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.

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!

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!

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.

Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Peanut Feeder
Don’t want to feed suet to the birds around your home during the blazing heat of summer?  Well, you might be glad to know that peanuts offered in one of these expanded metal tube feeders make a great substitute.  They provide a nutritious supplement to naturally occurring foods for nuthatches, chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, finches, and woodpeckers including this Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Secured to a vertical length of wire hung from a horizontal tree limb, these feeders have proven so puzzling to the squirrels at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters that they no longer make any effort to raid them. 
House Finch
Though marketed primarily to dispense suet nuggets, powder-coated metal mesh feeders can be used for sunflower seeds too.  This juvenile House Finch plucks the black oil variety from one of the tubes in our garden.  Seeds that fall are quickly scarfed up by ground-feeding species including Northern Cardinals, Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus), and frustrated squirrels.  Fewer seeds are lost if the larger varieties of sunflower such as “grey stripe” are used.

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


DAY NINE—May 29, 1983

“Falcon Dam State Park, Texas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


DAY THREE—May 23, 1983

For Russ, Harold, and Steve, this trip would target several bird species each individual had never observed at any prior time in their lives.  Upon seeing a new bird, they could add it to their personal “life list”.  They, like thousands of other “listers”, were dedicated to the goal of having a life list that included over 600 species seen in the American Birding Association (A.B.A.) area—North America north of Mexico.  Harold had traveled throughout much of North America (and the world) and had an A.B.A. life list well in excess of 600 species, thus he had seen nearly all of the regularly occurring birds in the coverage area.  His chance for seeing new species was limited to vagrants that might wander into North America or tropical birds that, over time, had extended their range north of Mexico into the United States.  I don’t recall  how many species Russ and Steve had seen, but I know each had very few opportunities for new finds east of the Rocky Mountains.  For all three of these men, the Lower Rio Grande Valley presented a best bet to add multiple species to their lists.  I had never been south of Cape Hatteras or west of Pennsylvania, so I had the opportunity to add dozens of species to a life list.  Throughout the trip, Russ, Harold, and Steve enthusiastically helped me locate and see new species.  As a result, I saw over 50 new birds to add to my list.

One of the functions of the American Birding Association was to decide which bird species an observer could add to the life list.  The official A.B.A. list was revised regularly to include not only regularly occurring native species, but vagrants as well.  One of the trickier determinations was the status of introduced species.  Back in 1983, a birder could count a Ring-necked Pheasant seen in Pennsylvania on their A.B.A. life list because they were thought to be freely reproducing with a population sustainably established in the state.  Today, they are considered an exotic release and are not countable under A.B.A. rules.

Enter the Black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus), a member of the pheasant family that back in 1983, was countable under A.B.A. rules.  Native to India, the Black Francolin was introduced into southwest Louisiana in 1961 and was apparently reproducing and established.  Russ had a tip that they were seen with some regularity in areas of farmland, marsh, and oil fields south of Vinton, Louisiana.  It was one of this trip’s target species for his life list.

“Ready for Black Francolin.  Up at 5:30 — After breakfast, we went to Gum Cove Road.  No Francolins, but at the end of the blacktop road, we had 5 Purple Gallinules in the scope at one time.  King Rails were plentiful.  We found a dead male Painted Bunting.  Later, we saw a very beautiful live one.  Water everywhere.  Flooded fields everywhere.  The road was flooded for about 50 yards at one point.  White Ibis were abundant.”

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinicus) were common along Gum Cove Road.  In silhouette from a distance, those that were perching atop the shrubs raised hopes that we had located the sought after Blank Francolin, but they were all Purple Gallinules.  We weren’t overly disappointed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Painted Bunting
The live male Painted Bunting (Passerina cirus) seen along Gum Cove Road.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

Other sightings of note along Gum Cove Road included: Northern Bobwhite, Common Nighthawk, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Forster’s Tern, Black Tern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Brown Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major), and Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)—a very large and noisy blackbird I had never seen before.

Glossy Ibis
A Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) in a flooded area along Gum Cove Road.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

The reader may be interested to know that today, the area between Vinton and the Gulf of Mexico has largely been surrendered to the forces of the hurricanes that strike the region with some regularity.  Cameron Parish* is a sparsely populated buffer zone of marshes, abundant wildlife, and oil and gas wells.  Its population of more than 9,000 in 1983 has plunged to less than 6,000 today.  Hurricane Rita (2005) and Hurricane Ike (2008) precipitated the sharp decline.  The latter hurricane had a 22-foot storm surge that flooded areas 60 miles inland of the coastline.  Following these storms, the majority of severely damaged and destroyed homes were not rebuilt and residents in the most affected areas relocated.  In 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall at Cameron Parish with record-tying 150 mph winds and a storm surge that pushed flood waters inland to Lake Charles.  Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta followed with 100 mph winds.  For government agencies, the emergency response required by these two storms was minimized by the reduced presence of people and/or their personal property.

* A parish in Louisiana is similar to a county in other states.

Category 4 Hurricane Laura making landfall at Cameron Parish, Louisiana, on August 27, 2020, with wind speeds of 150 mph.  Had this storm come ashore to the east at New Orleans or to the west at Houston, it would have catastrophically impacted a million people or more.  (N.O.A.A./National Weather Service image)

“After a quick stop at the camp grounds, where I slipped and fell in the shower last nite, we headed south.  Larry saw many birds en route.”

Russ took a bad fall on a slippery wet concrete floor and had bruises to show for it.  It worried me; he was 71 years old at the time.  But he was adamant about continuing on and did so with great vigor.

