Migration Update

Can it be that time already?  Most Neotropical birds have passed through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed on their way south and the hardier species that will spend our winter in the more temperate climes of the eastern United States are beginning to arrive.

Here’s a gallery of sightings from recent days…

During the past two weeks, thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, including this adult bird, crossed the skies of the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to Central and South America for our winter.
A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk passes into the sunset during its first autumn migration.
Blackpoll Warblers are among the last of the Neotropical species to transit the region.  They’ll continue to be seen locally through at least early October.
Blue-headed Vireos are the October vireo during the fall, the other species having already continued toward tropical forests for a winter vacation.
The lower Susquehanna region lies just on the northern edge of the wintering range of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species found nesting locally among treetops in deciduous woods.  Look for their numbers to swell in coming days as birds from further north begin rolling through the region on their way south.
Sharp-shinned Hawks delight visitors at ridgetop hawk watches during breezy late-September and early-October days.  They allow closer observation than high-flying Broad-winged Hawks due to their habit of cruising just above the treetops while migrating.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk glides over a lookout.
Late September/early October is falcon time at area hawk-counting stations, the Peregrine Falcon often being the most anticipated species.
Pale “Tundra Peregrines”, a subspecies that nests in the arctic, are strictly migratory birds in the Mid-Atlantic States.  They are presently passing through on their way to South America.  Like Neotropical songbirds, their long flights provide them with the luxury of never experiencing a winter season.
This Carolina Saddlebags and other migratory dragonflies, which normally leave the area by mid-September, are still lingering in the lower Susquehanna region, much to the pleasure of the falcons that feed upon them.
An male American Kestrel in pursuit of dragonflies found swarming around the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
A male American Kestrel stooping on a dragonfly.
Osprey will be among the birds of prey passing hawk watch sites during the coming two weeks.  The first week of October often provides the best opportunity for seeing the maximum variety of raptors at a given site.  On a good day, a dozen species are possible.
Seeing cinnamon-colored juvenile Northern Harriers is symbolic of the October migration flights.
Bald Eagles always thrill the crowd.
In addition to raptors, resident Common Ravens are regularly sighted by observers at hawk watches and elsewhere during the fall season.
Hawk-counting stations sometimes log movements of Red-bellied Woodpeckers during late September and early October.  This species has extended its range into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed only during the past one hundred years, making these seasonal migration movements a recent local phenomenon.
Blue Jays are currently on the move with breeding birds from the forests of Canada and the northern United States moving south.  Hundreds can be seen passing a given observation point during an ideal morning.
Blue Jays find a pile of peanuts to be an irresistible treat.  Provide the unsalted variety and watch the show!

Be sure to click on these tabs at the top of this page to find image guides to help you identify the dragonflies, birds, and raptors you see in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed…

    • Damselflies and Dragonflies
    • Birds of Conewago Falls
    • Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Raptors

See you next time!

Smoky Skies in the Lower Susquehanna Region

During the coming two weeks, peak numbers of migrating Neotropical birds will be passing through the northeastern United States including the lower Susquehanna valley.  Hawk watches are staffed and observers are awaiting big flights of Broad-winged Hawks—hoping to see a thousand birds or more in a single day.

During its passage through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, an adult Broad-winged Hawk sails over Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
A hatch-year/juvenile Broad-winged Hawk gazes toward hawk watchers on the ground.

Broad-winged hawks feed on rodents, amphibians, and a variety of large insects while on their breeding grounds in the forests of the northern United States and Canada.  They depart early, journeying to wintering areas in Central and South America before frost robs them of a reliable food supply.

The Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina), this one photographed at Second Mountain Hawk Watch on September 8th, is the rarest of the lower Susquehanna region’s migratory dragonflies.  Autumn Broad-winged Hawk movements coincide with southbound flights of the Carolina Saddlebags and the more numerous migratory dragonfly species: Common Green Darner, Wandering Glider, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, and Black Saddlebags.  “Broad-wings” will often eat these and other dragonflies during migration and can sometimes be seen catching and feeding upon them while still soaring high overhead.

