The Acadian Flycatcher: A Shady Character

You’ve probably never noticed the Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens).  This small Neotropical songbird arrives in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during mid-May to breed in the dense shade of mature forests, often along steep slopes adjacent to a brook or creek.  It’s quick, sneezy song—“pit-see” or “wee-seet”—heard emanating from the shadows of the woodland understory is often the first and only sign of their presence.

Acadian Flycatcher
Of the five species of similar-looking Empidonax flycatchers that regularly occur in our region, the Acadian is the only one to nest in the forest interior.  These insectivores shy away from edge habitat and clearings that disturb the closed canopy of mature trees.

One of the more fascinating  habits of the Acadian Flycatcher is their selection of a nesting location.  While many species try to conceal their nests in tree cavities, dense foliage, or some other form of cover, this clever songbird constructs a cup using tiny twigs and leaves and places it near the end of a small branch on a small tree.  The nest is sometimes very easily seen, but for climbing scroungers looking to plunder eggs or helpless young birds, it’s practically out of reach.

Acadian Flycatcher on Nest
A female Acadian Flycatcher on its nest incubating eggs.
Acadian Flycatcher Nest
The white arrow points to the Acadian Flycatcher nest seen in the previous image. The dark-colored limb appears close, but this nest is perched precariously close to the end of a leafy branch and is hanging free and clear above the stream.  When leaving the nest, the young birds that are destined to survive must avoid a tumble into the waterway.

To guard against airborne threats, Acadian Flycatcher parents are vigilant defenders of the space around their nest.

Carolina Chickadee
When this curious juvenile Carolina Chickadee wandered into the flycatcher’s nest tree…
Acadian Flycatcher
…mom came out fighting!  It may be an overreaction, but nesting birds often have a zero-tolerance policy for invaders within their “zone”.

Moments later, things settle down and the waiting continues…

Back on the nest, mom, the eggs, and eventually the young will spend the next several weeks riding the wind atop this flimsy branch in their shady forest home.

Photo of the Day

Grasshopper Sparrow
A nesting Grasshopper Sparrow surveys the warm-season grasslands at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Minutes later, this evening’s thundershower sent everyone and everything seeking cover.

Arboreal Birds and Tent Caterpillars

During the past week, we’ve been exploring wooded slopes around the lower Susquehanna region in search of recently arrived Neotropical birds—particularly those migrants that are singing on breeding territories and will stay to nest.  Coincidentally, we noticed a good diversity of species in areas where tent caterpillar nests were apparent.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Nest
The conspicuous nest of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum), a native species of moth.  The first instar of the larval caterpillars hatch in early spring from egg masses laid on the limbs of the host tree by an adult female moth during the previous spring.  Soon after they begin feeding on the host tree’s first tender shoots, these tiny, seldom-noticed larvae start communal construction of a silk tent to act as a shelter and greenhouse-like solar collector that will both provide protection from the elements and expedite their growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
The familiar last instar of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar is the most consumptive stage of the animal’s life.  After feeding in the treetops, they will descend to the ground and seek a sheltered location to pupate.  Adult moths emerge in several weeks to take to the air, mate, and produce eggs to be deposited on a host tree for hatching next year.  The favorite host tree in forests of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: native Black Cherry.

Here’s a sample of the variety of Neotropical migrants we found in areas impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  All are arboreal insectivores, birds that feed among the foliage of trees and shrubs searching mostly for insects, their larvae, and their eggs.

Yellow-throated Vireo
The Yellow-throated Vireo nests, feeds, and spends the majority of its time feeding among canopy foliage.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee is a flycatcher found in mature woodlands.  It feeds not only among the limbs and leaves, but is an aerial predator as well.
Northern Parula
The Northern Parula nests in mature forests along rivers and on mountainsides, particularly where mature trees are draped with thick vines.
Hooded Warbler
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) is found among thick understory growth on forested slopes.
Ovenbird
The Ovenbird builds a domed, oven-like nest on the ground and forages in the canopy.
Kentucky Warbler
The Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa) nests in woodland undergrowth, often near steep, forested slopes.
Worm-eating Warbler
The Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) nests among woody understory growth on forested hillsides.
Scarlet Tanager
The Scarlet Tanager is often difficult to observe because of its affinity for the canopy of mature forest trees.

In the locations where these photographs were taken, ground-feeding birds, including those species that would normally be common in these habitats, were absent.  There were no Gray Catbirds, Carolina Wrens, American Robins or other thrushes seen or heard.  One might infer that the arboreal insectivorous birds chose to establish nesting territories where they did largely due to the presence of an abundance of tent caterpillars as a potential food source for their young.  That could very well be true—but consider timing.

Already Gone-  By the time Neotropical migrants arrive in our area, the larval stages of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s life cycle are already coming to an end.  The nests that these native insects constructed to capture the energy of the springtime sun have allowed the larvae to exit and browse foliage when conditions were suitable, then return for shelter when they were not.  While inside, the larvae could move among the chambers of their structure to find locations with a temperature that best suited their needs.  Therein the solar heating and communal warmth sped up digestion and growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now in their bristly final-instar stage and the majority have already moved to the ground to each seek a place to pupate and metamorphose into an adult moth.  Arboreal Neotropical birds have scarcely had a chance to feed upon them, and ground-feeding species seem to lack any temptation.  As for the adult moths, they fly only at night and live for just one day, offering little in the way of food for aerial, arboreal, or ground-feeding birds.
Wild Turkey
Having left arboreal environs, Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now food for ground-feeding birds like our resident Wild Turkeys.  They need only get past the bristly hairs on the caterpillar’s back and the foul taste that may result from its limited diet of cyanogenic Black Cherry leaves.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
The arboreal Yellow-billed Cuckoo (seen here) and its close relative the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) are the two species of birds in our area known to regularly feed on bristly tent caterpillars.  But having just arrived from the tropics to nest, they’ll need to rely on other insects and their larvae as sources of food for their young.
Black Cherry defoliated by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Final-instar Eastern Tent Caterpillars often defoliate Black Cherry trees before moving to the ground to pupate. Their timing allows them to feed on the fresh foliage while it is still young and tender, and to largely avoid becoming food for the waves of Neotropical birds that arrive in the lower Susquehanna basin in May.

So why do we find this admirable variety of Neotropical bird species nesting in locations with tent caterpillars?  Perhaps it’s a matter of suitable topography, an appropriate variety of native trees and shrubs, and an attractive opening in the forest.

American Redstart
An American Redstart singing in a Black Cherry.  Unlike others in the vicinity, this tree nestled among several very large Eastern White Pines showed no signs of tent caterpillar activity.  It may be that for one reason or another, no adult female moth deposited her eggs on this particular tree.  During our visits, Black Cherry was but one of the diverse variety of native trees and shrubs found growing on the sloping topography that created attractive habitat for the nesting birds we found.  We happened to notice that a majority, but not all, of those Black Cherry trees were impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Black Cherry in Flower
The end of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s larval surge may spell the end of their nests for the year, but it’s not the end for the Black Cherry and other host trees in the Prunus (cherry) and Malus (apple) genera.  Because it’s still early in the season, they have plenty of time to re-leaf and many will still flower and produce fruit.  Those flowers and foliage will attract numerous other insects (including pollinators) that benefit breeding birds.
Blue-winged Warbler
The Blue-winged Warbler inhabits shrubby breaks in the forest such as this utility right-of-way where Black Cherry trees have sprouted after their seeds arrived in waste deposited by fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds.  Already attractive to a variety of insectivores, these openings soon lure egg-laying Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to the cherry trees growing therein.  Even in dense forest, a small clearing created by a cluster of dead trees makes good bird habitat and will sooner or later be visited by fruit-eating species that will inadvertently sow seeds of Black Cherry, starting yet another stand of host trees for Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  It’s the gap in the forest that often attracts the birds, some of which plant the host trees, which sometimes entice Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to lay their eggs.
Red-Eyed Vireo
Adapt and Reuse-  A Red-eyed Vireo visits an Eastern Tent Caterpillar nest…
Red-eyed Vireo
…and ignores the few remaining occupants that could easily be seized to instead collect silk to reinforce its own nest.

Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the presence of Eastern Tent Caterpillar nests can often be an indicator of a woodland opening, natural or man-made, that is being reforested by Black Cherry and other plants which improve the botanical richness of the site.  For numerous migratory Neotropical species seeking favorable places to nest and raise young, these regenerative areas and the forests surrounding them can be ideal habitat.  For us, they can be great places to see and hear colorful birds.

Scarlet Tanager
Our Lucky Break-  This Scarlet Tanager descended from the treetops to feed on spiders in a small forest clearing.

See Food and an Oriole Doubleheader

The rain and clouds have at last departed.  With blue skies and sunshine to remind us just how wonderful a spring afternoon can be, we took a stroll at Memorial Lake State Park in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to look for some migratory birds.

