October Transition

Thoughts of October in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed bring to mind scenes of brilliant fall foliage adorning wooded hillsides and stream courses, frosty mornings bringing an end to the growing season, and geese and other birds flying south for the winter.

The autumn migration of birds spans a period equaling nearly half the calendar year.  Shorebirds and Neotropical perching birds begin moving through as early as late July, just as daylight hours begin decreasing during the weeks following their peak at summer solstice in late June.  During the darkest days of the year, those surrounding winter solstice in late December, the last of the southbound migrants, including some hawks, eagles, waterfowl, and gulls, may still be on the move.

The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), a rodent-eating raptor of tundra, grassland, and marsh, is rare as a migrant and winter resident in the lower Susquehanna valley.  It may arrive as late as January, if at all.

During October, there is a distinct change in the list of species an observer might find migrating through the lower Susquehanna valley.  Reduced hours of daylight and plunges in temperatures—particularly frost and freeze events—impact the food sources available to birds.  It is during October that we say goodbye to the Neotropical migrants and hello to those more hardy species that spend their winters in temperate climates like ours.

During several of the first days of October, two hundred Chimney Swifts remained in this roost until temperatures warmed from the low forties at daybreak to the upper fifties at mid-morning; then, at last, the flock ventured out in search of flying insects.  When a population of birds loses its food supply or is unable to access it, that population must relocate or perish.  Like other insectivorous birds, these swifts must move to warmer climes to be assured a sustained supply of the flying bugs they need to survive.  Due to their specialized food source, they can be considered “specialist” feeders in comparison to species with more varied diets, the “generalists”.  After returning to this chimney every evening for nearly two months, the swifts departed this roost on October 5 and did not return.
A Northern Parula lingers as an October migrant along the Susquehanna.  This and other specialist feeders that survive almost entirely on insects found in the forest canopy are largely south of the Susquehanna watershed by the second week of October.
The Blackpoll Warbler is among the last of the insectivorous Neotropical warblers to pass through the riparian forests of the lower Susquehanna valley each fall.  Through at least mid-October, it is regularly seen searching for crawling insects and larvae among the foliage and bark of Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) trees near Conewago Falls.  Most other warblers, particularly those that feed largely upon flying insects, are, by then, already gone.
The Blue-headed Vireo, another insectivore, is the last of the vireo species to pass through the valley.  They linger only as long as there are leaves on the trees in which they feed.
Brown Creepers begin arriving in early October.  They are specialist feeders, well-adapted to finding insect larvae and other invertebrates among the ridges and peeling bark of trees like this hackberry, even through the winter months.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be abundant migrants in October.  They will often behave like cute little flycatchers, but quickly transition to picking insects and other invertebrates from foliage and bark as the weather turns frosty.  Some may spend the winter here, particularly in the vicinity of stands of pines, which provide cover and some thermal protection during storms and bitter cold.
Beginning in early October, Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen searching the forest wood for tiny invertebrates.  They are the most commonly encountered kinglet in winter.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker, is an October migrant that specializes in attracting small insects to tiny seeps of sap it creates by punching horizontal rows of shallow holes through the tree bark.  Some remain for winter.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler arrives in force during October.  It is the most likely of the warblers to be found here in winter.  Yellow-rumped Warblers are generalists, feeding upon insects during the warmer months, but able to survive on berries and other foods in late fall and winter.  Wild foods like these Poison Ivy berries are crucial for the survival of this and many other generalists.
American Robins are most familiar as hunters of earthworms on the suburban lawn, but they are generalist feeders that rely upon fruits like these Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) berries during their southbound migration in late October and early November each year.  Robins remain for the winter in areas of the lower Susquehanna valley with ample berries for food and groves of mature pines for roosting.
Like other brown woodland thrushes, the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is commonly seen scratching through organic matter on the moist forest floor in search of invertebrates.  Unlike the other species, it is a cold-hardy generalist feeder, often seen eating berries during the southbound October migration.  Small numbers of Hermit Thrushes spend the winter in the lower Susquehanna valley, particularly in habitats with a mix of wild foods.
Due to their feeding behavior, Cedar Waxwings can easily be mistaken for flycatchers during the nesting season, but by October they’ve transitioned to voracious consumers of small wild fruits.  During the remainder of the year, flocks of waxwings wander widely in search of foods like this Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca).  An abundance of cedar, holly, Poison Ivy, hackberry, bittersweet , hawthorn, wild grape, and other berries is essential to their survival during the colder months.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have moved south in large numbers during the fall of 2020.  They were particularly common in the lower Susquehanna region during  mid-October.  Red-breasted Nuthatches can feed on invertebrates during warm weather, but get forced south from Canada in droves when the cone crops on coniferous trees fail to provide an adequate supply of seeds for the colder fall and winter seasons.  In the absence of wild foods, these generalists will visit feeding stations stocked with suet and other provisions.
Purple Finches (Haemorhous purpureus) were unusually common as October migrants in 2020.  They are often considered seed eaters during cold weather, but will readily consume small fruits like these berries on an invasive Mile-a-minute Weed (Persicaria perfoliata) vine.  Purple Finches are quite fond of sunflower seeds at feeding stations, but often shy away if aggressive House Sparrows or House Finches are present.

