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.

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!

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.

Photo of the Day

Bald Eagle
The last of the year’s migrating Bald Eagles are streaming down the ridges of the mid-Atlantic region and many of them will be stopping for at least a part of the winter season along the lower Susquehanna River.  If you want to see them, now is the best time.  Taking a walk along a riverside recreation trail is a relaxing way to spend some time checking them out.  To see the greatest concentrations of these majestic birds, plan a visit to one of the lower river’s hydroelectric dams.  Conowingo Dam, located where U.S. Route 1 crosses the river at Rising Sun, Maryland, is currently hosting dozens of visiting eagles.  If you’ve never been there, we can assure you that it’s certainly worth the trip.

Rare Barthelemyi Variant of the Golden Eagle Seen Migrating Along Second Mountain

As the autumn raptor migration draws to a close in the Lower Susquehanna Valley Watershed, observers at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, were today treated to a flight of both Bald and Golden Eagles.  Gliding on updrafts created by a brisk northwest breeze striking the slope of the ridge, seven of the former and three of the latter species were seen threading their way through numerous bands of snow as they made their way southwest toward favorable wintering grounds.

The best and final bird of the day, and possibly one of the highlights of the season at this counting station, was a “Barthelemyi Golden Eagle”, a rare Golden Eagle variant with conspicuous shoulder epaulets created by white scapular feathers.

"Barthelemyi Golden Eagle" passing the Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
The grand finale, a “Barthelemyi Golden Eagle”, passed the Second Mountain Hawk Watch during a break in the afternoon’s snow showers.  Note the bright white scapulars at the base of the leading edge of the wing.
"Barthelemyi Golden Eagle" passing the Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
Barthelemyi variants are known from populations of Golden Eagles in the Alps of southern Europe and from both eastern and western populations of birds in North America.  Spofford (1961) documented a pair of Golden Eagles with the Barthelemyi traits nesting in eastern North America.  In two successive seasons they produced young that developed the same plumage characteristics, suggesting the variation may be passed to offspring by one or more genetic alleles.

Today’s rarity is the second record of a “Barthelemyi Golden Eagle” at Second Mountain Hawk Watch—the first occurring on October 21, 2017.

SOURCES

Spofford, W. R.  1961.  “White Epaulettes in Some Appalachian Golden Eagles”.  Prothonotary.  27: 99.

Photos of a Visiting Cooper’s Hawk

While trimming the trees and shrubs in the susquehannawildlife.net garden, it didn’t seem particularly unusual to hear the resident Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens scolding our every move.  But after a while, their persistence did seem a bit out of the ordinary, so we took a little break to have a look around…

Carolina Wren
A scolding Carolina Wren…
Carolina Wren
…keeping an eye on something in the tree overhead.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
There, just ten to twelve feet away, was this juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, perched quietly and having a look around.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
Hatch-year Cooper’s Hawks have yellow eyes that darken to red as the bird matures.  The blood stains reveal that this bird, despite its young age, is a successful hunter.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
This individual seems to be particularly well nourished, showing early growth of a gray-and-black adult tail feather.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
Despite their continuous pestering, this Cooper’s Hawk showed little interest in the small wrens, juncos, and chickadees that harassed it.  Larger birds, particularly non-native House Sparrows, are its quarry.  Moments after this photo was taken, the pursuit was underway.  To conserve energy and protect themselves from injury, predators target the vulnerable.  The unwary, the injured, the diseased, and the weak among its prey species are the most likely to be seized.  And thus, these raptors, while in the near term providing for their own sustenance and safety, assure the long-term existence of their species by helping to maintain a healthy population of their prey species.

Here at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, we are visited by Cooper’s Hawks for several days during the late fall and winter each year.  The small birds that visit our feeders have plenty of trees, shrubs, vines, and other natural cover in which to hide from raptors and other native predators.  We don’t create unnatural concentrations of birds by dumping food all over the place.  We try to keep our small birds healthy by sparingly offering fresh seed and other provisions in clean receptacles to provide a supplement to the seeds, fruits, insects, and other foods that occur naturally in the garden.  With only a few vulnerable small birds around, the Cooper’s Hawks visit just long enough to cull out our weakest individuals before moving elsewhere.  While they’re in our garden, they too are our welcomed guests.

Big Winds Bring Big Birds

Colder temperatures and gusty northwest winds are prompting our largest migratory raptors to continue their southward movements.  Here are some of the birds seen earlier today riding updrafts of air currents along one of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s numerous ridges.

Turkey Vulture
Hundreds of Turkey Vultures are presently passing through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way south.  Their winter abundance here is largely determined by the availability of carrion.
Hatch-year Bald Eagle
The late-season push of Bald Eagles is now underway.  Today, ten or more birds were seen at several of the region’s hawk watches.  This particular eagle is a juvenile, a hatch-year bird, with an unusually large area of white in the tail.
Red-tailed Hawks
Red-tailed hawks pass a hawk-counting station while gliding away to the southwest within an energy-saving updraft of ridge-deflected wind.
Golden Eagle and Red-shouldered Hawk
A migrating Golden Eagle keeps a wary eye on a marauding Red-shouldered Hawk.  This Golden Eagle is young, either in its hatch year or second year of life.
Red-tailed Hawk
A Red-tailed Hawk migrating during a late-afternoon snow shower.

As winter begins clawing at the door, now is great time to visit a hawk watch near you to see these late-season specialties.  Remember to dress in layers and to click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page.  Hawkwatcher’s Helper is your guide to regional hawk watching locations and raptor identification.  Be sure to check it out.  And remember, it’s cold on top of those ridges, so don’t forget your hat, your gloves, and your chap stick!

This Week at Regional Hawk Watches

With nearly all of the Neotropical migrants including Broad-winged Hawks gone for the year, observers and counters at eastern hawk watches are busy tallying numbers of the more hardy species of diurnal raptors and other birds.  The majority of species now coming through will spend the winter months in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the southern United States and Mexico.

Here is a quick look at the raptors seen this week at two regional counting stations: Kiptopeke Hawk Watch near Cape Charles, Virginia, and Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.

Kiptopeke Hawk Watch
The hawk-watching platform at Kiptopeke State Park is located along Chesapeake Bay near the southern tip of Delmarva Peninsula.  In autumn, thousands of raptors and other birds migrate through the Atlantic Coastal Plain Province.  Those that follow the shorelines south frequently concentrate in spectacular numbers before crossing the mouths of the bays they encounter.  This phenomenon makes both Cape May, New Jersey, on Delaware Bay and Kiptopeke, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay exceptional places to experience fall flights of migrating birds.
Second Mounatin Hawk Watch
A Sharp-shinned Hawk is counted as it swoops by the owl decoy at Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation.  Migrating raptors save energy by riding updrafts of air created by winds blowing against the slopes of the mountainsides in the Ridge and Valley Province.
Sharp-shinned Hawk
A Sharp-shinned Hawk passes the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.  “Sharp-shins” are currently the most numerous migrants both on the coast and at inland counting stations.
Sharp-shinned Hawk
A Sharp-shinned Hawk nearly passes observers unnoticed as it skims the treetops.
Sharp-shinned Hawk at owl decoy.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk eyes up an owl decoy.  Under cover of darkness, nocturnal owls could rather easily prey upon young and small adult hawks and falcons, both on the nest or at roost.  Accordingly, many diurnal raptors instinctively harass owls to drive them from their presence.  An owl decoy at the lookout helps attract migrating birds for a closer look.
Cooper's Hawk
An adult Cooper’s Hawk flaps its way past a counting station.  Like the similar Sharp-shinned Hawk, the larger Cooper’s Hawk is a member of the genus Accipiter.  As a proportion of the annual fall Accipiter flight, the Cooper’s Hawk is more numerous at coastal hawk watches than at inland sites.
Osprey
The majority of Osprey migrate along the coast, but a few are still being seen at inland hawk watches.
Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles are commonly seen at both coastal and inland lookouts.  Their movements continue well into late fall.
Northern Harrier
A Northern Harrier illuminated by a setting sun.  Northern Harriers are often still flying when many other species have gone to roost for the day.
An adult male Northern Harrier flying in misty weather.
An adult male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost”, flying in misty weather, at a time when few other birds were in the air. 
American Kestrel
The American Kestrel, like our other falcons, is seen in greatest concentrations at coastal counting stations.  It is our most numerous falcon.
Merlin
The Merlin provides only a brief observation opportunity as it passes the lookout.  These falcons are dark, speedy, and easily missed as they fly by.
Tree Swallow
While moving south, Merlins often accompany flights of migrating Tree Swallows, a potential food source.
Merlin with Dragonfly
A Merlin consumes a dragonfly.  Eating is no reason to stop moving.
Juvenile "Tundra Peregrine"
The “Tundra Peregrine” is an arctic-breeding Peregrine Falcon that travels a distance of over 6,000 miles to southern South America for winter.  It is strictly a migratory species in our region with numbers peaking during the first two weeks of October each year.  These strong fliers have little need for the updrafts from mountain ridges, inland birds often observed flying in a north to south direction.  The majority of “Tundra Peregrines” are observed following coastlines, with some migrating offshore to make landfall at points as far south as Florida and the Caribbean islands before continuing across water again to reach the northern shores of Central and South America.  This “Tundra Peregrine” is a juvenile bird on its first southbound trip.

During coming days, fewer and fewer of these birds will be counted at our local hawk watches.  Soon, the larger raptors—Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Golden Eagles—will be thrilling observers.  Cooler weather will bring several flights of these spectacular species.  Why not plan a visit to a lookout near you?  Click on the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page for site information and a photo guide to identification.  See you at the hawk watch!

Common Raven
It’s not all hawks at the hawk watch.  Even the coastal sites are now seeing fun birds like the playful Common Raven on a regular basis.
Eastern Meadowlarks in a Loblolly Pine.
Coastal locations are renowned places to see migrating songbirds in places outside of their typical habitat.  Here a flock of Eastern Meadowlarks has set down in the top of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) in downtown Cape Charles, Virginia, not far from Kiptopeke Hawk Watch.

A “Grasshopper Hawk” in the Susquehanna Valley

Tropical Storm Ophelia has put the brakes on a bustling southbound exodus of the season’s final waves of Neotropical migrants.  Winds from easterly directions have now beset the Mid-Atlantic States with gloomy skies, chilly temperatures, and periods of rain for an entire week.  These conditions, which are less than favorable for undertaking flights of any significant distance, have compelled many birds to remain in place—grounded to conserve energy.

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks on a Thermal Updraft
In the days prior to the arrival of Tropical Storm Ophelia, thousands of high-flying Broad-winged Hawks were being tallied as they passed hawk-counting stations throughout the region. As the last of this year’s migrants continue through, lack of clear skies, sunshine, and thermal updrafts has slowed the pace of their movements significantly.

Of the birds on layover, perhaps the most interesting find has been a western raptor that occurs only on rare occasions among the groups of Broad-winged Hawks seen at hawk watches each fall—a Swainson’s Hawk.  Discovered as Tropical Storm Ophelia approached on September 21st, this juvenile bird has found refuge in coal country on a small farm in a picturesque valley between converging ridges in southern Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.  Swainson’s Hawks are a gregarious species, often spending time outside of the nesting season in the company of others of their kind.  Like Broad-winged Hawks, they frequently assemble into large groups while migrating.

A juvenile Swainson's Hawk in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.
A juvenile Swainson’s Hawk in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.

Swainson's Hawk in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.

Swainson’s Hawks nest in the grasslands, prairies, and deserts of western North America.  Their autumn migration to wintering grounds in Argentina covers a distance of up to 6,000 miles.  Among raptors, such mileage is outdone only by the Tundra Peregrine Falcon.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk spends up to four months each year covering a 12,000-mile round-trip migration route.  The long primaries are an adaptation that give the wings additional lift, allowing them to use air currents including thermal updrafts to conserve energy while flying.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk
Swainson’s Hawks are renowned for spending time on the ground, intermittently running and hopping in pursuit of prey.

During the nesting cycle, Swainson’s Hawks consume primarily small vertebrates, mostly mice and other small rodents.  But during the remainder of the year, they feed almost exclusively on grasshoppers.  To provide enough energy to fuel their migrations, they must find and devour these insects by the hundreds.  Not surprisingly, the Swainson’s Hawk is sometimes known as the Grasshopper Hawk or Locust Hawk, particularly in the areas of South America where they are common.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk eating a cricket.
The juvenile Swainson’s Hawk visiting Northumberland County has been feeding on grasshoppers, katydids, and is seen here eating a cricket.

