It’s Been a Stinkin’ Hot Week

Turkey Vulture and Road-killed Woodchuck
…but the stench would have been a lot worse without our friendly neighborhood scavengers around to clean up our mess.  Turkey Vultures thrive in scorching temperatures, riding thermal updrafts to patrol the countryside for roadkill victims like this unfortunate Woodchuck.

Photo(s) of the Day

How ’bout a Two-for-the-Price-of-One Father’s Day Special?  You got it!

Adult male and juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers.
Woodrow the Pileated Woodpecker (left) sure has collected a throat-load of tasty morsels, but he wouldn’t dare keep them all to himself;…
Male Pileated Woodpecker feeding young.
…he’s forced to share his meal with Little Woody, otherwise the begging will never stop.

Schools of Juvenile Largemouth Bass Learning to Survive

Yesterday, while photographing damselflies on a rehabilitated segment of a warmwater lower Susquehanna valley stream, we noticed some oddly chunky small fish gathered on the surface of a pool along the shoreline.

Damselflies and Small Fish
Perched damselflies and some sort of robust little fish feeding nearby.

Upon further inspection, they appeared to be fingerlings of some type of sunfish or bass.  Time for a closer look.

Juvenile Largemouth Bass
At just one inch in length, these juvenile Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) are already showing signs of the dark lateral stripe that so easily identifies the adult fish.
Adult Largemouth Bass on Spawning Bed
Adult Largemouth Bass began spawning among nearby beds of Spatterdock and other emergent and submerged aquatic vegetation about one month ago, just as water temperatures stabilized to a minimum of the low sixties for several days and nights.  Each female can lay thousands of eggs.  Only those that are successfully fertilized by the attending male have a chance to hatch.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
Largemouth Bass eggs can hatch as soon as ten days after being deposited in the nest by the female and fertilized by the male.  The fry linger in the nest for another week consuming the nutrition contained in their attached yolk sac.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
The juvenile fish are then ready to leave the nest and begin feeding on zooplankton.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
Young largemouths often gather in schools to feed in waters near their birthplace.  As they grow, they soon begin consuming small invertebrates and tiny fish.  But for young bass, the hazards are many.  These juveniles can become victims of a host of predatory insects, crayfish, piscivorous birds, and bigger fish.  Then too, Largemouth Bass, like most other species  of fishes, are cannibalistic and will consume others of their own kind.  Of the thousands of eggs produced by a mating pair, natural selection determines which, if any, of their progeny will survive to reproduce and sustain their genetic line.

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the Largemouth Bass is an introduced species.

The Acadian Flycatcher: A Shady Character

You’ve probably never noticed the Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens).  This small Neotropical songbird arrives in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during mid-May to breed in the dense shade of mature forests, often along steep slopes adjacent to a brook or creek.  It’s quick, sneezy song—“pit-see” or “wee-seet”—heard emanating from the shadows of the woodland understory is often the first and only sign of their presence.

Acadian Flycatcher
Of the five species of similar-looking Empidonax flycatchers that regularly occur in our region, the Acadian is the only one to nest in the forest interior.  These insectivores shy away from edge habitat and clearings that disturb the closed canopy of mature trees.

One of the more fascinating  habits of the Acadian Flycatcher is their selection of a nesting location.  While many species try to conceal their nests in tree cavities, dense foliage, or some other form of cover, this clever songbird constructs a cup using tiny twigs and leaves and places it near the end of a small branch on a small tree.  The nest is sometimes very easily seen, but for climbing scroungers looking to plunder eggs or helpless young birds, it’s practically out of reach.

Acadian Flycatcher on Nest
A female Acadian Flycatcher on its nest incubating eggs.
Acadian Flycatcher Nest
The white arrow points to the Acadian Flycatcher nest seen in the previous image. The dark-colored limb appears close, but this nest is perched precariously close to the end of a leafy branch and is hanging free and clear above the stream.  When leaving the nest, the young birds that are destined to survive must avoid a tumble into the waterway.

To guard against airborne threats, Acadian Flycatcher parents are vigilant defenders of the space around their nest.

Carolina Chickadee
When this curious juvenile Carolina Chickadee wandered into the flycatcher’s nest tree…
Acadian Flycatcher
…mom came out fighting!  It may be an overreaction, but nesting birds often have a zero-tolerance policy for invaders within their “zone”.

Moments later, things settle down and the waiting continues…

Back on the nest, mom, the eggs, and eventually the young will spend the next several weeks riding the wind atop this flimsy branch in their shady forest home.

Photo of the Day

Black-crowned Night Heron
Once a widespread breeding bird in the lower Susquehanna River basin, the Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is today listed as an endangered species in Pennsylvania.  Along many of the region’s creeks where they formerly nested, pollution and year-round populations of hand-fed waterfowl have eliminated or severely reduced numbers of the night heron’s prey species including amphibians, aquatic invertebrates (particularly crayfish), and a variety of minnows and other fishes.

Last of the Season

For migrating birds, the spring season is drawing to a close.  The last of the Neotropical songbirds are now trickling through while the final waves of sandpipers and other shorebirds may have already cleared our region to continue their long journey north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.  From earlier this week…

Semipalmated Plover
A northbound Semipalmated Plover during a stopover in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  These smaller cousins of our local double-banded Killdeer are a tundra nesting species.
Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpipers
A Semipalmated Plover and a small flock of Least Sandpipers feed and recharge on a mudflat.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper (left) and a Least Sandpiper.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper (left) and a Least Sandpiper during a migration break.  The latter species is on its way to taiga wetlands in Canada and Alaska to breed.  Like the Semipalmated Plover, the Semipalmated Sandpiper continues beyond the taiga regions to nest in the tundra of the far north.
Greater Yellowlegs
This Greater Yellowlegs needs to hustle if it’s going to reach the species’ nesting grounds in the taiga of Canada in time to participate in this year’s breeding cycle.  Otherwise, it may be among the early birds we see coming back south through our area as soon as late June, during the start of the fall migration.

You read it right.  “Fall migration” often gets going by the first day of summer—southbound birds, less than a month away!

Pest Control at the Picnic

During one of the interludes between yesterday’s series of thunderstorms and rain showers, we had a chance to visit a wooded picnic spot to devour a little snack.  Having packed lite fare, there wasn’t enough to share.  Fortunately, pest control wasn’t a concern.  It was handled for us…

American Toad
This young American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) patrolled the grounds of the grove gobbling up any creepy crawlies it happened to encounter.
Big-headed Ant
Though spotted nearby, none of these traditional picnic crashers, possibly Big-headed Ants (Pheidole species), made it through the toad’s dragnet.
Eastern Black Carpenter Ant
What had this Eastern Black Carpenter Ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) so frustrated during its attempt to spoil our affair?
Eastern Black Carpenter Ant
The recycled plastic lumber picnic table left this party pooper with nothing to chew…
Decaying Tree Stump
…so it’s back to gnawing on this rotting stump for you!
Crab Spider
We spied this curious little Crab Spider (Tmarus species) searching the benches for tiny invertebrates.
Running Crab Spider
Then, at the corner of the table, we found this Running Crab Spider (Philodromus species) clutching what appeared to be two ofttimes pesky, but harmless, flying insects called non-biting midges (Chironomidae).
Running Crab Spider
Down the hatch!  Though smaller than your pinky fingernail, the Running Crab Spider is still an accomplished predator.

After enjoying our little luncheon and watching all the sideshows, it was time to cautiously make our way home,…

Snapping Turtle
…halting briefly to allow this Snapping Turtle a chance to cross the road.

Photo of the Day

Grasshopper Sparrow
A nesting Grasshopper Sparrow surveys the warm-season grasslands at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Minutes later, this evening’s thundershower sent everyone and everything seeking cover.

Arboreal Birds and Tent Caterpillars

During the past week, we’ve been exploring wooded slopes around the lower Susquehanna region in search of recently arrived Neotropical birds—particularly those migrants that are singing on breeding territories and will stay to nest.  Coincidentally, we noticed a good diversity of species in areas where tent caterpillar nests were apparent.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Nest
The conspicuous nest of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum), a native species of moth.  The first instar of the larval caterpillars hatch in early spring from egg masses laid on the limbs of the host tree by an adult female moth during the previous spring.  Soon after they begin feeding on the host tree’s first tender shoots, these tiny, seldom-noticed larvae start communal construction of a silk tent to act as a shelter and greenhouse-like solar collector that will both provide protection from the elements and expedite their growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
The familiar last instar of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar is the most consumptive stage of the animal’s life.  After feeding in the treetops, they will descend to the ground and seek a sheltered location to pupate.  Adult moths emerge in several weeks to take to the air, mate, and produce eggs to be deposited on a host tree for hatching next year.  The favorite host tree in forests of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: native Black Cherry.

Here’s a sample of the variety of Neotropical migrants we found in areas impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  All are arboreal insectivores, birds that feed among the foliage of trees and shrubs searching mostly for insects, their larvae, and their eggs.

Yellow-throated Vireo
The Yellow-throated Vireo nests, feeds, and spends the majority of its time feeding among canopy foliage.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee is a flycatcher found in mature woodlands.  It feeds not only among the limbs and leaves, but is an aerial predator as well.
Northern Parula
The Northern Parula nests in mature forests along rivers and on mountainsides, particularly where mature trees are draped with thick vines.
Hooded Warbler
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) is found among thick understory growth on forested slopes.
Ovenbird
The Ovenbird builds a domed, oven-like nest on the ground and forages in the canopy.
Kentucky Warbler
The Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa) nests in woodland undergrowth, often near steep, forested slopes.
Worm-eating Warbler
The Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) nests among woody understory growth on forested hillsides.
Scarlet Tanager
The Scarlet Tanager is often difficult to observe because of its affinity for the canopy of mature forest trees.

In the locations where these photographs were taken, ground-feeding birds, including those species that would normally be common in these habitats, were absent.  There were no Gray Catbirds, Carolina Wrens, American Robins or other thrushes seen or heard.  One might infer that the arboreal insectivorous birds chose to establish nesting territories where they did largely due to the presence of an abundance of tent caterpillars as a potential food source for their young.  That could very well be true—but consider timing.

Already Gone-  By the time Neotropical migrants arrive in our area, the larval stages of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s life cycle are already coming to an end.  The nests that these native insects constructed to capture the energy of the springtime sun have allowed the larvae to exit and browse foliage when conditions were suitable, then return for shelter when they were not.  While inside, the larvae could move among the chambers of their structure to find locations with a temperature that best suited their needs.  Therein the solar heating and communal warmth sped up digestion and growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now in their bristly final-instar stage and the majority have already moved to the ground to each seek a place to pupate and metamorphose into an adult moth.  Arboreal Neotropical birds have scarcely had a chance to feed upon them, and ground-feeding species seem to lack any temptation.  As for the adult moths, they fly only at night and live for just one day, offering little in the way of food for aerial, arboreal, or ground-feeding birds.
Wild Turkey
Having left arboreal environs, Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now food for ground-feeding birds like our resident Wild Turkeys.  They need only get past the bristly hairs on the caterpillar’s back and the foul taste that may result from its limited diet of cyanogenic Black Cherry leaves.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
The arboreal Yellow-billed Cuckoo (seen here) and its close relative the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) are the two species of birds in our area known to regularly feed on bristly tent caterpillars.  But having just arrived from the tropics to nest, they’ll need to rely on other insects and their larvae as sources of food for their young.
Black Cherry defoliated by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Final-instar Eastern Tent Caterpillars often defoliate Black Cherry trees before moving to the ground to pupate. Their timing allows them to feed on the fresh foliage while it is still young and tender, and to largely avoid becoming food for the waves of Neotropical birds that arrive in the lower Susquehanna basin in May.