While migrating, Broad-winged Hawks climb to great altitudes on thermal updrafts and are notoriously difficult to see from ground level.  Bright sunny skies with no clouds to serve as a backdrop further complicate a hawk counter’s ability to spot passing birds.  Throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the coming week promises to be especially challenging for those trying to observe and census the passage of high-flying Broad-winged Hawks.  The forecast of hot and humid weather is not so unusual, but the addition of smoke from fires in the western states promises to intensify the haze and create an especially irritating glare for those searching the skies for raptors.

Smoke from fires along the California coast and in central Utah can be seen streaming east this morning.  (NOAA/GOES image)
Smoke from western fires and humid air creates a band of haze in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and states to the south this morning.   (NOAA/GOES image)

 

A migrating Broad-winged Hawk in the glare of a hazy sky.  In addition to visibility problems, swarms of Spotted Lanternflies above the treetops make distant hawks difficult to discern for hawk watchers scanning the horizon with binoculars.

It may seem gloomy for the mid-September flights in 2021, but hawk watchers are hardy types.  They know that the birds won’t wait.  So if you want to see migrating “Broad-wings” and other species, you’ve got to get out there and look up while they’re passing through.

Migrating Ospreys typically fly low enough and are large enough to be spotted even during the haziest of conditions.
Bald Eagles like this fourth-year bird can ascend to great altitude, but their size usually prevents them from sneaking past a lookout unnoticed.
Peregrines escape notice not due to hazy sky conditions, but because they pass by so quickly.  They’re being seen at local hawk watches now through October.

These hawk watches in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are currently staffed by official counters and all welcome visitors:

    • Rocky Ridge County Park Hawk Watch—3699 Deininger Road off Mount Zion Road (Route 24) northeast of York, Pennsylvania.
    • Second Mountain Hawk Watch—off Cold Spring Road on the grounds of Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
    • Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch—where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

—or you can just keep an eye on the sky from wherever you happen to be.  And don’t forget to check the trees and shrubs because warbler numbers are peaking too!  During recent days…

Northern Parula at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Black-and-white Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.
Cape May Warbler at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Bay-breasted Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.

Shorebirds at Middle Creek

Late August and early September is prime time to see migrating shorebirds as they pass through the lower Susquehanna valley during their autumn migration, which, believe it or not, can begin as early as late June.  These species that are often assumed to spend their lives only near the seashore are regular visitors each fall as they make their way from breeding grounds in the interior of Canada to wintering sites in seacoast wetlands—many traveling as far south as Central and South America.

Low water levels on the Susquehanna River often coincide with the shorebird migration each year, exposing gravel and sand bars as well as vast expanses of muddy shorelines as feeding and resting areas for these traveling birds.  This week though, rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred arrived to increase the flow in the Susquehanna and inundate most of the natural habitat for shorebirds.  Those on the move must either continue through the area without stopping or find alternate locations to loaf and find food.

The draining and filling of wetlands along the river and elsewhere in the region has left few naturally-occurring options.  The Conejohela Flats south of Columbia offer refuge to many migrating sandpipers and their allies, the river level there being controlled by releases from the Safe Harbor Dam during all but the severest of floods.  Shorebirds will sometimes visit flooded fields, but wide-open puddles and farmland resembling mudflats is more of springtime occurrence—preceding the planting and growth of crops.  Well-designed stormwater holding facilities can function as habitat for sandpipers and other wildlife.  They are worth checking on a regular basis—you never know what might drop in.

Right now, there is a new shorebird hot spot in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed—Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  The water level in the main impoundment there has been drawn down during recent weeks to expose mudflats along the periphery of nearly the entire lake.  Viewing from “Stop 1” (the roadside section of the lake in front of the refuge museum) is best.  The variety of species and their numbers can change throughout the day as birds filter in and out—at times traveling to other mudflats around the lake where they are hidden from view.  The birds at “Stop 1” are backlit in the morning with favorable illumination developing in the afternoon.

