The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway. With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.
Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.
Blue-winged Teal are among the earliest of the waterfowl to begin southward migration.
Sandpipers and plovers have been on the move since July. The bird in the foreground with these Killdeer is not one of their offspring, but rather a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), a regular late-summer migrant in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Hawk watch sites all over North America are counting birds right now. The Osprey is an early-season delight as it glides past the lookouts. Look for them moving down the Susquehanna as well.
Bald Eagles will be on the move through December. To see these huge raptors in numbers, visit a hawk watch on a day following passage of a cold front when northwest winds are gusting.
Merlins were seen during this past week in areas with good concentrations of dragonflies. This particular one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties…
…was soon visited by another.
Check the forest canopy for Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Some local birds are still on breeding territories while others from farther north are beginning to move through.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are darting through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to the tropics. This one has no trouble keeping pace with a passing Tree Swallow.
Nocturnal flights can bring new songbirds to good habitat each morning. It’s the best time of year to see numbers of Empidonax flycatchers. But, because they’re often silent during fall migration, it’s not the best time of year to easily identify them. This one lacking a prominent eye ring is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
During the past two weeks, Red-eyed Vireos have been numerous in many Susquehanna valley woodlands. Many are migrants while others are breeding pairs tending late-season broods.
During mornings that follow heavy overnight flights, Blackburnian Warblers have been common among waves of feeding songbirds.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are regular among flocks of nocturnal migrants seen foraging among foliage at sunrise.
Scarlet Tanagers, minus the brilliant red breeding plumage of the males, are on their way back to the tropics for winter.
While passing overhead on their way south, Bobolinks can be seen or heard from almost anywhere in the lower Susquehanna valley. Their movements peak in late August and early September.
During recent evenings, Bobolinks have been gathering by the hundreds in fields of warm-season grasses at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
If you go to see the Bobolinks there, visit Stop 3 on the tour route late in the afternoon and listen for their call. You’ll soon notice their wings glistening in the light of the setting sun as they take short flights from point to point while they feed. Note the abundance of flying insects above the Big Bluestem and Indiangrass in this image. Grasslands like these are essential habitats for many of our least common resident and migratory birds.
One can get a stiff neck looking up at the flurry of bird activity in the treetops at this time of year. Many of the Neotropical migrants favor rich forests as daytime resting sites after flying through the night. For others, these forests are a destination where they will nest and raise their young.
The Veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a Neotropical thrush that breeds in extensive mature forest on the dampest slopes of the Diabase ridges in the Gettysburg Basin. Their rolling flute-like songs echo through the understory as newly arrived birds establish nesting territories.
The whistled song of the Baltimore Oriole is often heard long before this colorful Neotropical is seen among the foliage of a treetop. Some dead branches allow us a glimpse of this curious beauty.
The “Pee-a-wee……..Pee-urr” song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), a small flycatcher, is presently heard in the Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls. It breeds in forested tracts throughout the lower Susquehanna valley. The vocalizations often continue through the summer, ending only when the birds depart to return to the tropics for the winter.
While constructing a nest beneath a tree canopy, an Eastern Wood-Pewee form-fits the cup where eggs will soon be laid.
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americana) nests in the treetops of Riparian Woodlands along the Susquehanna and its tributaries. Most arrive during the second half of May for their summer stay. It is a renowned consumer of caterpillars.
The Cedar Waxwing is a notorious wanderer. Though not a Neotropical migrant, it is a very late nester. Flocks may continue moving for another month before pairs settle on a place to raise young.
Of the more than twenty species of warblers which regularly migrate through the lower Susquehanna Valley, the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is among those which breeds here. It is particularly fond of streamside thickets.
For the birds that arrive earlier in spring than the Neotropical migrants, the breeding season is well underway. The wet weather may be impacting the success of the early nests.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows arrived back in April. At traditional nest sites, including the York Haven Dam and local creek bridges, small groups of adults were seen actively feeding and at times perching in dead treetops during recent days. There was an absence of visits to the actual nest cavities where they should be feeding and fledging young by now. It’s very possible that these nests failed due to the wet weather and flooding. Another nest attempt may follow if drier conditions allow stream levels to subside and there is an increase in the mass of flying insects available for the adults to feed to their young..
A Carolina Chickadee, a resident species, is seen atop a hollow stump where it and a mate are constructing a new nest for a second brood. Did the first brood fail? Not sure.
Common Mergansers are an uncommon but regular nesting species of waterfowl on the lower Susquehanna River. They nest in cavities, requiring very large trees to accommodate their needs. It was therefore encouraging to see this pair on a forested stream in northern Lancaster County during the weekend. However, a little while after this photograph was taken the pair flew away, indicating that they are not caring for young which by now should be out of the nest and on the move under the watchful care of the female.
So long for now, if you’ll excuse me please, I have a sore neck to tend to.