The need for food and cover is critical for the survival of wildlife during the colder months.  If you are a property steward, think about providing places for wildlife in the landscape.  Mow less.  Plant trees, particularly evergreens.  Thickets are good—plant or protect fruit-bearing vines and shrubs, and allow herbaceous native plants to flower and produce seed.  And if you’re putting out provisions for songbirds, keep the feeders clean.  Remember, even small yards and gardens can provide a life-saving oasis for migrating and wintering birds.  With a larger parcel of land, you can do even more.

GOT BERRIES?  Common Winterbery (Ilex verticillata) is a native deciduous holly that looks its best in the winter, especially with snow on the ground.  It’s slow-growing, and never needs pruning.  Birds including bluebirds love the berries and you can plant it in wet ground, even along a stream, in a stormwater basin, or in a rain garden where your downspouts discharge.  Because it’s a holly, you’ll need to plant a male and a female to get the berries.  Full sun produces the best crop.  Fall is a great time to plant, and many garden centers that sell holiday greenery still have winterberry shrubs for sale in November and December.  Put a clump of these beauties in your landscape.  Gorgeous!

A Visit to Waggoner’s Gap

Nothing beats spending a day at a hawk watch lookout—except of course spending a day at a hawk watch lookout when the birds are parading through nonstop for hours on end.

Check out Waggoner’s Gap, a hawk count site located on the border of Cumberland and Perry Counties atop Blue Mountain just north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  It is by far the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s best location for observing large numbers of migrating raptors during the October and November flights.

Waggoner’s Gap is located where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle.
The entrance to a parking area for hawk watch visitors is designated by this sign located along Route 74 several hundred yards north of the summit of Blue Mountain.
Since acquiring the site in 2000, Audubon Pennsylvania has added improvements to expand the function of Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch to include education for both formal students and the public at large.
The site is named in honor of the late conservationist Clifford L. Jones, a business leader, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, a cabinet secretary for six Pennsylvania governors (both major parties), a director on the boards of numerous conservation organizations, and an active birder.
Orange falcon silhouettes function as blazes for the trails that lead from the parking area to the lookout.  The trail and the lookout consist entirely of boulders.  Some of these move when stepped upon.  Others may be slick.  Use caution at all times.
The lookout at Waggoner’s Gap is staffed by official counters from August through December each year.  They are tasked with enumerating every migratory raptor’s passage during that period.
Sure-footed observers climb into a comfortable position among the Tuscarora quartzite boulders and begin watching the flight.
The view from the lookout is spectacular.  To the east, downtown Harrisburg can be seen in the distance.
During a recent afternoon with breezes from the “southwesterlies”, a steady stream of  migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks, including this juvenile, passed by the lookout.
Sharp-shinned Hawks were ready subjects for photography as they sailed on updrafts along the south side of the ridge.
An adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A second-year Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk below eye level.  Over 400 Sharp-shinned Hawks migrated past Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch on this particular early October day.
The local Turkey Vultures at Waggoner’s Gap seem ubiquitous at times.  They’re on the radio towers, they’re flying overhead, and a few are cruising the slopes below the crest.  But on the day of our recent visit, their numbers were eclipsed by the more than 300 “T.V.s” that migrated down the ridge.
Black Vultures, both migrants and local birds, are seen from the lookout.
Northern Harriers are a hawk watch favorite.  Their long uptilted wings, long tail, and white rump make them easy to identify, even for beginners.  Their plummeting numbers make them a treasured sighting for everyone.
A Red-tailed Hawk on a close approach.
A distant Red-shouldered Hawk.  Numbers of these migrants peak later in the season.
A Peregrine Falcon darts past the lookout.  Note the white forehead, throat, and breast.  This bird is probably a “Tundra Peregrine” (Falco peregrinus tundrius).  In the lower Susquehanna valley, this subspecies is strictly migratory, a transient in spring and fall.  “Tundra Peregrines” breed in the arctic and winter as far south as South America.
An immature Bald Eagle.  Waggoner’s Gap is a superb place for sighting eagles, especially on a breezy day.
Hundreds of Blue Jays filtered through as their southbound exodus continues.  Other songbirds of interest included Blue-headed Vireos (Vireo solitarius), Winter Wrens, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Waggoner’s Gap is a hardy birder’s paradise.  During the latter portion of the season, excellent flights often occur on days that follow the passage of a cold front and have strong northwest winds.  But be prepared, it can be brutal on those rocks during a gusty late-October or early-November day after the leaves fall—so dress appropriately.