Indigo Bunting
Though running just a few days later than usual, Indigo Buntings have arrived to begin nesting.
Common Loon
This Common Loon dropped by Memorial Lake during a storm several days ago and decided to stay awhile.  It’s a species that winters in oceanic waters along the Atlantic seaboard and nests on glacial lakes to our north.
Common Loon
Because of the low level of turbidity in Memorial Lake, visibility is good enough to allow this benthic feeder an opportunity to see food before expending energy to dive down and retrieve it.  Favorable foraging conditions might be part of the reason this bird is hanging around.
Shoreline Vegetation at Memorial Lake
Clear Water-  Memorial Lake is one of the few man-made lakes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to be appropriately vegetated with an abundance of submerged, floating, and emergent plants.  As a result, the water from Indiantown Run that passes through the impoundment is minimally impacted by nutrient loads and the algal blooms they can cause.  Buffers of woody and herbaceous growth along the lake’s shorelines provide additional nutrient sequestering and help prevent soil erosion and siltation.
Baltimore Oriole
The breeding season has begun for Neotropical migrants including this Baltimore Oriole, which we found defending a nesting territory in a stand of Black Walnut trees.
Orchard Oriole
Along the edge of the lake, this Orchard Oriole and its mate were in yet another stand of tall walnut trees.
Common Nighthawks
Early in the season and early in the day, we started seeing Common Nighthawks flying above wooded areas north of the lake at 4 o’clock this afternoon.  After all the raw and inclement weather they’ve experienced in recent days, the warm afternoon was probably their first opportunity to feed on flying insects in quite a while.
Common Nighthawks
Early birds, Common Nighthawks feeding at 4 P.M.

What?  You thought we were gonna drop in on Maryland’s largest city for a couple of ball games and some oysters, clams, and crab cakes—not likely.

More Migrating Birds

As waves of wet weather persistently roll through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the tide of northbound migrants continues.  Here are few of today’s highlights…

Eastern Kingbird
Though few in number several days ago, flycatchers are now quite common.  Many of the Eastern Kingbirds we’re now seeing will stay to nest in trees bordering grasslands and pastures.
Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatchers nest along streams and other bodies of water where herbaceous growth and scattered shrubs are plentiful.  Lacking favorable habitat, many will continue moving north in coming days.
Lincoln's Sparrow
The seldom seen Lincoln’s Sparrow likes wet thickets for layovers during its passage through the lower Susquehanna valley.  They are often the last of the migratory sparrows to transit the area in May.  These elusive birds nest primarily in boggy thickets far to the north of our region, mostly in Canada.
Northern Parula
Colorful warblers are still arriving.  Remember to watch for them in unusual places due to stormy weather.  Earlier today, we spotted this Northern Parula prowling a lakeside willow instead of spending its time among the crown foliage and vines adorning mature forest trees.  Breezy conditions ahead of an afternoon shower may have prompted this bird to seek caterpillars and other grub in this protected location.
Least and Solitary Sandpipers
As May churns on, more and more shorebirds will be moving through on their way to nesting grounds in the interior of Canada.  This flock of Least and Solitary Sandpipers was found on the muddy margins of a man-made pond.  Flooded portions of farm fields and stormwater basins are also good places to see these migrants as they trek north.

A Pre-dawn Thunderstorm and a Fallout of Migrating Birds

In recent days, the peak northbound push of migratory birds that includes the majority of our colorful Neotropical species has been slowed to a trickle by the presence of rain, fog, and low overcast throughout the Mid-Atlantic States.  Following sunset last evening, the nocturnal flight resumed—only to be grounded this morning during the pre-dawn hours by the west-to-east passage of a fast-moving line of strong thundershowers.  The NOAA/National Weather Service images that follow show the thunderstorms as well as returns created by thousands of migrating birds as they pass through the Doppler Radar coverage areas that surround the lower Susquehanna valley.

Sterling, Virginia, Doppler Radar west of Washington, D.C., at 4:00 A.M. E.D.T. indicates a dense flight of northbound migrating birds located just to the south of the approaching line of rain and thunderstorms over the State College, Pennsylvania, radar coverage area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
More northbound birds are indicated at 4 A.M. by the radar station located at Dover, Delaware…  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
…and by the Mount Holly, New Jersey, radar site.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Many of the migrating birds shown here over the Binghamton, New York, radar station at 4 A.M. probably overflew the lower Susquehanna region earlier in the night.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And these birds over Albany, New York’s, radar station at 4 A.M. are mostly migrants that passed north over New Jersey and easternmost Pennsylvania last evening and during the wee hours of this morning.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Just after 4 A.M., flashes of lightning in rapid succession repeatedly illuminated the sky over susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Despite the rumbles of thunder and the din of noises typical for our urban setting, the call notes of nocturnal migrants could be heard as these birds descended in search of a suitable place to make landfall and seek shelter from the storm.  At least one Wood Thrush and a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) were in the mix of species passing overhead.  A short time later at daybreak, a Great Crested Flycatcher was heard calling from a stand of nearby trees and a White-crowned Sparrow was seen in the garden searching for food.  None of these aforementioned birds is regular here at our little oasis, so it appears that a significant and abrupt fallout has occurred.

White-crowned Sparrow
A White-crowned Sparrow in the headquarters garden at daybreak.  It’s the first visit by this species in a decade or more.

Looks like a good day to take the camera for a walk.  Away we go!

Gray Catbird
Along woodland edges, in thickets, and in gardens, Gray Catbirds were everywhere today.  We heard and/or saw hundreds of them.
American Redstart
During our travels, American Redstarts were the most frequently encountered warbler.  Look for them in low-lying forested habitats.
Many early-arriving Baltimore Orioles have already begun building nests.  But widespread territorial fighting today may be an indication that some latecomer orioles became trespassers after dropping in on existing territories during the morning fallout.
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireos are difficult to see but easily heard in forested areas throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Scarlet Tanager
If the oriole isn’t the showiest of the Neotropical migrants, then the Scarlet Tanager is certainly a contender…
Scarlet Tanager
Listen for their burry, robin-like song in the treetops of mature upland forests.
Wood Thrush
No woodland chorus is complete without the flute-like harmony of the Wood Thrush.  Look and listen for them in rich forests with dense understory vegetation.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee, another forest denizen, has an easy song to learn…a series of ascending “pee-a-wee” phrases interspersed with an occasional descending “pee-urr”.  It was one of the few flycatchers we found today, but more are certainly on the way.  Their numbers should peak in coming days.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warblers can be especially numerous during migration but tend to peak prior to the arrival of the bulk of the Neotropical species.  This was the only “yellow-rump” we encountered today.  The majority have already passed through on their way to breeding grounds to our north.
Common Yellowthroat
If today you were to visit a streamside thicket or any type of early successional habitat, you would probably find this perky little warbler there, the Common Yellowthroat.
Yellow Warbler
The Yellow Warbler likes streamside thickets too.  You can also find them along lakes, ponds, and wetlands, especially among shrubby willows and alders.
White-crowned Sparrow
While nowhere near the headquarters garden, we ran into another White-crowned Sparrow in less-than-ideal habitat.  This one was in a row of trees in a paved parking lot.
Bobolink
Not all songbirds migrate at night. The Bobolink is an example of a diurnal (day-flying) migrant.  They’re currently arriving in hay fields that are spared the mower until after nesting season.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
While looking for Neotropical species and other late-season migrants, we also found numerous early arrivals that had already begun their breeding cycles.  We discovered this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its nest in a Black Walnut tree…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
…then, later in the day, we found this one in its nest, again in a Black Walnut tree.  Note the freshly emerging set of leaves and flower clusters.  With many tree species already adorned in a full set of foliage, open canopies in stands of walnuts we found growing in reforested areas seemed to be good places to see lots of migrants and other birds today.  It’s hard to say whether birds were more numerous in these sections of woods or were just easier to observe among the sparse leaf cover.  In either case, the nut-burying squirrels that planted these groves did us and the birds a favor.

There’s obviously more spring migration to come, so do make an effort to visit an array of habitats during the coming weeks to see and hear the wide variety of birds, including the spectacular Neotropical species, that visit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each May.  You won’t regret it!

Wood Ducks
Wood Ducks arrived in February and March to breed in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Soon after hatching in April or May, the young leave the nest cavity to travel under the watchful gaze of their ever-vigilant mother as they search for food along our local waterways.  If you’re fortunate, you might catch a glimpse of a brood and hen while you’re out looking at the more than one hundred species of birds that occur in our region during the first half of May.  Good luck!

