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 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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 stream into Raymond Pool to escape the rising tide in the salt marsh.
More Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) arrive at Raymond Pool.
Two more Short-billed Dowitchers on the way in.
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.
More Short-billed Dowitchers arriving to feed in Raymond Pool.
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.
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 wading to feed in the unusually high waters of Raymond Pool.
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.
Zoomed-in view of a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), the bird with white wing linings.
American Avocets probe the muddy bottom of Raymond Pool.
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.
This Least Sandpiper found a nice little feeding area all to itself at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool
A Greater Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
A Caspian Tern patrolling Raymond Pool.
The chattering notes of the Marsh Wren’s (Cistothorus palustris) song can be heard along the tour road wherever it borders tidal waters.
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.
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 Blackbirds are still nesting at Bombay Hook, probably tending a second brood.
Look up! A migrating Bobolink passes over the dike at Shearness Pool.
Non-native Mute Swans and resident-type Canada Geese in the rain-swollen Shearness Pool.
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.
A Great Egret prowling Shearness Pool.
A Snowy Egret in Bear Swamp Pool.
Wood Ducks in Bear Swamp Pool.
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.
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.
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 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.
A male Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab peers from its den.
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.
A Green Heron seen just before descending into the cordgrass to find fiddler crabs for dinner.
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 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 in the marshes opposite Shearness Pool.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The White-tailed Deity is common along the road to Finis Pool.
Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) breed in the vernal ponds found in the vicinity of Finis Pool and elsewhere throughout the refuge.
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.
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.
You’ll want to go for a walk this week. It’s prime time to see birds in all their spring splendor. Colorful Neotropical migrants are moving through in waves to supplement the numerous temperate species that arrived earlier this spring to begin their nesting cycle. Here’s a sample of what you might find this week along a rail-trail, park path, or quiet country road near you—even on a rainy or breezy day.
The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of more than two dozen species of warblers passing through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed right now. Look for it in the middle and bottom branches of deciduous forest growth.
The Veery and other woodland thrushes sing a melodious song. Veerys remain through the summer to nest in damp mature deciduous forests.
The American Redstart, this one a first-spring male, is another of the variety of warblers arriving now. Redstarts nest in deciduous forests with a dense understory.
Adaptable inquisitive Gray Catbirds are here to nest in any shrubby habitat, whether in a forest or a suburban garden.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptilia caerulea) arrive in April, so they’ve been here for a while. They spend most of their time foraging in the treetops. The gnatcatcher’s wheezy call alerts the observer to their presence.
Look way up there, it’s a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers building a nest.
The Eastern Phoebe, a species of flycatcher, often arrives as early as mid-March. This particular bird and its mate are already nesting beneath a stone bridge that passes over a woodland stream.
Orchard Orioles (Icturus spurius) are Neotropical migrants that nest locally in habitats with scattered large trees, especially in meadows and abandoned orchards.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Baltimore Oriole is a more widespread breeding species than the Orchard Oriole. In addition to the sites preferred by the latter, it will nest in groves of mature trees on farms and estates, in parks, and in forest margins where the canopy is broken.
The Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) nests in big trees along streams, often sharing habitat with our two species of orioles.
Eastern Towhees arrive in numbers during April. They nest in thickets and hedgerows, where a few stragglers can sometimes be found throughout the winter.
The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a migrant from the tropics that sometimes nests locally in thorny thickets. Its song consists of a mixed variety of loud phrases, reminding the listener of mimics like catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds.
Thickets with fragrant blooms of honeysuckle and olive attract migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Look for them taking a break on a dead branch where they can have a look around and hold on tight during gusts of wind.
The Eastern Kingbird, a Neotropical flycatcher, may be found near fields and meadows with an abundance of insects. In recent years, high-intensity farming practices have reduced the occurrence of kingbirds as a nesting species in the lower Susquehanna valley. The loss of pasture acreage appears to have been particularly detrimental.
Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) can be found in grassy fields throughout the year. Large parcels that go uncut through at least early July offer them the opportunity to nest.
Male Bobolinks have been here for just more than a week. Look for them in alfalfa fields and meadows. Like Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks nest on the ground and will lose their eggs and/or young if fields are mowed during the breeding cycle.
Cattail marshes are currently home to nesting Swamp Sparrows. Wetlands offer an opportunity to see a variety of unique species in coming weeks.
Shorebirds like this Solitary Sandpiper will be transiting the lower Susquehanna basin through the end of May. They stop to rest in wetlands, flooded fields, and on mudflats and alluvial islets in the region’s larger streams. Many of these shorebirds nest in far northern Canada. So remember, they need to rest and recharge for the long trip ahead, so try not to disturb them.
The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway. With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.
Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.
Blue-winged Teal are among the earliest of the waterfowl to begin southward migration.
Sandpipers and plovers have been on the move since July. The bird in the foreground with these Killdeer is not one of their offspring, but rather a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), a regular late-summer migrant in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Hawk watch sites all over North America are counting birds right now. The Osprey is an early-season delight as it glides past the lookouts. Look for them moving down the Susquehanna as well.
Bald Eagles will be on the move through December. To see these huge raptors in numbers, visit a hawk watch on a day following passage of a cold front when northwest winds are gusting.
Merlins were seen during this past week in areas with good concentrations of dragonflies. This particular one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties…
…was soon visited by another.