So just how far will our wayward Swainson’s Hawk have to travel to get back on track?  Small numbers of Swainson’s Hawks pass the winter in southern Florida each year and still others are found in and near the scrublands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Mexico.  But the vast majority of these birds make the trip all the way to the southern half of South America and the farmlands and savannas of Argentina—where our winter is their summer.  The best bet for this bird would be to get hooked up with some of the season’s last Broad-winged Hawks when they start flying in coming days, then join them as they head toward Houston, Texas, to make the southward turn down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico into Central America and Amazonia.  Then again, it may need to find its own way to warmer climes.  Upon reaching at least the Gulf Coastal Plain, our visitor stands a much better chance of surviving the winter.

Juvenile Swainson's Hawk in Flight
As long as it can still find grasshoppers to eat, our wayward bird in Northumberland County still has time before it needs to make its way south.   As they pass through Texas, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama, Swainson’s Hawks are numerous among flocks of southbound Broad-winged Hawks.  But while hawk watches in these areas are presently recording maximum annual counts of the latter, peak numbers of the former won’t occur until the final two or three weeks of October.

Surf’s Up: The Waves Keep Rolling In

“Waves” of warblers and other Neotropical songbirds continue to roll along the ridgetops of southern Pennsylvania.  The majority of these migrants are headed to wintering habitat in the tropics after departing breeding grounds in the forests of southern Canada.  At Second Mountain Hawk Watch, today’s early morning flight kicked off at sunrise, then slowed considerably by 8:30 A.M. E.D.T.  Once again, in excess of 400 warblers were found moving through the trees and working their way southwest along the spine of the ridge.  Each of the 12 species seen yesterday were observed today as well.  In addition, there was a Northern Parula and a Canada Warbler.  Today’s flight was dominated by Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and Tennessee Warblers.

A Blackburnian Warbler at sunrise on Second Mountain.
A Blackburnian Warbler at sunrise on Second Mountain.
A hungry Blackburnian Warbler feeding on insects.
A hungry Blackburnian Warbler feeding on insects.
Black-throated Green Warbler on Second Mountain.
Black-throated Green Warblers were a plentiful species among both yesterday’s and today’s waves of Neotropical migrants.
A juvenile Black-throated Green Warbler on Second Mountain
A juvenile Black-throated Green Warbler.
Tennessee Warbler on Second Mountain.
One of the scores of Tennessee Warblers seen on Second Mountain early this morning.
Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warblers were still common today, but not moving through in the numbers seen yesterday.
A male Black-throated Blue Warbler on Second Mountain.
A male Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Magnolia Warbler on Second Mountain.
Compared to yesterday’s flight, lesser numbers of Magnolia Warblers were seen today.
An adult male Wilson's Warbler on Second Mounatin.
An adult male Wilson’s Warbler was a good find among the hundreds of birds swarming the ridgetop.
Nashville Warbler
This Nashville Warbler spent much of the day in the tangles of Mile-a-minute Weed surrounding the lookout.

Other interesting Neotropical migrants joined the “waves” of warblers…

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo numbers were higher than yesterday.
Warbling Vireo
This Warbling Vireo was found peering from the cover of the shady forest.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
A minimum of six Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were identified including the juvenile male seen here in first-fall plumage.  Other good sightings were Scarlet Tanagers, an adult male Baltimore Oriole, and a dozen or more Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
Least Flycatcher on second Mountain.
Three Least Flycatchers were heard calling and seen chasing one another through a stand of dead timber on the south slope below the lookout.
Broad-winged Hawk
After the warbler flight settled, the task of counting migrating raptors commenced.  Five Broad-winged Hawks including this one were tallied as they glided away to the southwest for a winter vacation in the tropics of Central and South America.

Catch a Wave While You’re Sittin’ on Top of the World

During the recent couple of mornings, a tide of Neotropical migrants has been rolling along the crests of the Appalachian ridges and Piedmont highlands of southern Pennsylvania.  In the first hours of daylight, “waves” of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, and other birds are being observed flitting among the sun-drenched foliage as they feed in trees along the edges of ridgetop clearings.  Big fallouts have been reported along Kittattiny Ridge/Blue Mountain at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and at Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch.  Birds are also being seen in the Furnace Hills of the Piedmont.

Here are some of the 300 to 400 warblers (a very conservative estimate) seen in a “wave” found working its way southwest through the forest clearing at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County this morning.  The feeding frenzy endured for two hours between 7 and 9 A.M. E.D.T.

Tennessee Warblers at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
Tennessee Warblers (Leiothlypis peregrina) were very common among the migrants seen this morning on Second Mountain.
Tennessee Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
An adult male Tennessee Warbler.
Nashville Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Nashville Warbler.
Chestnut-sided Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Cape May Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
Cape May Warblers were another common species during the morning flight.
Magnolia Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
Magnolia Warblers were frequently observed as well.
Black-and-white Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Black-and-white Warbler exhibiting its nuthatch-like feeding behavior.
Blackburnian Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Blackburnian Warbler.
Black-throated Green Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
Black-throated Green Warblers were numerous.
Bay-breasted Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Bay-breasted Warbler.
Wilson's Warbler at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
This was the only Wilson’s Warbler discerned among the hundreds of warblers seen in a “wave” on Second Mountain this morning.

Not photographed but observed in the mix of species were several Black-throated Blue Warblers and American Redstarts.

In addition to the warblers, other Neotropical migrants were on the move including two Common Nighthawks, a Broad-winged Hawk, a Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus), and…

Scarlet Tanager at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
At least half a dozen Scarlet Tanagers were in the treetops.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
And no less than 23 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were counted cruising southbound past the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch today.

Then, there was a taste of things to come…

Red-breasted Nuthatch at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
One of 3 Red-breasted Nuthatches filling the air on the mountaintop with calls reminiscent of a toy tin horn.  Will this summer’s forest fires in Canada prompt a significant invasion of this and other birds including winter finches in coming months?  Time will tell.

Seeing a “wave” flight is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  Visiting known locations for observing warbler fallouts such as hawk watches, ridgetop clearings, and peninsular shorelines can improve your chances of witnessing one of these memorable spectacles by overcoming the first variable.  To overcome the second, be sure to visit early and often.  See you on the lookout!

It’s Raptor and Warbler Migration Time

As we enter September, autumn bird migration is well underway.  Neotropical species including warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and nighthawks are already headed south.  Meanwhile, the raptor migration is ramping up and hawk watch sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic States are now staffed and counting birds.  In addition to the expected migrants, there have already been sightings of some unusual post-breeding wanderers.  Yesterday, a Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) was seen passing Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) that spent much of August in Juniata County was seen from Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch while it was hunting in a Perry County field six miles to the north of the lookout!  Both of these rarities are vagrants from down Florida way.

A Peregrine Falcon speeds past the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.
A Peregrine Falcon speeds past the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch yesterday.
Broad-winged Hawk
Later this month, numbers of high-flying Broad-winged Hawks moving past counting stations will reach their peak.  Most sites will experience one or more days with hundreds or perhaps thousands of these Neotropical migrants streaming by.
Black-and-white Warbler
This Black-and-white Warbler was found among a “wave” of migrating songbirds moving through some ridgetop trees.
Cape May Warbler
A juvenile Cape May Warbler peers from the cover of an Eastern Hemlock.

To plan a visit to a hawk watch near you, click on the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page to find a list and brief description of suggested sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.  “Hawkwatcher’s Helper” also includes an extensive photo guide for identifying the raptors you’re likely to see.

And to identify those confusing fall warblers and other migrants, click the “Birds” tab at the top of this page and check out the photo guide contained therein.  It includes nearly all of the species you’re likely to see in the lower Susquehanna valley.

Shorebirds on the Mud in York County, Pennsylvania

At Lake Redman just to the south of York, Pennsylvania, a draw down to provide drinking water to the city while maintenance is being performed on the dam at neighboring Lake Williams, York’s primary water source, has fortuitously coincided with autumn shorebird migration.  Here’s a sample of the numerous sandpipers and plovers seen today on the mudflats that have been exposed at the southeast end of the lake…

Least Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
One of a hundred or more Least Sandpipers seen on mudflats at Lake Redman today.
 A Semipalmated Plover and a Least Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Semipalmated Plover and a Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpipers at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Pectoral Sandpipers.
A Pectoral Sandpiper and Least Sandpipers at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Pectoral Sandpiper and two Least Sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper.
A Stilt Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Stilt Sandpiper feeding.
Stilt Sandpiper consuming an edible at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stilt Sandpiper consuming an edible.
Stilt Sandpiper at rest at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stilt Sandpiper at rest.
A Solitary Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Solitary Sandpiper
A Lesser Yellowlegs at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Lesser Yellowlegs.
A Greater Yellowlegs at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Greater Yellowlegs.
Osprey at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stirring up the shorebird crowd every now and then were several Ospreys, but all would soon be back to the business of feeding in the mud.
An Osprey hovers above shallow water near the mudflats as it searches for fish.
An Osprey hovers above shallow water near the mudflats as it searches for fish.

Not photographed but present at Lake Redman were at least two additional species of shorebirds, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper—bringing the day’s tally to ten.  Not bad for an inland location!  It’s clearly evident that these waders overfly the lower Susquehanna valley in great numbers during migration and are in urgent need of undisturbed habitat for making stopovers to feed and rest so that they might improve their chances of surviving the long journey ahead of them.  Mud is indeed a much needed refuge.

Butterflies and More at Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area

If you’re feeling the need to see summertime butterflies and their numbers just don’t seem to be what they used to be in your garden, then plan an afternoon visit to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve along Fishing Creek Valley Road (PA 443) just east of U.S. 22/322 and the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg.  The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages the park’s 1,025 acres mostly as forested land with more than ten miles of trails.  While located predominately on the north slope of Blue Mountain, a portion of the preserve straddles the crest of the ridge to include the upper reaches of the southern exposure.

American Chestnut at Boyd Big Tree Preserve
A grove of American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) planted at Boyd Big Tree Preserve is part of a propagation program working to restore blight-resistant trees to Pennsylvania and other areas of their former range which included the Appalachians and the upper Ohio River watershed.

Fortunately, one need not take a strenuous hike up Blue Mountain to observe butterflies.  Open space along the park’s quarter-mile-long entrance road is maintained as a rolling meadow of wildflowers and cool-season grasses that provide nectar for adult butterflies and host plants for their larvae.

Butterfly Meadow at Boyd Big Tree Preserve
A view looking north at the butterfly meadow and entrance road at Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area.  Second Mountain is in the background.
Walking a Meadow Path
Mowed paths follow the entrance road and a portion of the perimeter of the meadow allowing visitors a chance to wander among the waist-high growth to see butterflies, birds, and blooming plants at close range without trampling the vegetation or risking exposure to ticks.
A Silver-spotted Skipper feeding on nectar from Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) flowers.
A Silver-spotted Skipper feeding on nectar from the flowers of Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum).  Like the milkweeds, Indian Hemp is a member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae).
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Common Milkweed.
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Common Milkweed.
Great Spangled Fritillary on Common Milkweed.
A Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on Common Milkweed.
A Black Swallowtail feeding on Common Milkweed nectar.
A Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) feeding on Common Milkweed nectar.
A Pipevine Swallowtail on Common Milkweed.
A Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) on Common Milkweed.
A Pipevine Swallowtail on Common Milkweed.
Another Pipevine Swallowtail on Common Milkweed.  Note the hook-shaped row of red-orange spots on the underside of the hindwing.
A Pipevine Swallowtail on visiting Butterfly Weed.
A Pipevine Swallowtail visiting the brilliant blooms of Butterfly Weed, a favorite of a wide variety of pollinators.
A Black Swallowtail on Butterfly Weed
A Black Swallowtail with damaged wings alights atop a Butterfly Weed flower cluster.  Note the pair of parallel rows of red-orange spot on the underside of the hindwing.
A Monarch on Butterfly Weed
A Monarch feeding on nectar from the flowers of Butterfly Weed.
A mating pair of Eastern Tailed Blues.
A mating pair of Eastern Tailed Blues on a Timothy (Phleum pratense) spike.
A female (left) and male Great Spangled Fritillary.
A male Great Spangled Fritillary (right) pursuing a female.
Common Green Darner
Butterflies aren’t the only colorful insects patrolling the meadows at Boyd Big Tree Preserve.  Dragonflies including Common Green Darners are busily pursuing prey, particularly small flying insects like mosquitos, gnats, and flies.
Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk
Dragonflies themselves can become prey and are much sought after by Broad-winged Hawks. This very vocal juvenile gave us several good looks as it ventured from the forest into the skies above the upper meadow during midday.  It wasn’t yet a good enough flier to snag a dragonfly, but it will have plenty of opportunities for practice during its upcoming fall migration which, for these Neotropical raptors, will get underway later this month.

