Forest vs. Woodlot

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

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

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

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

A Springtime Quiz

The mild winter has apparently minimized weather-related mortality for the local Green Frog population.  With temperatures in the seventies throughout the lower Susquehanna valley for this first full day of spring, many recently emerged adults could be seen and, on occasion, heard.  Yellow-throated males tested their mating calls—reminding the listener of the sound made by the plucking of a loose banjo string.

Here’s a gathering of Green Frogs seen this afternoon along the edge of a small pond.  How many can you find in this photograph?

If you venture out, keep alert for the migrating birds of late winter and early spring.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are moving through on their way north.  Look for them in mature trees in woodlands, suburbs, and city parks.
The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), our largest sparrow, is a thrush-like denizen of shrubby forest understories and field edges.  It is an early spring and late autumn transient in the lower Susquehanna valley.
While stopping to rest and feed during their northbound spring journey, Ring-necked Ducks and other diving duck species visit wetlands and flooded timber along the Susquehanna River as well as clear ponds and lakes elsewhere in the watershed.
Eastern Bluebirds are presently migrating through the area.  Some will stay to breed where nest boxes or natural cavities are available in suitable habitat.
Tree Swallows are now arriving.  In open grasslands, pastures, and adjacent to almost any body of water, they will nest in boxes like those placed for bluebirds.
Keep that bird bath clean and fill it with fresh water, the American Robin flights are peaking right now.  Breeding males like this one are starting to sing and defend nesting territories.
Red-winged Blackbirds, like other native blackbirds, are moving through in a fraction of the numbers that were seen in the lower Susquehanna valley during the latter decades of the twentieth century.  They remain a common breeding species in pastures and cattail wetlands.
And of course, keep an eye to the sky.  There are still thousands of Snow Geese in the area.

If you’re staying close to home, be sure to check out the changing appearance of the birds you see nearby.  Some species are losing their drab winter basic plumage and attaining a more colorful summer breeding alternate plumage.

European Starlings are losing their spotted winter (basic) plumage and beginning to display a glossy multicolored set of breeding feathers.
An American Goldfinch in transition from winter (basic) plumage to bright yellow, black, and white summer colors.

So just how many Green Frogs were there in that first photograph?  Here’s the answer.

If you counted seven, you did really well.  Numbers eight and nine are very difficult to discern.

Happy Spring.  For the benefit of everyone’s health, let’s hope that it’s a hot and humid one!

Clean Slate for 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clean slate for 2020.

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