Sightings on a Beautiful Spring Morning

Following a frosty night, sunny skies and a south breeze brought lots of action to the headquarters garden this morning.  Take a look…

Mason Bee at nest box
Mason Bees are quickly depositing their eggs and a mixture of pollen and nectar called a “pollen loaf” within holes we drilled into blocks of wood in our bee houses.  Each egg is laid in its own chamber within which the larva will hatch, feed on “pollen loaf”, and mature.  The individual cells, including the outermost one in the hole, are sealed with partitions made of mud.  It’s just like a mason using mortar.  Early next spring, the new generation of adults will emerge to begin the process once again.
Black Vulture
This morning’s south wind helped propel some northbound raptors.  This Black Vulture was the first we’ve seen from the headquarters garden since last fall.  While Turkey Vultures remain common and roost nearby, Black Vulture are noticeably less numerous since being impacted by avian flu one year ago.
Cooper's Hawk
This Cooper’s Hawk is one of pair nesting somewhere nearby.  It was quickly gaining altitude on a thermal…
Cooper's Hawks tangle.
…to intercept a transient Cooper’s Hawk (upper right) which it promptly escorted away to the north.
Broad-winged Hawk
Back from their winter holiday in the tropics, migrating Broad-winged Hawks are returning to breed in the forests of the north.  Watch for them either singly or in small groups as they “kettle” in thermal updrafts above south-facing slopes and sun-drenched paved surfaces.
American Robin at Bird Bath
Many birds including this American Robin have been frequenting our water features.  Remember to keep your fixture clean and change the water at least daily.  Watch the temperature too.  A late season freeze can leave you with a shattered bird bath.

Photo of the Day

White-throated Sparrow
While generally common along forest edges throughout the lower Susquehanna valley from mid-autumn through mid-spring, we seldom see White-throated Sparrows in the urban oasis that is the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.  Our greatest hope for spotting one comes during the peak times of seasonal migration.  Alas, gloomy weather grounded this handsome northbound chap for the past several days and at last gave us a chance to repeatedly hear his cheery “old sam peabody-peabody-peabody” song.

Solar Eclipse of 2024

It was dubbed the “Great Solar Eclipse”, the Great North American Eclipse”, and several other lofty names, but in the lower Susquehanna valley, where about 92% of totality was anticipated, the big show was nearly eclipsed by cloud cover.  With last week’s rains raising the waters of the river and inundating the moonscape of the Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls, we didn’t have the option of repeating our eclipse observations of August, 2017, by going there to view this year’s event, so we settled for the next best thing—setting up in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.  So here it is, yesterday’s eclipse…

Solar Eclipse 2024
Here’s one of our first views through a break in the clouds as photographed using a number 12 welder’s glass to shield the camera.
Solar Eclipse 2024
A shot through the welder’s glass with minimal cloud cover reveals a sunspot (AR3628) visible at between ten and eleven o’clock on the solar surface.
Solar Eclipse 2024
Clouds aren’t necessarily a bad thing during a solar eclipse.  Putting the welding filter aside, we were able to photograph the sun directly, without risk of damage to the camera.  Again, sunspot AR3628 can be seen just off the limb of the moon at between ten and eleven o’clock.
Solar Eclipse 2024
It’s 3:21 P.M. E.D.T., and it’s about as good as it’s going to get.  Fortunately for us, the clouds are maximizing the effect.
Solar Eclipse 2024
The sky darkened dramatically as the moon obscured more than 90% of the sun’s disk. Looking toward the northwest, where observers in locations including Erie, Pennsylvania, were experiencing a total solar eclipse, the sky appeared almost night-like.
Solar Eclipse 2024
Here in the lower Susquehanna region, the clouds made our partial solar eclipse an eerie one.
Solar Radio Shutdown during Annular Solar Eclipse 2024
Our home-brew solar-powered radio shut down.
Mourning Dove cooing during solar eclipse.
Our male Mourning Dove perched above its nests site and began a premature evening chorus of sorrowful coos.
Fish Crow Returning to Roost during solar eclipse
The flock of Fish Crows that has been lingering in the area for several weeks was seen making their way to a small grove of nearby evergreens where they often spend the night.
Turkey Vulture Flapping Its Way to Roost during solar eclipse.
Since early winter, Turkey Vultures have been roosting at a site about a half mile from our headquarters.  Each evening, they can be seen leisurely riding the late afternoon thermals as they glide in to pass the night at their favored resting spot.  During the height of the eclipse, as clouds co-conspired to quickly darken the sky and diminish the thermal updrafts, our local vultures were making a hurried scramble, flapping madly to get back to their roost.
The Eclipse of 2024 Wanes
Within fifteen minutes, the cloud cover thinned and the moon started to slide away.  Rays of sunshine quickly renewed the pace of an early spring afternoon.  Soon, the bees were buzzing around, the crows were out looking for trash, and the vultures were piloting the skies in search of deadbeats.
Solar Eclipse 2024
The Great Eclipse of 2024 left us with a sunny smile.

Prescribed Fire: Controlled Burns for Forest and Non-forest Habitats

Homo sapiens owes much of its success as a species to an acquired knowledge of how to make, control, and utilize fire.  Using fire to convert the energy stored in combustible materials into light and heat has enabled humankind to expand its range throughout the globe.  Indeed, humans in their furless incomplete mammalian state may have never been able to expand their populations outside of tropical latitudes without mastery of fire.  It is fire that has enabled man to exploit more of the earth’s resources than any other species.  From cooking otherwise unpalatable foods to powering the modern industrial society, fire has set man apart from the rest of the natural world.

In our modern civilizations, we generally look at the unplanned outbreak of fire as a catastrophe requiring our immediate intercession.  A building fire, for example, is extinguished as quickly as possible to save lives and property.  And fires detected in fields, brush, and woodlands are promptly controlled to prevent their exponential growth.  But has fire gone to our heads?  Do we have an anthropocentric view of fire?  Aren’t there naturally occurring fires that are essential to the health of some of the world’s ecosystems?  And to our own safety?  Indeed there are.  And many species and the ecosystems they inhabit rely on the periodic occurrence of fire to maintain their health and vigor.

For the war effort- The campaign to reduce the frequency of forest fires got its start during World War II with distribution of this poster in 1942.  The goal was to protect the nation’s timber resources from accidental or malicious loss due to fire caused by man-made ignition sources.  The release of the Walt Disney film “Bambi” during the same year and the adoption of the Smokey the Bear mascot in 1944 softened the message’s delivery, but the public relations outreach continued to be a key element of a no-fire policy to save trees for lumber.  Protection and management of healthy forest ecosystems in their entirety has only recently become a priority.  (National Archives image)

Man has been availed of the direct benefits of fire for possibly 40,000 years or more.  Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the earliest humans arrived as early as 12,000 years ago—already possessing skills for using fire.  Native plants and animals on the other hand, have been part of the ever-changing mix of ecosystems found here for a much longer period of time—millions to tens of millions of years.  Many terrestrial native species are adapted to the periodic occurrence of fire.  Some, in fact, require it.  Most upland ecosystems need an occasional dose of fire, usually ignited by lightning (though volcanism and incoming cosmic projectiles are rare possibilities), to regenerate vegetation, release nutrients, and maintain certain non-climax habitat types.

But much of our region has been deprived of natural-type fires since the time of the clearcutting of the virgin forests during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This absence of a natural fire cycle has contributed to degradation and/or elimination of many forest and non-forest habitats.  Without fire, a dangerous stockpile of combustible debris has been collecting, season after season, in some areas for a hundred years or more.  Lacking periodic fires or sufficient moisture to sustain prompt decomposition of dead material, wildlands can accumulate enough leaf litter, thatch, dry brush, tinder, and fallen wood to fuel monumentally large forest fires—fires similar to those recently engulfing some areas of the American west.  So elimination of natural fire isn’t just a problem for native plants and animals, its a potential problem for humans as well.

Indiangrass on Fire
Indiangrass (seen here), Switchgrass, Big Bluestem, and Little Bluestem are native species requiring periodic forms of disturbance to eliminate competition by woody plants.  These warm-season grasses develop roots that penetrate deep into the soil, sometimes to depths of six feet or more, allowing them to survive severe drought and flash fire events.  In the tall grass prairies, these extensive root systems allow these grasses to return following heavy grazing by roaming herds of American Bison (Bison bison).  Without these habitat disturbances, warm season grasslands succumb to succession in about seven years.  With their periodic occurrence, the plants thrive and provide excellent wildlife habitat, erosion control, and grazing forage.

To address the habitat ailments caused by a lack of natural fires, federal, state, and local conservation agencies are adopting the practice of “prescribed fire” as a treatment to restore ecosystem health.  A prescribed fire is a controlled burn specifically planned to correct one or more vegetative management problems on a given parcel of land.  In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is used to…

      • Eliminate dangerous accumulations of combustible fuels in woodlands.
      • Reduce accumulations of dead plant material that may harbor disease.
      • Provide top kill to promote oak regeneration.
      • Regenerate other targeted species of trees, wildflowers, grasses, and vegetation.
      • Kill non-native plants and promote growth of native plants.
      • Prevent succession.
      • Remove woody growth and thatch from grasslands.
      • Promote fire tolerant species of plants and animals.
      • Create, enhance, and/or manage specialized habitats.
      • Improve habitat for rare species (Regal Fritillary, etc.)
      • Recycle nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material.