So why do we find this admirable variety of Neotropical bird species nesting in locations with tent caterpillars?  Perhaps it’s a matter of suitable topography, an appropriate variety of native trees and shrubs, and an attractive opening in the forest.

American Redstart
An American Redstart singing in a Black Cherry.  Unlike others in the vicinity, this tree nestled among several very large Eastern White Pines showed no signs of tent caterpillar activity.  It may be that for one reason or another, no adult female moth deposited her eggs on this particular tree.  During our visits, Black Cherry was but one of the diverse variety of native trees and shrubs found growing on the sloping topography that created attractive habitat for the nesting birds we found.  We happened to notice that a majority, but not all, of those Black Cherry trees were impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Black Cherry in Flower
The end of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s larval surge may spell the end of their nests for the year, but it’s not the end for the Black Cherry and other host trees in the Prunus (cherry) and Malus (apple) genera.  Because it’s still early in the season, they have plenty of time to re-leaf and many will still flower and produce fruit.  Those flowers and foliage will attract numerous other insects (including pollinators) that benefit breeding birds.
Blue-winged Warbler
The Blue-winged Warbler inhabits shrubby breaks in the forest such as this utility right-of-way where Black Cherry trees have sprouted after their seeds arrived in waste deposited by fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds.  Already attractive to a variety of insectivores, these openings soon lure egg-laying Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to the cherry trees growing therein.  Even in dense forest, a small clearing created by a cluster of dead trees makes good bird habitat and will sooner or later be visited by fruit-eating species that will inadvertently sow seeds of Black Cherry, starting yet another stand of host trees for Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  It’s the gap in the forest that often attracts the birds, some of which plant the host trees, which sometimes entice Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to lay their eggs.
Red-Eyed Vireo
Adapt and Reuse-  A Red-eyed Vireo visits an Eastern Tent Caterpillar nest…
Red-eyed Vireo
…and ignores the few remaining occupants that could easily be seized to instead collect silk to reinforce its own nest.

Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the presence of Eastern Tent Caterpillar nests can often be an indicator of a woodland opening, natural or man-made, that is being reforested by Black Cherry and other plants which improve the botanical richness of the site.  For numerous migratory Neotropical species seeking favorable places to nest and raise young, these regenerative areas and the forests surrounding them can be ideal habitat.  For us, they can be great places to see and hear colorful birds.

Scarlet Tanager
Our Lucky Break-  This Scarlet Tanager descended from the treetops to feed on spiders in a small forest clearing.

See Food and an Oriole Doubleheader

The rain and clouds have at last departed.  With blue skies and sunshine to remind us just how wonderful a spring afternoon can be, we took a stroll at Memorial Lake State Park in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to look for some migratory birds.

Indigo Bunting
Though running just a few days later than usual, Indigo Buntings have arrived to begin nesting.
Common Loon
This Common Loon dropped by Memorial Lake during a storm several days ago and decided to stay awhile.  It’s a species that winters in oceanic waters along the Atlantic seaboard and nests on glacial lakes to our north.
Common Loon
Because of the low level of turbidity in Memorial Lake, visibility is good enough to allow this benthic feeder an opportunity to see food before expending energy to dive down and retrieve it.  Favorable foraging conditions might be part of the reason this bird is hanging around.
Shoreline Vegetation at Memorial Lake
Clear Water-  Memorial Lake is one of the few man-made lakes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to be appropriately vegetated with an abundance of submerged, floating, and emergent plants.  As a result, the water from Indiantown Run that passes through the impoundment is minimally impacted by nutrient loads and the algal blooms they can cause.  Buffers of woody and herbaceous growth along the lake’s shorelines provide additional nutrient sequestering and help prevent soil erosion and siltation.
Baltimore Oriole
The breeding season has begun for Neotropical migrants including this Baltimore Oriole, which we found defending a nesting territory in a stand of Black Walnut trees.
Orchard Oriole
Along the edge of the lake, this Orchard Oriole and its mate were in yet another stand of tall walnut trees.
Common Nighthawks
Early in the season and early in the day, we started seeing Common Nighthawks flying above wooded areas north of the lake at 4 o’clock this afternoon.  After all the raw and inclement weather they’ve experienced in recent days, the warm afternoon was probably their first opportunity to feed on flying insects in quite a while.
Common Nighthawks
Early birds, Common Nighthawks feeding at 4 P.M.

What?  You thought we were gonna drop in on Maryland’s largest city for a couple of ball games and some oysters, clams, and crab cakes—not likely.

More Migrating Birds

As waves of wet weather persistently roll through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the tide of northbound migrants continues.  Here are few of today’s highlights…

Eastern Kingbird
Though few in number several days ago, flycatchers are now quite common.  Many of the Eastern Kingbirds we’re now seeing will stay to nest in trees bordering grasslands and pastures.
Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatchers nest along streams and other bodies of water where herbaceous growth and scattered shrubs are plentiful.  Lacking favorable habitat, many will continue moving north in coming days.
Lincoln's Sparrow
The seldom seen Lincoln’s Sparrow likes wet thickets for layovers during its passage through the lower Susquehanna valley.  They are often the last of the migratory sparrows to transit the area in May.  These elusive birds nest primarily in boggy thickets far to the north of our region, mostly in Canada.
Northern Parula
Colorful warblers are still arriving.  Remember to watch for them in unusual places due to stormy weather.  Earlier today, we spotted this Northern Parula prowling a lakeside willow instead of spending its time among the crown foliage and vines adorning mature forest trees.  Breezy conditions ahead of an afternoon shower may have prompted this bird to seek caterpillars and other grub in this protected location.
Least and Solitary Sandpipers
As May churns on, more and more shorebirds will be moving through on their way to nesting grounds in the interior of Canada.  This flock of Least and Solitary Sandpipers was found on the muddy margins of a man-made pond.  Flooded portions of farm fields and stormwater basins are also good places to see these migrants as they trek north.

A Pre-dawn Thunderstorm and a Fallout of Migrating Birds

In recent days, the peak northbound push of migratory birds that includes the majority of our colorful Neotropical species has been slowed to a trickle by the presence of rain, fog, and low overcast throughout the Mid-Atlantic States.  Following sunset last evening, the nocturnal flight resumed—only to be grounded this morning during the pre-dawn hours by the west-to-east passage of a fast-moving line of strong thundershowers.  The NOAA/National Weather Service images that follow show the thunderstorms as well as returns created by thousands of migrating birds as they pass through the Doppler Radar coverage areas that surround the lower Susquehanna valley.

Sterling, Virginia, Doppler Radar west of Washington, D.C., at 4:00 A.M. E.D.T. indicates a dense flight of northbound migrating birds located just to the south of the approaching line of rain and thunderstorms over the State College, Pennsylvania, radar coverage area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
More northbound birds are indicated at 4 A.M. by the radar station located at Dover, Delaware…  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
…and by the Mount Holly, New Jersey, radar site.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Many of the migrating birds shown here over the Binghamton, New York, radar station at 4 A.M. probably overflew the lower Susquehanna region earlier in the night.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And these birds over Albany, New York’s, radar station at 4 A.M. are mostly migrants that passed north over New Jersey and easternmost Pennsylvania last evening and during the wee hours of this morning.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Just after 4 A.M., flashes of lightning in rapid succession repeatedly illuminated the sky over susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Despite the rumbles of thunder and the din of noises typical for our urban setting, the call notes of nocturnal migrants could be heard as these birds descended in search of a suitable place to make landfall and seek shelter from the storm.  At least one Wood Thrush and a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) were in the mix of species passing overhead.  A short time later at daybreak, a Great Crested Flycatcher was heard calling from a stand of nearby trees and a White-crowned Sparrow was seen in the garden searching for food.  None of these aforementioned birds is regular here at our little oasis, so it appears that a significant and abrupt fallout has occurred.

White-crowned Sparrow
A White-crowned Sparrow in the headquarters garden at daybreak.  It’s the first visit by this species in a decade or more.

Looks like a good day to take the camera for a walk.  Away we go!

Gray Catbird
Along woodland edges, in thickets, and in gardens, Gray Catbirds were everywhere today.  We heard and/or saw hundreds of them.
American Redstart
During our travels, American Redstarts were the most frequently encountered warbler.  Look for them in low-lying forested habitats.
Many early-arriving Baltimore Orioles have already begun building nests.  But widespread territorial fighting today may be an indication that some latecomer orioles became trespassers after dropping in on existing territories during the morning fallout.
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireos are difficult to see but easily heard in forested areas throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Scarlet Tanager
If the oriole isn’t the showiest of the Neotropical migrants, then the Scarlet Tanager is certainly a contender…
Scarlet Tanager
Listen for their burry, robin-like song in the treetops of mature upland forests.
Wood Thrush
No woodland chorus is complete without the flute-like harmony of the Wood Thrush.  Look and listen for them in rich forests with dense understory vegetation.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee, another forest denizen, has an easy song to learn…a series of ascending “pee-a-wee” phrases interspersed with an occasional descending “pee-urr”.  It was one of the few flycatchers we found today, but more are certainly on the way.  Their numbers should peak in coming days.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warblers can be especially numerous during migration but tend to peak prior to the arrival of the bulk of the Neotropical species.  This was the only “yellow-rump” we encountered today.  The majority have already passed through on their way to breeding grounds to our north.
Common Yellowthroat
If today you were to visit a streamside thicket or any type of early successional habitat, you would probably find this perky little warbler there, the Common Yellowthroat.
Yellow Warbler
The Yellow Warbler likes streamside thickets too.  You can also find them along lakes, ponds, and wetlands, especially among shrubby willows and alders.
White-crowned Sparrow
While nowhere near the headquarters garden, we ran into another White-crowned Sparrow in less-than-ideal habitat.  This one was in a row of trees in a paved parking lot.
Bobolink
Not all songbirds migrate at night. The Bobolink is an example of a diurnal (day-flying) migrant.  They’re currently arriving in hay fields that are spared the mower until after nesting season.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
While looking for Neotropical species and other late-season migrants, we also found numerous early arrivals that had already begun their breeding cycles.  We discovered this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its nest in a Black Walnut tree…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
…then, later in the day, we found this one in its nest, again in a Black Walnut tree.  Note the freshly emerging set of leaves and flower clusters.  With many tree species already adorned in a full set of foliage, open canopies in stands of walnuts we found growing in reforested areas seemed to be good places to see lots of migrants and other birds today.  It’s hard to say whether birds were more numerous in these sections of woods or were just easier to observe among the sparse leaf cover.  In either case, the nut-burying squirrels that planted these groves did us and the birds a favor.

