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.

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.

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.

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.

Spotted Lanternfly in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

Second Mountain Hawk Watch is located on a ridge top along the northern edge of the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and the southern edge of State Game Lands 211 in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  The valley on the north side of the ridge, also known as St. Anthony’s Wilderness, is drained to the Susquehanna by Stony Creek.  The valley to the south is drained toward the river by Indiantown Run, a tributary of Swatara Creek.

The hawk watch is able to operate at this prime location for observing the autumn migration of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats through the courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Garrison Commander at Fort Indiantown Gap.  The Second Mountain Hawk Watch Association is a non-profit organization that staffs the count site daily throughout the season and reports data to the North American Hawk Watch Association (posted daily at hawkcount.org).

Today, Second Mountain Hawk Watch was populated by observers who enjoyed today’s break in the rainy weather with a visit to the lookout to see what birds might be on the move.  All were anxiously awaiting a big flight of Broad-winged Hawks, a forest-dwelling Neotropical species that often travels back to its wintering grounds in groups exceeding one hundred birds.  Each autumn, many inland hawk watches in the northeast experience at least one day in mid-September with a Broad-winged Hawk count exceeding 1,000 birds.  They are an early-season migrant and today’s southeast winds ahead of the remnants of Hurricane Florence (currently in the Carolinas) could push southwest-heading “Broad-wings” out of the Piedmont Province and into the Ridge and Valley Province for a pass by the Second Mountain lookout.

The flight turned out to be steady through the day with over three hundred Broad-winged Hawks sighted.  The largest group consisted of several dozen birds.  We would hope there are probably many more yet to come after the Florence rains pass through the northeast and out to sea by mid-week.  Also seen today were Bald Eagles, Ospreys, American Kestrels, and a migrating Red-headed Woodpecker.

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks circle on a thermal updraft above Second Mountain Hawk Watch to gain altitude before gliding away to the southwest.

Migrating insects included Monarch butterflies, and the three commonest species of migratory dragonflies: Wandering Glider, Black Saddlebags, and Common Green Darner.  The Common Green Darners swarmed the lookout by the dozens late in the afternoon and attracted a couple of American Kestrels, which had apparently set down from a day of migration.  American Kestrels and Broad-winged Hawks feed upon dragonflies and often migrate in tandem with them for at least a portion of their journey.

Still later, as the last of the Broad-winged Hawks descended from great heights and began passing by just above the trees looking for a place to settle down, a most unwelcome visitor arrived at the lookout.  It glided in from the St. Anthony’s Wilderness side of the ridge on showy crimson-red wings, then became nearly indiscernible from gray tree bark when it landed on a limb.  It was the dreaded and potentially invasive Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula).  This large leafhopper is native to Asia and was first discovered in North America in the Oley Valley of eastern Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014.  The larval stage is exceptionally damaging to cultivated grape and orchard crops.  It poses a threat to forest trees as well.  Despite efforts to contain the species through quarantine and other methods, it’s obviously spreading quickly.  Here on the Second Mountain lookout, we know that wind has a huge influence on the movement of birds and insects.  The east and southeast winds we’ve experienced for nearly a week may be carrying Spotted Lanternflies well out of their most recent range and into the forests of the Ridge and Valley Province.  We do know for certain that the Spotted Lanternfly has found its way into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

This adult Spotted Lanternfly landed in a birch tree behind the observers at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch late this afternoon.  It was first recognized by its bright red wings as it glided from treetops on the north side of the lookout.

Summer Breeze

A moderate breeze from the south placed a headwind into the face of migrants trying to wing their way to winter quarters.  The urge to reach their destination overwhelmed any inclination a bird or insect may have had to stay put and try again another day.

Blue Jays were joined by increasing numbers of American Robins crossing the river in small groups to continue their migratory voyages.  Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and a handful of sandpipers headed down the river route.  Other migrants today included a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), and a few Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser), House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula).

The afternoon belonged to the insects.  The warm wind blew scores of Monarchs toward the north as they persistently flapped on a southwest heading.  Many may have actually lost ground today.  Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies were observed battling their way south as well.  All three of the common migrating dragonflies were seen: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), and Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).

The warm weather and summer breeze are expected to continue as the rain and wind from Hurricane Nate, today striking coastal Alabama and Mississippi, progresses toward the Susquehanna River watershed during the coming forty-eight hours.

This Great Blue Heron was joined by numerous other fishermen and a good number of sightseers in the falls today.
A colorful young Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) takes advantage of the sun-heated surface of a Pothole Rock to remain nimble and active.  Cooler weather will soon compel this and other reptiles to find shelter for winter hibernation.
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