Do yourself a favor and take a trip to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area.  Who knows?  It might actually inspire you to convert that lawn or other mowed space into much-needed butterfly/pollinator habitat.

While you’re out, you can identify your sightings using our photographic guide—Butterflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed—by clicking the “Butterflies” tab at the top this page.  And while you’re at it, you can brush up on your hawk identification skills ahead of the upcoming migration by clicking the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab.  Therein you’ll find a listing and descriptions of hawk watch locations in and around the lower Susquehanna region.  Plan to visit one or more this autumn!

Shorebirds and More at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

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.

2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp. Your Federal Duck Stamp is your free pass to visit the nation's National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.
Your Federal Duck Stamp is your admission ticket for entry into many of the country’s National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.

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.

Northern Bobwhite
This pair of Northern Bobwhite, a species now extirpated from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and the rest of Pennsylvania, escorted us into the refuge.  At Bombay Hook, they don’t waste your money mowing grass.  Instead, a mosaic of warm-season grasses and early successional growth creates ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhite and other wildlife.
Shearness Pool at Bombay Hook N.W.R.
Twice each day, high tide inundates mudflats in the saltwater tidal marshes at Bombay Hook prompting shorebirds to move into the four man-made freshwater pools.  Birds there can often be observed at close range.  The auto tour route through the refuge primarily follows a path atop the dikes that create these freshwater pools.  Morning light is best when viewing birds on the freshwater side of the road, late-afternoon light is best for observing birds on the tidal saltwater side.
Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron at high tide on the edge of a tidal creek that borders Bombay Hook’s tour route at Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Semipalmated Sandpipers stream into Raymond Pool to escape the rising tide in the salt marsh.
Semipalmated Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitcher
More Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) arrive at Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers
Two more Short-billed Dowitchers on the way in.
Sandpipers, Avocets, Egrets, and Mallards
Recent rains have flooded some of the mudflats in Bombay Hook’s freshwater pools. During our visit, birds were often clustered in areas where bare ground was exposed or where water was shallow enough to feed.  Here, Short-billed Dowitchers in the foreground wade in deeper water to probe the bottom while Semipalmated Sandpipers arrive to feed along the pool’s edge.  Mallards, American Avocets, and egrets are gathered on the shore.
Short-billed Dowitchers
More Short-billed Dowitchers arriving to feed in Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers gathered in shallow water where mudflats are usually exposed during mid-summer in Raymond Pool.
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers, several Short-billed Dowitchers, and some Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) crowd onto a mud bar at Bear Swamp Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster's Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher
A zoomed-in view of the previous image showing a tightly packed crowd of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster’s Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher (upper left).
Short-billed Dowitchers
Short-billed Dowitchers wading to feed in the unusually high waters of Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret in Raymond Pool.  A single Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) can been seen flying near the top of the flock of dowitchers just below the egret.
Stilt Sandpiper among Short-billed Dowitchers
Zoomed-in view of a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), the bird with white wing linings.
American Avocets
American Avocets probe the muddy bottom of Raymond Pool.
Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers
Among these Short-billed Dowitchers, the second bird from the bottom is a Dunlin. This sandpiper, still in breeding plumage, is a little bit early.  Many migrating Dunlin linger at Bombay Hook into October and even November.
Least Sandpiper
This Least Sandpiper found a nice little feeding area all to itself at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool
Greater Yellowlegs
A Greater Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Caspian Tern
A Caspian Tern patrolling Raymond Pool.
Marsh Wren singing
The chattering notes of the Marsh Wren’s (Cistothorus palustris) song can be heard along the tour road wherever it borders tidal waters.
Marsh Wren Nest
This dome-shaped Marsh Wren nest is supported by the stems of Saltwater Cordgrass (Sporobolus alterniflorus), a plant also known as Smooth Cordgrass.  High tide licks at the roots of the cordgrass supporting the temporary domicile.
Seaside Dragonlet
By far the most common dragonfly at Bombay Hook is the Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice).  It is our only dragonfly able to breed in saltwater.  Seaside Dragonlets are in constant view along the impoundment dikes in the refuge.
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds are still nesting at Bombay Hook, probably tending a second brood.
Bobolink
Look up!   A migrating Bobolink passes over the dike at Shearness Pool.
Mute Swans and Canada Geese
Non-native Mute Swans and resident-type Canada Geese in the rain-swollen Shearness Pool.
Trumpeter Swans
A pair of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) as seen from the observation tower at Shearness Pool.  Unlike gregarious Tundra and Mute Swans, pairs of Trumpeter Swans prefer to nest alone, one pair to a pond, lake, or sluggish stretch of river.  The range of these enormous birds was restricted to western North America and their numbers were believed to be as low as 70 birds during the early twentieth century.  An isolated population consisting of several thousand birds was discovered in a remote area of Alaska during the 1930s allowing conservation practices to protect and restore their numbers.  Trumpeter Swans are slowly repopulating scattered east coast locations following recent re-introduction into suitable habitats in the Great Lakes region.
Great Egret
A Great Egret prowling Shearness Pool.
Snowy Egret
A Snowy Egret in Bear Swamp Pool.
A hen Wood Duck (second from right) escorts her young.
Wood Ducks in Bear Swamp Pool.
Black-necked Stilt and young.
A Bombay Hook N.W.R. specialty, a Black-necked Stilt and young at Bear Swamp Pool.

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.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects a vast parcel of tidal salt marsh and an extensive network of tidal creeks. These areas are not only essential wildlife habitat, but are critical components for maintaining water quality in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab
The shells of expired Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs were formerly widespread and common among the naturally occurring flotsam along the high tide line on Delaware Bay.  We found just this one during our visit to Bombay Hook.  Man has certainly decimated populations of this ancient crustacean during recent decades.
As the tide goes out, it’s a good time for a quick walk into the salt marsh on the boardwalk trail opposite Raymond Pool.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Among the Saltmarsh Cordgrass along the trail and on the banks of the tidal creek there, a visitor will find thousands and thousands of Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs (Minuca pugnax).
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs and their extensive system of burrows help prevent the compaction of tidal soils and thus help maintain ideal conditions for the pure stands of Saltwater Cordgrass that trap sediments and sequester nutrients in coastal wetlands.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab
A male Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab peers from its den.
Great Egret
Herons and egrets including this Great Egret are quite fond of fiddler crabs.  As the tide goes out, many will venture away from the freshwater pools into the salt marshes to find them.
Green Heron
A Green Heron seen just before descending into the cordgrass to find fiddler crabs for dinner.
Clapper Rail
A juvenile Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans crepitans) emerges from the cover of the cordgrass along a tidal creek to search for a meal.
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis leave their high-tide hiding place in Shearness Pool to head out into the tidal marshes for the afternoon.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide in the marshes opposite Shearness Pool.
Ospey
An Osprey patrols the vast tidal areas opposite Shearness Pool.

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.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Buntings nest in areas of successional growth and yes, that is a Spotted Lanternfly on the grape vine at the far right side of the image.
Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) are common nesting birds at Bombay Hook.  This one was in shrubby growth along the dike at the north end of Shearness Pool.
Trumpet Creeper and Poison Ivy
These two native vines are widespread at Bombay Hook and are an excellent source of food for birds. The orange flowers of the Trumpet Vine are a hummingbird favorite and the Poison Ivy provides berries for numerous species of wintering birds.
Pileated Woodpecker in Sweet Gum
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the numerous birds that supplements its diet with Poison Ivy berries.  The tree this individual is visiting is an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a species native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Delaware.  The seed balls are a favorite winter food of goldfinches and siskins.
Red-bellied Slider and Painted Turtle
Finis Pool has no frontage on the tidal marsh but is still worth a visit.  It lies along a spur road on the tour route and is located within a deciduous coastal plain forest.  Check the waters there for basking turtles like this giant Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubiventris) and much smaller Painted Turtle.
White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity is common along the road to Finis Pool.
Fowler's Toad
Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) breed in the vernal ponds found in the vicinity of Finis Pool and elsewhere throughout the refuge.
Turk's Cap Lily
The National Wildlife Refuge System not only protects animal species, it sustains rare and unusual plants as well.  This beauty is a Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), a native wildflower of wet woods and swamps.
Wild Turkey
Just as quail led us into the refuge this morning, this Wild Turkey did us the courtesy of leading us to the way out in the afternoon.

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.

A Limpkin’s Journey to Pennsylvania: A Waffle House Serving Escargot at Every Exit

Mid-summer can be a less than exciting time for those who like to observe wild birds.  The songs of spring gradually grow silent as young birds leave the nest and preoccupy their parents with the chore of gathering enough food to satisfy their ballooning appetites.  To avoid predators, roving families of many species remain hidden and as inconspicuous as possible while the young birds learn how to find food and handle the dangers of the world.

But all is not lost.  There are two opportunities for seeing unique birds during the hot and humid days of July.

First, many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and godwits begin moving south from breeding grounds in Canada.  That’s right, fall migration starts during the first days of summer, right where spring migration left off.  The earliest arrivals are primarily birds that for one reason on another (age, weather, food availability) did not nest this year.  These individuals will be followed by birds that completed their breeding cycles early or experienced nest failures.  Finally, adults and juveniles from successful nests are on their way to the wintering grounds, extending the movement into the months we more traditionally start to associate with fall migration—late August into October.

For those of you who find identifying shorebirds more of a labor than a pleasure, I get it.  For you, July can bring a special treat—post-breeding wanderers.  Post-breeding wanderers are birds we find roaming in directions other than south during the summer months, after the nesting cycle is complete.  This behavior is known as “post-breeding dispersal”.  Even though we often have no way of telling for sure that a wandering bird did indeed begin its roving journey after either being a parent or a fledgling during the preceding nesting season, the term post-breeding wanderer still applies.  It’s a title based more on a bird sighting and it’s time and place than upon the life cycle of the bird(s) being observed.  Post-breeding wanderers are often southern species that show up hundreds of miles outside there usual range, sometimes traveling in groups and lingering in an adopted area until the cooler weather of fall finally prompts them to go back home.  Many are birds associated with aquatic habitats such as shores, marshes, and rivers, so water levels and their impact on the birds’ food supplies within their home range may be the motivation for some of these movements.  What makes post-breeding wanderers a favorite among many birders is their pop.  They are often some of our largest, most colorful, or most sought-after species.  Birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, stilts, avocets, terns, and raptors are showy and attract a crowd.

While it’s often impossible to predict exactly which species, if any, will disperse from their typical breeding range in a significant way during a given year, some seem to roam with regularity.  Perhaps the most consistent and certainly the earliest post-breeding wanderer to visit our region is the “Florida Bald Eagle”.  Bald Eagles nest in “The Sunshine State” beginning in the fall, so by early spring, many of their young are on their own.   By mid-spring, many of these eagles begin cruising north, some passing into the lower Susquehanna valley and beyond.  Gatherings of dozens of adult Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam during April and May, while our local adults are nesting and after the wintering birds have gone north, probably include numerous post-breeding wanderers from Florida and other Gulf Coast States.

So this week, what exactly was it that prompted hundreds of birders to travel to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from all over the Mid-Atlantic States and from as far away as Colorado?

Birders observing something special at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on July 10, 2023.

Was it the majestic Great Blue Herons and playful Killdeer?

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron and a Killdeer.

Was it the colorful Green Herons?

Green Heron
Green Heron

Was it the Great Egrets snapping small fish from the shallows?

Great Egret
Great Egret

Was it the small flocks of shorebirds like these Least Sandpipers beginning to trickle south from Canada?

Least Sandpipers
Least Sandpipers

All very nice, but not the inspiration for traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see a bird.