There’s obviously more spring migration to come, so do make an effort to visit an array of habitats during the coming weeks to see and hear the wide variety of birds, including the spectacular Neotropical species, that visit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each May.  You won’t regret it!

Wood Ducks
Wood Ducks arrived in February and March to breed in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Soon after hatching in April or May, the young leave the nest cavity to travel under the watchful gaze of their ever-vigilant mother as they search for food along our local waterways.  If you’re fortunate, you might catch a glimpse of a brood and hen while you’re out looking at the more than one hundred species of birds that occur in our region during the first half of May.  Good luck!

Sightings on a Beautiful Spring Morning

Following a frosty night, sunny skies and a south breeze brought lots of action to the headquarters garden this morning.  Take a look…

Mason Bee at nest box
Mason Bees are quickly depositing their eggs and a mixture of pollen and nectar called a “pollen loaf” within holes we drilled into blocks of wood in our bee houses.  Each egg is laid in its own chamber within which the larva will hatch, feed on “pollen loaf”, and mature.  The individual cells, including the outermost one in the hole, are sealed with partitions made of mud.  It’s just like a mason using mortar.  Early next spring, the new generation of adults will emerge to begin the process once again.
Black Vulture
This morning’s south wind helped propel some northbound raptors.  This Black Vulture was the first we’ve seen from the headquarters garden since last fall.  While Turkey Vultures remain common and roost nearby, Black Vulture are noticeably less numerous since being impacted by avian flu one year ago.
Cooper's Hawk
This Cooper’s Hawk is one of pair nesting somewhere nearby.  It was quickly gaining altitude on a thermal…
Cooper's Hawks tangle.
…to intercept a transient Cooper’s Hawk (upper right) which it promptly escorted away to the north.
Broad-winged Hawk
Back from their winter holiday in the tropics, migrating Broad-winged Hawks are returning to breed in the forests of the north.  Watch for them either singly or in small groups as they “kettle” in thermal updrafts above south-facing slopes and sun-drenched paved surfaces.
American Robin at Bird Bath
Many birds including this American Robin have been frequenting our water features.  Remember to keep your fixture clean and change the water at least daily.  Watch the temperature too.  A late season freeze can leave you with a shattered bird bath.

Photo of the Day

White-throated Sparrow
While generally common along forest edges throughout the lower Susquehanna valley from mid-autumn through mid-spring, we seldom see White-throated Sparrows in the urban oasis that is the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.  Our greatest hope for spotting one comes during the peak times of seasonal migration.  Alas, gloomy weather grounded this handsome northbound chap for the past several days and at last gave us a chance to repeatedly hear his cheery “old sam peabody-peabody-peabody” song.

Solar Eclipse of 2024

It was dubbed the “Great Solar Eclipse”, the Great North American Eclipse”, and several other lofty names, but in the lower Susquehanna valley, where about 92% of totality was anticipated, the big show was nearly eclipsed by cloud cover.  With last week’s rains raising the waters of the river and inundating the moonscape of the Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls, we didn’t have the option of repeating our eclipse observations of August, 2017, by going there to view this year’s event, so we settled for the next best thing—setting up in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.  So here it is, yesterday’s eclipse…

Solar Eclipse 2024
Here’s one of our first views through a break in the clouds as photographed using a number 12 welder’s glass to shield the camera.
Solar Eclipse 2024
A shot through the welder’s glass with minimal cloud cover reveals a sunspot (AR3628) visible at between ten and eleven o’clock on the solar surface.
Solar Eclipse 2024
Clouds aren’t necessarily a bad thing during a solar eclipse.  Putting the welding filter aside, we were able to photograph the sun directly, without risk of damage to the camera.  Again, sunspot AR3628 can be seen just off the limb of the moon at between ten and eleven o’clock.
Solar Eclipse 2024
It’s 3:21 P.M. E.D.T., and it’s about as good as it’s going to get.  Fortunately for us, the clouds are maximizing the effect.
Solar Eclipse 2024
The sky darkened dramatically as the moon obscured more than 90% of the sun’s disk. Looking toward the northwest, where observers in locations including Erie, Pennsylvania, were experiencing a total solar eclipse, the sky appeared almost night-like.
Solar Eclipse 2024
Here in the lower Susquehanna region, the clouds made our partial solar eclipse an eerie one.
Solar Radio Shutdown during Annular Solar Eclipse 2024
Our home-brew solar-powered radio shut down.
Mourning Dove cooing during solar eclipse.
Our male Mourning Dove perched above its nests site and began a premature evening chorus of sorrowful coos.
Fish Crow Returning to Roost during solar eclipse
The flock of Fish Crows that has been lingering in the area for several weeks was seen making their way to a small grove of nearby evergreens where they often spend the night.
Turkey Vulture Flapping Its Way to Roost during solar eclipse.
Since early winter, Turkey Vultures have been roosting at a site about a half mile from our headquarters.  Each evening, they can be seen leisurely riding the late afternoon thermals as they glide in to pass the night at their favored resting spot.  During the height of the eclipse, as clouds co-conspired to quickly darken the sky and diminish the thermal updrafts, our local vultures were making a hurried scramble, flapping madly to get back to their roost.
The Eclipse of 2024 Wanes
Within fifteen minutes, the cloud cover thinned and the moon started to slide away.  Rays of sunshine quickly renewed the pace of an early spring afternoon.  Soon, the bees were buzzing around, the crows were out looking for trash, and the vultures were piloting the skies in search of deadbeats.
Solar Eclipse 2024
The Great Eclipse of 2024 left us with a sunny smile.

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Accidents and Their Impact on Susquehanna Wildlife

Tuesday’s collision of the container ship Dali into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge and the nearly immediate collapse of the span into the chilly waters below reminds us just how unforgiving and deadly maritime accidents can be.  Upon termination of rescue and recovery operations, salvage and cleanup will be prioritized as the next steps in the long-term process of reopening the navigable waters to ship traffic and construction of a new bridge.  Part of the effort will include monitoring for leaks of fuels and other hazardous materials from the ship, its damaged cargo containers, and vehicles and equipment that were on the bridge when it failed.

Damage to the hull of the Dali and to the cargo containers on her deck could lead to leaks of hazardous liquids or other materials into Chesapeake Bay.  (United States Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore image)

On the waters and shores of today’s Chesapeake, numerous county, state, and federal agencies, including the United States Coast Guard, monitor and inspect looking for conditions and situations that could lead to point-source or accidental discharges of petroleum products and other hazardous materials into the bay.  Many are trained, equipped, and organized for emergency response to contain and mitigate spills upon detection.  But this was not always the case.

Through much of the twentieth century, maritime spills of oil and other chemicals magnified the effects of routine discharges of hazardous materials and sanitary sewer effluent into the Chesapeake and its tributaries.  The cumulative effect of these pollutants progressively impaired fisheries and bay ecosystems leading to noticeable declines in numbers of many aquatic species.  Rather frequently, spills or discharges resulted in conspicuous fish and/or bird kills.

One of the worst spills occurred near the mouth of the Potomac River on February 2, 1976, when a barge carrying 250,000 gallons of number 6 oil sank in a storm and lost its cargo into the bay.  During a month-long cleanup, the United States Coast Guard recovered approximately 167,000 gallons of the spilled oil, the remainder dispersed into the environment.  A survey counted 8,469 “sea ducks” killed.  Of the total number, the great majority were Horned Grebes (4,347 or 51.3%) and Long-tailed Ducks (2,959 or 34.9%).  Other species included Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) (405 or 4.8%), Common Loon (195 or 2.3%), Bufflehead (166 or 2.0%), Ruddy Duck (107 or 1.3%), Common Goldeneye (78 or 0.9%), Tundra Swan (46 or 0.5%), Greater Scaup (19 or 0.2%), American Black Duck (12 or 0.2%), Common Merganser (11 or 0.1%), Canvasback (10 or 0.1%), Double-crested Cormorant (10 or 0.1%), Canada Goose (8 or 0.1%), White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi) (7 or 0.1%), Redhead (5 or 0.1%), gull species (10 or 0.1%), miscellaneous ducks and herons (13 or 0.2%) and unidentified (61 or 0.7%).  During the spring migration, a majority of these birds would have made their way north and passed through the lower Susquehanna valley.  The accident certainly impacted the occurrence of the listed species during that spring in 1976, and possibly for a number of years after.

Horned Grebe during migration on the Susquehanna near Haldeman Riffles.
Of the 8,469 birds killed by the February 2, 1976, oil spill on the Chesapeake, 51.3% (4,347) were Horned Grebes.  Many of them would have migrated north through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during the coming spring.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, commonly known as the Clean Water Act, put teeth into the original FWCPCA of 1948 and began reversing the accumulation of pollutants in the bay and other bodies of water around the nation.  Additional amendments in 1977 and 1987 have strengthened protections and changed the culture of “dump-and-run” disposal and “dilution-is-the-solution” treatment of hazardous wastes.  During the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, emergency response teams and agencies began organizing to control and mitigate spill events.  The result has been a greater awareness and competency for handling accidental discharges of fuels and other chemicals into Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.  These improvements can help minimize the environmental impact of the Dali’s collision with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

Hickory Shad
Oil spills and other pollution in the Chesapeake can impact populations of migratory fish including the anadromous Hickory Shad which are presently transiting the bay on their way to the waters of the Susquehanna below Conowingo Dam.

SOURCES

Roland, John V., Moore, Glenn E., and Bellanca, Michael A.  1977.  “The Chesapeake Bay Oil Spill—February 2, 1976: A Case History”.  International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings (1977).  1977 (1): 523-527.

Prescribed Fire: Controlled Burns for Forest and Non-forest Habitats

Homo sapiens owes much of its success as a species to an acquired knowledge of how to make, control, and utilize fire.  Using fire to convert the energy stored in combustible materials into light and heat has enabled humankind to expand its range throughout the globe.  Indeed, humans in their furless incomplete mammalian state may have never been able to expand their populations outside of tropical latitudes without mastery of fire.  It is fire that has enabled man to exploit more of the earth’s resources than any other species.  From cooking otherwise unpalatable foods to powering the modern industrial society, fire has set man apart from the rest of the natural world.

In our modern civilizations, we generally look at the unplanned outbreak of fire as a catastrophe requiring our immediate intercession.  A building fire, for example, is extinguished as quickly as possible to save lives and property.  And fires detected in fields, brush, and woodlands are promptly controlled to prevent their exponential growth.  But has fire gone to our heads?  Do we have an anthropocentric view of fire?  Aren’t there naturally occurring fires that are essential to the health of some of the world’s ecosystems?  And to our own safety?  Indeed there are.  And many species and the ecosystems they inhabit rely on the periodic occurrence of fire to maintain their health and vigor.

