Photo of the Day

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Snow days are often good days to keep an eye on the bird feeders for something unusual.  Today was no exception.  Two Red-breasted Nuthatches including this one were attracted to a tube full of peanuts and to the abundance of cones on the Eastern Hemlocks at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  During autumn migration, Red-breasted Nuthatches can be somewhat common in our region but they rarely stick around, preferring instead to spend the winter in southern pine forests.

In the Doghouse

Am I the only one who feels like Oliver Wendell Douglas living in an eccentric society overrun by millions of dogs, cats, and other domestic animals that have assumed the identity of Arnold Ziffel?

Just asking.

Before society drifted away into a prosperity-induced coma of fantasy, it was the only dog you would see in a restaurant.  (Public Domain image by Hansuan Fabregas)

Migratory Waterfowl on Local Ponds and Lakes

Following the deep freeze of a week ago, temperatures soaring into the fifties and sixties during recent days have brought to mind thoughts of spring.  In the pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, Green Frogs are again out and about.

Green Frogs
A pair of Green Frogs seen today alongside the headquarters pond.  A sign of spring?

But is this really an early spring?  Migrating waterfowl indicate otherwise.  Having been forced south from the Great Lakes during the bitter cold snap, a variety of our tardy web-footed friends belatedly arrived on the river and on the Susquehanna Flats of upper Chesapeake Bay about ten days ago.  Now, rising water from snow melt and this week’s rains have forced many of these ducks onto local lakes and ponds where ice coverage has been all but eliminated by the mild weather.  For the most part, these are lingering autumn migrants.  Here’s a sample of some of the waterfowl seen during a tour of the area today…

Snow Geese
Like other late-season migrants, Snow Geese take advantage of open water on area lakes until ice forces them south to the Atlantic Coastal Plain.  In a little more than a month from now, they’ll begin working their way north again.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Mute Swans
The non-native Mute Swan has become an invasive species.  Because they are predominantly non-migratory, groups of Mute Swans congregating in valuable wetland habitat can decimate these aquatic ecosystems with their persistent year-round feeding.  Their long necks help them consume enormous quantities of benthic foods that would otherwise be available to migratory diving ducks during their autumn and spring stopovers.
Gadwalls
Small flocks of Gadwalls will sometimes spend the winter on ice-free vegetated ponds in the lower Susquehanna region.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.  Let’s take a closer look!
Redheads, Lesser Scaup, and Canvasback
Six Redheads, three Lesser Scaup (top row left), and a Canvasback (upper right).
Redheads
Redheads.
Buffleheads
Buffleheads.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
Lesser Scaup
A female (right) and a first-winter male (left) Lesser Scaup.
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck.

With the worst of winter’s fury still to come, it’s time to say farewell to most of these travelers for a little while.  With a little luck, we’ll see them again in March or April.

Striped Skunk
Our official susquehannawildlife.net prognosticator climbed out of its winter hideout today to have a look around.   Then, without hesitation, the forecast for 2023 was issued, “Winter Stinks!”

Photo of the Day

Carolina Wren
Carolina Wrens can be attracted to your garden by offering peanuts, mealworms, and suet.  They are especially fond of brushy hedgerows, woodpiles, and rock walls where they forage for wintering spiders and insects.  The Carolina Wren sings throughout the year, its loud “chickory-chockory-chickory” can brighten an otherwise gloomy day.

Photo of the Day

Dark-eyed Junco
What’s under your tree this morning?   It might be a Dark-eyed Junco searching for small seeds by scratching around in the leaves and detritus.  Also known as the “snowbird”, the junco is a member of the  Passerellidae, our native sparrow family.  It winters in gardens, along forest edges, and in early successional habitat throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Do Those Bluebird Feeders Really Work?

Those bluebird feeders with a one-and-a-half-inch entrance hole seem like a great way to offer supplemental foods like mealworms and raisins while excluding invasive European Starlings and other large birds from gobbling up all the expensive fare.  But do they really work?  Well, have a look for yourself…

An Eastern Bluebird eating mealworms in a homemade feeder with a one-and-a-half-inch entrance hole at each end.
An Eastern Bluebird eating mealworms in a homemade feeder with a one-and-a-half-inch entrance hole at each end.
Female Eastern Bluebird inside the feeder enclosure.
A female Eastern Bluebird inside the feeder enclosure.
A male Eastern Bluebird inside the feeder enclosure.
A male Eastern Bluebird inside the feeder enclosure.
Mealworms drawing a crowd.
Mealworms drawing a crowd.
Mealworms "To Go".
Mealworms “To Go”.  The lid on the far side of the feeder is hinged for cleaning the interior and filling the petri dish with fresh provisions.

There you have it.  Feeders like this one are available commercially, so you don’t have an in-house wood butcher to get one.  We’ve heard a rumor that Santa makes them too!

Photo of the Day

A juvenile Ring-billed Gull with a freshly caught Gizzard Shad is pursued by a hungry adult Great Black-backed Gull on the Susquehanna at Conowingo Dam.
A juvenile Ring-billed Gull with a freshly caught Gizzard Shad is pursued by a hungry adult Great Black-backed Gull on the Susquehanna at Conowingo Dam.

Photo of the Day

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Have you ever wondered how the Red-bellied Woodpecker got its name?  Well, take a close look at this one.  Not the most obvious field mark, is it?

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

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

The White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity

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

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

Photo of the Day

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

Today’s Golden Eagle Flight

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

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

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

Photo of the Day

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

Black-capped Chickadee Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northwest Winds in November Bring Big Birds

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

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

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

Photo of the Day

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

Nocturnal Migrants in Moonlight

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

(NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Select Your Berry-producing Plants Now

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

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

Photo of the Day

Now that summer is coming to a close, this juvenile Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) will soon be headed underground for the winter.  For now, it spends sunny days searching for invertebrates among large logs in a forest clearing.  In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, roads, high-intensity agriculture, and suburban development have fragmented populations of Five-lined Skinks and many other reptiles and amphibians, thus subjecting them to piecemeal elimination.

Photo of the Day

Common Raven
Resembling an overgrown crow with a wedge-shaped tail, the Common Raven is an oft times comical corvid; this one twisting its head to have a gander at observers on a ridgetop hawk-counting lookout.