It was the appearance of this very rare post-breeding wanderer…

Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
A Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County.  The Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is the only surviving member of the family Aramidae.

…Pennsylvania’s first record of a Limpkin, a tropical wading bird native to Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and South America.  Many observers visiting Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area had never seen one before, so if they happen to be a “lister”, a birder who keeps a tally of the wild bird species they’ve seen, this Limpkin was a “lifer”.

The Limpkin is an inhabitant of vegetated marshlands where it feeds almost exclusively upon large snails of the family Ampullariidae, including the Florida Applesnail (Pomacea paludosa), the largest native freshwater snail in the United States.

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
In the United States, the native range of the Limpkin lies within the native range of the Florida Applesnail, shown here in gold.  Introduced populations of the snail are shown in brown.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)
A spectacular nineteenth-century rendition of the Florida Applesnail, including an egg mass, illustrated by Helen E. Lawson in Samuel S. Haldeman’s “Monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United States”.

Observations of the Limpkin lingering at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area have revealed a pair of interesting facts.  First, in the absence of Florida Applesnails, this particular Limpkin has found a substitute food source, the non-native Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis).  And second, Chinese Mystery Snails have recently become established in the lakes, pools, and ponds at the refuge, very likely arriving as stowaways on Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) and/or American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), native transplants brought in during recent years to improve wetland habitat and process the abundance of nutrients (including waterfowl waste) in the water.

A Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Chinese Mystery Snail is the largest freshwater snail in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
By hitching a ride on aquatic transplants like this Spatterdock, non-native freshwater snails are easily vectored into new areas outside their previous range.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily, flowering in August.
American Lotus in flower at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Blooming American Lotus transplants in a pool at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area during August.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
Limpkin holding Chinese Mystery Snail
The Limpkin is seen here maneuvering the the snail in its bill, a set of mandibles specially adapted for extracting the bodies of large freshwater snails from their shells.
Limpkin Grasping Chinese Mystery Snail
The tweezers-like tip of the bill is used to grasp the shell by the rim of the opening or by the “trapdoor” (operculum) that protects the snail inside.
Chinese Mystery Snail
A posed Chinese Mystery Snail showing its “trapdoor”, the operculum protecting the soft body tissue when the animal withdraws inside.  The tips of the Limpkin’s bill close tightly like the end of a tweezers to grasp the operculum and remove it and the snail’s body from the shell.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Limpkin Removing Chinese Mystery Snail from Shell
The tweezers-tipped bill, which is curved slightly to the right in some Limpkins, is slid into the shell to grasp the snails body and remove it for consumption.  The entire extraction process takes 10 to 30 seconds.

The Middle Creek Limpkin’s affinity for Chinese Mystery Snails may help explain how it was able to find its way to Pennsylvania in apparent good health.  Look again at the map showing the range of the Limpkin’s primary native food source, the Florida Applesnail.  Note that there are established populations (shown in brown) where these snails were introduced along the northern coast of Georgia and southern coast of South Carolina…

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
Native (gold) and non-native (brown) ranges of the Florida Applesnail.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…now look at the latest U.S.G.S. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map showing the ranges (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails…

Range (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…and now imagine that you’re a happy-go-lucky Limpkin working your way up the Atlantic Coastal Plain toward Pennsylvania and taking advantage of the abundance of food and sunshine that summer brings to the northern latitudes.  It’s a new frontier.  Introduced populations of Chinese Mystery Snails are like having a Waffle House serving escargot at every exit along the way!

Be sure to click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about the Chinese Mystery Snail and its arrival in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Once there, you’ll find some additional commentary about the Limpkin and the likelihood of Everglade Snail Kites taking advantage of the presence of Chinese Mystery Snails to wander north.  Be certain to check it out.

Everglade Snail Kite
The endangered Everglade Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus), a Florida Applesnail specialist, has survived in part due to its ability to adapt to eating the non-native Pomacea maculata applesnails which have become widespread in Florida following releases from aquaria.  The adaptation?…a larger body and bill for eating larger snails.  (National Park Service image)

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Nine


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 NINE—May 29, 1983

“Falcon Dam State Park, Texas”

“To the spillway area after breakfast and saw Ringed Kingfisher, Baird’s Sandpiper, and 2 Black-necked Stilts.  Stopped to photograph the Swainson’s Hawk which had flown in a tree.  Also saw a Blue Grosbeak.”

The Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) was notably larger than the Belted Kingfishers with which we were so familiar, so it was easy to identify.  This was yet another tropical species found north only as far as the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Baird’s Sandpiper was a pretty good find for this location in late May.

Swainson's Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk we discovered yesterday in a water-logged flightless condition had recovered.  Shortly after this photograph was taken and we had taken leave of the bird, we looked back and saw it flying away to the north.  Soon, it was out of sight.

“We drove to Santa Margarita Ranch to search for the elusive Brown Jay.”

While en route to Santa Margarita Ranch, we stopped twice to photograph birds we spotted along the way.

Plain Chachalacas
This family of Plain Chachalacas was spotted crossing the road near Falcon Dam.
Harris's Hawks
Harris’s Hawks are known to hunt in groups, hence their alternate common name “Wolf Hawk”.  We spotted these two and several others, presumably a mated pair and their recently fledged young, hunting an area of thornscrub not far from Santa Margarita Ranch near the town of Falcon Heights, Texas.

Beside the road just outside the entrance to the ranch, we observed a Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps), a tiny chickadee-like like bird with a yellow head and throat.  Verdins reside in both thornscrub and desert throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

“Rancho Santa Margarita is a group of 8 houses.  Cattle roam at will.  We walked a long way along the river — No luck.  Had lunch in the camper and repeated the morning walk.  Cattle dung all over the place.  The dung rollers were as interesting to watch as the leaf-carrying ants.  Met a Mr. McQueary who had seen them 30 min. ago, so he led us to where he had seen them, but — No luck.”

Upon arriving at Santa Margarita Ranch intending to find Brown Jays (Psilorhinus morio), we drove over the in-ground cattle gate at the entrance and back the dirt driveway to the small cluster of houses where we parked.  We checked in with a resident there and slipped them a dollar or two a head for letting us spend the day on their land.  As we walked away from the houses, we noticed some intermittent movement in a pile of construction debris along the dirt road leading to the river.  Initially thinking we may have caught glimpses of some small rodents dashing around, we watched patiently until we saw at least two Blue Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus cyanogenys) among the lumber and tin.  The pair was obviously finding insects or other sources of prey there

To find Brown Jays, one of the five target species of the trip, Father Tom had advised us to follow the advice in James Lane’s A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  The recommendations contained therein brought us to Santa Margarita Ranch.  As was the case upriver near Falcon Dam, the Tamaulipan Saline Thornscrub that covers much of the property turns abruptly to subtropical riparian forest near the banks of the Rio Grande where wetter soils predominate.  The habitat was excellent, and we were certain the birds were there, but despite significant effort, we just couldn’t bump into Brown Jays at Santa Margarita Ranch.

We did however get good looks at another Hook-billed Kite sailing above the trees downriver.  During our second walk, Harold, Steve, and I waded down a short section of the Rio Grande in hopes of getting better looks into an area of shoreline forest too thick to enter by land.  Despite recent rains, the water was low, restricted by gates at Falcon Dam to little more than the flow needed to operate the turbines and generate electricity.  We saw orioles, Red-billed Pigeon, and Great Kiskadee—but no Brown Jays.

Bewick's Wren
We heard an Olive Sparrow and this Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) singing in some thornscrub along the edge of the riparian forest at Santa Margarita Ranch.  It took some effort to finally catch a glimpse of the wren.

“On the way out…found a nest of Pyrrhuloxia and saw a 6 ft. snake hanging from a bush with a rabbit in his mouth.  The snake caught the rabbit by the shoulder and it was working hard to get free.  Finally the snake dropped the rabbit, and they both went out of sight.” 

Pyrrhuloxia
A Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) in the thornscrub along the dirt entrance/exit road to Santa Magarita Ranch.
Pyrrhuloxia
The pair of Pyrrhuloxia had their nest well-hidden.  We were lucky to have spotted it, but we dared not approach any closer for pictures for fear of frightening the nestlings and prompting premature fledging.

As we eased our way out the dirt road at Santa Magarita Ranch, we began hearing a blood-curdling series of squeals.  Russ stopped the van and as we peered into the thornscrub, we could catch glimpses of an Eastern Cottontail thrashing around.  At first we thought it had somehow become snagged in the quagmire of prickles on the dense vegetation.  Then we spotted the snake draped over the shrubs and attempting in vain to lift the cottontail off the ground.  The struggle, and the squealing, continued for several minutes as we labored to identify the snake.  As the snake attempted to reposition the cottontail so that it could swallow it head first, the rabbit broke free and escaped.  All was silent as the snake quickly fled as well.  As it slithered away we could see just how long it really was—5 to 6 feet or more.  You know, things really are bigger in Texas.  Based upon its large size, overall tan-brown color, and the rapid speed with which it left the scene, we determined it was a Western Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus).

“Back to the spillway at Falcon Dam — No luck.  Met Ron Huffman who is leading a trip for 3 women.  We will meet him at the spillway tomorrow AM early.  Back at our camp site for supper — shower and shave.  The Lesser Nighthawks were trilling late in the evening.”

During the evening, we found Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) and Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata) in the area of the campsite.  Then, as darkness settled in, the calls of Common Pauraque, Common Nighthawks, and Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) commenced.  We walked down the road to a spot where we could overlook a lower-lying area of thornscrub in hopes of catching a glimpse of some of these nightjars, particularly the latter species, as they patrolled for flying insects.  But under cloudy skies and being miles from any man-made sources of light, it was too dark to see anything flying around.

Scaled Quail
Just before sunset, this Scaled Quail appeared among the thornscrub near our campsite.

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Eight


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 EIGHT—May 28, 1983

“Bentsen State Park, Texas”

“Alarm at 6:00 A.M.  After breakfast we traveled to Falcon State Park and toured the whole camp area, stopping many places to observe birds.  We ran up a good list.”

And so we left what had been our home for the last several days and headed west.  In the forty years since our departure that morning, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park has experienced a number of operational changes.  Today, it is a World Birding Center site.  For conducting the seasonal hawk census, a tower has been erected to provide counters and observes with an unrestricted view above the treetops.  If you wanted to camp in the park now, you would need reservations and would have to hike your gear in to one of only a few primitive campsites.  Trailer and motor home accommodations no longer exist.  A tram service is now available for touring the park by motor vehicle.

West of Rio Grande City, we exited the river’s outflow delta and entered the Texas scrubland, an area mostly devoid of large trees except in moist soils immediately adjacent to the Rio Grande where the lush vegetation creates a dense subtropical riparian forest in many places.  The reservoir itself is known to attract migrating and vagrant waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and seabirds.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service base image)

Falcon State Park is located along the east shore of Falcon Reservoir.  There are no shade trees beneath which one can escape the scorching rays of the sun on a hot day.  This is the easternmost section of the scrubland’s Tamaulipan Saline Thornscrub, a xeric plant community of head-high brush found only on clay soils with a particularly high salinity.  Many of the plants look similar to other varieties of shrubs and small trees with which one may be familiar, except nearly all of them are covered with nasty thorns and prickles.  And yes, there are cactus.  You can’t make your way bushwhacking cross country without obtaining cuts, gashes, and scars to show for it.  The Falcon State Recreation Area bird checklist published in 1977 has a nice description of the plants found there—mesquite, ebano, guaycan, blackbrush and catclaw acacia, granjeno, coyotillo, huisache, tasajillo, prickly pear, allthorn, cenizo, colima, and yucca.  In the margins between the thornscrub growth, there is an abundance of grasses and wildflowers.  On nearby ridges, Tamaulipan Calcareous Thornscrub, a similar xeric plant community, occupies soils with a higher content of calcium carbonate.  Together, these communities comprise much of the Tamaulipan Mezquital ecoregion of scrublands in Starr County and western Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande valley of Texas.

After being greeted by a Greater Roadrunner at the campsite, we took a walk to the nearby shoreline of the reservoir.  We spotted Olivaceous Cormorants perched on some dead limbs in the water nearby.  Known today as Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus), it is yet another specialty of the Rio Grande Valley.  Elsewhere on or near the water—Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Osprey, Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri), Least Tern, and Caspian Tern were seen.