For the war effort- The campaign to reduce the frequency of forest fires got its start during World War II with distribution of this poster in 1942.  The goal was to protect the nation’s timber resources from accidental or malicious loss due to fire caused by man-made ignition sources.  The release of the Walt Disney film “Bambi” during the same year and the adoption of the Smokey the Bear mascot in 1944 softened the message’s delivery, but the public relations outreach continued to be a key element of a no-fire policy to save trees for lumber.  Protection and management of healthy forest ecosystems in their entirety has only recently become a priority.  (National Archives image)

Man has been availed of the direct benefits of fire for possibly 40,000 years or more.  Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the earliest humans arrived as early as 12,000 years ago—already possessing skills for using fire.  Native plants and animals on the other hand, have been part of the ever-changing mix of ecosystems found here for a much longer period of time—millions to tens of millions of years.  Many terrestrial native species are adapted to the periodic occurrence of fire.  Some, in fact, require it.  Most upland ecosystems need an occasional dose of fire, usually ignited by lightning (though volcanism and incoming cosmic projectiles are rare possibilities), to regenerate vegetation, release nutrients, and maintain certain non-climax habitat types.

But much of our region has been deprived of natural-type fires since the time of the clearcutting of the virgin forests during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This absence of a natural fire cycle has contributed to degradation and/or elimination of many forest and non-forest habitats.  Without fire, a dangerous stockpile of combustible debris has been collecting, season after season, in some areas for a hundred years or more.  Lacking periodic fires or sufficient moisture to sustain prompt decomposition of dead material, wildlands can accumulate enough leaf litter, thatch, dry brush, tinder, and fallen wood to fuel monumentally large forest fires—fires similar to those recently engulfing some areas of the American west.  So elimination of natural fire isn’t just a problem for native plants and animals, its a potential problem for humans as well.

Indiangrass on Fire
Indiangrass (seen here), Switchgrass, Big Bluestem, and Little Bluestem are native species requiring periodic forms of disturbance to eliminate competition by woody plants.  These warm-season grasses develop roots that penetrate deep into the soil, sometimes to depths of six feet or more, allowing them to survive severe drought and flash fire events.  In the tall grass prairies, these extensive root systems allow these grasses to return following heavy grazing by roaming herds of American Bison (Bison bison).  Without these habitat disturbances, warm season grasslands succumb to succession in about seven years.  With their periodic occurrence, the plants thrive and provide excellent wildlife habitat, erosion control, and grazing forage.

To address the habitat ailments caused by a lack of natural fires, federal, state, and local conservation agencies are adopting the practice of “prescribed fire” as a treatment to restore ecosystem health.  A prescribed fire is a controlled burn specifically planned to correct one or more vegetative management problems on a given parcel of land.  In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is used to…

      • Eliminate dangerous accumulations of combustible fuels in woodlands.
      • Reduce accumulations of dead plant material that may harbor disease.
      • Provide top kill to promote oak regeneration.
      • Regenerate other targeted species of trees, wildflowers, grasses, and vegetation.
      • Kill non-native plants and promote growth of native plants.
      • Prevent succession.
      • Remove woody growth and thatch from grasslands.
      • Promote fire tolerant species of plants and animals.
      • Create, enhance, and/or manage specialized habitats.
      • Improve habitat for rare species (Regal Fritillary, etc.)
      • Recycle nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material.

Let’s look at some examples of prescribed fire being implemented right here in our own neighborhood…

Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fires are typically planned for the dormant season extending from late fall into early spring with burns best conducted on days when the relative humidity is low.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fire is used regularly at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to keep accumulations of woody and herbaceous fuels from accumulating on and around the training range areas where live ordinance and other sources of ignition could otherwise spark large, hard-to-control wildfires.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fires replace the periodic natural burns that would normally reduce the fuel load in forested areas.  Where these fuels are allowed to accumulate, south-facing slopes are particularly susceptible to extreme fires due to their exposure to the drying effects of intense sunlight for much of the year.  The majority of small oaks subjected to treatment by the prescribed fire shown here will have the chance to regenerate without immediate competition from other species including invasive plants.  The larger trees are mostly unaffected by the quick exposure to the flames.  Note too that these fires don’t completely burn everything on the forest floor, they burn that which is most combustible.  There are still plenty of fallen logs for salamanders, skinks, and other animals to live beneath and within.

 

Prescribed fire in grassland.
A prescribed fire in late winter prevents this grassland consisting of Big Bluestem and native wildflowers from being overtaken by woody growth and invasive species.  Fires such as this that are intended to interrupt the process of succession are repeated at least every three to five years.
Prescribed Fire to Control Invasive Species
In its wildlife food plots, prescribed fire is used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to prevent succession and control invasive species such as Multiflora Rose, instead promoting the growth of native plants.
A woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.
An example of a woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and dense tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.  A forester has the option of prescribing a dose of dormant-season fire for a site like this to reduce the fuel load, top kill non-native vegetation, and regenerate native plants.
Precribed Fire to Eliminate Woody Growth
A dose of prescribed fire was administered on this grassland to kill the woody growth of small trees beginning to overtake the habitat by succession.
Precribed Fire Education Sign at middle creek Wildlife Management Area
The Pennsylvania Game Commission employs prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and on many of their other holdings to maintain grasslands.
Prescribed fire is used to eliminate invasive species including Multiflora Rose from grasslands at Middle Creek W.M.A.  Annual burns on the property are conducted in a mosaic pattern so that each individual area of the grassland is exposed to the effects of fire only once every two to five years.  Without fire or some type of mechanical or chemical intervention, succession by woody trees and shrubs would take hold after about seven years.
Prescribed fire is planned for a fraction of total grassland acreage at Middle Creek W.M.A. each year.  Another section of the mosaic is targeted in the following year and yet another in the year that follows that.  Because burns are conducted in the spring, grassland cover is available for wildlife throughout the winter.  And because each year’s fire burns only a portion of the total grassland acreage, wildlife still has plenty of standing grass in which to take shelter during and after the prescribed fire.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Prescribed fire at Middle Creek W.M.A. provides grassland habitat for dozens of species of birds and mammals including the not-so-common Grasshopper Sparrow…
Ring-necked Pheasant
…and stocked Ring-necked Pheasants that do nest and raise young there.
Prescribed Burn Maintains Savanna-like Habitat
On a few sites in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed , prescribed fire is being used to establish and maintain savanna-like grasslands.  This one, located on a dry, south-facing slope near numerous man-made sources of ignition, can easily be dosed with periodic prescribed burns to both prevent succession and reduce fuel accumulations that may lead to a devastating extreme fire.
Pitch Pines in Savanna-like Habitat
One year following a prescribed burn, this is the autumn appearance of a savanna-like habitat with fire-tolerant Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), Bear Oak, warm-season grasses, and a variety of nectar-producing wildflowers for pollinators.  These ecosystems are magnets for wildlife and may prove to be a manageable fit on sun-drenched sites adjacent to man-made land disturbances and their sources of ignition.
Red-headed Woodpecker Adult and Juvenile
Savanna-like grasslands with oaks and other scattered large trees, some of them dead, make attractive nesting habitat for the uncommon Red-headed Woodpecker.
Wild Turkey in Savanna-like Habitat
Prescribed fire can benefit hungry Wild Turkeys by maintaining savanna-like grasslands for an abundance of grasshoppers and other insects in summer and improving the success of mast-producing oaks for winter.
Buck Moth
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the caterpillar of the rare Eastern Buck Moth feeds on the foliage of the Bear Oak, also known as the Scrub Oak, a shrubby species that relies upon periodic fire to eliminate competition from larger trees in its early successional habitat.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.  The Bear Oak regenerates readily from top kill caused by fire.
Reed Canary Grass
Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is a native cool-season grass with a colorful inflorescence in spring.  But given the right situation, it can aggressively overtake other species to create a pure stand lacking biodiversity.  It is one of the few native species which is sometimes labelled “invasive”.
Prescribed Burn to Reduce Prevalence of Reed Canary Grass
Prescribed fire can be used to reduce an overabundance of Reed Canary Grass and its thatch in wetlands.  Periodic burning can help restore species diversity in these habitats for plants and animals including rare species such as the endangered Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii).
On the range areas at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, disturbances by armored vehicles mimic the effects of large mammals such as the American Bison which periodically trampled grasses to prevent succession and the establishment of woody plants on its prairie habitat.  To supplement the activity of the heavy vehicles and to provide suitable habitat for the very rare Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) butterflies found there, prescribed fire is periodically employed to maintain the grasslands on the range.  These burns are planned to encourage the growth of “Fort Indiantown Gap Little Bluestem” grass as well as the violets used as host plants by the Regal Fritillary caterpillars.  These fires also promote growth of a variety of native summer-blooming wildflowers to provide nectar for the adults butterflies.
Depiction of Pennsylvania's Last American Bison, Killed in Union County in 1801. (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A last record of a wild American Bison killed in Pennsylvania was an animal taken in the Susquehanna watershed in Union County in 1801.  The species is thereafter considered extirpated from the state.  Since that time, natural disturbances needed to regenerate warm-season grasses have been limited primarily to fires and riverine ice scour.  The waning occurrence of both has reduced the range of these grasses and their prairie-like ecosystems in the commonwealth.  (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A male Regal Fritillary on the range at Fort Indiantown Gap, where armored vehicles and prescribed fire provide suitable prairie-like habitat for this vulnerable species.
Honey Bee Collecting Minerals After Prescribed Burn
Prescribed fires return the nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material to the soil.  Following these controlled burns, insects like this Honey Bee can often be seen collecting minerals from the ashes.
Fly Collecting Minerals from Burned Grasses
A Greenbottle Fly gathering minerals from the ash following a prescribed burn.

In Pennsylvania, state law provides landowners and crews conducting prescribed fire burns with reduced legal liability when the latter meet certain educational, planning, and operational requirements.  This law may help encourage more widespread application of prescribed fire in the state’s forests and other ecosystems where essential periodic fire has been absent for so very long.  Currently in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is most frequently being employed by state agencies on state lands—in particular, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on State Forests and the Pennsylvania Game Commission on State Game Lands.  Prescribed fire is also part of the vegetation management plan at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and on the land holdings of the Hershey Trust.  Visitors to the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park will also notice prescribed fire being used to maintain the grassland restorations there.