Check the forest canopy for Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Some local birds are still on breeding territories while others from farther north are beginning to move through.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are darting through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to the tropics. This one has no trouble keeping pace with a passing Tree Swallow.
Nocturnal flights can bring new songbirds to good habitat each morning. It’s the best time of year to see numbers of Empidonax flycatchers. But, because they’re often silent during fall migration, it’s not the best time of year to easily identify them. This one lacking a prominent eye ring is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
During the past two weeks, Red-eyed Vireos have been numerous in many Susquehanna valley woodlands. Many are migrants while others are breeding pairs tending late-season broods.
During mornings that follow heavy overnight flights, Blackburnian Warblers have been common among waves of feeding songbirds.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are regular among flocks of nocturnal migrants seen foraging among foliage at sunrise.
Scarlet Tanagers, minus the brilliant red breeding plumage of the males, are on their way back to the tropics for winter.
While passing overhead on their way south, Bobolinks can be seen or heard from almost anywhere in the lower Susquehanna valley. Their movements peak in late August and early September.
During recent evenings, Bobolinks have been gathering by the hundreds in fields of warm-season grasses at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
If you go to see the Bobolinks there, visit Stop 3 on the tour route late in the afternoon and listen for their call. You’ll soon notice their wings glistening in the light of the setting sun as they take short flights from point to point while they feed. Note the abundance of flying insects above the Big Bluestem and Indiangrass in this image. Grasslands like these are essential habitats for many of our least common resident and migratory birds.
After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned. Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region. Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.
A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States. It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.
Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in flocks of as many as fifty birds gathered in weedy meadows and alfalfa fields for the week.
A Bobolink sheltering in a field of Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) during the rain on Friday, May 8th.
Two of seven Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) in a wet field on Friday, May 8. Not-so-solitary after all.
Grounded by inclement weather, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) made visits to suburban bird feeders in the lower Susquehanna valley. (Charles A. Fox image)
Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings. The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted. Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded. Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source. For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence. So they wait.
A freeze warning was issued for Saturday morning, May 9, in the counties colored dark blue on the map. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 3:28 A.M. Saturday morning, May 9, indicates a minor movement of birds in the Great Plains, but there are no notable returns shown around weather radar sites in the freeze area, including the lower Susquehanna valley. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
To avoid the cold wind on Saturday, May 9, this Veery was staying low to the ground within a thicket of shrubs in the forest.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler avoided the treetops and spent time in the woodland understory. He sang not a note. With birds conserving energy for the cold night(s) ahead, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the second Saturday in May.
A secretive Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) remained in a wetland thicket.
A Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) tucks his bill beneath a wing and fluffs-up to fight off the cold during a brief May 9th snow flurry.
In open country, gusty winds kept Eastern Kingbirds, a species of flycatcher, near the ground in search of the insects they need to sustain them.
Horned Larks are one of the few birds that attempt to scratch out an existence in cultivated fields. The application of herbicides and the use of systemic insecticides (including neonicotinoids) eliminates nearly all weed seeds and insects in land subjected to high-intensity farming. For most birds, including Neotropical migrants, cropland in the lower Susquehanna valley has become a dead zone. Birds and other animals might visit, but they really don’t “live” there anymore.
Unable to find flying insects over upland fields during the cold snap, swallows concentrated over bodies of water to feed. Some Tree Swallows may have abandoned their nests to survive this week’s cold. Fragmentation of habitats in the lower Susquehanna valley reduces the abundance and diversity of natural food sources for wildlife. For birds like swallows, events like late-season freezes, heat waves, or droughts can easily disrupt their limited food supply and cause brood failure.
For this Barn Swallow, attempting to hunt insects above the warm pavement of a roadway had fatal consequences.
Another freeze warning was issued for Sunday morning, May 10, in the counties colored dark blue on this map. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 4:58 A.M. Sunday morning, May 10, again indicates the absence of a flight of migrating birds in the area subjected to freezing temperatures. Unlike migrants earlier in the season, the Neotropical species that move north during the May exodus appear unwilling to resume their trek during freezing weather. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
On Sunday evening, May 10, a liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated around radar sites along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and, to a lesser degree, in central Pennsylvania. The approaching rain and yet another cold front quickly grounded this flight.
After a one day respite, yet another freeze warning was issued for Tuesday morning, May 12. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And again, no flight in the freeze area. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze warning for Wednesday morning, May 13. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And the nocturnal flight: heavy in the Mississippi valley and minimal in the freeze area. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze on Thursday morning, May 14. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
At 3:08 A.M. on May 14th, a flight is indicated streaming north through central Texas and dispersing into the eastern half of the United States, but not progressing into New England. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The flight at eight minutes after midnight this morning. Note the stormy cold front diving southeast across the upper Mississippi valley. As is often the case, the concentration of migrating birds is densest in the warm air ahead of the front. (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it. The flights have resumed.
Indigo Bunting numbers are increasing as breeding populations arrive and migrants continue through. Look for them in thickets along utility and railroad right-of-ways.
Common Yellowthroats and other colorful warblers are among the May migrants currently resuming their northward flights.
The echoes of the songs of tropical birds are beginning to fill the forests of the lower Susquehanna watershed. The flute-like harmonies of the Wood Thrush are among the most impressive.
Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers with a surprisingly explosive song for their size. Many arrived within the last two days to stake out a territory for breeding. Listen for “teacher-teacher-teacher” emanating from a woodland near you.