Have a look at a few of the shorebirds currently being seen at Middle Creek…

The Killdeer is familiar as a breeding bird in the lower Susquehanna region.  Large numbers can congregate ahead of and during migration on mudflats and gravel bars.
The Least Sandpiper is one of the “peeps”, a group of very small shorebirds.  This species is quite common at Middle Creek right now.  Note the plants beginning to grow in the mud.  Later in the fall, after the shorebirds are gone, raising the water level in the lake will flood these newly vegetated areas to provide an abundance of food for migrating waterfowl.  This cycle can be repeated annually to support transient birds during what is often the most vulnerable time of their lives…fall migration.
The Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) is an uncommon “peep” along the east coast during autumn migration.  On the lower Susquehanna it is most frequently encountered on the vegetated gravel bars in mid-river during the last days of August or first days of September each year.  The mudflats and shallows at Middle Creek are providing a suitable alternative for this juvenile bird.
Numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs are increasing as flocks drop by for a rest and refueling.  Bring your binoculars and your spotting scope to see the oddities that may be hiding among these groups of newly-arriving migrants.

The aquatic environs at Middle Creek attract other species as well.   Here are some of the most photogenic…

Wood Ducks atop the dam.
The migration of Caspian Terns coincides with that of shorebirds.  Just look at that blood-red bill; it’s unmistakable.  Two of these big terns are currently patrolling Middle Creek’s lake and shoreline.
A female American Kestrel creates a stir among the “peeps” as it passes by.  The larger falcons (the Merlin and Peregrine) can be expected to more readily take advantage of concentrations of shorebirds as a food supply.
Osprey migration is underway, and many will stop at Middle Creek while in transit.
Even if shorebirds aren’t your thing, there are almost always Bald Eagles to be seen at Middle Creek.  See you there!

A Visit to Rocky Ridge

Early October is prime time for hawk watching, particularly if you want to have the chance to see the maximum variety of migratory species.  In coming days, a few Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys will still be trickling through while numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, and falcons swell to reach their seasonal peak.  Numbers of migrating Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are increasing during this time and late-season specialties including Golden Eagles can certainly make a surprise early visit.

If you enjoy the outdoors and live in the southernmost portion of the lower Susquehanna valley, Rocky Ridge County Park in the Hellam Hills just northwest of York, Pennsylvania, is a must see.  The park consists of oak forest and is owned and managed by the York County Parks Department.  It features an official hawk watch site staffed by volunteers and park naturalists.  Have a look.

The hawk watch lookout is reached by following the well-marked trail at the north side of the large gravel parking area in the utility right-of-way at the end of the park entrance road (Deininger Road).
The Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch lookout includes outcrops of bedrock, a viewing deck, and grassy areas suitable for lawn chairs.
The bedrock at the lookout is an unusual quartz-cemented conglomerate that forms the Hellam Member at the base of the Cambrian Chickies Formation.
Experienced hawk watchers conduct an official count of raptors and other birds during the autumn migration in September and October each year.  Visitors are welcome.  The view is spectacular.  Check out the concrete columns glowing in the sun to the north of the lookout.
It’s the cooling towers at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station and the smoke stacks at the Brunner Island Steam Generating Station.  Conewago Falls is located between the two.
Interpretive signage on the hawk watch deck includes raptor identification charts.
A migrating Osprey glides by the lookout.
Throughout the month, migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks will be flying in a southwesterly direction along ridges in the region, particularly on breezy days.  They are the most numerous raptor at hawk watches in the lower Susquehanna valley during the first half of October.
A Peregrine Falcon quickly passes the Rocky Ridge lookout.  These strong fliers often ignore the benefits provided by thermals and updrafts along our ridges and instead take a direct north to south route during migration.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk soars by.
And a little while later, an adult Red-tailed Hawk follows.
Bald Eagles, including both migratory and resident birds, are seen regularly from the Rocky Ridge lookout.
Other diurnal (daytime) migrants are counted at Rocky Ridge and some of the other regional hawk watches.  Massive flights of Blue Jays have been working their way through the lower Susquehanna valley for more than a week now.  Local hawk watches are often logging hundreds in a single day.
The utility right-of-way within which the Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch is located can be a great place to see nocturnal (nighttime) migrants while they rest and feed during the day.  Right now, Eastern Towhees are common there.
An uncommon sight, a shy Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) in the utility right-of-way near the hawk watch lookout.  This and other nocturnal migrants will take full advantage of a clear moonlit night to continue their southbound journey.

