understory, while engaging in a wild feeding frenzy.
A male American Redstart.  Judging by that gray hood, it’s probably experiencing its second fall migration.
Eyes were skyward at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch lookout as Broad-winged Hawks began streaming through during the mid-morning.
During the morning flight, Broad-winged Hawks including this adult floated by the lookout riding updrafts created by the south wind striking the face of the mountain ridge.
As the overcast became more scattered and more sunlight reached the ground, Broad-winged Hawks began riding thermal currents to gain altitude before gliding off to the southwest in continuance of their long trip to the tropics.  At times, birds would disappear into the base of the clouds before ending their climb and sailing away.
Broad-winged Hawks rely principally upon amphibians and large insects like this bush katydid (Scudderia species) for sustenance.  With freezing temperatures just around the corner, “broad-wings” must make their way to warmer climes early or risk starvation.
A Bald Eagle always gets observers looking.
A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk.
A juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.
A Broad-winged Hawk has a look around.
One never quite knows what one may see when having a look around.
A Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) in the lookout hemlock.
A Black Saddlebags, one of several migratory dragonflies seen today.
An Osprey glides through in the afternoon glare.
A speedy Merlin thrilled observers with a close approach.
One must remember that Fort Indiantown Gap is an active military installation, so from time to time training and drilling exercises may interrupt bird observation activities at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
Today, speedy A-10 Warthog attack aircraft piloted by members of the Maryland Air National Guard based at Glenn Martin Field thrilled observers on the lookout with several close passes during their training runs.
And repeat.
Drill complete.

The total number of Broad-winged Hawks observed migrating past the Second Mountain lookout today was 619.  To see the daily raptor counts for Second Mountain and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be sure to visit hawkcount.org

Stray Butterflies

A special message from your local Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis).

Hey you!  Yes, you.  I pray you’re paying attention to what’s flying around out there, otherwise it’ll all pass you by.

This summer’s hot humid breezes from the south have not only carried swarms of dragonflies into the lower Susquehanna valley, but butterflies too.

So check out these extravagant visitors from south of the Mason-Dixon Line—before my appetite gets the better of me.

In some years, the Sachem, a vagrant from the south, can become the most frequently observed orange skipper in the Susquehanna valley, far outnumbering faltering populations of resident species around lawns, gardens, meadows, and roadsides.  2020 appears to be one of those years.
The Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) sometimes strays north along the lower Susquehanna River in late summer.  This one was photographed recently at Conewago Falls.
The Cloudless Sulphur is a large fast-flying brilliant yellow butterfly.  Here in the Susquehanna valley, it is usually seen singly, though colonizers will breed in patches of Partridge Pea or Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica).  Cloudless Sulphurs are really widespread this year.  In areas where intensive farming practices are in use, your chances of seeing one of these wandering around right now might be just as good as your chances of seeing one of the diminished flights of the resident Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) and Orange Sulphurs (Colias eurytheme).
The Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) is the least conspicuous of the stray butterflies shown here.  This beauty was photographed several days ago along the edge of an oak forest in northern Lancaster County, PA.

There you have it.  Get out there and have a look around.  These species won’t be active much longer.  In just a matter of weeks, our migratory butterflies, including Monarchs, will be heading south and our visiting strays will either follow their lead or risk succumbing to frosty weather.

For more photographs of butterflies, be sure to click the “Butterflies” tab at the top of the page.  We’re adding more as we get them.

Feeling a Little Rough Around the Edges Lately?

Have the affairs of life got you down?

Feel like you’re not your normal self?

Feel unable to be happy?

Feel alone in your nightmare?

Well, nothing improves one’s demeanor better than seeing someone whose lot is worse than their own.

Have a look at this sad-looking Halloween Pennant.

All worn and torn—a shred of its former self.  Pitiful.  And Halloween is still two and a half months away.

Don’t you feel better now?

Look What the Wind Blew In

It’s been more than a week since Tropical Storm Isaias moved swiftly up the Atlantic seaboard leaving wind and flood damage in its wake.  Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the brevity of its presence minimized the effects.

Tropical Storm Isaias moves north-northeast across the Delmarva Peninsula.

You may have noticed some summertime visitors flying about during these hot humid days that followed Isaias’ passing.  They’re the dragonflies.

Our familiar friend the Wandering Glider is widespread throughout the valley right now—dropping eggs on shiny automobile hoods that look to them like a nice quiet puddle of water.

The Wandering Glider is a global traveler.  Here in the lower Susquehanna valley, it is currently abundant around still water and in large parking lots.

Each of the other common migratory species is here too.  Look for them patrolling the skies over large bodies of water and over adjacent fallow land and meadows where tiny flying insects abound.  Did these dragonflies arrive on the winds associated with the tropical storm, or did they move in with the waves of warm air that followed it?  Probably a little of both.

The Common Green Darner, a large dragonfly, can be the most abundant of the migratory species.  Watch for high-flying swarms in the coming weeks.
The Black Saddlebags is recognized in flight by the black base of each hindwing.  These patches give the appearance of a pair of saddlebags draped across the dragonfly’s thorax.
The Twelve-spotted Skimmer(Libellula pulchella) is a regular migrant.
The Prince Baskettail (Epitheca princeps) can occur among mixed groups of dragonflies.  Despite it rarely being mentioned as a migrant, its proclivity for non-stop day-long flight makes it a likely sighting among sizeable swarms.

Big swarms of dragonflies don’t go unnoticed by predators—particularly birds.  The southbound migration of kites, Broad-winged Hawks, American Kestrels, and Merlins often coincides with the swarming of migratory dragonflies in late summer.  Each of these raptors will grab and feed upon these insects while on the wing—so keep an eye on the sky.

This Peregrine Falcon found the congregations of hundreds of dragonflies worthy of a closer look…
…and an acrobatic fly-by to disrupt the swarms.  Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.

Saharan Dust Cloud: Out of the Loop

Dust continues to be carried aloft on dry updrafts over the Sahara Desert.  The plume is presently stretching for thousands of miles due west across the tropical Atlantic into the Pacific, leaving the United States out of the loop—at least for now.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

With no dry air to spoil the fun, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream off the coast of North Carolina are spawning some convective clouds in a low pressure system that could become tropical within the next day or so.

Tropical or not, it looks like a rainy weekend along the Mid-Atlantic coast.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Now that the heat and humidity is upon us, why not get out and take a look at the damselflies and dragonflies that inhabit the ponds, wetlands, and waterways of the lower Susquehanna watershed?  These flying insects thrive in sultry weather and some species will breed in a body of water as small as a garden pond—as long as it is free of large fish.  Check out some of the species found locally by clicking on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.  We’ll be adding more photos and species soon.

A Halloween Pennant.  Ooh, scary.

Clean Slate for 2020

Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year.  If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year.  On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper.  On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby.  The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days.  The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.

A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.

Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent.  Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years.  Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.

It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation.  His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year.  The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there.  In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves.  Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that!   It was the most lackluster year in memory.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible.  There would be no cause for greater alarm.  It would be a matter of cause and effect.  But the problem is more widespread.

Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna.  And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes.  A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration.  In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous.  What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south?  The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?

Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere.  These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends.  They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.

There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone.  None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline.  Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds?  Did they die off?  Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction?  Is it global warming?  Is it Three Mile Island?  Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?

The answer might not be so cryptic.  It might be right before our eyes.  And we’ll explore it during 2020.

A clean slate for 2020.

In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.  You should go too.  They have lots of food there.