Greater Roadrunner
The Greater Roadrunner is right at home in the Tamaulipan Saline Thornscrub habitat in and around Falcon State Park.  This one came to check us out soon after our arrival at our campsite.  Roadrunners prey on insects, rodents, and lizards including the Texas Spotted Whiptail (Aspidoscelis gularis), a species which we found nearby.

In the thornscrub around the campground, which, like Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, we had pretty much to ourselves, we saw Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Ground Dove, Inca Dove, and White-tipped Dove.  A single Chihuahuan Raven was a fly by.  We saw and smelled several road-killed Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), but never found one alive.

Then, it started to rain.  Not just a shower, but a soaker that persisted through much of the day.  Rainy days can make for great birding, so we kept at it.  Unfortunately, such days aren’t too ideal for photography, so we did only what we could without ruining our equipment.

Cactus Wren
In the campground at Falcon State Park, a Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) takes shelter from the rain beneath a canopy protecting a picnic table.
Cactus Wren
Looks like a good idea, others soon sought shelter there as well.

“Finally we drove to the spillway of the dam and parked.” 

Falcon Dam was another of the numerous flood-control projects built on the Rio Grande during the middle of the twentieth century.  Behind it, Falcon Reservoir stores water for irrigation and operation of a hydroelectric generating station located within the dam complex.  Construction of the dam and power plant was a joint venture shared by Mexico and the United States.  The project was dedicated by Presidents Adolfo Ruiz Cortines and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.

Rainy days aside, the route precipitation takes to reach the Falcon Reservoir and the Lower Rio Grande Valley includes hundreds of miles through arid grasslands and scrublands.  Along the way, much of that water is lost to natural processes including evaporation and aquifer recharge, but an increasing percentage of the volume is being removed by man for civil, industrial, and agricultural uses.  Can the Rio Grande and its tributaries continue to meet demand?

The Rio Grande’s headwaters can be found in south-central Colorado where spring snow melt is vital to establishing adequate flow to allow the river to recharge aquifers in the hundreds of miles of arid lands through which it flows.  Presently, dams in the upper reaches of the river are operated to hold water during the spring thaw, then release it slowly to compensate for base flow lost to withdrawals for irrigation in extensive areas of the middle reaches of the watershed.  With everyone wanting their take, is there enough water to go around?  Diminishing ground water levels suggest the answer is no.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration base image)
Using the streamflow recharge process, the flowing Rio Grande provides water to the aquifers in the arid regions through which it passes.  Click the image for a slightly larger version.  (United States Geological Survey image)

“On the way in we saw and photographed an apparent sick or injured Swainson’s Hawk.  We approached it very close.” 

Swainson's Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni), a bird of prairies and other grasslands, is an abundant migrant through the Lower Rio Grande Valley in both spring and fall.  This one was grounded, rain-soaked, and obviously running late.  Others of its kind were by now on their breeding grounds in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Swainson's Hawk
The bird allowed us to approach without attempting to flee, which isn’t a good sign.  We looked for any obvious physical injuries and found none.
Swainson's Hawk
The continuous rain had the hawk’s feathers matted down and soaked.
Swainson's Hawk
Was its water-logged plumage the problem, or was it the result of its inability to thrive due to an illness?  We had no way of telling, so we let it be and vowed to stop back later to check on it.
Swainson's Hawk
Steve the hawk whisperer?

“At the spillway we sat in the camper, except when the rain slackened, then we stood out and watched in vain for the Green or Ringed Kingfisher, which we never did see.”

At the spillway House Sparrows, Rough-winged Swallows, and Cliff Swallows were nesting on the dam, the latter two species grabbing flying insects above the waters of the Rio Grande.

Longnose Gar
Despite the rain, anglers were fishing along the spillway walls where this young man caught a Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus).  The reservoir has been stocked with Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula), Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus), and a variety of bass, catfish, and other species to establish a trophy sport fishery.  Many specimens grow to become trophy-size there due to the warm water temperatures.  These guys though were fishing for food, not trophies.

“I made dinner here at this spillway and we continued to watch.  The rain almost stopped, so we walked down the road about 1 1/2 miles, during which time we saw a lifer for Harold — Hook-billed Kite.  We followed Father Tom’s directions to a spot for the Ferruginous Owl — no luck.”

Red-billed Pigeon
A Red-billed Pigeon in a willow tree in the subtropical riparian forest along the banks of the Rio Grande below Falcon Dam.  Prior to this trip, neither Steve nor I had ever seen this tropical species before.

“Back at the spillway we had supper and then repeated the hike — no Ferruginous Owl, but a Barn Owl and Great Horned Owl.  Back to our #201 campsite and wrote up the day’s log.”

Trees along the river provided habitat for orioles and other species.  Since the rain had subsided, we decided to see what might come out and begin feeding.  Soon, we not only saw an Altamira Oriole, but found Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) and the yellow and black tropical species, Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda), formerly known as Black-headed Oriole.  Three species of orioles on a backdrop of lush green subtropical foliage, it was magnificent.

Along the dirt road below the dam, the mix of scrubland and subtropical riparian forest made for excellent birding.  We not only found a soaring Hook-billed Kite, one of the target birds for the trip, but we had good looks at both a Great Horned Owl, then a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) that we flushed from the bare ground in openings among the vegetation as we walked the through.  Both had probably pounced on some sort of small prey species prior to our arrival.  Because there are seldom crows or ravens to bother them, owls here are more active during than day than they are elsewhere.  The subject of this afternoon’s intensive search, the elusive and diminutive Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum), is routinely diurnal.  Other sightings on our two walks included Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Northern Cardinal, and Painted Bunting.

The day finished as so many others had earlier during the trip—with insect-hunting Common Nighthawks calling from the skies around our campsite.

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Six


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 SIX—May 26, 1983

“Bentsen State Park — Texas”

“Arose at 7:30.  Birded the park and watched for the reported Roadside Hawk.  No luck.  A Roadrunner and Kiskadee was a welcome addition to our list.”

The appearance of Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) north of the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County, Texas, was hot news in 1983.  In the weeks leading up to our visit and while we were there, no sightings of this mega-rarity were confirmed.  The reports that were received were not accompanied by photographs or sufficient details to rule out the Hook-billed Kites (Chondrohierax unicinatus) and Cooper’s Hawks that were known to be present.  Roadside Hawk remains a very elusive tropical vagrant in the United States.  It was seen as recently as December of 2018 along the man-made flood control levee to the east of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near the Border Patrol Corral and the adjacent National Butterfly Center, neither of which were present in 1983.

Both the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), a familiar member of the cuckoo family (Cuculidae), and the Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), a flycatcher at the northern limit of its range in south Texas, were much anticipated finds at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park.  We would get better looks at both when we moved to the west in a couple of days.

“Traveled to Brownsville and met Harold and Steve at the airport at 12:30 P.M.”

Back in 1983, the Brownsville Airport was the most frequently used destination for those wanting to fly into the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Today, Valley International Airport in Harlingen is the busier of the two.  Both of these airports have an interesting history from the World War II years.  Brownsville Airport, renamed Brownsville Army Air Field for the duration of the war, was in use as a base for antisubmarine warfare flights, pilot training, aircraft engine overhauls, and the occasional servicing of B-29 bombers.  The airport in Harlingen was founded during the period as Harlingen Army Air Field and was home to the Harlingen Aerial Gunnery School.  A cheesy Hollywood propaganda movie called Aerial Gunner (1943) was shot there in late 1942 and starred Richard Arlen and a local actress, Amelita (Lita) Ward, who was discovered by the picture’s producers in Harlingen during the early stages of filming.  A young Robert Mitchum portrays one of the gunners.  It’s one of those typical B-movies of the period with a story line that is all mixed up with what happened years ago.  A climactic part of the film depicts students being taken aloft to fire machine guns at kite-like targets being towed behind other training aircraft flying over the nearby Gulf of Mexico.  You can find this classic and watch it for free on the internet.  Afterward, you can go join up if you want, but you can no longer get the war bonds they were selling.

“We tried for the Clay-colored Robin — No Luck.”

Now that Harold and Steve had joined us, we began putting in an earnest effort to find the five species we all needed for our life lists—those Lower Rio Grande Valley exclusives Father Tom had given us directions to find.  First up was Clay-colored Robin, known today as Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi), a brown-colored bird similar to our American Robin.  Its native range in 1983 was from northern Colombia north to the Rio Grande River.  The only pair known to be reliably nesting north of the river in the United States, thus within the A.B.A. listing area, was in Brownsville in a park-like setting on the side of a small hill with a commercial radio station transmitter and antenna on its crest.  It was an easy place to find in the otherwise flat landscape, but we had no luck finding the birds.  Were we too late?  Was nesting season over?  Had the birds already dispersed?

“Visited Santa Ana again and added Ground Dove and White-tailed (Black-shouldered) Kite.”

Father Tom provided us with a tip that Hook-billed Kites had nested in the vicinity of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  We remained vigilant, but saw none.  The petite Common Ground Dove (Columbina passerina) was harder to locate than I expected, possibly because its small size makes it more prone to depredation than larger doves and pigeons, so it may be a little more secretive.  White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) sightings were a highlight of the trip, so graceful and stunning in appearance, but very wary and distant—not a good photo opportunity.  Other sightings at Santa Ana included the first Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) of the trip, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Barn Swallow, Black-crested Titmouse, Long-billed Thrasher, a lingering Solitary Vireo, Bronzed Cowbird, Olive Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal.  We heard a Dickcissel (Spiza americana) in a sunflower field by the refuge entrance, but failed to see it.

Harris's Hawk
A Harris’s Hawk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  This species is a year-round resident in much of the scrubland of the southwestern United States and Mexico.  (Vintage 35mm image)

Also at Santa Ana N.W.R. a Giant Toad and a Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), a scrubland native of south Texas and northern Mexico.

Cane Toad
At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, we stumbled upon this Giant Toad, known today as the Cane Toad, Marine Toad, or Giant Neotropical Toad (Rhinella marina).  It’s range extends from Amazonia north into the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Cane Toad
Just how giant is a Giant Toad?  Glad you asked.  That’s a Kennedy half dollar on the ground to its left.  It’s the largest species in the family Bufonidae, the true toads.  And you guessed it, things really are bigger in Texas.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

“We arrived back at Bentsen State Park and I got supper ready while the others birded.  At dusk we saw the Elf Owls again and toured the roads.  Saw two Pauraques.  To bed by 11:15 after a welcome shower.”

A White-eyed Vireo was found during our late afternoon walk.  On a tip from Father Tom, we checked the campground in the area of the east restrooms for nesting Tropical Parulas (Setophaga pitiayumi).  For each of us, it was another of the five target species for the trip.  We heard nothing that resembled this warbler’s song, which sounds very much like that of the Northern Parula with which we were each familiar.

Nightjars are more often seen than heard, so having the opportunity to finish the day watching two Common Pauraques sail across a break in the forest to grab airborne insects was a real treat.

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Four


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 FOUR—May 24, 1983

“AOK Campground—South of Kingsville, Texas”

“Arose at 6:30 A.M. to the tune of Common Nighthawks.  After breakfast, we headed for Harlingen.  While driving south we saw six pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  At Harlingen we phoned Father Tom, who is an expert birder for the area.”

As we drove south to Harlingen, much our 100-mile route was through the Laureles division of the King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States.  It covers over 800,000 acres and is larger than the state of Rhode Island.  The road there was as straight as an arrow with wire fences on both sides and scrubland as far as the eye could see.  Things really are bigger in Texas.

Once in Harlingen, we did two things no one needs to do anymore:

      1.   Find a coin-operated telephone to place a call to Father Tom.
      2.   Ask Father Tom for the latest tips on the locations of rare and/or target birds.

Today, nearly everyone traveling such distances to find birds is carrying a cellular phone and many can use theirs to access internet sites and databases such as eBird to get current sighting information.  Back in 1983, Father Tom Pincelli was a dear friend to birders visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Few places had a person who was willing to answer the phone and field inquiries regarding the latest whereabouts of this or that bird.  To remain current, he also had to religiously (forgive me for the pun) collect sighting information from the observers with whom he had contact.  For locations elsewhere across the country, a birder in 1983 was happy just to have a phone number for a hotline with a tape-recorded message listing the unusual sightings for its covered region.  If you were lucky, the volunteer logging the sightings would be able to update the tape once a week.  For those who dialed his number, Father Tom provided an exceptionally personal experience.