If you’re a nature photographer, you might be interested to know that there are still hundreds of active butterflies in Rocky Ridge’s utility right-of-way.  Here are a few.

A Gray Hairstreak.
An American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas),

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be certain to visit hawkcount.org

Bird Migration Highlights

The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway.  With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.

Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.

Blue-winged Teal are among the earliest of the waterfowl to begin southward migration.
Sandpipers and plovers have been on the move since July.  The bird in the foreground with these Killdeer is not one of their offspring, but rather a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), a regular late-summer migrant in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Hawk watch sites all over North America are counting birds right now.  The Osprey is an early-season delight as it glides past the lookouts.  Look for them moving down the Susquehanna as well.
Bald Eagles will be on the move through December.  To see these huge raptors in numbers, visit a hawk watch on a day following passage of a cold front when northwest winds are gusting.
Merlins were seen during this past week in areas with good concentrations of dragonflies.  This particular one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties…
…was soon visited by another.
Check the forest canopy for Yellow-billed Cuckoos.  Some local birds are still on breeding territories while others from farther north are beginning to move through.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are darting through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to the tropics.  This one has no trouble keeping pace with a passing Tree Swallow.
Nocturnal flights can bring new songbirds to good habitat each morning.  It’s the best time of year to see numbers of Empidonax flycatchers.  But, because they’re often silent during fall migration, it’s not the best time of year to easily identify them.  This one lacking a prominent eye ring is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
During the past two weeks, Red-eyed Vireos have been numerous in many Susquehanna valley woodlands.  Many are migrants while others are breeding pairs tending late-season broods.
During mornings that follow heavy overnight flights, Blackburnian Warblers have been common among waves of feeding songbirds.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are regular among flocks of nocturnal migrants seen foraging among foliage at sunrise.
Scarlet Tanagers, minus the brilliant red breeding plumage of the males, are on their way back to the tropics for winter.
While passing overhead on their way south, Bobolinks can be seen or heard from almost anywhere in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Their movements peak in late August and early September.
During recent evenings, Bobolinks have been gathering by the hundreds in fields of warm-season grasses at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
If you go to see the Bobolinks there, visit Stop 3 on the tour route late in the afternoon and listen for their call.  You’ll soon notice their wings glistening in the light of the setting sun as they take short flights from point to point while they feed.  Note the abundance of flying insects above the Big Bluestem and Indiangrass in this image.  Grasslands like these are essential habitats for many of our least common resident and migratory birds.

Spotted Lanternfly in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

Second Mountain Hawk Watch is located on a ridge top along the northern edge of the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and the southern edge of State Game Lands 211 in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  The valley on the north side of the ridge, also known as St. Anthony’s Wilderness, is drained to the Susquehanna by Stony Creek.  The valley to the south is drained toward the river by Indiantown Run, a tributary of Swatara Creek.

The hawk watch is able to operate at this prime location for observing the autumn migration of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats through the courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Garrison Commander at Fort Indiantown Gap.  The Second Mountain Hawk Watch Association is a non-profit organization that staffs the count site daily throughout the season and reports data to the North American Hawk Watch Association (posted daily at hawkcount.org).