Let’s look at some examples of prescribed fire being implemented right here in our own neighborhood…

Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fires are typically planned for the dormant season extending from late fall into early spring with burns best conducted on days when the relative humidity is low.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fire is used regularly at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to keep accumulations of woody and herbaceous fuels from accumulating on and around the training range areas where live ordinance and other sources of ignition could otherwise spark large, hard-to-control wildfires.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fires replace the periodic natural burns that would normally reduce the fuel load in forested areas.  Where these fuels are allowed to accumulate, south-facing slopes are particularly susceptible to extreme fires due to their exposure to the drying effects of intense sunlight for much of the year.  The majority of small oaks subjected to treatment by the prescribed fire shown here will have the chance to regenerate without immediate competition from other species including invasive plants.  The larger trees are mostly unaffected by the quick exposure to the flames.  Note too that these fires don’t completely burn everything on the forest floor, they burn that which is most combustible.  There are still plenty of fallen logs for salamanders, skinks, and other animals to live beneath and within.

 

Prescribed fire in grassland.
A prescribed fire in late winter prevents this grassland consisting of Big Bluestem and native wildflowers from being overtaken by woody growth and invasive species.  Fires such as this that are intended to interrupt the process of succession are repeated at least every three to five years.
Prescribed Fire to Control Invasive Species
In its wildlife food plots, prescribed fire is used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to prevent succession and control invasive species such as Multiflora Rose, instead promoting the growth of native plants.
A woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.
An example of a woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and dense tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.  A forester has the option of prescribing a dose of dormant-season fire for a site like this to reduce the fuel load, top kill non-native vegetation, and regenerate native plants.
Precribed Fire to Eliminate Woody Growth
A dose of prescribed fire was administered on this grassland to kill the woody growth of small trees beginning to overtake the habitat by succession.
Precribed Fire Education Sign at middle creek Wildlife Management Area
The Pennsylvania Game Commission employs prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and on many of their other holdings to maintain grasslands.
Prescribed fire is used to eliminate invasive species including Multiflora Rose from grasslands at Middle Creek W.M.A.  Annual burns on the property are conducted in a mosaic pattern so that each individual area of the grassland is exposed to the effects of fire only once every two to five years.  Without fire or some type of mechanical or chemical intervention, succession by woody trees and shrubs would take hold after about seven years.
Prescribed fire is planned for a fraction of total grassland acreage at Middle Creek W.M.A. each year.  Another section of the mosaic is targeted in the following year and yet another in the year that follows that.  Because burns are conducted in the spring, grassland cover is available for wildlife throughout the winter.  And because each year’s fire burns only a portion of the total grassland acreage, wildlife still has plenty of standing grass in which to take shelter during and after the prescribed fire.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Prescribed fire at Middle Creek W.M.A. provides grassland habitat for dozens of species of birds and mammals including the not-so-common Grasshopper Sparrow…
Ring-necked Pheasant
…and stocked Ring-necked Pheasants that do nest and raise young there.
Prescribed Burn Maintains Savanna-like Habitat
On a few sites in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed , prescribed fire is being used to establish and maintain savanna-like grasslands.  This one, located on a dry, south-facing slope near numerous man-made sources of ignition, can easily be dosed with periodic prescribed burns to both prevent succession and reduce fuel accumulations that may lead to a devastating extreme fire.
Pitch Pines in Savanna-like Habitat
One year following a prescribed burn, this is the autumn appearance of a savanna-like habitat with fire-tolerant Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), Bear Oak, warm-season grasses, and a variety of nectar-producing wildflowers for pollinators.  These ecosystems are magnets for wildlife and may prove to be a manageable fit on sun-drenched sites adjacent to man-made land disturbances and their sources of ignition.
Red-headed Woodpecker Adult and Juvenile
Savanna-like grasslands with oaks and other scattered large trees, some of them dead, make attractive nesting habitat for the uncommon Red-headed Woodpecker.
Wild Turkey in Savanna-like Habitat
Prescribed fire can benefit hungry Wild Turkeys by maintaining savanna-like grasslands for an abundance of grasshoppers and other insects in summer and improving the success of mast-producing oaks for winter.
Buck Moth
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the caterpillar of the rare Eastern Buck Moth feeds on the foliage of the Bear Oak, also known as the Scrub Oak, a shrubby species that relies upon periodic fire to eliminate competition from larger trees in its early successional habitat.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.  The Bear Oak regenerates readily from top kill caused by fire.
Reed Canary Grass
Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is a native cool-season grass with a colorful inflorescence in spring.  But given the right situation, it can aggressively overtake other species to create a pure stand lacking biodiversity.  It is one of the few native species which is sometimes labelled “invasive”.
Prescribed Burn to Reduce Prevalence of Reed Canary Grass
Prescribed fire can be used to reduce an overabundance of Reed Canary Grass and its thatch in wetlands.  Periodic burning can help restore species diversity in these habitats for plants and animals including rare species such as the endangered Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii).
On the range areas at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, disturbances by armored vehicles mimic the effects of large mammals such as the American Bison which periodically trampled grasses to prevent succession and the establishment of woody plants on its prairie habitat.  To supplement the activity of the heavy vehicles and to provide suitable habitat for the very rare Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) butterflies found there, prescribed fire is periodically employed to maintain the grasslands on the range.  These burns are planned to encourage the growth of “Fort Indiantown Gap Little Bluestem” grass as well as the violets used as host plants by the Regal Fritillary caterpillars.  These fires also promote growth of a variety of native summer-blooming wildflowers to provide nectar for the adults butterflies.
Depiction of Pennsylvania's Last American Bison, Killed in Union County in 1801. (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A last record of a wild American Bison killed in Pennsylvania was an animal taken in the Susquehanna watershed in Union County in 1801.  The species is thereafter considered extirpated from the state.  Since that time, natural disturbances needed to regenerate warm-season grasses have been limited primarily to fires and riverine ice scour.  The waning occurrence of both has reduced the range of these grasses and their prairie-like ecosystems in the commonwealth.  (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A male Regal Fritillary on the range at Fort Indiantown Gap, where armored vehicles and prescribed fire provide suitable prairie-like habitat for this vulnerable species.
Honey Bee Collecting Minerals After Prescribed Burn
Prescribed fires return the nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material to the soil.  Following these controlled burns, insects like this Honey Bee can often be seen collecting minerals from the ashes.
Fly Collecting Minerals from Burned Grasses
A Greenbottle Fly gathering minerals from the ash following a prescribed burn.

In Pennsylvania, state law provides landowners and crews conducting prescribed fire burns with reduced legal liability when the latter meet certain educational, planning, and operational requirements.  This law may help encourage more widespread application of prescribed fire in the state’s forests and other ecosystems where essential periodic fire has been absent for so very long.  Currently in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is most frequently being employed by state agencies on state lands—in particular, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on State Forests and the Pennsylvania Game Commission on State Game Lands.  Prescribed fire is also part of the vegetation management plan at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and on the land holdings of the Hershey Trust.  Visitors to the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park will also notice prescribed fire being used to maintain the grassland restorations there.

For crews administering prescribed fire burns, late March and early April are a busy time.  The relative humidity is often at its lowest level of the year, so the probability of ignition of previous years’ growth is generally at its best.  We visited with a crew administering a prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area last week.  Have a look…

Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire.
Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire and the equipment and techniques they use to conduct a burn.
Burn Boss Checking Weather
Pennsylvania Game Commission Southeast Region Forester Andy Weaver will fulfill the role of Burn Boss for administering this day’s dose of fire.  His responsibilities include assessing the weather before the burn and calculating a probability of ignition.
Burn Boss Briefing Crew
The Burn Boss briefs personnel with information on site layout, water supply location(s), places of refuge, emergency procedures, the event’s goals and plan of action, crew assignments, and the results of the weather check: wind from the northwest at 5 miles per hour, temperature 48 degrees, and the relative humidity 63%. Today’s patient is a parcel of warm-season grasses receiving a dose of fire to eliminate invasive non-native plants, woody growth, and thatch.  The probability of ignition is 20%, but improving by the minute.
Prescribed Fire Test Burn
To begin the burn, a test fire is started in the downwind corner of the parcel, which also happens to be the bottom of the slope.  Fuel ignition is good.  The burn can proceed.
Igniting the Fire
Crews proceed uphill from the location of the test fire while igniting combustibles along both flanks of the area being treated.
Prescribed Fire Crew Member with Equipment
A drip torch is used to ignite the dried stems and leaves of warm-season grasses and wildflowers.  Each member of the burn crew wears Nomex fire-resistant clothing and carries safety equipment including a two-way radio, a hydration pack, and a cocoon-like emergency fire shelter.
Wildfire ATV
An all-terrain vehicle equipped with various tools, a fire pump, hose, and a small water tank accompanies the crew on each flank of the fire.
Prescribed Fire
A mowed strip of cool-season grasses along the perimeter of the burn area is already green and functions as an ideal fire break.  While the drip torch is perfect for lighting combustibles along the fire’s perimeter, the paintball gun-looking device is an effective tool used to lob incendiaries into the center areas of the burn zone for ignition.
Effective Fire Break
With green cool-season grasses already growing on the trails surrounding the burn zone, very little water was used to contain this prescribed fire.  Where such convenient fire breaks don’t already exist, crews carry tools including chain saws, shovels, and leaf blowers to create their own.  They also carry flame swatters, backpack water pumps, shovels, and other tools to extinguish fires if necessary.  None of these items were needed to control this particular fire.
Halting the Process of Succession in a Grassland with Prescribed Fire
This fast-burning fire provides enough heat to damage the cambium layer of the woody tree and shrub saplings in this parcel being maintained as a grassland/wildflower plot, thus the process of succession is forestalled.  Burns conducted during previous years on this and adjacent fields have also controlled aggressive growth of invasive Multiflora Rose and Olives (Elaeagnus species).
Containing the Fire on the Flanks
Crews proceed up the slope while maintaining the perimeter by igniting dry plant material along the flanks of the burn zone.
The Crew Monitors the Burn
Ignition complete, the crews monitor the fire.
Prescribed Fire: Natural Mosaic-style Burn Pattern
The Burn Boss surveys the final stages of a safe and successful prescribed fire.  The fire has left behind a mosaic of burned and unburned areas, just as a naturally occurring event may have done.  Wildlife dodging the flames may be taking refuge in the standing grasses, so there is no remedial attempt to go back and ignite these areas.  They’ll be burned during prescribed fires in coming years.
Great Spangled Fritillary
By June, this grassland will again be lush and green with warm-season grasses and blooming wildflowers like this Common Milkweed being visited by a Great Spangled Fritillary.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
And later in the summer, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Bobolinks in Indiangrass
Bobolinks glow in the late August sun while taking flight from a stand of warm-season grasses maintained using springtime prescribed fire.  The small dots on the dark background at the top of the image are multitudes of flying insects, many of them pollinators.  The vegetation is predominately Indiangrass, excellent winter cover for birds, mammals, and other wildlife.

Prescribed burns aren’t a cure-all for what ails a troubled forest or other ecosystem, but they can be an effective remedy for deficiencies caused by a lack of periodic episodes of naturally occurring fire.  They are an important option for modern foresters, wildlife managers, and other conservationists.

Snow Geese, Bald Eagles, and More at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

To take advantage of this unusually mild late-winter day, observers arrived by the thousands to have a look at an even greater number of migratory birds gathered at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Here are some highlights…

Trails at Middle creek Wildlife Management Area
Multitudes of Sunday hikers enjoyed the warm afternoon on Middle Creek’s many trails.
Painted Turtles
In one of Middle Creek’s numerous impoundments, newly emerged Painted Turtles bask in the sunshine.
Brown-headed Cowbird
Native blackbirds, particularly males including this Brown-headed Cowbird, are arriving to stake out a claim on suitable breeding territory.
Red-winged Blackbirds
Male Red-winged Blackbirds visit the feeding station at the Middle Creek W.M.A. Visitor’s Center.
Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbirds regularly maintain close association with Red-winged Blackbirds, a frequent victim of the former’s nest parasitism, the practice of laying and abandoning their eggs in a host species’ abode.  By early May, adult “red-wings” can often be seen tending fledged cowbird young raised at the expense of their own progeny.
Common Grackles displaying.
Male Common Grackles display their colors in an attempt to establish dominance.
White-crowned Sparrow
Visitor’s to Middle Creek’s Willow Point Trail not only had a chance to see thousands of geese and other waterfowl, but they might also get a good look at some of the handsome White-crowned Sparrows that have been there during recent weeks.
Tree Swallow
The first Tree Swallows of the season have arrived to stake a claim to nest boxes located throughout the refuge’s grasslands.
Killdeer
Bare croplands and muddy shorelines around Middle Creek’s lakes and ponds are attracting migrating Killdeer.  Some will stay to nest.
Ring-billed Gulls
Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls arrived during the late afternoon to spend the night on the main lake.
Red-tailed Hawk
A Red-tailed Hawk was seen hunting mice and exhibiting territorial behavior.  It is probably protecting a nest site somewhere on the refuge.
Canada Geese
Canada Geese could be seen coming and going, with migratory birds apparently supplementing the resident flock.  This group flushed when a Bald Eagle passed close by.
Bald Eagles
You could hold a Bald Eagle I.D. clinic at Middle Creek W.M.A. right now.  Dozens of birds of varying age classes could be seen in the trees surrounding the main lake and the larger ponds.  Currently, fifty or more could be present.  At least one Golden Eagle has been seen as well.
Adult Bald Eagle
An adult Bald Eagle in definitive plumage investigating the inhabitants of the lake.
Second-year Bald Eagle
This Bald Eagle in its second calendar year is not yet one year of age, but it has already begun replacing dark body feathers with a light plumage that will earn it the nickname “white belly” for this and its third year.  It will start molting its long hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers soon after its first birthday.
Second-year Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk
Another second-year immature Bald Eagle, this one being scolded by the aforementioned territorial Red-tailed Hawk.  Though showing some wear in the tail, this eagle still has a full set of lengthy hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers and remains mostly dark below when compared to the bird of the same age class seen in the previous image.  As in other birds, diet, genetics, stress, climatic conditions, and many other factors will frequently vary the timing of molt among individuals in a population of Bald Eagles.
Third-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its third calendar year still retaining numerous long juvenile wing and tail feathers.   In coming months, as it reaches its second birthday, it will begin replacing the remaining older plumage with a set of new flight feathers.
Fourth-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its fourth calendar year approaches its third birthday with a rather conspicuous long juvenile feather remaining in each wing.  These feathers will soon be replaced.  In addition, the body plumage will darken, the head will begin to show more white, and the bill will become yellow.  In about two more years, the bird will attain its familiar adult definitive plumage.  Click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page to learn more about determining the age of these and other birds of prey.
Snow Geese and Observers at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Bald Eagles draw a crowd, but the real attraction at Middle Creek W.M.A. in late winter is Snow Geese,…
Snow Geese
…thousands of them.
Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Migratory Snow Geese, an annual spectacle at Middle Creek.
Snow Geese and hundreds of onlookers.
Snow Geese and hundreds of delighted onlookers.

Snow Geese at M.C.W.M.A.

Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
The late afternoon sky filled with Snow Geese.
Short-eared Owl at M.C.W.M.A.
As daylight waned and the Snow Geese returned to the main lake for the night, more than one hundred lucky observers were treated to the rare sight of several Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) emerging to hunt the refuge’s managed grasslands for mice and voles.  For many of these visitors, it was a memorable first-time experience.

Time to Order Trees and Shrubs for Spring

It’s that time of year.  Your local county conservation district is taking orders for their annual tree sale and it’s a deal that can’t be beat.  Order now for pickup in April.

The prices are a bargain and the selection includes the varieties you need to improve wildlife habitat and water quality on your property.  For species descriptions and more details, visit each tree sale web page (click the sale name highlighted in blue).  And don’t forget to order packs of evergreens for planting in mixed clumps and groves to provide winter shelter and summertime nesting sites for our local native birds.  They’re only $12.00 for a bundle of 10.

Mature Trees in a Suburban Neighborhood
It’s the most desirable block in town, not because the houses are any different from others built during the post-war years of the mid-twentieth century, but because the first owners of these domiciles had the good taste and foresight to plant long-lived trees on their lots, the majority of them native species.  Pin Oak, Northern Red Oak, Yellow Poplar, Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Norway Spruce, and American Holly dominate the landscape and create excellent habitat for birds and other wildlife.  These 75-year-old plantings provide an abundance of shade in summer and thermal stability in winter, making it a “cool” place to live or take a stroll at any time of the year.

Cumberland County Conservation District Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 22, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Winterberry
Cumberland County Conservation District is taking orders for Common Winterberry, the ideal small shrub for wet soil anywhere on your property.  To get berries, you’ll need both males and females, so buy a bunch and plant them in a clump or scattered group.
Pin Oak
To live for a century or more like this towering giant, a Pin Oak needs to grow in well-drained soils with adequate moisture.  These sturdy shade providers do well along streams and on low ground receiving clean runoff from hillsides, roofs, streets, and parking areas.  As they age, Pin Oaks can fail to thrive and may become vulnerable to disease in locations where rainfall is not adequately infiltrated into the soil.  Therefore, in drier areas such as raised ground or slopes, avoid the Pin Oak and select the more durable Northern Red Oak for planting.  This year, Pin Oaks are available from the Cumberland and Lancaster County Conservation Districts, while Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York Counties are taking orders for Northern Red Oaks.
Purple Coneflower
The Cumberland County Conservation District is again offering a “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” for seeding your own pollinator meadow or garden.  It consists of more than twenty species including this perennial favorite, Purple Coneflower.

