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).
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.
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.
To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis). They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago. Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established. Have a look.
Isn’t that amazing? North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems. Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed? Let the beavers do the job!
Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp? Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points. Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States. So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.
Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money? Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.
As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes. Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.
No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.
We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon. And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.
Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition. Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics. The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.
DAY THREE—May 23, 1983
For Russ, Harold, and Steve, this trip would target several bird species each individual had never observed at any prior time in their lives. Upon seeing a new bird, they could add it to their personal “life list”. They, like thousands of other “listers”, were dedicated to the goal of having a life list that included over 600 species seen in the American Birding Association (A.B.A.) area—North America north of Mexico. Harold had traveled throughout much of North America (and the world) and had an A.B.A. life list well in excess of 600 species, thus he had seen nearly all of the regularly occurring birds in the coverage area. His chance for seeing new species was limited to vagrants that might wander into North America or tropical birds that, over time, had extended their range north of Mexico into the United States. I don’t recall how many species Russ and Steve had seen, but I know each had very few opportunities for new finds east of the Rocky Mountains. For all three of these men, the Lower Rio Grande Valley presented a best bet to add multiple species to their lists. I had never been south of Cape Hatteras or west of Pennsylvania, so I had the opportunity to add dozens of species to a life list. Throughout the trip, Russ, Harold, and Steve enthusiastically helped me locate and see new species. As a result, I saw over 50 new birds to add to my list.
One of the functions of the American Birding Association was to decide which bird species an observer could add to the life list. The official A.B.A. list was revised regularly to include not only regularly occurring native species, but vagrants as well. One of the trickier determinations was the status of introduced species. Back in 1983, a birder could count a Ring-necked Pheasant seen in Pennsylvania on their A.B.A. life list because they were thought to be freely reproducing with a population sustainably established in the state. Today, they are considered an exotic release and are not countable under A.B.A. rules.
Enter the Black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus), a member of the pheasant family that back in 1983, was countable under A.B.A. rules. Native to India, the Black Francolin was introduced into southwest Louisiana in 1961 and was apparently reproducing and established. Russ had a tip that they were seen with some regularity in areas of farmland, marsh, and oil fields south of Vinton, Louisiana. It was one of this trip’s target species for his life list.
“Ready for Black Francolin. Up at 5:30 — After breakfast, we went to Gum Cove Road. No Francolins, but at the end of the blacktop road, we had 5 Purple Gallinules in the scope at one time. King Rails were plentiful. We found a dead male Painted Bunting. Later, we saw a very beautiful live one. Water everywhere. Flooded fields everywhere. The road was flooded for about 50 yards at one point. White Ibis were abundant.”
Other sightings of note along Gum Cove Road included: Northern Bobwhite, Common Nighthawk, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Forster’s Tern, Black Tern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Brown Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major), and Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)—a very large and noisy blackbird I had never seen before.
The reader may be interested to know that today, the area between Vinton and the Gulf of Mexico has largely been surrendered to the forces of the hurricanes that strike the region with some regularity. Cameron Parish* is a sparsely populated buffer zone of marshes, abundant wildlife, and oil and gas wells. Its population of more than 9,000 in 1983 has plunged to less than 6,000 today. Hurricane Rita (2005) and Hurricane Ike (2008) precipitated the sharp decline. The latter hurricane had a 22-foot storm surge that flooded areas 60 miles inland of the coastline. Following these storms, the majority of severely damaged and destroyed homes were not rebuilt and residents in the most affected areas relocated. In 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall at Cameron Parish with record-tying 150 mph winds and a storm surge that pushed flood waters inland to Lake Charles. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta followed with 100 mph winds. For government agencies, the emergency response required by these two storms was minimized by the reduced presence of people and/or their personal property.
* A parish in Louisiana is similar to a county in other states.
“After a quick stop at the camp grounds, where I slipped and fell in the shower last nite, we headed south. Larry saw many birds en route.”
Russ took a bad fall on a slippery wet concrete floor and had bruises to show for it. It worried me; he was 71 years old at the time. But he was adamant about continuing on and did so with great vigor.
Just hours after a sojourn through the swampy parcels south of Vinton, we were cruising through the metropolis of Houston, Texas, then across a landscape with less cultivated cropland and more scrubland with grazing. Here and there, but primarily to the east of Houston, blankets of roadside wildflowers painted the landscape with eye-popping color. Lady Bird Johnson encouraged the plantings soon after she and Lyndon returned to Texas upon leaving life in the White House in 1969. The sight of those vivid blooms was so memorable and so beautiful. One couldn’t resist making nasty comparisons to the gobs of mowed grass and mangled trash along the highways back in Pennsylvania.
Birds along the way: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Common Nighthawk, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue, Heron, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Laughing Gull, Black Tern, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Painted Bunting. I saw my first Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) near Woodsboro, Texas, and added both to my life list.
“We stopped for the nite at an A OK camp ground 7 miles south of Kingsville.”
Birds at the camp included two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying overhead, Common Nighthawk, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Blue Grosbeak, and another “lifer”—Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre).
We also saw a Mexican Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys mexicanus), easily identified by the rows of white spots running the length of its back.
While relaxing at the campsite that evening, we watched the landscape darken and remarked how interesting it was that the glowing red sun had yet to set below the distant horizon—a land so very flat and air so hazy and humid.
Fog and mist lingered throughout the day, as did the migratory water birds on the river and lakes in the lower Susquehanna valley. As a continuation of yesterday’s post on the fallout, here’s a photo tour of some of the sites where ducks, loons, grebes, and other birds have gathered.