Today, Second Mountain Hawk Watch was populated by observers who enjoyed today’s break in the rainy weather with a visit to the lookout to see what birds might be on the move.  All were anxiously awaiting a big flight of Broad-winged Hawks, a forest-dwelling Neotropical species that often travels back to its wintering grounds in groups exceeding one hundred birds.  Each autumn, many inland hawk watches in the northeast experience at least one day in mid-September with a Broad-winged Hawk count exceeding 1,000 birds.  They are an early-season migrant and today’s southeast winds ahead of the remnants of Hurricane Florence (currently in the Carolinas) could push southwest-heading “Broad-wings” out of the Piedmont Province and into the Ridge and Valley Province for a pass by the Second Mountain lookout.

The flight turned out to be steady through the day with over three hundred Broad-winged Hawks sighted.  The largest group consisted of several dozen birds.  We would hope there are probably many more yet to come after the Florence rains pass through the northeast and out to sea by mid-week.  Also seen today were Bald Eagles, Ospreys, American Kestrels, and a migrating Red-headed Woodpecker.

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks circle on a thermal updraft above Second Mountain Hawk Watch to gain altitude before gliding away to the southwest.

Migrating insects included Monarch butterflies, and the three commonest species of migratory dragonflies: Wandering Glider, Black Saddlebags, and Common Green Darner.  The Common Green Darners swarmed the lookout by the dozens late in the afternoon and attracted a couple of American Kestrels, which had apparently set down from a day of migration.  American Kestrels and Broad-winged Hawks feed upon dragonflies and often migrate in tandem with them for at least a portion of their journey.

Still later, as the last of the Broad-winged Hawks descended from great heights and began passing by just above the trees looking for a place to settle down, a most unwelcome visitor arrived at the lookout.  It glided in from the St. Anthony’s Wilderness side of the ridge on showy crimson-red wings, then became nearly indiscernible from gray tree bark when it landed on a limb.  It was the dreaded and potentially invasive Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula).  This large leafhopper is native to Asia and was first discovered in North America in the Oley Valley of eastern Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014.  The larval stage is exceptionally damaging to cultivated grape and orchard crops.  It poses a threat to forest trees as well.  Despite efforts to contain the species through quarantine and other methods, it’s obviously spreading quickly.  Here on the Second Mountain lookout, we know that wind has a huge influence on the movement of birds and insects.  The east and southeast winds we’ve experienced for nearly a week may be carrying Spotted Lanternflies well out of their most recent range and into the forests of the Ridge and Valley Province.  We do know for certain that the Spotted Lanternfly has found its way into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

This adult Spotted Lanternfly landed in a birch tree behind the observers at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch late this afternoon.  It was first recognized by its bright red wings as it glided from treetops on the north side of the lookout.

Winter Won’t Let Go…the Birds Don’t Care

It seems as though the birds have grown impatient for typical spring weather to arrive.  The increase in hours of daylight has signaled them that breeding time is here.  No further delays can be entertained.  They’ve got a schedule to keep.

Thursday, March 29:  Winds began blowing from the southwest, breaking a cold spell which had persisted since last week’s snowfall.  Birds were on the move ahead of an approaching rainy cold front.

Friday, March 30:  Temperatures reached 60 degrees at last.  Birds were again moving north through the day, despite rain showers and a change in wind direction—from the northwest and cooler following the passage of the front in the late morning.

Flocks of Double-crested Cormorants followed the Susquehanna River north in numerous V-shaped flocks during the recent several days.
There were Turkey Vultures by the hundreds on the way north.
And nearly as many Black Vultures too.

Saturday, March 31:  It was cooler, but birds were still on the wing headed north.

At sunrise, a migrating Northern Flicker stopped by at a suet feeder to refuel.

Osprey pairs have arrived at nest sites on the lower Susquehanna.

Sunday, April 1:  The morning was pleasant, but conditions became cooler and breezy in the afternoon.  Migratory and resident birds began feeding ahead of another storm.