Dauphin County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Monday, March 18, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Eastern Redbud
The Eastern Redbud is small tree native to our forest edges, particularly in areas of the Piedmont Province with Triassic geology (Furnace Hills, Conewago Hills, Gettysburg/Hammer Creek Formations, etc.)  Also known as the Judas Tree, the redbud’s brilliant flowers are followed by heart-shaped leaves.  As seen here, it is suitable for planting near houses and other buildings.  Eastern Redbud seedlings are being offered through tree sales in Dauphin, Cumberland, and Lancaster Counties.

Lancaster County Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 12, 2024

Yellow Poplar
The Yellow Poplar, often called Tuliptree or Tulip Poplar for its showy flowers, is a sturdy, fast-growing deciduous tree native to forests throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Its pole-straight growth habit in shady woodlands becomes more spreading and picturesque when the plant is grown as a specimen or shade tree in an urban or suburban setting.  The Yellow Poplar can live for hundreds of years and is a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available this year from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
The American Sweetgum, also known as Sweet Gum, is a large, long-lived tree adorned with a mix of vibrant colors in autumn.
American Goldfinches and Pine Siskin on Sweet Gum
Ever wonder where all the American Goldfinches and particularly the Pine Siskins go after passing through our region in fall?  Well, many are headed to the lowland forests of the Atlantic Coastal Plain where they feed on an abundance of seeds contained in spiky American Sweetgum fruits.  In the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley Provinces of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, American Sweetgum transplants can provide enough sustenance to sometimes lure our friendly finches into lingering through the winter.
Sweet Gum in a Beaver Pond
The American Sweetgum is a versatile tree.  It can be planted on upland sites as well as in wet ground along streams, lakes, and rivers.  In the beaver pond seen here it is the dominate tree species.  This year, you can buy the American Sweetgum from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
"Red-twig Dogwood"
“Red-twig Dogwood” is a group of similar native shrubs that, in our region, includes Silky Dogwood and the more northerly Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea).  Both have clusters of white flowers in spring and showy red twigs in winter.  They are an excellent choice for wet soils.  Landscapers often ruin these plants by shearing them off horizontally a foot or two from the ground each year.  To produce flowers and fruit, and to preserve winter attractiveness, trim them during dormancy by removing three-year-old and older canes at ground level, letting younger growth untouched.
Silky Dogwood Stream Buffer
“Red-twig Dogwoods” make ideal mass plantings for streamside buffers and remain showy through winter, even on a gloomy day.  They not only mitigate nutrient and sediment pollution, they provide excellent food and cover for birds and other wildlife.  Both Silky and Red-osier Dogwoods are available for sale through the Lancaster County Conservation District as part of their special multi-species offers, the former is included in its “Beauty Pack” and the latter in its “Wildlife Pack”.  The similar Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is being offered for sale by the York County Conservation District.

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree and Plant Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Pawpaw flower
The unique maroon flowers of the Common Pawpaw produce banana-like fruits in summer.  These small native trees grow best in damp, well-drained soils on slopes along waterways, where they often form clonal understory patches.  To get fruit, plant a small grove to increase the probability of pollination.  The Common Pawpaw is a host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County sales.
Eastern Red Cedar
The Eastern Red Cedar provides excellent food, cover, and nesting sites for numerous songbirds.  Planted in clumps of dozens or groves of hundreds of trees, they can provide winter shelter for larger animals including deer and owls.  The Eastern Red Cedar is being offered for purchase through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.
Hybrid American Chestnut
Care to try your hand at raising some chestnuts?  Lebanon County Conservation District has hybrid American Chestnut seedlings for sale.
Common Winterberry
Lebanon County Conservation District is offering Common Winterberry and Eastern White Pine during their 2024 Tree and Plant Sale.  Plant them both for striking color during the colder months.  Eastern White Pine is also available from the Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and York County sales.

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—

Orders due by: Sunday, March 24, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Pollinator Garden
In addition to a selection of trees and shrubs, the Perry County Conservation District is again selling wildflower seed mixes for starting your own pollinator meadow or garden.  For 2024, they have both a “Northeast Perennials and Annuals Mix” and a “Butterfly and Hummingbird Seed Mix” available.  Give them a try so you can give up the mower!

Again this year, Perry County is offering bluebird nest boxes for sale.  The price?—just $12.00.

Eastern Bluebird
Wait, what?,…twelve bucks,…that’s cheaper than renting!

York County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 15, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Buttonbush flower
The Buttonbush, a shrub of wet soils, produces a cosmic-looking flower.  It grows well in wetlands, along streams, and in rain gardens.  Buttonbush seedlings are for sale from both the York and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.

To get your deciduous trees like gums, maples, oaks, birches, and poplars off to a safe start, conservation district tree sales in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and Perry Counties are offering protective tree shelters.  Consider purchasing these plastic tubes and supporting stakes for each of your hardwoods, especially if you have hungry deer in your neighborhood.

Deciduous Tree Planting Protected by Shelters
Tree shelters protect newly transplanted seedlings from browsing deer, klutzy hikers, visually impaired mower operators, and other hazards.

There you have it.  Be sure to check out each tree sale’s web page to find the selections you like, then get your order placed.  The deadlines will be here before you know it and you wouldn’t want to miss values like these!

Birds Beginning to Wander

Since Tuesday’s  snow storm, the susquehannawiildlife.net headquarters garden continues to bustle with bird activity.

Northern Mockingbird
Our Northern Mockingbird remains ever vigilant in its attempts to discourage American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds from feeding on the berry crop.  Slowly, the latter species are winning the contest.
Carolina Chickadee feeding on sunflower seed.
A Carolina Chickadee carefully dissects a sunflower seed to snack on the nutritious kernel.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This beauty shows us that yes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers do indeed have red bellies.
American Robin eating Common Winterberry fruits.
Getting energized for a big move north, the robins keep on gulping berries.

Today, there arrived three species of birds we haven’t seen here since autumn.  These birds are, at the very least, beginning to wander in search of food.  Then too, these may be individuals creeping slowly north to secure an advantage over later migrants by being the first to establish territories on the most favorable nesting grounds.

Song Sparrow
This Song Sparrow is the first we’ve seen in the garden since sometime last fall.  Is it working its way north or did it just come to town in search of food?
Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers regularly spend the winter in small numbers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  This is the first one we’ve had visit the garden since late last autumn.
Fish Crows feeding on Eastern Red Cedar berries.
Fish Crows, seen here feeding on the fruits adorning an Eastern Red Cedar, have returned after being absent in our neighborhood since November.  In coming weeks, both they and the more numerous American Crows that remained through winter will begin constructing nests in nearby trees.

They say the early bird gets the worm.  More importantly, it gets the most favorable nesting spot.  What does the early birder get?  He or she gets out of the house and enjoys the action as winter dissolves into the miracle of spring.  Do make time to go afield and marvel a bit, won’t you?  See you there!

Robins in a Snowstorm

In mid-February each year, large numbers of American Robins descend upon the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden to feast on the ripe fruits that adorn several species of our native shrubs and trees.  This morning’s wet snowfall provided the needed motivation for these birds and others to make today the big day for the annual feeding frenzy.

American Robins
Early this morning, branches and limbs in the headquarters garden were loaded with clinging snow and more than one hundred American Robins.
American Robin
To have first grabs at suitable nesting sites, early American Robins are currently beginning to edge their way north.  Spring migration is underway.
American Robin feeding on Common Winterberry
The fruits of Common Winterberry are always a favorite of visiting robins.
Northern Mockingbird
After selfishly guarding the garden’s berries through the entire season, our Northern Mockingbird finds chasing more than one hundred robins away from its food supply an impossible task.
American Robin
This and other visiting robins will strip the winterberry, cedar, American Holly, and other fruit-producing shrubs and trees within a day or two.  To survive what remains of the season, our resident mockingbird will have to look elsewhere for provisions.
American Robin
Another American Robin devouring winterberry fruit.
American Robin
In addition to robins, there were, of course, other guests in the garden refuge on this snowy day.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This Red-bellied Woodpecker tries to make sense of all the commotion.
Carolina Chickadee
A pair of Carolina Chickadees established a family in the garden during the spring of 2023.  At least five of the birds still stop by on a daily basis.
American Goldfinches
As spring nears, our American Goldfinches are beginning to show a hint of their bright breeding colors.
Blue Jay
A Blue Jay peeks out from the cover of the Eastern Hemlocks.
Carolina Wren
Our Carolina Wrens sing throughout the winter,…
Mourning Dove
…but today we noticed that this Mourning Dove has begun softly cooing to charm a mate…
House Finch
…and the male House Finches are warbling away with the sounds of spring.
Female Eastern Bluebird
With the local mockingbird busily harassing robins, our Eastern Bluebirds went unmolested long enough to stop by…
Bluebird Feeder
…for some raisins from their enclosed feeder.
Male Eastern Bluebird
A showy male Eastern Bluebird on a snowy day in the garden.  Spring must be just around the corner!