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be sure to visit hawkcount.org

The Colorful Birds Are Here

You need to get outside and go for a walk.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t.  It’s prime time to see wildlife in all its glory.  The songs and colors of spring are upon us!

Flooding that resulted from mid-week rains is subsiding.  The muddy torrents of Conewago Falls are seen here racing by the powerhouse at the York Haven Dam.
Receding waters will soon leave the parking area at Falmouth and other access points along the river high and dry.
Migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are currently very common in the riparian woodlands near Conewago Falls.  They and all the Neotropical warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers are moving through the Susquehanna watershed right now.
A Baltimore Oriole feeds in a riverside maple tree.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are migrating through the Susquehanna valley.  These tiny birds may be encountered among the foliage of trees and shrubs as they feed upon insects .
Gray Catbirds are arriving.  Many will stay to nest in shrubby thickets and in suburban gardens.
American Robins and other birds take advantage of rising flood waters to feed upon earthworms and other invertebrates that are forced to the soil’s surface along the inundated river shoreline.
Spotted Sandpipers are a familiar sight as they feed along water’s edge.
The Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a Neotropical migrant that nests locally in wet shrubby thickets.  Let your streamside vegetation grow and in a few years you just might have these “wild canaries” singing their chorus of “sweet-sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet” on your property.

If you’re not up to a walk and you just want to go for a slow drive, why not take a trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and visit the managed grasslands on the north side of the refuge.  To those of us over fifty, it’s a reminder of how Susquehanna valley farmlands were before the advent of high-intensity agriculture.  Take a look at the birds found there right now.

Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nest in cattail marshes, but are very fond of untreated hayfields, lightly-grazed pastures, and fallow ground too.  These habitats are becoming increasingly rare in the lower Susquehanna region.  Farmers have little choice, they either engage in intensive agriculture or go broke.
Nest boxes are provided for Tree Swallows at the refuge.
Numbers of American Kestrels have tumbled with the loss of grassy agricultural habitats that provide large insects and small rodents for them to feed upon.
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are a migrant and winter resident species that favors small clumps of shrubby cover in pastures and fallow land.
When was the last time you saw an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) singing “spring-of-the-year” in a pasture near your home?
And yes, the grasslands at Middle Creek do support nesting Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colcichus).  If you stop for a while and listen, you’ll hear the calls of “kowk-kuk” and a whir of wings.  Go check it out.

And remember, if you happen to own land and aren’t growing crops on it, put it to good use.  Mow less, live more.  Mow less, more lives.

Loading Up For Winter

A very light fog lifted quickly at sunrise.  Afterward, there was a minor movement of migrants: forty-nine Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring Gulls, a Red-shouldered Hawk following the river to the southeast, and small flocks totaling nine Cedar Waxwings and twenty-eight Red-winged Blackbirds.

A Belted Kingfisher in the morning fog.
A Ring-billed Gull calls as active migrants pass overhead on their way downriver.
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In the Riparian Woodland, small mixed flocks of winter resident and year-round resident birds were actively feeding.  They must build and maintain a layer of body fat to survive blustery cold nights and the possible lack of access to food during snowstorms.  There’s no time to waste; nasty weather could bring fatal hardship to these birds soon.

A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) feeds on the seeds of an Eastern Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also known as American Sycamore.  Chickadees are generalist feeders, eating invertebrates and suet at feeding stations in addition to the seeds of many plants.  Carolina Chickadees are year-round residents at Conewago Falls.
A fast-moving Golden-crowned Kinglet zips from limb to limb to grab tiny insects and other invertebrates.  During the winter, these petite birds will carefully probe the bark and crevices of trees to glean enough food to survive.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are winter residents at Conewago Falls.  In spring, they will depart to nest in coniferous forests.
A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) searches an infected tree for insects.  They are year-round residents.
Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are considered year-round residents at Conewago Falls, though they may withdraw to the south during severe winters.  Carolina Wrens sing year-round.  Today, their loud melody echoed through the Riparian Woodland all morning.
The tiny bob-tailed Winter Wren is an elusive ground-dwelling winter resident at the falls.  You may hear their scolding chatter from rocky areas and tree logs where they climb around mouse-like in search of small invertebrates.  Their song is a fast jumble of dainty musical trills that can sometimes be heard echoing through the Riparian Woodland in winter.  In spring, they’ll depart to nest in damp coniferous forests.