A distant flock of fast-flying Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) moves expeditiously up the Susquehanna at Conewago Falls as winds begin to pick up during the late morning.  Are they hurrying to get north of the path of the forthcoming weather system?
A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) feeds in anticipation of a snowy night ahead.
A male Downy Woodpecker devours a late-afternoon meal.
This Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a cavity-nesting species, is distracted by a potential new home.
Dark-eyed Juncos winter in the lower Susquehanna valley.  During the month of April, they will begin departing for their breeding grounds, some nesting in the mountains just to our north.
Tufted Titmouse…still house hunting.
A male American Goldfinch is progressing through molt into a showy breeding (alternate) plumage.
A male House Finch takes a break from its melodious song to feed before the arrival of our next spring snow.  His mate is already incubating eggs in a nest not far away.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) feed through the late afternoon, often as the last birds out-and-about before darkness.  This male remains close to his mate as she forages beneath nearby shrubs.

Monday, April 2: Snow fell again, overnight and through the morning—a couple of inches.  Most of the snow had melted away by late afternoon.

Horned Larks are plentiful in large open bare-soil (tilled) farmlands in winter, particularly near fresh manure.  Their sandy-tan coloration hides them well, and they are seldom noticed unless spotted at roadside following snow storms.  Horned Larks are migratory ground-nesting birds found in many sparsely vegetated habitats including tundra, parched fields and prairies, beaches, and even airports.  There is a breeding population in the lower Susquehanna valley which may be increasingly attracted to favorable nesting habitat created in some no-till fields, possibly using a window of opportunity between the demise of cold-season cover crops and the ascendency of the warm-season crops to complete a brood cycle.  Comparing the site selection and success rates of nesting Horned Larks under various crop management methods, including reactions to herbicide use, could be an enlightening study project for inquisitive minds. (Hint-Hint)
The dainty Chipping Sparrow has arrived. This species commonly nests in small trees, often in suburban gardens.

A Quick Getaway

It was a placid morning on Conewago Falls with blue skies dotted every now and then by a small flock of migrating robins or blackbirds.  The jumbled notes of a singing Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in the Riparian Woodland softly mixed with the sounds of water spilling over the dam.  The season’s first Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors), Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were seen.

There was a small ruckus when one of the adult Bald Eagles from a local pair spotted an Osprey passing through carrying a fish.  This eagle’s effort to steal the Osprey’s catch was soon interrupted when an adult eagle from a second pair that has been lingering in the area joined the pursuit.  Two eagles are certainly better than one when it’s time to hustle a skinny little Osprey, don’t you think?

But you see, this just won’t do.  It’s a breach of eagle etiquette, don’t you know?  Soon both pairs of adult eagles were engaged in a noisy dogfight.  It was fussing and cackling and the four eagles going in every direction overhead.  Things calmed down after about five minutes, then a staring match commenced on the crest of the dam with the two pairs of eagles, the “home team” and the “visiting team”, perched about 100 feet from each other.  Soon the pair which seems to be visiting gave up and moved out of the falls for the remainder of the day.  The Osprey, in the meantime, was able to slip away.

In recent weeks, the “home team” pair of Bald Eagles, seen regularly defending territory at Conewago Falls, has been hanging sticks and branched tree limbs on the cross members of the power line tower where they often perch.  They seem only to collect and display these would-be nest materials when the “visiting team” pair is perched in the nearby tower just several hundred yards away…an attempt to intimidate by homesteading.  It appears that with winter and breeding time approaching, territorial behavior is on the increase.

The second migrating Osprey of the day ran the gauntlet of marauding eagles without incident.

In the afternoon, a fresh breeze from the south sent ripples across the waters among the Pothole Rocks.  The updraft on the south face of the diabase ridge on the east shore was like a highway for some migrating hawks, falcons, and vultures.  Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures streamed off to the south headlong into the wind after leaving the ridge and crossing the river.  A male and female Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), ten Red-tailed Hawks, two Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), six Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two Merlins crossed the river and continued along the diabase ridge on the west shore, accessing a strong updraft along its slope to propel their journey further to the southwest.  Four high-flying Bald Eagles migrated through, each following the east river shore downstream and making little use of the ridge except to gain a little altitude while passing by.