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.

Birds Along the River’s Edge

Just as bare ground along a plowed road attracts birds in an otherwise snow-covered landscape, a receding river or large stream can provide the same benefit to hungry avians looking for food following a winter storm.

Here is a small sample of some of the species seen during a brief stop along the Susquehanna earlier this week.

Song Sparrow
Along vegetated edges of the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Song Sparrow is ubiquitous in its search for small seeds and other foods.  As the river recedes from the effects of this month’s rains, the shoreline is left bare of more recently deposited snow cover.  Song Sparrows and other birds are attracted to streamside corridors of frost-free ground to find sufficient consumables for supplying enough energy to survive the long cold nights of winter.
American Robin
Thousands of American Robins have been widespread throughout the lower Susquehanna valley during the past week.  Due to the mild weather during this late fall and early winter, some may still be in the process of working their way south.  Currently, many robins are concentrated along the river shoreline where receding water has exposed unfrozen soils to provide these birds with opportunities for finding earthworms (Lumbricidae) and other annelids.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
This Golden-crowned Kinglet was observed searching the trees and shrubs along the Susquehanna shoreline for tiny insects and spiders. Temperatures above the bare ground along the receding river can be a few degrees higher than in surrounding snow-covered areas, thus improving the chances of finding active prey among the trunks and limbs of the riparian forest.
Brown Creeper
Not far from the kinglet, a Brown Creeper is seen searching the bark of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) for wintering insects, as well as their eggs and larvae.  Spiders in all their life stages are a favorite too.
American Pipits
American Pipits not only inhabit farm fields during the winter months, they are quite fond of bare ground along the Susquehanna.  Seen quite easily along a strip of pebbly shoreline exposed by receding water, these birds will often escape notice when spending time on mid-river gravel and sand bars during periods of low flow.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.

Birds of Snow-covered Farmland

When the ground becomes snow covered, it’s hard to imagine anything lives in the vast wide-open expanses of cropland found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s fertile valleys.

Snow-covered Farm Field
A snow-covered field with no standing vegetation.  For nearly all wild birds, mammals, and other animals, modern agricultural practices offer no means of sustenance, particularly during the winter months.

Yet, there is one group of birds that can be found scrounging a living from what little exists after a season of high-intensity farming.  Meet the Horned Lark.

Horned Larks
Horned Larks occur year-round in the lower Susquehanna region.  Birds found wintering here are hardy individuals that breed in the arctic tundra, terrain reminiscent of our treeless farmlands.  Another population of larks seems to have adapted to no-till farming, nesting with some success in unplowed fields during the early part of the growing season.  The impact of herbicide application on survival of these broods could be a topic of research for an energetic student out there…hint, hint.
A Flock of Horned Larks
Nearly invisible on bare ground, Horned Larks are much more conspicuous after a fresh snowfall.  For protection from predators, they gather in flocks.  During the days of raw manure application, 300 to 500 larks could be found attracted to a freshly spread strip in a snow-covered field.  Modern liquid manure, which contains fewer undigested seeds and grains for larks, is not as attractive to these and other birds.
Horned Larks in Snow
During severe storms, we’ve seen Horned Larks remain active throughout the night.  We’ve even witnessed them taking shelter by burying themselves in the snow.
Horned Lark in Flight
To find food, Horned Larks are constantly on the move…
Horned Lark
…seeking out bare ground or the seed-bearing tops of plant stems that remain exposed above the snow.
Horned Larks Feeding at Roadside
Following storms, Horned Larks often gather along roadsides where snow removal has revealed “weed” seeds and other tiny morsels that, though they are almost imperceptible to us, are a meal for a Horned Lark.
A Horned Lark munching "weed" seeds.
A Horned Lark munching “weed” seeds.
Horned Larks and Lapland Longsrurs
Flocks of wintering Horned Larks will sometimes contain one or more of the several much less numerous species with a similar proclivity for tundra-like environs during the colder months.  We examined this gathering a little bit more closely…
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks
…and found these Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus).  In winter, Lapland Longspurs (the two streaked birds: one to the far left and the other high-stepping the white line) can be hard to discern from the earth tones of farmland habitat.  Breeding males, however, are a brilliant white with a chestnut-colored nape and a black bib, mask, and cap.  On rare occasions, these males in spectacular alternate plumage can be found in the lower Susquehanna valley prior to their departure to nesting areas near the treeline in northern Canada and Alaska.
Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs
A close-up image (through the windshield) of a roadside flock of Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs (top, far right, and third from bottom).

If you decide to take a little post-storm trip to look for Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, be sure to drive carefully.  Do your searching on quiet rural roads with minimal traffic.  Stop and park only where line-of-sight and other conditions allow it to be done safely.  Use your flashers and check your mirrors often.  Think before you stop and park—don’t get stuck or make a muddy mess.  And most important of all, be aware that you’re on a roadway—get out of the way of traffic.

Eastern Meadowlarks
Flushed from roadside feeding areas by passing automobiles, these Eastern Meadowlarks were previously displaced from their grassland and pasture foraging areas by snow cover.

If you’re not going out to look for larks and longspurs, we do have a favor to ask of you.  Please remember to slow down while you’re driving.  Not only is this an accident-prone time of year for people in cars and trucks, it’s a dangerous time for birds and other wildlife too.  They’re at greatest peril of getting run over while concentrated along roadsides looking for food following snow storms.

American Pipit
The American Pipit is another barren-field specialist that can be found feeding at roadside following snowstorms, particularly when they coincide with the bird’s migration in late fall or early spring.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Snow Bunting
The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), like the Lapland Longspur, occurs among flocks of Horned Larks in winter.  Other barren-ground birds you’ll see feeding along country roads following significant snowfalls include Savannah and Vesper Sparrows.
Killdeer
During mild winters, Killdeer may linger in farmlands where they are more easily heard than seen…until it snows.

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.

Western Flycatcher on the Susquehanna

What was the attraction that prompted dozens of birders to hike more than a mile to a secluded field edge along the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail on this last full day of autumn?  It must be something good.

Birders photographing a rarity in the vicinity of the Shock's Mill Railroad Bridge along the Susquehanna in Lancaster County
Birders photographing a rarity in the vicinity of the Shock’s Mill Railroad Bridge along the Susquehanna in Conoy Township, Lancaster County, earlier today.

Indeed it was.  A Western Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis), first discovered late last week, has weathered the coastal storm that in recent days pummeled the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed with several inches of rain and blustery winds.  Western Flycatchers nest in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast regions of North America.  They spend their winters in Mexico.  There are several records of these tiny passerines in our area during December.  The first, a bird found in an area known as Tanglewood during the Southern Lancaster County Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on December 16, 1990, was well documented—photographs were taken and its call was tape recorded.  It constituted the first record of a member of the Western Flycatcher’s “Pacific-slope” subspecies group ever seen east of the Mississippi River.  It was reported through December 26, 1990.  The Tanglewood flycatcher and a bird sighted years later on a subsequent “Solanco CBC” were both found inhabiting wooded thickets in the shelter of a ravine created by one of the Susquehanna’s small tributaries.

Western Flycatcher along Northwest Lancaster County River Trail
Early this morning, a vagrant Western Flycatcher finds a sunny spot adjacent to the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail to search the vines, shrubs, and tree limbs for spiders and small insects.
Western Flycatcher along Northwest Lancaster County River Trail
The diminutive Western Flycatcher on the lookout for flying insects from an elevated perch in the treetops.
Western Flycatcher along Northwest Lancaster County River Trail
Like other Western Flycatchers which have been found during the month of December in Lancaster County, this individual has some topographic protection from cold northwest winds.  It spends its time in a thicket along the edge of woodlands on the leeward side of the railroad grade that rises as the approach to the nearby Shock’s Mill Bridge.

How long will this wandering rarity remain along the river trail?  For added sustenance, sunny days throughout the coming winter offer ever-increasing chances of stonefly hatches on the adjacent river, particularly in the vicinity of the stone bridge piers.  But ultimately, the severity of the weather and the bird’s response to it will determine its destiny.

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.