Since 1983, Father Tom Pincelli, also known as “Father Bird”, has tirelessly promoted birding and conservation throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  His efforts have included hosting a P.B.S. television program and writing columns for local newspapers.  He has been instrumental in developing the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  The public sentiment he has generated for the birding paradise that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley has helped facilitate the acquisition and/or protection of many key parcels of land in the region.

“After receiving information on locations of Tropical Parula, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Hook-billed Kite, Brown Jay, and Clay-colored Robin, we went on to check out the Brownsville Airport where we will meet Harold and Steve Thursday noon.”

If we were going to see these five species in the American Birding Association listing area, then we would have to see them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  All five were target birds for each of us, including Harold who had few other possibilities for new species on the trip.  Father Tom provided us with tips for finding each.

I noticed as we began moving around Harlingen and Brownsville that Russ was swiftly getting his bearings—he had been here before and was starting to remember where things were.  His ability to navigate his way around allowed us to keep moving and see a lot in a short time.

In Harlingen, we easily found Mourning Doves and the non-native Rock Pigeons, species we see regularly in Pennsylvania.  We became more enthusiastic about doves and pigeons soon after when we saw the first of the several other species native to south Texas, the diminutive Inca Dove (Columbina inca), also known as the Mexican Dove.

“Next, to the Brownsville Dump to see the White-necked Ravens — Then to Mrs. Benn’s in Brownsville for the Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  Both lifers for Larry.”

For birders wanting to see a White-necked Raven in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Brownsville Dump was the place to go.  With very little effort—excluding a trip of nearly 2,000 miles to get there—we found them.  Today, birders still go to the Brownsville Dump to find White-necked Ravens, though the dump is now called the Brownsville Landfill and the bird is known as the Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus).

Mrs. Benn’s home was in a verdant residential neighborhood in Brownsville.  She welcomed birders to come and see the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds that visited her feeder filled with sugar water.  I don’t recall whether or not she kept a guest book for visitors to sign, but if she did, it would have included hundreds—maybe thousands—of names of people from all over North America who came to her garden to get a look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  After arriving, we waited a short time and sure enough, we watched a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) sipping Mrs. Benn’s home-brewed nectar from her glass feeder.  This emerald hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species with a breeding range that extends north into the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  When not breeding, a few will wander north and east along the Gulf Coastal Plain as far as Florida.

Other finds at Mrs Benn’s included White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), and Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus), a species also known as Mexican Titmouse.

White-winged Dove
We identified this White-winged Dove at Mrs. Benn’s house in Brownsville.
Green Anole
In Mrs. Benn’s lush subtropical garden beneath a canopy of tall trees we found this male Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) displaying its red throat patch.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

The Lower Rio Grande Valley from Rio Grande City east to the Gulf of Mexico is actually the river’s outflow delta.  At least six historic channels have been delineated in Texas on the north side of the river’s present-day course.  An equal number may exist south of the border in Mexico.  Hundreds of oxbow lakes known as “resacas” mark the paths of the former channels through the delta.  Many resacas are the centerpieces of parks, wildlife refuges, and housing developments.  Still others are barely detectable after being buried in silt deposits left by the meandering river.  Channelization, land disturbances related to agriculture, and a boom in urbanization throughout the valley have disconnected many of the most recently formed resacas from the river’s floodplain, preventing them from absorbing the impact of high-water events.  These alterations to natural morphology can severely aggravate flooding and water pollution problems.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is the site of a boom in urbanization.  Undeveloped private holdings and government lands including numerous parks and refuges provide sanctuary for some of the valley’s unique wildlife.  The parcels colored dark blue on the map are units of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service base image)

“On to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  We walked to Pintail Lake and saw 6 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and 2 Mississippi Kites and 1 Pied-billed Grebe.  We drove the route thru the park with great results—Anhingas, Least Grebe, and more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande is not only a birder’s mecca, 300 species of butterflies have been identified there.  That’s half the species known to occur in the United States!  Its subtropical riparian forest and resaca lakes provide habitat for hundreds of migratory and resident bird species including many Central and South American species that reach the northern limit of their range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Two endangered cats occur in the park—the Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and the Jaguarundi  (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

Ocelot
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the secretive Ocelot, like the Jaguarundi, is at the northern limit of its eastern range. Time will tell how urban development including construction of the border wall will impact the distribution and survival of these and other terrestrial species there.  (A modern digital image)
Jaguarundi
Jaguarundi.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image)

We saw no cats at Santa Ana, but did quite well with the birds.  Our list included the species listed above plus Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis); Louisiana Heron, now known as Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor); Plain Chachalacas; Purple Gallinule; Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata); American Coot; Killdeer; Greater Yellowlegs; the coastal Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla); and its close relative of the central flyway and continental interior, the Franklin’s Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan).  Others finds were White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and House Sparrow.  A real standout was the colorful Green Jay (Cyanocorax luxosus), yet another tropical Central American species found north only as far as the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Mississippi Kite
During spring (April-May) and fall (August-September), Mississippi Kites migrate by the thousands through the skies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Both Santa Ana and nearby Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park have hosted formal hawk counts in recent years.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Black-necked Stilt
A Black-necked Stilt at Santa Ana N.W.R.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Least Grebe
A Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) with young in a man-made canal that mimics flooded resaca habitat at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks take off from a pond at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Altamira Oriole
The spectacular colors of Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis) dazzled us every time we saw them.  This was my first, seen soon after arriving at Santa Ana N.W.R. where the checklist still had the species listed under its former name, Lichtenstein’s Oriole. The Altamira Oriole ranges north of Mexico only into the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

“We were unlucky not to find a campground at McAllen, so we went on to Bentsen State Park where we got a camp spot.  After a sauerkraut supper, we birded till dark, then showered and wrote up the log.  Very hot today.”

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, is located along the Rio Grande river and features dense subtropical riparian forest that grows in the naturally-deposited silt levees of the floodplain surrounding several lake-like oxbow resacas.  Montezuma Bald Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a native specialty found there but nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  During our visit, we marveled at the epiphyte Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) adorning many of the more massive trees in the park.  Willows lined much of the river shoreline.

Over time, flood control projects such as man-made dams, drainage ditches, and levees have impaired stormwater capture and aquifer recharge in the floodplain.  These alterations to watershed hydrology have resulted in drier soils in many sections of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s riparian forests.  Where drier conditions persist, xeric (dry soil) scrubland plants are slowly overtaking the moisture-dependent species.  As a result, the park’s woodlands are composed of trees with a variety of microclimatic requirements—Anaqua (Ehretia anacua), Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia), Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano), hackberry, mesquite, Mexican Ash (Fraxinus berlandieriana), retama, and tepeguaje are the principle species.  The park’s subtropical Texas Wild Olive (Cordia boissieri) grows in the wild nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

While a majority of birders visiting Benten-Rio Grande State Park come to see the more tropical specialties of the riparian woods, searching the brushy habitat of the park’s scrubland can afford one the opportunity to see species typical of the southwestern United States and deserts of Mexico.  This scrubland of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is part of the Tamaulipan Mezquital ecoregion, an area of xeric (dry soil) shrublands and deserts that extends northwest from the delta through most of south Texas and into the bordering provinces of northeastern Mexico.

Our campsite was located in prime birding habitat.  We were a short walk away from one of the park’s flooded oxbow resacas and vegetation was thick along the roadsides.  It was no surprise that the place abounded with birds.  An evening stroll yielded Plain Chachalaca, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, White-fronted Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus).  At nightfall, we listened to the calls of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Common Nighthawks, and Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a nightjar of Central and South America that nests only as far north as the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The Common Pauraque is the tropical counterpart of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, a Neotropical migrant that nests in scattered forest locations throughout eastern North America.

A Plain Chachalaca at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula), a pheasant-like wildfowl of the dense riparian forest and scrubland at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Plain Chachalacas
Seldom did we see a Plain Chachalaca alone, there were always others nearby.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
White-fronted Dove
Like the chachalacas, this White-fronted Dove was attracted to some birdseed scattered on a big log behind our campsite.  This species is now known as White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) and is at the northern tip of its range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

I would note that we saw no “snowbirds”—long-term vacationers from the northern states and Canada who fill the park through the cooler months of fall, winter, and spring.  They were gone for the summer.  But for a few other friendly folks, we had the entire campground to ourselves for the duration of our stay.

Photo of the Day

Female Red-winged Blackbirds in a cattail wetland.
This year’s unseasonably mild weather has hastened the northward migration of many birds.  Neotropical species including warblers and Broad-winged Hawks are already pushing through the lower Susquehanna region in numbers.  But it seems the spring movement may be a little bit protracted for female Red-winged Blackbirds, which are still rolling through by the hundreds despite the males being here, some of them defending nesting territories, since late February.  No sense of urgency?

Photo of the Day

Osprey
The race north toward a favorable breeding territory is priority one for a migrating Osprey, even on a rainy day.  Then again, you may see one stop along the way to do a little fishing. That’s priority two.

Plantings for Wet Lowlands

This linear grove of mature trees, many of them nearly one hundred years old, is a planting of native White Oaks (Quercus alba) and Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor).

Imagine the benefit of trees like this along that section of stream you’re mowing or grazing right now.  The Swamp White Oak in particular thrives in wet soils and is available now for just a couple of bucks per tree from several of the lower Susquehanna’s County Conservation District Tree Sales.  These and other trees and shrubs planted along creeks and rivers to create a riparian buffer help reduce sediment and nutrient pollution.  In addition, these vegetated borders protect against soil erosion, they provide shade to otherwise sun-scorched waters, and they provide essential wildlife habitat.  What’s not to love?

Swamp White Oak
Autumn leaf of a Swamp White Oak

The following native species make great companions for Swamp White Oaks in a lowland setting and are available at bargain prices from one or more of the County Conservation District Tree Sales now underway…

Red Maple
The Red Maple is an ideal tree for a stream buffer project. They do so well that you should limit them to 10% or less of the plants in your project so that they don’t overwhelm slower-growing species.
River Birch
The River Birch (Betula nigra) is a multi-trunked tree of lowlands.  Large specimens with arching trunks help shade waterways and provide a source of falling insects for surface-feeding fish.  Its peeling bark is a distinctive feature.
Common Winterberry
The Common Winterberry with its showy red winter-time fruit is a slow-growing shrub of wet soils.  Only female specimens of this deciduous holly produce berries, so you need to plant a bunch to make sure you have both genders for successful pollination.
American Robins feeding on Common Winterberry.
An American Robin feeding on Common Winterberry.
Common Spicebush
Common Spicebush is a shrub of moist lowland soils.  It is the host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly and produces small red berries for birds and other wildlife.  Plant it widely among taller trees to provide native vegetation in the understory of your forest.
Common Spicebush foliage and berries.
Common Spicebush foliage and berries in the shade beneath a canopy of tall trees.
Common Pawpaw
The Common Pawpaw a small shade-loving tree of the forest understory.
Common Pawpaw
Common Pawpaw is a colony-forming small tree which produces a fleshy fruit.  It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail.
Buttonbush
The Buttonbush is a shrub of wet soils.  It produces a round flower cluster, followed by this globular seed cluster.
Eastern Sycamore
And don’t forget the Eastern Sycamore, the giant of the lowlands.  At maturity, the white-and-tan-colored bark on massive specimens makes them a spectacular sight along stream courses and river shores.  Birds ranging from owls, eagles, and herons to smaller species including the Yellow-throated Warbler rely upon them for nesting sites.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons Nesting in an Eastern Sycamore
Yellow-crowned Night Herons, an endangered species in Pennsylvania, nesting in an Eastern Sycamore.

So don’t mow, do something positive and plant a buffer!

Act now to order your plants because deadlines are approaching fast.  For links to the County Conservation District Tree Sales in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, see our February 18th post.

Photo of the Day

Soaring Bald Eagle
It’s time to keep an eye on the sky when you’re out and about.  Not only are mated pairs of Bald Eagles beginning their nesting cycle throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, but migrating birds are passing through the area on their way to breeding grounds farther north. This one drew the ire of pairs of Fish Crows and American Crows as it soared above the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters earlier today.

Are Your Eggs All They’re Cracked Up To Be?

Looks like I’m gonna be in the doghouse again—this time by way of the hen house.  But why should I care?  Here we go.