Anthropoavians

Temperatures plummeted to well below freezing during the past two nights, but there was little sign of it in Conewago Falls this morning.  The fast current in the rapids and swirling waters in flooded Pothole Rocks did not freeze.  Ice coated the standing water in potholes only in those rocks lacking a favorable orientation to the sun for collecting solar heat during the day to conduct into the water during the cold nights.

On the shoreline, the cold snap has left its mark.  Ice covers the still waters of the wetlands.  Frost on exposed vegetation lasted until nearly noontime in shady areas.  Insect activity is now grounded and out of sight.  The leaves of the trees tumble and fall to cover the evidence of a lively summer.

The nocturnal bird flight is narrowing down to just a few species.  White-throated Sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), and Song Sparrows are still on the move.  Though their numbers are not included in the migration count, hundreds of the latter are along the shoreline and in edge habitat around the falls right now.  Song Sparrows are present year-round, migrate at night, and are not seen far from cover in daylight, so migratory movements are difficult to detect.  It is certain that many, if not all of the Song Sparrows here today have migrated and arrived here recently.  The breeding population from spring and summer has probably moved further south.  And many of the birds here now may remain for the winter.  Defining the moment of this dynamic, yet discrete, population change and logging it in a count would certainly require different methods.

Song Sparrows are now abundant in the brushy edges of fields and woodlands.  They may even break into song on sunny days.

Diurnal migration was foiled today by winds from southerly directions and moderating temperatures.  The only highlight was an American Robin flight that extended into the morning for a couple of hours after daybreak and totaled over 800 birds.  This flight was peppered with an occasional flock of blackbirds.  Then too, there were the villains.

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They’re dastardly, devious, selfish, opportunistic, and abundant.  Today, they were the most numerous diurnal migrant.  Their numbers made this one of the biggest migration days of the season, but they are not recorded on the count sheet.  It’s no landmark day.  They excite no one.  For the most part, they are not recognized as migrants because of their nearly complete occupation of North America south of the taiga.  If people build on it or alter it, these birds will be there.  They’re everywhere people are.  If the rotten attributes of man were wrapped up into one bird, an “anthropoavian”, this would be it.

Meet the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).  Introduced into North America in 1890, the species has spread across the entire continent.  It nests in cavities in buildings and in trees.  Starlings are aggressive, particularly when nesting, and have had detrimental impacts on the populations of native cavity nesting birds, particularly Red-headed Woodpeckers, Purple Martins (Progne subis), and Eastern Bluebirds.  They commonly terrorize these and other native species to evict them from their nest sites.  European Starlings are one of the earlier of the scores of introduced plants and animals we have come to call invasive species.

Noisy flocks of European Starlings are right at home on man-made structures in city and country.

Today, thousands of European Starlings were on the move, working their way down the river shoreline and raiding berries from the vines and trees of the Riparian Woodlands.  My estimate is between three and five thousand migrated through during the morning.  But don’t worry, thousands more will be around for the winter.

European Starlings mob a Sharp-shinned Hawk from above, a common behavior.
An Eastern Bluebird feeds on the few berries left untouched by passing European Starlings.

Feathered Fallout

The NOAA National Weather Service radar images from last evening provided an indication that there may be a good fallout of birds at daybreak in the lower Susquehanna valley.  The moon was bright, nearly full, and there was a gentle breeze from the north to move the nocturnal migrants along.  The conditions were ideal.

Rising from daytime roosts in New York and Pennsylvania, then streaming south in moonlit skies, migrating birds are recorded as echoes on this post-sunset composite NEXRAD loop from last evening.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

The Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls were alive with migrants this morning.  American Robins and White-throated Sparrows were joined by new arrivals for the season: Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata).  These are the perching birds one would expect to have comprised the overnight flight.  While the individuals that will remain may not yet be among them, these are the species we will see wintering in the Mid-Atlantic states.  No trip to the tropics for these hardy passerines.

American Robins continued migratory flight into the first hour of daylight this morning.  Their calls are commonly heard at night as migrating individuals pass overhead.
White-throated Sparrows are nocturnal migrants, and are a familiar find on woodland edges and at suburban feeding stations through the winter.
Dark-eyed Juncos, also nocturnal migrants, are common winter residents in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, frequently visiting bird feeders.
Heavy rain earlier this week in the Susquehanna River drainage basin has flooded most of the Pothole Rocks; the rapids of Conewago Falls have returned.
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