For crews administering prescribed fire burns, late March and early April are a busy time.  The relative humidity is often at its lowest level of the year, so the probability of ignition of previous years’ growth is generally at its best.  We visited with a crew administering a prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area last week.  Have a look…

Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire.
Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire and the equipment and techniques they use to conduct a burn.
Burn Boss Checking Weather
Pennsylvania Game Commission Southeast Region Forester Andy Weaver will fulfill the role of Burn Boss for administering this day’s dose of fire.  His responsibilities include assessing the weather before the burn and calculating a probability of ignition.
Burn Boss Briefing Crew
The Burn Boss briefs personnel with information on site layout, water supply location(s), places of refuge, emergency procedures, the event’s goals and plan of action, crew assignments, and the results of the weather check: wind from the northwest at 5 miles per hour, temperature 48 degrees, and the relative humidity 63%. Today’s patient is a parcel of warm-season grasses receiving a dose of fire to eliminate invasive non-native plants, woody growth, and thatch.  The probability of ignition is 20%, but improving by the minute.
Prescribed Fire Test Burn
To begin the burn, a test fire is started in the downwind corner of the parcel, which also happens to be the bottom of the slope.  Fuel ignition is good.  The burn can proceed.
Igniting the Fire
Crews proceed uphill from the location of the test fire while igniting combustibles along both flanks of the area being treated.
Prescribed Fire Crew Member with Equipment
A drip torch is used to ignite the dried stems and leaves of warm-season grasses and wildflowers.  Each member of the burn crew wears Nomex fire-resistant clothing and carries safety equipment including a two-way radio, a hydration pack, and a cocoon-like emergency fire shelter.
Wildfire ATV
An all-terrain vehicle equipped with various tools, a fire pump, hose, and a small water tank accompanies the crew on each flank of the fire.
Prescribed Fire
A mowed strip of cool-season grasses along the perimeter of the burn area is already green and functions as an ideal fire break.  While the drip torch is perfect for lighting combustibles along the fire’s perimeter, the paintball gun-looking device is an effective tool used to lob incendiaries into the center areas of the burn zone for ignition.
Effective Fire Break
With green cool-season grasses already growing on the trails surrounding the burn zone, very little water was used to contain this prescribed fire.  Where such convenient fire breaks don’t already exist, crews carry tools including chain saws, shovels, and leaf blowers to create their own.  They also carry flame swatters, backpack water pumps, shovels, and other tools to extinguish fires if necessary.  None of these items were needed to control this particular fire.
Halting the Process of Succession in a Grassland with Prescribed Fire
This fast-burning fire provides enough heat to damage the cambium layer of the woody tree and shrub saplings in this parcel being maintained as a grassland/wildflower plot, thus the process of succession is forestalled.  Burns conducted during previous years on this and adjacent fields have also controlled aggressive growth of invasive Multiflora Rose and Olives (Elaeagnus species).
Containing the Fire on the Flanks
Crews proceed up the slope while maintaining the perimeter by igniting dry plant material along the flanks of the burn zone.
The Crew Monitors the Burn
Ignition complete, the crews monitor the fire.
Prescribed Fire: Natural Mosaic-style Burn Pattern
The Burn Boss surveys the final stages of a safe and successful prescribed fire.  The fire has left behind a mosaic of burned and unburned areas, just as a naturally occurring event may have done.  Wildlife dodging the flames may be taking refuge in the standing grasses, so there is no remedial attempt to go back and ignite these areas.  They’ll be burned during prescribed fires in coming years.
Great Spangled Fritillary
By June, this grassland will again be lush and green with warm-season grasses and blooming wildflowers like this Common Milkweed being visited by a Great Spangled Fritillary.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
And later in the summer, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Bobolinks in Indiangrass
Bobolinks glow in the late August sun while taking flight from a stand of warm-season grasses maintained using springtime prescribed fire.  The small dots on the dark background at the top of the image are multitudes of flying insects, many of them pollinators.  The vegetation is predominately Indiangrass, excellent winter cover for birds, mammals, and other wildlife.

Prescribed burns aren’t a cure-all for what ails a troubled forest or other ecosystem, but they can be an effective remedy for deficiencies caused by a lack of periodic episodes of naturally occurring fire.  They are an important option for modern foresters, wildlife managers, and other conservationists.

Another Big Flight of Geese and Swans

Yet another flight of waterfowl departing Chesapeake Bay for breeding grounds to our north passed over sections of the lower Susquehanna valley this morning.  In the one hour between 10 A.M. and 11 A.M., at least six thousand honking Canada Geese passed through the small piece of sky visible from susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  At times, five or more flocks of about one hundred birds each were seen simultaneously.

Canada Geese
Northbound migratory Canada Geese pass over susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.
Canada Geese
While observing and photographing geese flying about two thousand feet above our heads, we noticed several barely visible flocks at much higher altitudes.  Any such birds flying above this flock would go undetected in or above the cumulus clouds.
Canada Geese
More geese on the way through.
Tundra Swans
In addition to the geese, a flock of 80 Tundra Swans was seen.  Not bad.

Snow Geese, Bald Eagles, and More at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

To take advantage of this unusually mild late-winter day, observers arrived by the thousands to have a look at an even greater number of migratory birds gathered at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Here are some highlights…

Trails at Middle creek Wildlife Management Area
Multitudes of Sunday hikers enjoyed the warm afternoon on Middle Creek’s many trails.
Painted Turtles
In one of Middle Creek’s numerous impoundments, newly emerged Painted Turtles bask in the sunshine.
Brown-headed Cowbird
Native blackbirds, particularly males including this Brown-headed Cowbird, are arriving to stake out a claim on suitable breeding territory.
Red-winged Blackbirds
Male Red-winged Blackbirds visit the feeding station at the Middle Creek W.M.A. Visitor’s Center.
Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbirds regularly maintain close association with Red-winged Blackbirds, a frequent victim of the former’s nest parasitism, the practice of laying and abandoning their eggs in a host species’ abode.  By early May, adult “red-wings” can often be seen tending fledged cowbird young raised at the expense of their own progeny.
Common Grackles displaying.
Male Common Grackles display their colors in an attempt to establish dominance.
White-crowned Sparrow
Visitor’s to Middle Creek’s Willow Point Trail not only had a chance to see thousands of geese and other waterfowl, but they might also get a good look at some of the handsome White-crowned Sparrows that have been there during recent weeks.
Tree Swallow
The first Tree Swallows of the season have arrived to stake a claim to nest boxes located throughout the refuge’s grasslands.
Killdeer
Bare croplands and muddy shorelines around Middle Creek’s lakes and ponds are attracting migrating Killdeer.  Some will stay to nest.
Ring-billed Gulls
Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls arrived during the late afternoon to spend the night on the main lake.
Red-tailed Hawk
A Red-tailed Hawk was seen hunting mice and exhibiting territorial behavior.  It is probably protecting a nest site somewhere on the refuge.
Canada Geese
Canada Geese could be seen coming and going, with migratory birds apparently supplementing the resident flock.  This group flushed when a Bald Eagle passed close by.
Bald Eagles
You could hold a Bald Eagle I.D. clinic at Middle Creek W.M.A. right now.  Dozens of birds of varying age classes could be seen in the trees surrounding the main lake and the larger ponds.  Currently, fifty or more could be present.  At least one Golden Eagle has been seen as well.
Adult Bald Eagle
An adult Bald Eagle in definitive plumage investigating the inhabitants of the lake.
Second-year Bald Eagle
This Bald Eagle in its second calendar year is not yet one year of age, but it has already begun replacing dark body feathers with a light plumage that will earn it the nickname “white belly” for this and its third year.  It will start molting its long hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers soon after its first birthday.
Second-year Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk
Another second-year immature Bald Eagle, this one being scolded by the aforementioned territorial Red-tailed Hawk.  Though showing some wear in the tail, this eagle still has a full set of lengthy hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers and remains mostly dark below when compared to the bird of the same age class seen in the previous image.  As in other birds, diet, genetics, stress, climatic conditions, and many other factors will frequently vary the timing of molt among individuals in a population of Bald Eagles.
Third-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its third calendar year still retaining numerous long juvenile wing and tail feathers.   In coming months, as it reaches its second birthday, it will begin replacing the remaining older plumage with a set of new flight feathers.
Fourth-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its fourth calendar year approaches its third birthday with a rather conspicuous long juvenile feather remaining in each wing.  These feathers will soon be replaced.  In addition, the body plumage will darken, the head will begin to show more white, and the bill will become yellow.  In about two more years, the bird will attain its familiar adult definitive plumage.  Click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page to learn more about determining the age of these and other birds of prey.
Snow Geese and Observers at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Bald Eagles draw a crowd, but the real attraction at Middle Creek W.M.A. in late winter is Snow Geese,…
Snow Geese
…thousands of them.
Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Migratory Snow Geese, an annual spectacle at Middle Creek.
Snow Geese and hundreds of onlookers.
Snow Geese and hundreds of delighted onlookers.

Snow Geese at M.C.W.M.A.

Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
The late afternoon sky filled with Snow Geese.
Short-eared Owl at M.C.W.M.A.
As daylight waned and the Snow Geese returned to the main lake for the night, more than one hundred lucky observers were treated to the rare sight of several Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) emerging to hunt the refuge’s managed grasslands for mice and voles.  For many of these visitors, it was a memorable first-time experience.

Waterfowl on a Rainy Day

Though soggy, windy, and rainy, it happened to be a delightfully mild day to search for migrating waterfowl in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Here’s a look at what we found temporarily grounded by the poor flight conditions…

Northern Pintails
It’s prime time for northbound Northern Pintails.
American Wigeons and Ring-necked Ducks
This raft of distant waterfowl appears to include mostly American Wigeons and Ring-necked Ducks.
Ring-necked Duck
A much more cooperative drake Ring-necked Duck.
American Black Ducks
A couple of American Black Ducks take a break during an afternoon shower.
Northern Shovelers
A pair of Northern Shovelers in the rain.
Common Mergansers
And a pair of blissful Common Mergansers.
Common Mergansers
Uh oh!…must be something he said.

Spring Canada Goose Migration Underway

With a southerly breeze and warm front rolling through the region, migratory Canada Geese and other waterfowl are taking advantage of the tail wind to depart Chesapeake Bay and stream through the lower Susquehanna valley to begin a trek that will ultimately take them to nesting grounds far to our north.

Canada Geese
Noisy flocks of migratory Canada Geese were passing over the lower Susquehanna valley throughout the morning.
Canada Geese
There goes another flock,…
Canada Geese
…and yet another.
Canada Geese
Dozens of flocks of as many as one hundred birds each passed over our temporary lookout at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters this morning.  By 11 A.M. we saw and heard in excess of 3,000 birds.
Tundra Swans
A single flock of northbound Tundra Swans included about one hundred birds.
Tundra Swans
With the south wind increasing in intensity this afternoon, more geese, swans, and other waterfowl can be expected.  Then, when the rains hit later this evening and overnight, there could be a significant fallout of grounded birds on local bodies of water including the river.  Be certain to check it out!

Time to Order Trees and Shrubs for Spring

It’s that time of year.  Your local county conservation district is taking orders for their annual tree sale and it’s a deal that can’t be beat.  Order now for pickup in April.

The prices are a bargain and the selection includes the varieties you need to improve wildlife habitat and water quality on your property.  For species descriptions and more details, visit each tree sale web page (click the sale name highlighted in blue).  And don’t forget to order packs of evergreens for planting in mixed clumps and groves to provide winter shelter and summertime nesting sites for our local native birds.  They’re only $12.00 for a bundle of 10.

Mature Trees in a Suburban Neighborhood
It’s the most desirable block in town, not because the houses are any different from others built during the post-war years of the mid-twentieth century, but because the first owners of these domiciles had the good taste and foresight to plant long-lived trees on their lots, the majority of them native species.  Pin Oak, Northern Red Oak, Yellow Poplar, Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Norway Spruce, and American Holly dominate the landscape and create excellent habitat for birds and other wildlife.  These 75-year-old plantings provide an abundance of shade in summer and thermal stability in winter, making it a “cool” place to live or take a stroll at any time of the year.