A few weeks ago, back when eggs were still selling for less than five dollars a dozen, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture renewed calls for owners and caretakers of outdoor flocks of domestic poultry (backyard chickens) to keep their birds indoors to protect them from the spread of  bird flu—specifically “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza” (H.P.A.I.).  At least one story edited and broadcast by a Susquehanna valley news outlet gave the impression that “vultures and hawks” are responsible for the spread of avian flu in chickens.  To see if recent history supports such a deduction, let’s have a look at the U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s 2022-2023 list of the  detection of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in birds affected in counties of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in Pennsylvania.

H.P.A.I. 2022 Confirmed Detections as of January 13, 2023

This listing includes date of detection, county of collection, type/species of bird, and number of birds affected.  WOAH (World Organization for Animal Health) birds include backyard poultry, game birds raised for eventual release, domestic pet species, etc.

12/30/2022  Adams            Black Vulture

12/15/2022   Lancaster     Canada Goose

12/15/2022   Lebanon        Black Vulture

12/15/2022   Adams            Black Vulture (3)

11/8/2022     Cumberland Black Vulture (4)

11/4/2022      Dauphin         WOAH Non-Poultry (130)

10/19/2022   Dauphin         Captive Wild Rhea (4)

10/17/2022   Adams            Commercial Turkey (15,100)

10/11/2022    Adams            WOAH Poultry (2,800)

9/30/2022    Lancaster      Mallard

9/30/2022    Lancaster      Mallard

9/29/2022     Lancaster     WOAH Non-Poultry (180)

9/29/2022     York                 Commercial Turkey (25,900)

8/24/2022     Dauphin         Captive Wild Crane

7/15/2022      Lancaster     Great Horned Owl

7/15/2022      York                 Bald Eagle

7/15/2022      Dauphin         Bald Eagle

6/16/2022      Dauphin         Black Vulture

6/16/2022      Dauphin         Black Vulture (4)

5/31/2022      Lancaster      Black Vulture (2)

5/31/2022      Lancaster      Black Vulture

5/10/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (72,300)

4/29/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Duck (19,300)

4/27/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Broiler (18,100)

4/26/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (307,400)

4/22/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Broiler (50,300)

4/20/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (1,127,700)

4/20/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (879,400)

4/15/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (1,380,500)

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, it’s pretty obvious that the outbreak of avian flu got its foothold inside some of the area’s big commercial poultry houses.  Common sense tells us that hawks, vultures, and other birds didn’t migrate north into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed carrying bird flu, then kick in the doors of the enclosed hen houses to infect the flocks of chickens therein.   Anyone paying attention during these past three years knows that isolation and quarantine are practices more easily proposed than sustained.  Human footprints are all over the introduction of this infection into these enormous flocks.  Simply put, men don’t wipe their feet when no one is watching!  The outbreak of bird flu in these large operations was brought under control quickly, but not until teams of state and federal experts arrived to assure proper sanitary and isolation practices were being implemented and used religiously to prevent contaminated equipment, clothing, vehicles, feed deliveries, and feet from transporting virus to unaffected facilities.  Large poultry houses aren’t ideal enclosures with absolute capabilities for excluding or containing viruses and other pathogens.  Exhaust systems often blow feathers and waste particulates into the air surrounding these sites and present the opportunity for flu to be transported by wind or service vehicles and other conveyances that pass through contaminated ground then move on to other sites—both commercial and non-commercial.  Waste material and birds (both dead and alive) removed from commercial poultry buildings can spread contamination during transport and after deposition.  The sheer volume of the potentially infected organic material involved in these large poultry operations makes absolute containment of an outbreak nearly impossible.

A farm with a biosecurity perimeter or control area.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)
A U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service Veterinary Services employee decontaminates footwear at the entrance to a biosecurity zone.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)

Looking at the timeline created by the list of U.S.D.A. detections, the opportunity for bird flu to leave the commercial poultry loop probably happened when wild birds gained access to stored or disposed waste and dead animals from an infected commercial poultry operation.  For decades now, many poultry operations have dumped dead birds outside their buildings where they are consumed by carrion-eating mammals, crows, vultures, Bald Eagles, and Red-tailed Hawks.  For these species, discarded livestock is one of the few remaining food sources in portions of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed where high-intensity farming has eliminated other forms of sustenance.  They will travel many miles and gather in unnatural concentrations to feast on these handouts—creating ideal circumstances for the spread of disease.

The sequence of events indicated by the U.S.D.A. list would lead us to infer that vultures and Bald Eagles were quick to find and consume dead birds infected with H5N1—either wild species such as waterfowl or more likely domestic poultry from commercial operations or from infectious backyard flocks that went undetected.  As the report shows, Black Vultures in particular seem to be susceptible to morbidity.  Their frequent occurrence as victims highlights the need to dispose of potentially infectious poultry carcasses properly—allowing no access for hungry wildlife including scavengers.

Black Vultures
Black Vultures and other scavengers including Bald Eagles are attracted to improperly discarded poultry carcasses and will often loiter in areas where dumping occurs.

The positive test on a Great Horned Owl is an interesting case.  While the owl may have consumed an infected wild bird such as a crow, there is the possibility that it consumed or contacted a mammalian scavenger that was carrying the virus.  Aside from rodents and other small mammals, Great Horned Owls also prey upon Striped Skunks with some regularity.  Most of the dead poultry from flu-infected commercial flocks was buried onsite in rows of above-ground mounds.  Skunks sniff the ground for subterranean fare, digging up invertebrates and other food.  Buried chickens at a flu disposal site would constitute a feast for these opportunistic foragers.  A skunk would have no trouble at all finding at least a few edible scraps at such a site.  Then a Great Horned Owl could easily seize and feed upon such a flu virus-contaminated skunk.

Striped Skunk
Striped Skunks and many other mammals are readily attracted by improperly discarded poultry carcasses.

BACKYARD POULTRY

Before we proceed, the reader must understand the seldom-stated and never advertised mission of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture—to protect the state’s agriculture industry.  That’s it; that’s the bottom line.  Regulation and enforcement of matters under the purview of the agency have their roots in this goal.  While they may also protect the public health, animal health, and other niceties, the underlying purpose of their existence in its current manifestation is to protect the agriculture industry(s) as a whole.

This is not a trait unique to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.  It is at the core of many other federal and state agencies as well.  Following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, a novel decrying “wage slavery” in the meat packing industry, the federal government took action, not for the purpose of improving the working conditions for labor, but to address the unsanitary food-handling practices described in the book by creating an inspection program to restore consumer confidence in the commercially-processed meat supply so that the industry would not crumble.

Locally, few things make the dairy industry and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture more nervous than small producers selling “raw milk”.  In the days before pasteurization and refrigeration, people were frequently sickened and some even died from drinking bacteria-contaminated “raw milk”.  In Pennsylvania, the production and sale of dairy products including “raw milk” is closely regulated and requires a permit.  Retention of a permit requires submitting to inspections and passing periodic herd and product testing.  Despite the dangers, many consumers continue to buy “raw milk” from farms without permits.  These sales are like a ticking time bomb.  The bad publicity from an outbreak of food-borne illness traced back to a dairy product—even if it originated in an “outlaw” operation—could decimate sales throughout the industry.  Because just one sloppy farm selling “raw milk” could instantly erode consumer confidence and cause an industry-wide collapse of the market resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in sales, it is a deeply concerning issue.

Enter the backyard chicken—a two-fold source of anxiety for the poultry industry and its regulators.  Like unregulated meat and dairy products, eggs and meat from backyard poultry flocks are often marketed without being monitored for the pathogens responsible for the transmission of food-borne illness.  From the viewpoint of the poultry industry, this situation poses a human health risk that in the event of an outbreak, could erode consumer confidence, not only in homegrown organic and free-range products, but in the commercial line of products as well.  Consumers can be very reactive upon hearing news of an outbreak, recalling few details other than “the fowl is foul”— then refraining from buying poultry products.  The second and currently most concerning source of trepidation among members of the poultry industry though is the threat of avian flu and other diseases being harbored in and transmitted via flocks of backyard birds.

The Green Revolution, the post-World War II initiative that integrated technology into agriculture to increase yields and assure an adequate food supply for the growing global population, brought changes to the way farmers raised poultry for market.  Small-scale poultry husbandry slowly disappeared from many farms.  Instead, commercial operations concentrated birds into progressively-larger indoor flocks to provide economy of scale.  Over time, genetics and nutrition science have provided the American consumer with a line of readily available high-quality poultry products at an inexpensive price.  Within these large-scale operations, poultry health is closely monitored.  Though these enclosures may house hundreds of thousands of birds, the strategy during an outbreak of communicable disease is to contain an outbreak to the flock therein, writing it off so to speak to prevent the pathogens from finding their way into the remainder of the population in a geographic area, thus saving the industry at the expense of the contents of a single operation.  Adherence to effective biosecurity practices can contain outbreaks in this way.

An offshoot of the Green Revolution, a large-scale poultry operation.
Modern science has produced a genetic map of the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) allowing faster development of varieties with improved disease resistance, productivity, and other traits.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Peggy Greb)
A technician checks eggs produced by immunized birds for the presence of flu virus.  A flu vaccine could provide an added layer of protection to biosecurity in the poultry industry.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Stephen Ausmus)

The renewed popularity of backyard poultry is a reversal of the decades-long trend towards reliance on ever-larger indoor operations for the production of birds and eggs.  But backyard flocks may make less-than-ideal neighbors for commercial operations, particularly when birds are left to roam outdoors.  Visitors to properties with roaming chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys may pick up contamination on their shoes, clothing, tires, and equipment, then transmit the pathogenic material to flocks at other sites they visit without ever knowing it.  Even the letter carrier can carry virus from a mud puddle on an infected farm to a grazing area on a previously unaffected one.  Unlike commercial operations, hobby farms frequently buy, sell, and trade livestock and eggs without regard to disease transmission.  The rate of infection in these operations is always something of a mystery.  No state or county permits are required for keeping small numbers of poultry and outbreaks like avian flu are seldom reported by caretakers of flocks of home-raised birds, though their occurrence among them may be widespread.  The potential for pathogens like avian flu virus circulating long-term among flocks of backyard poultry in close proximity to commercial houses is a real threat to the industry.

Live poultry and eggs are frequently sold to and traded among operators of backyard flocks without monitoring for disease.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Keith Weller.)

There are a variety of motivations for tending backyard poultry.  While for some it is merely a form of pet keeping, others are more serious about the practice—raising and breeding exotic varieties for show and trade.  Increasingly, backyard flocks are being established by people seeking to provide their own source of eggs or meat.  For those with larger home operations,  supplemental income is derived from selling their surplus poultry products.  Many of these backyard enthusiasts are part of a movement founded on the belief that, in comparison to commercially reared birds, their poultry is raised under healthier and more humane conditions by roaming outdoors.  Organic operators believe their eggs and meat are safer for consumption—produced without the use of chemicals.  For the movement’s most dedicated “true believers”, the big poultry industry is the antagonist and homegrown fowl is the only hope.  It’s similar to the perspective members of the “raw milk” movement have toward pasteurized milk.  True believers are often willing to risk their health and well-being for the sake of the cause, so questioning the validity of their movement can render a skeptic persona non grata.

What’s in your eggs?  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Peggy Greb)

For the consumer, the question arises, “Are eggs and poultry from the small-scale operations better?”

While many health-conscious animal-friendly consumers would agree to support the small producer from the local farm ahead of big business, the reality of supplying food for the masses requires the economy of scale.  The billions of people in the world can’t be fed using small-scale and/or organic growing methods.  The Green Revolution has provided record-high yields by incorporating herbicides, insecticides, plastic, and genetic modification into agriculture.  To protect livestock and improve productivity, enormous indoor operations are increasingly common.  Current economics tell the story—organic production can’t keep up with demand, that’s why the prices for items labelled organic are so much higher.

A commercial poultry operation (in this case turkeys) produces economical consumer products.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Scott Bauer)

To the consumer, buying poultry raised outdoors is an appealing option.  Compared to livestock crowded into buildings, they feel good about choosing products from small operations where birds roam free and happy in the sunshine.