Just hours after a sojourn through the swampy parcels south of Vinton, we were cruising through the metropolis of Houston, Texas, then across a landscape with less cultivated cropland and more scrubland with grazing.  Here and there, but primarily to the east of Houston, blankets of roadside wildflowers painted the landscape with eye-popping color.  Lady Bird Johnson encouraged the plantings soon after she and Lyndon returned to Texas upon leaving life in the White House in 1969.  The sight of those vivid blooms was so memorable and so beautiful.  One couldn’t resist making nasty comparisons to the gobs of mowed grass and mangled trash along the highways back in Pennsylvania.

Birds along the way: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Common Nighthawk, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue, Heron, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Laughing Gull, Black Tern, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Painted Bunting.  I saw my first Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) near Woodsboro, Texas, and added both to my life list.

“We stopped for the nite at an A OK camp ground 7 miles south of Kingsville.”

Day Three: Vinton, Louisiana, to Kingsville, Texas, a distance of 404 miles.  (United States Geological Survey base image)

Birds at the camp included two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying overhead, Common Nighthawk, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Blue Grosbeak, and another “lifer”—Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre).

We also saw a Mexican Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys mexicanus), easily identified by the rows of white spots running the length of its back.

While relaxing at the campsite that evening, we watched the landscape darken and remarked how interesting it was that the glowing red sun had yet to set below the distant horizon—a land so very flat and air so hazy and humid.

Common Nighthawk
We found this Common Nighthawk roosting on a tree limb near our campsite.  During our first few days in Louisiana and Texas, it became increasingly evident that we were in the midst of their peak northbound spring movement.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

Photo of the Day

Scarlet Tanager in a Pin Oak
Following a heavy nocturnal flight, an observer can often see Neotropical migrants in unusual places.  For arboreal species looking to rest and feed after a long night of flying, large native trees in almost any location can be attractive.  This Scarlet Tanager was found not in its typical habitat, a deciduous forest, but in an enormous Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) surrounded by manicured lawn.  

Something in the Air Tonight

There’s something in the air tonight—and it’s more than just a cool comfortable breeze.

(NOAA/National Weather Service image)

It’s a major nocturnal movement of southbound Neotropical birds.  At daybreak, expect a fallout of migrants, particularly songbirds, in forests and thickets throughout the region.   Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through in mid-September each year, so be on the lookout!

Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

Bird Migration Highlights

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

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

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

The Layover

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.

Clean Slate for 2020

Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year.  If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year.  On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper.  On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby.  The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days.  The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.

A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.

Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent.  Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years.  Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.

It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation.  His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year.  The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there.  In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves.  Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that!   It was the most lackluster year in memory.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible.  There would be no cause for greater alarm.  It would be a matter of cause and effect.  But the problem is more widespread.

Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna.  And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes.  A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration.  In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous.  What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south?  The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?

Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere.  These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends.  They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.

There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone.  None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline.  Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds?  Did they die off?  Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction?  Is it global warming?  Is it Three Mile Island?  Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?

The answer might not be so cryptic.  It might be right before our eyes.  And we’ll explore it during 2020.

A clean slate for 2020.

In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.  You should go too.  They have lots of food there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime Blues

Let’s imagine that you spend your summer as a singer and you have to strut your stuff in a blue suit all day long just so the other guys know that you’re not going to tolerate any nonsense with either of your two gals.  And…you’re responsible for feeding the adolescent kids while each of the girls begins a second family.  Wouldn’t you be ready for a break by late August?

The boys must think so.  They’re quiet now.  This week was the end.  They’ve done their duty.  They protected their homes and got the youngsters out on their own.  It’s time to eat, get out of the dress blues, and prepare to take a flight to warmer climates, maybe even the tropics…for a holiday of sorts.

The male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) has a busy schedule.  Before arriving at Conewago Falls in early May, he has molted from the plainest of plain brown plumage and donned an iridescent set of feathers that glow a brilliant blue and purple in sunlight.  He chooses a territory with plenty of shrubby and weedy growth along the edge of a woodland, and begins to sing and defend his parcel, often from a dead tree or other perch.

At Conewago Falls, the Indigo Bunting is a common breeding bird, finding the mosaic of electric transmission wire right-of-ways, railroads, and the Riverine Grasslands to be absolutely perfect habitat.  The female, inconspicuous in her uniformly brown plumage, builds the nest, incubates the 3 to 4 eggs (11 to 14 days), and feeds the young in the nest (9 to 12 days).  Being quite the showboats, some males will have more than one mate nesting in their territory.  In addition to defending the nest(s), the male Indigo Bunting will sometimes feed the fledged young so that the female(s) can begin incubating a second brood.  The summertime diet is mostly invertebrates, but seeds are also consumed.

A male Indigo Bunting defends nesting territory from a perch on a dead tree.

By late August, the young of the year are mostly on their own.  The male’s territorial urges, including the nearly non-stop singing, come to an end.  Soon, his blue feathers are beginning to drop and a molt is underway into a brown plumage resembling that of the females and juveniles.

Indigo Buntings evacuate their breeding range in eastern North America to winter mostly south of the United States.  These nocturnal travelers have been the subject of migration behavior studies.  They are among a number of small bird species known to cross the Gulf of Mexico on their way south.  Also, Indigo Buntings can navigate by the stars.

On the wintering grounds, Indigo Buntings are flocking birds.  At this time of year, they consume more seeds as a component of their diet and are known to visit bird feeders.

By April, the blue suit is back, and the males and females are on the way north.  Hope to see you then pal.

SOURCES

Dunne, Pete.  2006.  Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.

Kaufman, Kenn.  1996.  Lives of North American Birds.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.