Cumberland County Conservation District Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 22, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Winterberry
Cumberland County Conservation District is taking orders for Common Winterberry, the ideal small shrub for wet soil anywhere on your property.  To get berries, you’ll need both males and females, so buy a bunch and plant them in a clump or scattered group.
Pin Oak
To live for a century or more like this towering giant, a Pin Oak needs to grow in well-drained soils with adequate moisture.  These sturdy shade providers do well along streams and on low ground receiving clean runoff from hillsides, roofs, streets, and parking areas.  As they age, Pin Oaks can fail to thrive and may become vulnerable to disease in locations where rainfall is not adequately infiltrated into the soil.  Therefore, in drier areas such as raised ground or slopes, avoid the Pin Oak and select the more durable Northern Red Oak for planting.  This year, Pin Oaks are available from the Cumberland and Lancaster County Conservation Districts, while Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York Counties are taking orders for Northern Red Oaks.
Purple Coneflower
The Cumberland County Conservation District is again offering a “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” for seeding your own pollinator meadow or garden.  It consists of more than twenty species including this perennial favorite, Purple Coneflower.

Dauphin County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Monday, March 18, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Eastern Redbud
The Eastern Redbud is small tree native to our forest edges, particularly in areas of the Piedmont Province with Triassic geology (Furnace Hills, Conewago Hills, Gettysburg/Hammer Creek Formations, etc.)  Also known as the Judas Tree, the redbud’s brilliant flowers are followed by heart-shaped leaves.  As seen here, it is suitable for planting near houses and other buildings.  Eastern Redbud seedlings are being offered through tree sales in Dauphin, Cumberland, and Lancaster Counties.

Lancaster County Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 12, 2024

Yellow Poplar
The Yellow Poplar, often called Tuliptree or Tulip Poplar for its showy flowers, is a sturdy, fast-growing deciduous tree native to forests throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Its pole-straight growth habit in shady woodlands becomes more spreading and picturesque when the plant is grown as a specimen or shade tree in an urban or suburban setting.  The Yellow Poplar can live for hundreds of years and is a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available this year from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
The American Sweetgum, also known as Sweet Gum, is a large, long-lived tree adorned with a mix of vibrant colors in autumn.
American Goldfinches and Pine Siskin on Sweet Gum
Ever wonder where all the American Goldfinches and particularly the Pine Siskins go after passing through our region in fall?  Well, many are headed to the lowland forests of the Atlantic Coastal Plain where they feed on an abundance of seeds contained in spiky American Sweetgum fruits.  In the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley Provinces of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, American Sweetgum transplants can provide enough sustenance to sometimes lure our friendly finches into lingering through the winter.
Sweet Gum in a Beaver Pond
The American Sweetgum is a versatile tree.  It can be planted on upland sites as well as in wet ground along streams, lakes, and rivers.  In the beaver pond seen here it is the dominate tree species.  This year, you can buy the American Sweetgum from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
"Red-twig Dogwood"
“Red-twig Dogwood” is a group of similar native shrubs that, in our region, includes Silky Dogwood and the more northerly Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea).  Both have clusters of white flowers in spring and showy red twigs in winter.  They are an excellent choice for wet soils.  Landscapers often ruin these plants by shearing them off horizontally a foot or two from the ground each year.  To produce flowers and fruit, and to preserve winter attractiveness, trim them during dormancy by removing three-year-old and older canes at ground level, letting younger growth untouched.
Silky Dogwood Stream Buffer
“Red-twig Dogwoods” make ideal mass plantings for streamside buffers and remain showy through winter, even on a gloomy day.  They not only mitigate nutrient and sediment pollution, they provide excellent food and cover for birds and other wildlife.  Both Silky and Red-osier Dogwoods are available for sale through the Lancaster County Conservation District as part of their special multi-species offers, the former is included in its “Beauty Pack” and the latter in its “Wildlife Pack”.  The similar Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is being offered for sale by the York County Conservation District.

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree and Plant Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Pawpaw flower
The unique maroon flowers of the Common Pawpaw produce banana-like fruits in summer.  These small native trees grow best in damp, well-drained soils on slopes along waterways, where they often form clonal understory patches.  To get fruit, plant a small grove to increase the probability of pollination.  The Common Pawpaw is a host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County sales.
Eastern Red Cedar
The Eastern Red Cedar provides excellent food, cover, and nesting sites for numerous songbirds.  Planted in clumps of dozens or groves of hundreds of trees, they can provide winter shelter for larger animals including deer and owls.  The Eastern Red Cedar is being offered for purchase through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.
Hybrid American Chestnut
Care to try your hand at raising some chestnuts?  Lebanon County Conservation District has hybrid American Chestnut seedlings for sale.
Common Winterberry
Lebanon County Conservation District is offering Common Winterberry and Eastern White Pine during their 2024 Tree and Plant Sale.  Plant them both for striking color during the colder months.  Eastern White Pine is also available from the Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and York County sales.

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—

Orders due by: Sunday, March 24, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Pollinator Garden
In addition to a selection of trees and shrubs, the Perry County Conservation District is again selling wildflower seed mixes for starting your own pollinator meadow or garden.  For 2024, they have both a “Northeast Perennials and Annuals Mix” and a “Butterfly and Hummingbird Seed Mix” available.  Give them a try so you can give up the mower!

Again this year, Perry County is offering bluebird nest boxes for sale.  The price?—just $12.00.

Eastern Bluebird
Wait, what?,…twelve bucks,…that’s cheaper than renting!

York County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 15, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Buttonbush flower
The Buttonbush, a shrub of wet soils, produces a cosmic-looking flower.  It grows well in wetlands, along streams, and in rain gardens.  Buttonbush seedlings are for sale from both the York and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.

To get your deciduous trees like gums, maples, oaks, birches, and poplars off to a safe start, conservation district tree sales in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and Perry Counties are offering protective tree shelters.  Consider purchasing these plastic tubes and supporting stakes for each of your hardwoods, especially if you have hungry deer in your neighborhood.

Deciduous Tree Planting Protected by Shelters
Tree shelters protect newly transplanted seedlings from browsing deer, klutzy hikers, visually impaired mower operators, and other hazards.

There you have it.  Be sure to check out each tree sale’s web page to find the selections you like, then get your order placed.  The deadlines will be here before you know it and you wouldn’t want to miss values like these!

Birds Beginning to Wander

Since Tuesday’s  snow storm, the susquehannawiildlife.net headquarters garden continues to bustle with bird activity.

Northern Mockingbird
Our Northern Mockingbird remains ever vigilant in its attempts to discourage American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds from feeding on the berry crop.  Slowly, the latter species are winning the contest.
Carolina Chickadee feeding on sunflower seed.
A Carolina Chickadee carefully dissects a sunflower seed to snack on the nutritious kernel.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This beauty shows us that yes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers do indeed have red bellies.
American Robin eating Common Winterberry fruits.
Getting energized for a big move north, the robins keep on gulping berries.

Today, there arrived three species of birds we haven’t seen here since autumn.  These birds are, at the very least, beginning to wander in search of food.  Then too, these may be individuals creeping slowly north to secure an advantage over later migrants by being the first to establish territories on the most favorable nesting grounds.

Song Sparrow
This Song Sparrow is the first we’ve seen in the garden since sometime last fall.  Is it working its way north or did it just come to town in search of food?
Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers regularly spend the winter in small numbers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  This is the first one we’ve had visit the garden since late last autumn.
Fish Crows feeding on Eastern Red Cedar berries.
Fish Crows, seen here feeding on the fruits adorning an Eastern Red Cedar, have returned after being absent in our neighborhood since November.  In coming weeks, both they and the more numerous American Crows that remained through winter will begin constructing nests in nearby trees.

They say the early bird gets the worm.  More importantly, it gets the most favorable nesting spot.  What does the early birder get?  He or she gets out of the house and enjoys the action as winter dissolves into the miracle of spring.  Do make time to go afield and marvel a bit, won’t you?  See you there!

Robins in a Snowstorm

In mid-February each year, large numbers of American Robins descend upon the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden to feast on the ripe fruits that adorn several species of our native shrubs and trees.  This morning’s wet snowfall provided the needed motivation for these birds and others to make today the big day for the annual feeding frenzy.

American Robins
Early this morning, branches and limbs in the headquarters garden were loaded with clinging snow and more than one hundred American Robins.
American Robin
To have first grabs at suitable nesting sites, early American Robins are currently beginning to edge their way north.  Spring migration is underway.
American Robin feeding on Common Winterberry
The fruits of Common Winterberry are always a favorite of visiting robins.
Northern Mockingbird
After selfishly guarding the garden’s berries through the entire season, our Northern Mockingbird finds chasing more than one hundred robins away from its food supply an impossible task.
American Robin
This and other visiting robins will strip the winterberry, cedar, American Holly, and other fruit-producing shrubs and trees within a day or two.  To survive what remains of the season, our resident mockingbird will have to look elsewhere for provisions.
American Robin
Another American Robin devouring winterberry fruit.
American Robin
In addition to robins, there were, of course, other guests in the garden refuge on this snowy day.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This Red-bellied Woodpecker tries to make sense of all the commotion.
Carolina Chickadee
A pair of Carolina Chickadees established a family in the garden during the spring of 2023.  At least five of the birds still stop by on a daily basis.
American Goldfinches
As spring nears, our American Goldfinches are beginning to show a hint of their bright breeding colors.
Blue Jay
A Blue Jay peeks out from the cover of the Eastern Hemlocks.
Carolina Wren
Our Carolina Wrens sing throughout the winter,…
Mourning Dove
…but today we noticed that this Mourning Dove has begun softly cooing to charm a mate…
House Finch
…and the male House Finches are warbling away with the sounds of spring.
Female Eastern Bluebird
With the local mockingbird busily harassing robins, our Eastern Bluebirds went unmolested long enough to stop by…
Bluebird Feeder
…for some raisins from their enclosed feeder.
Male Eastern Bluebird
A showy male Eastern Bluebird on a snowy day in the garden.  Spring must be just around the corner!

It’s Bald Eagle Time, Wherever You Are

Now is a great time of year to see Bald Eagles in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  For the population that breeds here in our region, it’s nesting season.  These birds are defending territories and some of them can get pretty aggressive towards the other eagles that happen to be wintering in the Susquehanna valley or will be migrating north through the area in coming weeks.  All that competition has these birds spending a lot of time in the air, so no matter where you happen to be, keeping an eye on the sky may provide you with an opportunity for a memorable glimpse of one or more eagles in action.  Skeptical?  Well, just an hour ago, we spotted these eagles high above the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.

So do spend some time outdoors soon and while you’re there, don’t forget to look up.  You might turn some of your time into Bald Eagle time too!

The Fog of a January Thaw

As week-old snow and ice slowly disappears from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed landscape, we ventured out to see what might be lurking in the dense clouds of fog that for more than two days now have accompanied a mid-winter warm spell.