(Top and Middle) Turkey Vultures riding the fresh breeze and teetering to-and-fro on up-tilted wings.  This wing posture is known as a dihedral.  (Bottom) More than 100 migrating Black Vultures climbed high on the afternoon breeze to make an oblique crossing of the river and maintain a southbound course.

Late in the afternoon, the local Bald Eagles were again airborne and cackling up a storm.  This time they intercepted an eagle coming down the ridge toward the river and immediately forced the bird to climb if it intended to pass.  It turned out to be the best sighting of the day, and these “home team” eagles found it first.  It was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in crisp juvenile plumage.  On its first southward voyage, it seemed to linger after climbing high enough for the Bald Eagles to loose concern, then finally selected the ridge route and crossed the river to head off to the southwest.

Ring-billed Gulls began feeding during the afternoon as clouds preceding stormy weather approached.
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Swallows by the Thousands

A fresh breeze from the north brought cooler air and a reminder that summer is gone and autumn has arrived.

Fast-moving dark clouds provided a perfect backdrop for viewing passing diurnal migrants.  Bald Eagles utilized the tail wind to cruise down the Susquehanna toward Chesapeake Bay and points further south.  A migrating Merlin began a chase from which a Northern Flicker narrowly escaped by finding shelter among Pothole Rocks and a few small trees.  The season’s first American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varia), and American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) moved through.

Blue Jays continued their hesitant crossings of the river at Conewago Falls.  The majority completed the journey by forming groups of a dozen or more birds and following the lead of a lone American Robin, a Northern Flicker, or, odd as it appeared, a small warbler.

By far the most numerous migrants today were swallows.  Thousands of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and hundreds of Tree Swallows were on the wing in search of what was suddenly a sparse flying insect supply.  To get out of the brisk wind, some of the more resourceful birds landed on the warm rocks.  To satisfy their appetite, many were able to pick crawling arthropods from the surface of the boulders.  They swallow them whole.

A few of the thousands of swallows seen at Conewago Falls today.
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Blue Jay Way

The Neotropical birds that raised their young in Canada and in the northern United States have now logged many miles on their journey to warmer climates for the coming winter.  As their density decreases among the masses of migrating birds, a shift to species with a tolerance for the cooler winter weather of the temperate regions will be evident.

Though it is unusually warm for this late in September, the movement of diurnal migrants continues.  This morning at Conewago Falls, five Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) lifted from the forested hills to the east, then crossed the river to continue a excursion to the southwest which will eventually lead them and thousands of others that passed through Pennsylvania this week to wintering habitat in South America.  Broad-winged Hawks often gather in large migrating groups which swarm in the rising air of thermal updrafts, then, after gaining substantial altitude, glide away to continue their trip.  These ever-growing assemblages from all over eastern North America funnel into coastal Texas where they make a turn to south around the Gulf of Mexico, then continue on toward the tropics.  In the coming weeks, a migration count at Corpus Christi in Texas could tally 100,000 or more Broad-winged Hawks in a single day as a large portion of the continental population passes by.  You can track their movement and that of other diurnal raptors as recorded at sites located all over North America by visiting hawkcount.org on the internet.  Check it out.  You’ll be glad you did.

Nearly all of the other migrants seen today have a much shorter flight ahead of them.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were on the move.  Migrating American Robins (Turdus migratorius) crossed the river early in the day, possibly leftovers from an overnight flight of this primarily nocturnal migrant.  The season’s first Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) arrived.  American Goldfinches are easily detected by their calls as they pass overhead.  Look carefully at the goldfinches visiting your feeder, the birds of summer are probably gone and are being replaced by migrants currently passing through.