Time to Eat

A glimpse of the rowdy guests crowding the Thanksgiving Day dinner table at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters…

White-breasted Nuthatch
A male White-breasted Nuthatch visits a peanut feeder…
White-breasted Nuthatch
…soon to be joined by a female White-breasted Nuthatch.
Downy Woodpecker
A male Downy Woodpecker gets a bill full of suet.
Carolina Wren
A Carolina Wren nibbles at a peanut.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
An Eastern Gray Squirrel stuffs itself on peanuts dropped by the birds.
Northern Mockingbird
A territorial Northern Mockingbird stands guard over its supply of Common Winterberry fruit.
Eastern Bluebird
To avoid the mockingbird’s aggression, the Eastern Bluebirds opted out of fresh fruit in favor of raisins offered at the feeders.
American Robin
This persistent American Robin has made an art of repeatedly sneaking in to quickly devour a few berries before being chased away by the vigilant mockingbird.
Dark-eyed Junco
After everyone has had their fill, Dark-eyed Juncos clean up the leftovers.

Sparrows in the Thicket

As the annual autumn songbird migration begins to reach its end, native sparrows can be found concentrating in fallow fields, early successional thickets, and brushy margins along forest edges throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Brushy Thicket
A streamside thicket composed of seed-producing grasses and wildflowers as well as fruit-bearing shrubs and vines can be ideal habitat for migrating and wintering native sparrows.

Visit native sparrow habitat during mid-to-late November and you have a good chance of seeing these species and more…

Song Sparrow
The Song Sparrow can be found in woody brush and grassy margins from the shores of the Susquehanna all the way up to the ridgetops of the Appalachians.
Dark-eyed junco
During the colder months of the year, the Dark-eyed Junco is a familiar visitor to bird-feeding stations.  Where suitable natural cover is present, they regularly venture into suburban and urban settings.
White-throated Sparrow
The White-throated Sparrow is commonly found in the company of juncos, but is generally less adventurous, being more likely in weedy fields near young woodlands than in suburban gardens.
Eastern Towhee
The Eastern Towhee is a large native sparrow most often found in early successional growth near woodlands.  Look for them in utility right-of-ways.
Fox Sparrow
The elusive Fox Sparrow is a regular late-fall migrant.  Few stay for the winter, but northbound birds can be seen as early as mid-February each year.

If you’re lucky enough to live where non-native House Sparrows won’t overrun your bird feeders, you can offer white millet as a supplement to the wild foods these beautiful sparrows might find in your garden sanctuary.  Give it a try!

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.

Photo of the Day

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
With warbler migration winding down, it’s time to keep an eye open for the tiny kinglets, particularly in coniferous trees.  This Ruby-crowned Kinglet was spotted yesterday in the boughs of an Eastern Hemlock.  While common during autumn migration in October, only a few will remain in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed for winter.

American Goldfinches Molting into Winter Plumage

Say it isn’t so.  Does summer really have to go?

Our brightly colored goldfinches are gone for the year.  No more Pennsylvania distelfinks glowing like bright-yellow Easter peeps on our feeders.  Oh, the birds are still here mind you, but their sunshine-gold feathers are falling away.  Because winter time is no time to show off.  One must blend in and maintain a low profile to conserve energy and avoid trouble as rough weather arrives.  So our American Goldfinches have commenced to molting—shedding their breeding plumes and replacing them with drab earth-tone shades for winter.

An adult male American Goldfinch losing its spectacular summer color and molting into less-than-thrilling winter feathers.
American Goldfinch in molt.
This ratty-looking adult male American Goldfinch is rapidly replacing its showy breeding (alternate) plumage with winter (basic) plumage.  A new set of wing feathers is readily visible.
Juvenile American Goldfinch
Juvenile American Goldfinches leave the nest with this first complete set of feathers.  Soon, adult birds will be wearing a similar color scheme.  Then, as spring approaches, they’ll all begin a gradual molt into the brilliant hues we all know and love.

Photo of the Day

Eastern Palm Warbler
A warbler found moving through trees and shrubs or foraging on the ground while bobbing its tail is likely to be a Palm Warbler.  During migration, these animated passerines favor the vegetated shorelines of lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds.  This affinity for water is reflected in the Palm Warbler’s choice of breeding habitat.  Nesting territories are primarily located within spruce bogs east of the Rockies in Canada, Minnesota, Maine, and on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The bird seen here with extensive yellow underparts is known as a Yellow or Eastern Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum hypochrysea), a subspecies that nests in eastern portions of the breeding range.  The duller, grayer Brown or Western Palm Warbler (S. p. palmarum) nests in western sections of the summer range.  In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, both subspecies can be seen during fall migration, which peaks in late September and October as movements of the less hardy Neotropical warblers are winding down.  Both subspecies spend the winter on Caribbean islands or in coastal plain areas of eastern North America.  Some of the western birds pass the colder months along the Pacific coast.

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.

Blue Tuesday

We’ve got the summertime blues for you, right here at susquehannawildlife.net…

Big Bluestem
In warm-season grass meadows, Big Bluestem is now in flower.  This and other species of native prairie grasses provide excellent habitat for birds, mammals, and insects including butterflies.  To survive drought and fire, their roots run much deeper than cool season grasses, creeping down four to six feet or more.  This adaptation allowed warm season grasses to recover from heavy grazing by large Pre-Anthropocene mammals.  Today, it makes them ideal plants for soil stabilization.
A male Indigo Bunting has already found some ripe seeds among the heads of flowering Big Bluestem.
A male Indigo Bunting has already found ripe seeds among the heads of flowering Big Bluestem.
Molting Indigo Bunting
Look closely and you’ll see our Indigo Bunting is beginning a pre-migration molt out of its bright-blue breeding (alternate) plumage and into a gray-brown winter (basic) plumage.  The berries of the American Pokeweed upon which it is perched will soon ripen into a dark blue, almost black, color.  Though toxic to humans, these fruits find favor with many species of birds and mammals.
Silky Dogwood
Another great wildlife food is Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), a deciduous shrub that sports blue-colored berries in summer and showy, bright-red twigs in winter.  It grows well in wet ground along streams and ponds, as well as in rain gardens.
Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron searches the shallows for small fish.  This species is also a good mouser, at times seen hunting in grassy meadows.  Right now is prime time to see it and a variety of other herons and egrets throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

…so don’t let the summertime blues get you down.  Grab a pair of binoculars and/or a camera and go for a stroll!

Some Good Reasons to Postpone Mowing Until Mid-August

Here in a series of photographs are just a handful of the reasons why the land stewards at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and other properties where conservation and propagation practices are employed delay the mowing of fields composed of cool-season grasses until after August 15 each year.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlarks, birds of large pastures, hay lots and other meadows of cool-season grasses, build their nests and raise their young on the ground.  In the years since the early twentieth century, loss in the volume of acreage maintained in the lower Susquehanna Valley as grassland habitat types has dramatically reduced the prevalence and abundance of this and other birds with similar nesting requirements.  During the most recent fifty years, early and frequent mowing and other practices introduced as part of agriculture’s Green Revolution have all but eliminated ground-nesting grassland species from the region.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Like the meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) nest on the ground in fields of cool-season grasses.  Mowing prior to the time the young leave the nest and are able to fly away can obliterate a generation of grassland birds.  Because their life span is short, widespread loss of an entire year of reproduction can quickly impact overall populations of native sparrows and other small birds.  Delayed mowing can improve numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows as well as Savannah Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and the very rare Henslow’s Sparrow (Centronyx henslowii).
Bobolink
The Bobolink, like the meadowlark, is a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae).  It too requires grasslands free of disturbances like mowing for the duration of the nesting season which, for this particular bird, lasts until mid-August in the lower Susquehanna region.  In places lacking their specific habitat requirements, Bobolinks will seldom be detected except as flyovers during migration.
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced to the lower Susquehanna basin, and their populations were maintained thereafter, by stocking for the purpose of hunting.  But throughout the middle twentieth century, there was a substantial population of ring-necks breeding in fields of cool-season grasses in farmlands throughout the region.  High-intensity agriculture with frequent mowing eliminated not only nesting habitat in grasslands, but winter cover in areas of early successional growth.  Populations of Ring-necked Pheasants, as well as native Northern Bobwhite, crumbled during the late 1970s and early 1980s due to these changes.  For these resident birds that don’t migrate or routinely travel great distances to find new places to live and breed, widespread habitat loss can be particularly catastrophic.  Not surprisingly, the Northern Bobwhite is no longer found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and has been extirpated from all of Pennsylvania.
Blue Grosbeak
At places like Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area where a mix of grasslands, early successional growth, and even some cropland are maintained, the Blue Grosbeak has extended its range well north of the Mason-Dixon and has become a regular nesting species during recent decades.  Good habitat management does pay dividends.

Right now is a good time to visit Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to see the effectiveness a delayed mowing schedule can have when applied to fields of cool-season grasses.  If you slowly drive, walk, or bicycle the auto tour route on the north side of the lake, you’ll pass through vast areas maintained as cool-season and warm-season grasses and early successional growth—and you’ll have a chance to see these and other grassland birds raising their young.  It’s like a trip back in time to see farmlands they way they were during the middle years of the twentieth century.

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.