York Haven Dam Powerhouse
After freezing to a slushy consistency earlier this week, the Susquehanna is already beginning to thaw.   Below the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls, the water is open and ice-free.
Mallards and a pair of American Wigeon on a frozen lake.
On frozen man-made lakes and ponds, geese and ducks like these Mallards and American Wigeon are presently concentrated around small pockets of open water.
American Robin in a Callery pear
During the past ten days, American Robin numbers have exploded throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  The majority of these birds may be a mix of both those coming south to escape the late onset of wintry conditions to our north and those inching north into our region as early spring migrants.
American Robin
The January thaw has melted the snow from lawns and fields to provide thousands of visiting robins with a chance to forage for earthworms.
Cooper's Hawk
A visit by this young Cooper’s Hawk to the susquehannnawildlife.net headquarters garden sent songbirds scrambling…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…but did nothing to unnerve our resident Eastern Gray Squirrels,…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…which promptly went into tail-waving mode to advertise their presence.
Red-tailed Hawk
But earlier in the week, when heavy snow cover in the rural areas surrounding our urbanized neighborhood made it difficult for rodent-eating raptors to find food, we received brief visits from both a Red-tailed Hawk…
Red-shouldered Hawk
…and this young Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon bird of prey most often found in wet woods and other lowlands.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
To escape notice during visits by these larger raptors, our squirrels remained motionless and commenced performance of their best bump-on-a-log impressions.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight.
Unimpressed, each of our visiting buteos remained for just a few minutes before moving on in search of more favorable hunting grounds and prey.
Early Successional Growth
As snow melted and exposed bare ground in fields of early successional growth, we encountered…
White-crowned Sparrow
…a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, most in first-winter plumage…
American Tree Sparrow
…and at least a dozen American Tree Sparrows.  During the twentieth century, these handsome songbirds were regular winter visitors to the lower Susquehanna region.  During recent decades, they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find.  Currently, moderate numbers appear to be arriving to escape harsher weather to our north.
Adult Male Northern Harrier
What could be more appropriate on a foggy, gray evening than finding a “gray ghost” (adult male Northern Harrier) patrolling the fields in search of mice and voles.

If scenes of a January thaw begin to awaken your hopes and aspirations for all things spring, then you’ll appreciate this pair of closing photographs…

Pileated Woodpecker in Silver Maple
The maroon-red flower buds of Silver Maples are beginning to swell.  And woodpeckers including Pileated Woodpeckers are beginning to drum, a timber-pounding behavior they use to establish breeding territories in habitats with suitable sites for cavity nesting.
Skunk Cabbage
In wet soil surrounding spring seeps and streams, Skunk Cabbage is rising through the leaf litter to herald the coming of a new season.  Spring must surely be just around the corner.

Birds Along the River’s Edge

Just as bare ground along a plowed road attracts birds in an otherwise snow-covered landscape, a receding river or large stream can provide the same benefit to hungry avians looking for food following a winter storm.

Here is a small sample of some of the species seen during a brief stop along the Susquehanna earlier this week.

Song Sparrow
Along vegetated edges of the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Song Sparrow is ubiquitous in its search for small seeds and other foods.  As the river recedes from the effects of this month’s rains, the shoreline is left bare of more recently deposited snow cover.  Song Sparrows and other birds are attracted to streamside corridors of frost-free ground to find sufficient consumables for supplying enough energy to survive the long cold nights of winter.
American Robin
Thousands of American Robins have been widespread throughout the lower Susquehanna valley during the past week.  Due to the mild weather during this late fall and early winter, some may still be in the process of working their way south.  Currently, many robins are concentrated along the river shoreline where receding water has exposed unfrozen soils to provide these birds with opportunities for finding earthworms (Lumbricidae) and other annelids.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
This Golden-crowned Kinglet was observed searching the trees and shrubs along the Susquehanna shoreline for tiny insects and spiders. Temperatures above the bare ground along the receding river can be a few degrees higher than in surrounding snow-covered areas, thus improving the chances of finding active prey among the trunks and limbs of the riparian forest.
Brown Creeper
Not far from the kinglet, a Brown Creeper is seen searching the bark of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) for wintering insects, as well as their eggs and larvae.  Spiders in all their life stages are a favorite too.
American Pipits
American Pipits not only inhabit farm fields during the winter months, they are quite fond of bare ground along the Susquehanna.  Seen quite easily along a strip of pebbly shoreline exposed by receding water, these birds will often escape notice when spending time on mid-river gravel and sand bars during periods of low flow.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.

Migrating Ducks Find Emergency Refuge on the Susquehanna

As anticipated, lakes and ponds throughout the lower Susquehanna basin are beginning to freeze.  Fortunately for the waterfowl thereon, particularly diving ducks, the rain-swollen river is slowly receding and water clarity is improving to provide a suitable alternative to life on the man-made impoundments.

Ice-free Susquehanna at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
The Susquehanna, ice-free and receding from near flood stage levels last week, can presently provide suitable habitat for diving ducks and other wintering waterfowl.
A Common Merganser on the Susquehanna in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.
A feeding Common Merganser takes a breather between dives on the Susquehanna in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

The deep freeze is not only impacting ponds and lakes in the lower Susquehanna valley, but is evidently affecting the larger bodies of water to our north and northwest.  During Tuesday’s snow event, thousands of diving ducks arrived on the main stem of the river—apparently forced down by the inclement weather while en route to the Atlantic Coast from the Great Lakes and its connected waterways, which are currently beginning to freeze.

Ice-free Susquehanna
Tuesday’s snowfall not only blanketed the landscape with a coating of white,…
Bay Ducks on the Susquehanna
…it prompted thousands of migrating “bay ducks” including Canvasbacks, Redheads, scaup, and other diving species to seek open water and make a forced landing.
Scaup on the Susquehanna
Scaup were by far the most numerous of the birds in the grounded flight.  The majority appeared to be Lesser Scaup.
Scaup in flight.
Scaup in flight on the Susquehanna.
Scaup, Buffleheads, and Long-tailed Duck
A mixed raft of scaup and Buffleheads seen one day after a snowstorm-related fallout of late-season migrants.  A single Long-tailed Duck, a species formerly known as Oldsquaw, can be seen to the lower left.
Scaup, Bufflehead, and Long-tailed Duck
Scaup and a Bufflehead (center) fly past a Long-tailed Duck.  Because they winter primarily in coastal waters, both of the latter species are sometimes categorized as “sea ducks”.
Ruddy Ducks
A small flock of Ruddy Ducks.
Common Mergansers
While Common Mergansers on the Susquehanna are fish eaters (piscivores), other diving ducks observed during this fallout event are primarily benthic feeders, eating plant matter and invertebrate animals collected from the river bottom.
Common Goldeneyes
A small flock of Common Goldeneyes. They, like the Long-tailed Duck and Bufflehead, are sometimes known as a species of “sea duck”.
Scaup and Buffleheads
Another mixed raft of scaup and Buffleheads loafing on the Susquehanna.
Bald Eagle
Large numbers of waterfowl attract the attention of the river’s ever-vigilant Bald Eagles.
Adult Bald Eagle
An adult Bald Eagle patrolling the area of a fallout in search of dead, sick, or injured ducks.  In addition to the victims of naturally occurring ailments, eagles find birds and mammals wounded or killed by hunters to be particularly attractive sources of food.   They can, therefore, quite easily ingest pieces of shot.  Because eagles in the lower Susquehanna valley feed as frequently in upland habitats as they do in riverine environs, use of alternatives to toxic lead shot is prudent practice in all habitat types.
Fourth-year Bald Eagle
A Bald Eagle in the first month of its fourth calendar year.   Though not yet matured to breeding age, this bird is nevertheless smart enough to be on the lookout for vulnerable or deceased waterfowl during a post-storm fallout.
Seeing Some Waterfowl
A fallout of some migrating waterfowl seldom escapes notice by members of the gasoline and gunpowder gang…
Taking Aim at Some Waterfowl
…who find their very presence an irresistible temptation to arouse their adolescent urges…
Harrassing Some Waterfowl
…to get an adrenaline junkie’s fix.

With more snow on the way for tomorrow, you may be wondering if another fallout like this could be in the works.  The only way to find out is to get out there and have a look.  Good luck!  And be good!

Piscivorous Waterfowl Visiting Lakes and Ponds

Heavy rains and snow melt have turned the main stem of the Susquehanna and its larger tributaries into a muddy torrent.  For fish-eating (piscivorous) ducks, the poor visibility in fast-flowing turbid waters forces them to seek better places to dive for food.  With man-made lakes and ponds throughout most of the region still ice-free, waterfowl are taking to these sources of open water until the rivers and streams recede and clear.

Common Mergansers
The Common Merganser is a species of diving duck with a primary winter range that, along the Atlantic Coast, reaches its southern extreme in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds.  Recently, many have left the main stem of the muddy rivers to congregate on waters with better visibility at some of the area’s larger man-made lakes.
Common Mergansers Feeding
Common Mergansers dive to locate and capture prey, primarily small fish.  During this century, their numbers have declined along the southern edge of their winter range, possibly due to birds remaining to the north on open water, particularly on the Great Lakes.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, some of these cavity-nesting ducks can now be found year-round in areas where heavy timber again provides breeding sites in riparian forests.  After nesting, females lead their young to wander widely along our many miles of larger rivers and streams to feed.
Several Common Mergansers Intimidating a Male with a Freshly Caught Fish
The behavior of these mergansers demonstrates the stiff competition for food that can result when predators are forced away from ideal habitat and become compressed into less favorable space.  On the river, piscivores can feed on the widespread abundance of small fish including different species of minnows, shiners, darters, and more.  In man-made lakes stocked for recreational anglers with sunfish, bass, and other predators (many of them non-native), small forage species are usually nonexistent.  As a result, fish-eating birds can catch larger fish, but are successful far less often.  Seen here are several mergansers resorting to intimidation in an effort to steal a young bass away from the male bird that just surfaced with it.  While being charged by the aggressors, he must quickly swallow his oversize catch or risk losing it.

With a hard freeze on the way, the fight for life will get even more desperate in the coming weeks.  Lakes will ice over and the struggle for food will intensify.  Fortunately for mergansers and other piscivorous waterfowl, high water on the Susquehanna is expected to recede and clarify, allowing them to return to their traditional environs.  Those with the most suitable skills and adaptations to survive until spring will have a chance to breed and pass their vigor on to a new generation of these amazing birds.

Birds of Snow-covered Farmland

When the ground becomes snow covered, it’s hard to imagine anything lives in the vast wide-open expanses of cropland found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s fertile valleys.

Snow-covered Farm Field
A snow-covered field with no standing vegetation.  For nearly all wild birds, mammals, and other animals, modern agricultural practices offer no means of sustenance, particularly during the winter months.

Yet, there is one group of birds that can be found scrounging a living from what little exists after a season of high-intensity farming.  Meet the Horned Lark.