By far, the most conspicuous migrant today was the Blue Jay.  Hundreds were seen as they filtered out of the hardwood forests of the diabase ridge to cautiously cross the river and continue to the southwest.  Groups of five to fifty birds would noisily congregate in trees along the river’s edge, then begin flying across the falls.  Many wary jays abandoned their small crossing parties and turned back.  Soon, they would try the trip again in a larger flock.

Sensing that they are being watched, Blue Jays are hesitant to fly across the narrow Susquehanna at Conewago Falls without first assembling into a flock.  The local constabulary often penalizes those who freelance and do not move in orderly groups.

A look at this morning’s count reveals few Neotropical migrants.  With the exception of the Broad-winged Hawks and warblers, the migratory species seen today will winter in a sub-tropical temperate climate, primarily in the southern United States, but often as far north as the lower Susquehanna River valley.  The individual birds observed today will mostly continue to a winter home a bit further south.  Those that will winter in the area of Conewago Falls will arrive in October and later.

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) can be found year-round at Conewago Falls, provided there is open water and adequate food.  Migrants from breeding colonies to the north will soon supplement the local population.
The Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is a summer resident at Conewago Falls.  Migration of the local population and of those from further north will soon begin.  All will be gone by the time ice forms on the river.  Cormorants are often seen drying their feathers in sunlight following a series of feeding dives.

The long-distance migrating insect so beloved among butterfly enthusiasts shows signs of improving numbers.  Today, more than two dozen Monarchs were seen crossing the falls and slowly flapping and gliding their way to Mexico.

CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

Yellowlegs for Breakfast

A few nocturnal migrants flew through the moonlit night to arrive at Conewago Falls for a sunrise showing this morning.  A dozen warblers were in the treetops and a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) chattered away in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands.  Three species of shorebirds were in the falls and on the Pothole Rocks: Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

A Greater Yellowlegs (right) and two Lesser Yellowlegs sandpipers dropped by for breakfast.

The diurnal migration was highlighted by a Merlin (Falco columbarius), an Osprey, and a Bald Eagle, each flying down the river.  Most of the other birds in the falls seemed content to linger and feed.  There’s no need to hurry folks, only trouble lurks down there in paradise at the moment.

A light to moderate flight of nocturnal migrants in the eastern United States is displayed on NOAA National Weather Service NEXRAD radar at 4:58 AM EDT.  The eye of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

Summer Grasses

It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River.  Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages.  The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would.  The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway.  There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species.  Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.

Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring.  A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches.  Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river.  The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.

Ospreys competing for a suitable fishing perch.  Improving water conditions in the coming week should increase their success as predators.
Versatile at finding food, adult Bald Eagles are experienced and know to be on the lookout for Ospreys with fish, a meal they can steal through intimidation.

While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants.  It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.

The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses.  The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession.  Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting.  In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls.  These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root.  Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), seen here growing in the cracks of a pothole rock. High water nourishes the plant by filling the crevices with nutrient-loaded sediment. This species evolved with roots over three feet deep to survive fires, trampling by bison, and drought.
Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) does well with its roots in water.  It creates exceptional bird habitat and grows in the falls and on ice-scoured small islands in free-flowing segments of the Susquehanna River downstream.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), like Big Bluestem, is one of the tall grass prairie species and, like Freshwater Cordgrass, grows in near pure stands on ice-scoured islands.  It takes flooding well and its extensive root system prevents erosion.
Though not a grass, Water Willow (Justicia americana) is familiar as a flood-enduring emergent plant of river islands, gravel bars, and shorelines where its creeping rhizome root system spreads the plant into large masses.  These stands are often known locally as “grass beds”.  This member of the acanthus family provides habitat for fish and invertebrates among its flooded leaves and stems.  Its presence is critical to aquatic life in a year such as this.

The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants.  We’ll look at more of them next time.

SOURCES

Brown, Lauren.  1979.  Grasses, An Identification Guide.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.