An outdoor flock of backyard chickens.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)

But is the quality really better?  Some research indicates not.  Salmonella outbreaks have been traced back to poultry meat sourced from small unregulated operations.  Studies have found dioxins in eggs produced by hens left to forage outdoors.  The common practice of burning trash can generate a quantity of ash sufficient to contaminate soils with dioxins, chemical compounds which persist in the environment and in the fatty tissue of animals for years.  The presence of elevated levels of dioxins in eggs from outdoor grazing operations may pose a potential consumer confidence liability for the entire egg industry.

Birds raised or kept in an outdoor zoo or backyard poultry setting can be susceptible to viruses and other pathogens when wild birds including vultures and hawks become attracted to the captives’ food and water when it is placed in an accessible location.  In addition, hunting and scavenging birds are opportunistic— attracted to potential food animals when they perceive vulnerability.  Selective breeding under domestication has rendered food poultry fat, dumb, and too genetically impaired for survival in the wild.  These weaknesses instantly arouse the curiosity of raptors and other predators whose function in the food web is to maintain a healthy population of animals at lower tiers of the food chain by selectively consuming the sickly and weak.  In settings such as those created by high-intensity agriculture and urbanization, wild birds may find the potential food sources offered by outdoor zoos and backyard poultry irresistible.  As a result they may perch, loaf, and linger around these locations—potentially exposing the captive birds to their droppings and transmission of bird flu and other diseases.

Variation produced under domestication has left poultry unfit for life among the perils found outdoors.  (United States Department of Agriculture image)
Turkey Vulture and White-tailed Deer
Millions of years of natural selection have made scavengers and predators ideally suited for the role of detecting and consuming dead, dying, and diseased wild animals, thus reducing accumulations of rotting carcasses and the spread of infectious pathogens among prey species.  Their distribution and reproductive success is closely controlled by the availability of food.  Humans need not disturb this balance or create unnatural congregations of these animals by providing supplemental foods such as dead poultry.

While outdoor poultry operations usually raise far fewer birds than their commercial counterparts, their animals are still kept in densities high enough to promote the rapid spread of microbiological diseases.  Clusters of outdoor flocks can become a reservoir of pathogens with the capability of repeatedly circulating disease into populations of wild birds and even into commercial poultry operations—threatening the industry and food supply for millions of people.  For this reason, state and federal agencies are encouraging operators to keep backyard poultry indoors—segregated from natural and anthropogenic disease vectors and conveyances that might otherwise visit and interact with the flock.

BACK TO THE FUTURE?—NOT LIKELY

The hobby farmer, the homesteader, the pet keeper, and the consumer seldom realize what the modern farmer is coming to know—domestic livestock must be segregated from the sources of contamination and disease that occur outdoors.  Adherence to this simple concept helps assure improved health for the animals and a safer food supply for consumers.  In the future, outdoor production of domestic animals, particularly those used as a food supply, is likely to be classified as an outdated and antiquated form of animal husbandry.

Outside and Inside Animals
It’s as simple as ABC and 123.
Cage-free chickens can be housed within the protective envelop of a building where they can be segregated from the microbes and pollutants found outdoors.  The U.S.D.A. defines “free-range” poultry as birds with some access to an outdoor setting where the benefits of biosecurity and quarantine are, for all intents and purposes, nullified.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Stephen Ausmus)
Pigs
Pigs raised outdoors by homesteaders and hobby farmers pose the threat of spreading a number of diseases including Swine Fevers and Brucellosis into pork industry operations.   Escaped individuals are often attracted to commercial hog houses where they can loiter outside and contaminate the ground surrounding entrance ways used by personnel tending the animals.  Like other domestic animals, pigs should be contained inside buildings for biosecurity.
Dairy cows in an indoor feed lot.
Dairy cows and other cattle raised within well-designed indoor and semi-indoor settings are less prone to injury and consumption of contaminated foods and water.
Domestic Cat
Domestic Cats (Felis catus), particularly when allowed to roam outdoors, can contract the parasite Toxoplasma gondii during interactions with mice.  Humans, dogs, pigs, and other animals coming in contact with the Toxoplasma oocysts shed in feline feces can contract Toxoplasmosis, a disease with various physical and mental health symptoms.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately three million cases of Toxoplasmosis among humans in the United States annually.

THE THREAT FROM PRIONS

If there are three things the world learned from the SARS CoV-2 (Covid-19) epidemic, it’s that 1) eating or handling bush meat can bring unwanted surprises, 2) dense populations of very mobile humans are ideal mediums for uncontrolled transmission of disease, and 3) quarantine is easier said than done.

If you think viruses are bad, you don’t even want to know about prions.  Prions are a prime example of why now is a good time to begin housing domestic animals, including pets, indoors to segregate them from wildlife.  And prions are a good example of why we really ought to think twice about relying on wild animals as a source of food.  Prions may make us completely rethink the way we interact with animals of any kind—but we had better do our thinking fast because prions turn the brains of their victims into Swiss cheese.

Stained slide of cow brain tissue affected by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The pale-colored air pockets are voids in the tissue caused by the disease.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by the late Dr. Al Jenny)

Diseases caused by prions are rapidly progressing neurodegenerative disorders for which there is no cure.  Prions are an abnormal isoform of a cellular glycoprotein.  They are currently rare, but prions, because they are not living entities, possess the ability to begin accumulating in the environment.  They not only remain in detritus left behind by the decaying carcasses of afflicted animals, but can also be shed in manure—entering soils and becoming more and more prevalent over time.  Some are speculating that they could wind up being man’s downfall.

The  Centers for Disease Control lists these human afflictions caused by prions…

The Centers for Disease Control lists these prion-caused ailments of other animals…

Dairy cows in a pasture.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder fatal to cattle.  It is caused by the same prion that, when consumed or otherwise contracted by humans, causes Creutzfekd-Jokob Disease (CJD).
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal disease caused by a prion, is currently spreading among populations of the White-tailed Deity in the mid-Atlantic region.  Prions are understood to be folded proteins, not living things, thus they are not destroyed by cooking and other disinfection practices.  If you are wondering whether various forms of these pathogens will begin accumulating in the environment and affecting more and more species with new and more frightening afflictions, well, time will tell.  Meanwhile, we at susquehannawildlife.net are staying away from “game” and any other form of bush meat.  Thanks, but no thanks!
The future with a safe food supply will require domestic animals to be contained indoors while wildlife roams unmolested outdoors.

SOURCES

Schoeters, Greet, and Ron Hoogenboom.  2006.  Contamination of Free-range Chicken Eggs with Dioxins and Dioxin-like Polychlorinated Biphenyls.  Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.  (10):908-14.

Szczepan, Mikolajczyk, Marek Pajurek, Malgorzata Warenik-Bany, and Sebastian Maszewski.  2021.  Environmental Contamination of Free-range Hen with Dioxin.  Journal of Veterinary Research.  65(2):225-229.

U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service.  2022 Confirmations of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022/2022-hpai-commercial-backyard-flocks as accessed January 14, 2023.

U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service.  2022 Confirmations of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022/2022-hpai-wild-birds  as accessed January 14, 2023.

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.

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

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.

Big Broad-winged Hawk Flights Are Underway

Flights of southbound Broad-winged Hawks have joined those of other Neotropical migrants to thrill observers with spectacular numbers.  In recent days, thousands have been seen and counted at many of the regions hawkwatching stations.  Now is the time to check it out!

A "kettle" of Broad-winged Hawks gaining altitude by soaring on a thermal updraft.
A “kettle” of Broad-winged Hawks gaining altitude by soaring on a thermal updraft.
Migrating Broad-winged Hawks
Broad-winged Hawks gliding away to the southwest after climbing in a column of rising warm air.
Broad-winged Hawk
A migrating Broad-winged Hawk enroute to the tropics for winter.

Other diurnal migrants are on the move as well…

Migratory Woodpeckers: Red-bellied Woodpecker and Northern Flicker
The Red-bellied Woodpecker (left) and the Northern Flicker (right) are migratory species of woodpeckers that begin heading south during the last half of September each year.
Migrating Blue Jay
Running a bit early, large numbers of Blue Jays having been moving through the area for several weeks now.
Flock of Cedar Waxwings
Flocks of Cedar Waxwings roam widely as they creep ever southward for winter.

Adding to the diversity of sightings, there are these diurnal raptors arriving in the area right now…

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk
Numbers of migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks are building and will peak during the coming weeks.
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
As will numbers of Cooper’s Hawks.
Merlin
The Merlin and other falcons peak in late September and early October.
Adult Bald Eagle
And Bald Eagles are moving throughout the fall season.

For more information and directions to places where you can observe migrating hawks and other birds, be certain to click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper” tab at the top of this page.

The Blizzard Has Arrived: Snow Geese at Middle Creek

It’s that time of year—Snow Geese on their northbound migration, more than 100,000 of them, have arrived for a stopover at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.  Get there now to see scenes like these in person…

Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Thousands of Snow Geese gather on the main impoundment at Middle Creek.  Presently, over 100,000 are estimated to be visiting the refuge.
Tundra Swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
More than two thousand Tundra Swans are visiting Middle Creek right now too.
female American Kestrel
A passing American Kestrel doesn’t seem to ruffle any feathers among the multitudes of Snow Geese on the lake…
Bald Eagles at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…but when the local pair of Bald Eagles gets close, such as when they’re escorting a third party away from their nesting territory, …
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…Snow Geese lift off in a panic.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Snow Geese rise above the shoreline treetops.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Feeding and roosting Snow Geese take flight in the presence of a potential predator to not only make a direct escape, but also to seek a safer position toward the center of the flock, keeping away from the vulnerable areas on the periphery.
Snow Geese and Tundra Swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Thousands of Snow Geese rise behind the placid group of Tundra Swans in the foreground.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Observers along Willow Point Trail with swarming Snow Geese just ahead.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
In the midst of the thunderous cackle of thousands of Snow Geese.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Don’t forget your camera…
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…for an unforgettable photo op at Willow Point.

Hey, Let’s Go to Conowingo: It’s Bald Eagle Time

Why are there dozens of people with enormous lenses on complicated cameras atop sturdy tripods gathered at Fisherman’s Park below the Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna River in Maryland?  It’s Bald Eagle time, that’s why.  Here are some photos from the scene, taken just two days ago.

Dozens of observers and photographers line up along the Harford County shoreline of the Susquehanna downstream of the powerhouse at the Conowingo Hydroelectric Station, the majority awaiting the opportunity to catch a shot of a Bald Eagle grabbing a fish from the river just in front of them.  Visitors travel to Conowingo from all over the continental United States to see and photograph eagles in concentrations that are often rivaled only in less accessible areas of Alaska and Canada.
Bald Eagles migrate to the lower Susquehanna near Conowingo and the upper Chesapeake Bay to spend the early winter in congregations that can, in good years, number in the hundreds of birds. There are presently at least 60 to 80 Bald Eagles present, and numbers are increasing.
If you visit, you’ll have a chance to see Bald Eagles in the various stages of plumage transition experienced during the six years needed to acquire the familiar all-white head and tail of adulthood.  This particular immature eagle is in its third year.  Birds at this age are sometimes known as “Osprey face” Bald Eagles due to the dark stripe through the eye.  Be certain to click the “Hawkwatchers Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page to see a photographic guide to aging the eagles and other birds of prey you observe.
An adult Bald Eagle snags a fish from the Susquehanna in front of photographers and gets the cameras clicking and other eagles in the area cackling and chattering.
The majority of the Bald Eagles at Conowingo are there for the early winter only; they’ll disperse to their nesting grounds later in the season.  An exception is this mated pair that is already at their nest site adjacent to the Fisherman’s Park car lot.  They can often be seen perched in the treetops directly above visitor’s vehicles.

To reach Exelon Energy’s Conowingo Fisherman’s Park from Rising Sun, Maryland, follow U.S. Route 1 south across the Conowingo Dam, then turn left onto Shuresville Road, then make a sharp left onto Shureslanding Road.  Drive down the hill to the parking area along the river.  The park’s address is 2569 Shureslanding Road, Darlington, Maryland.

Do make an excursion to the lower Susquehanna at Conowingo soon.  To avoid crowds and parking congestion, plan to visit on a weekday.  You’ll want warm clothing, binoculars, and a camera too.

The Fisherman’s Park Bald Eagles copulating.  If you don’t know what that is, ask your mother…no, wait, on second thought, look it up on the internet.