Horned Larks
Horned Larks occur year-round in the lower Susquehanna region.  Birds found wintering here are hardy individuals that breed in the arctic tundra, terrain reminiscent of our treeless farmlands.  Another population of larks seems to have adapted to no-till farming, nesting with some success in unplowed fields during the early part of the growing season.  The impact of herbicide application on survival of these broods could be a topic of research for an energetic student out there…hint, hint.
A Flock of Horned Larks
Nearly invisible on bare ground, Horned Larks are much more conspicuous after a fresh snowfall.  For protection from predators, they gather in flocks.  During the days of raw manure application, 300 to 500 larks could be found attracted to a freshly spread strip in a snow-covered field.  Modern liquid manure, which contains fewer undigested seeds and grains for larks, is not as attractive to these and other birds.
Horned Larks in Snow
During severe storms, we’ve seen Horned Larks remain active throughout the night.  We’ve even witnessed them taking shelter by burying themselves in the snow.
Horned Lark in Flight
To find food, Horned Larks are constantly on the move…
Horned Lark
…seeking out bare ground or the seed-bearing tops of plant stems that remain exposed above the snow.
Horned Larks Feeding at Roadside
Following storms, Horned Larks often gather along roadsides where snow removal has revealed “weed” seeds and other tiny morsels that, though they are almost imperceptible to us, are a meal for a Horned Lark.
A Horned Lark munching "weed" seeds.
A Horned Lark munching “weed” seeds.
Horned Larks and Lapland Longsrurs
Flocks of wintering Horned Larks will sometimes contain one or more of the several much less numerous species with a similar proclivity for tundra-like environs during the colder months.  We examined this gathering a little bit more closely…
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks
…and found these Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus).  In winter, Lapland Longspurs (the two streaked birds: one to the far left and the other high-stepping the white line) can be hard to discern from the earth tones of farmland habitat.  Breeding males, however, are a brilliant white with a chestnut-colored nape and a black bib, mask, and cap.  On rare occasions, these males in spectacular alternate plumage can be found in the lower Susquehanna valley prior to their departure to nesting areas near the treeline in northern Canada and Alaska.
Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs
A close-up image (through the windshield) of a roadside flock of Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs (top, far right, and third from bottom).

If you decide to take a little post-storm trip to look for Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, be sure to drive carefully.  Do your searching on quiet rural roads with minimal traffic.  Stop and park only where line-of-sight and other conditions allow it to be done safely.  Use your flashers and check your mirrors often.  Think before you stop and park—don’t get stuck or make a muddy mess.  And most important of all, be aware that you’re on a roadway—get out of the way of traffic.

Eastern Meadowlarks
Flushed from roadside feeding areas by passing automobiles, these Eastern Meadowlarks were previously displaced from their grassland and pasture foraging areas by snow cover.

If you’re not going out to look for larks and longspurs, we do have a favor to ask of you.  Please remember to slow down while you’re driving.  Not only is this an accident-prone time of year for people in cars and trucks, it’s a dangerous time for birds and other wildlife too.  They’re at greatest peril of getting run over while concentrated along roadsides looking for food following snow storms.

American Pipit
The American Pipit is another barren-field specialist that can be found feeding at roadside following snowstorms, particularly when they coincide with the bird’s migration in late fall or early spring.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Snow Bunting
The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), like the Lapland Longspur, occurs among flocks of Horned Larks in winter.  Other barren-ground birds you’ll see feeding along country roads following significant snowfalls include Savannah and Vesper Sparrows.
Killdeer
During mild winters, Killdeer may linger in farmlands where they are more easily heard than seen…until it snows.

Birds of the Sunny Grasslands

With the earth at perihelion (its closest approach to the sun) and with our home star just 27 degrees above the horizon at midday, bright low-angle light offered the perfect opportunity for doing some wildlife photography today.  We visited a couple of grasslands managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to see what we could find…

Grasslands and Hedgerows
On this State Game Lands parcel, prescribed fire is used to maintain a mix of grasslands and brushy early successional growth.  In nearby areas, both controlled fire and mechanical cutting are used to remove invasive species from hedgerows and the understory of woodlots.  Fire tolerant native species then have an opportunity to recolonize the forest and improve wildlife habitat.  This management method also reduces the fuel load in areas with the potential for uncontrolled wildfires.
The sun-dried fruits of a Common Persimmon tree found growing in a hedgerow.
The sun-dried fruits of a native Common Persimmon tree found growing in a hedgerow.
Savanna-like Grasslands
Just one year ago, mechanical removal of invasive trees and shrubs (including Multiflora Rose) on this State Game Land was followed by a prescribed fire to create this savanna-like grassland.
Song Sparrow
Hundreds of Song Sparrows were found in the grasses and thickets at both locations.
White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrows were also abundant, but prefer the tangles and shrubs of the thickets.
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbirds were vigilantly guarding winter supplies of berries in the woodlots and hedgerows.
Swamp Sparrow
In grasses and tangles on wetter ground, about a dozen Swamp Sparrows were discovered.
White-crowned Sparrow
The adult White-crowned Sparrow is always a welcome find.
White-crowned Sparrow
And seeing plenty of juvenile White-crowned Sparrows provides some assurance that there will be a steady stream of handsome adult birds arriving to spend the winter during the years to come.
Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Juncos were encountered only in the vicinity of trees and large shrubs.
Savannah Sparrow
Several Savannah Sparrows were observed.  Though they’re mostly found in treeless country, this particular one happened to pose atop a clump of shrubs located within, you guessed it, the new savanna-like grasslands.
Winter Wren
A tiny bird, even when compared to a sparrow, the Winter Wren often provides the observer with just a brief glimpse before darting away into the cover of a thicket.
Standing Clump of Timber
Within grasslands, scattered stands of live and dead timber can provide valuable habitat for many species of animals.
A "snag" with an excavated nest cavity.
Woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds rely upon an abundance of “snags” (standing dead trees) for breeding sites.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This Red-bellied Woodpecker and about a dozen others were found in trees left standing in the project areas.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker soaks up some sun.
Pileated Woodpecker
This very cooperative Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be preoccupied by insect activity on the sun-drenched bark of the trees.  This denizen of mature forests will oft times wander into open country where larger lumber is left intact.

Pileated Woodpecker

Northern Harrier
Just as things were really getting fun, some late afternoon clouds arrived to dim the already fading daylight.  Just then, this Northern Harrier made a couple of low passes in search of mice and voles hidden in the grasses.
Northern Harrier
It was a fitting end to a very short, but marvelously sunny, early winter day.

Want Healthy Floodplains and Streams? Want Clean Water? Then Make Room for the Beaver

I’m worried about the beaver.  Here’s why.

Imagine a network of brooks and rivulets meandering through a mosaic of shrubby, sometimes boggy, marshland, purifying water and absorbing high volumes of flow during storm events.  This was a typical low-gradient stream in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in the days prior to the arrival of the trans-Atlantic human migrant.  Then, a frenzy of trapping, tree chopping, mill building, and stream channelization accompanied the east to west waves of settlement across the region.  The first casualty: the indispensable lowlands manager, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

Beaver Traps
Nineteenth-century beaver traps on display in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Soon after their arrival, Trans-Atlantic migrants (Europeans) established trade ties to the trans-Beringia migrants (“Indians”) already living in the lower Susquehanna valley and recruited them to cull the then-abundant North American Beavers.  By the early 1700s, beaver populations (as well as numbers of other “game” animals) were seriously depleted, prompting the Conoy, the last of the trans-Beringia migrants to reside on the lower Susquehanna, to disperse.  The traps pictured here are samples of the types which were subsequently used by the European settlers to eventually extirpate the North American Beaver from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during the 1800s.

Without the widespread presence of beavers, stream ecology quickly collapsed.  Pristine waterways were all at once gone, as were many of their floral and faunal inhabitants.  It was a streams-to-sewers saga completed in just one generation.  So, if we really want to restore our creeks and rivers, maybe we need to give the North American Beaver some space and respect.  After all, we as a species have yet to build an environmentally friendly dam and have yet to fully restore a wetland to its natural state.  The beaver is nature’s irreplaceable silt deposition engineer and could be called the 007 of wetland construction—doomed upon discovery, it must do its work without being noticed, but nobody does it better.

North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Beavers were reintroduced to the Susquehanna watershed during the second half of the twentieth century.
A beaver dam on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
A beaver dam and pond on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Floodplain Wetlands Managed by North American Beavers
Beaver dams not only create ponds, they also maintain shallow water levels in adjacent areas of the floodplain creating highly-functional wetlands that grow the native plants used by the beaver for food.  These ecosystems absorb nutrients and sediments.  Prior to the arrival of humans, they created some of the only openings in the vast forests and maintained essential habitat for hundreds of species of plants as well as animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.  Without the beaver, many of these species could not, and in their absence did not, exist here.
The beaver lodge provides shelter from the elements and predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Their newly constructed lodge provides shelter from the elements and from predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes Visit a Beaver-managed Floodplain in the lower Susquehanna valley
Floodplains managed by North American Beavers can provide opportunities for the recovery of the uncommon, rare, and extirpated species that once inhabited the network of streamside wetlands that stretched for hundreds of miles along the waterways of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Great Blue Heron
A wintering Great Blue Heron is attracted to a beaver pond by the abundance of fish in the rivulets that meander through its attached wetlands.
Sora Rail in Beaver Pond
Beaver Ponds and their attached wetlands provide nesting habitat for uncommon birds like this Sora rail.
Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed in Beaver Pond
Lesser Duckweed grows in abundance in beaver ponds and Wood Ducks are particularly fond of it during their nesting cycle.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a Beaver Pond
Beaver dams maintain areas of wet soil along the margins of the pond where plants like Woolgrass sequester nutrients and contain runoff while providing habitat for animals ranging in size from tiny insects to these rare visitors, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis).
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.

Few landowners are receptive to the arrival of North American Beavers as guests or neighbors.  This is indeed unfortunate.  Upon discovery, beavers, like wolves, coyotes, sharks, spiders, snakes, and so many other animals, evoke an irrational negative response from the majority of people.  This too is quite unfortunate, and foolish.

North American Beavers spend their lives and construct their dams, ponds, and lodges exclusively within floodplains—lands that are going to flood.  Their existence should create no conflict with the day to day business of human beings.  But humans can’t resist encroachment into beaver territory.  Because they lack any basic understanding of floodplain function, people look at these indispensable lowlands as something that must be eliminated in the name of progress.  They’ll fill them with soil, stone, rock, asphalt, concrete, and all kinds of debris.  You name it, they’ll dump it.  It’s an ill-fated effort to eliminate these vital areas and the high waters that occasionally inundate them.  Having the audacity to believe that the threat of flooding has been mitigated, buildings and poorly engineered roads and bridges are constructed in these “reclaimed lands”.  Much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed has now been subjected to over three hundred years-worth of these “improvements” within spaces that are and will remain—floodplains.  Face it folks, they’re going to flood, no matter what we do to try to stop it.  And as a matter of fact, the more junk we put into them, the more we displace flood waters into areas that otherwise would not have been impacted!  It’s absolute madness.

By now we should know that floodplains are going to flood.  And by now we should know that the impacts of flooding are costly where poor municipal planning and negligent civil engineering have been the norm for decades and decades.  So aren’t we tired of hearing the endless squawking that goes on every time we get more than an inch of rain?  Imagine the difference it would make if we backed out and turned over just one quarter or, better yet, one half of the mileage along streams in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to North American Beavers.  No more mowing, plowing, grazing, dumping, paving, spraying, or building—just leave it to the beavers.  Think of the improvements they would make to floodplain function, water quality, and much-needed wildlife habitat.  Could you do it?  Could you overcome the typical emotional response to beavers arriving on your property and instead of issuing a death warrant, welcome them as the talented engineers they are?  I’ll bet you could.