Here in a series of photographs are just a handful of the reasons why the land stewards at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and other properties where conservation and propagation practices are employed delay the mowing of fields composed of cool-season grasses until after August 15 each year.
Eastern Meadowlarks, birds of large pastures, hay lots and other meadows of cool-season grasses, build their nests and raise their young on the ground. In the years since the early twentieth century, loss in the volume of acreage maintained in the lower Susquehanna Valley as grassland habitat types has dramatically reduced the prevalence and abundance of this and other birds with similar nesting requirements. During the most recent fifty years, early and frequent mowing and other practices introduced as part of agriculture’s Green Revolution have all but eliminated ground-nesting grassland species from the region.
Like the meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) nest on the ground in fields of cool-season grasses. Mowing prior to the time the young leave the nest and are able to fly away can obliterate a generation of grassland birds. Because their life span is short, widespread loss of an entire year of reproduction can quickly impact overall populations of native sparrows and other small birds. Delayed mowing can improve numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows as well as Savannah Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and the very rare Henslow’s Sparrow (Centronyx henslowii).
The Bobolink, like the meadowlark, is a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae). It too requires grasslands free of disturbances like mowing for the duration of the nesting season which, for this particular bird, lasts until mid-August in the lower Susquehanna region. In places lacking their specific habitat requirements, Bobolinks will seldom be detected except as flyovers during migration.
Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced to the lower Susquehanna basin, and their populations were maintained thereafter, by stocking for the purpose of hunting. But throughout the middle twentieth century, there was a substantial population of ring-necks breeding in fields of cool-season grasses in farmlands throughout the region. High-intensity agriculture with frequent mowing eliminated not only nesting habitat in grasslands, but winter cover in areas of early successional growth. Populations of Ring-necked Pheasants, as well as native Northern Bobwhite, crumbled during the late 1970s and early 1980s due to these changes. For these resident birds that don’t migrate or routinely travel great distances to find new places to live and breed, widespread habitat loss can be particularly catastrophic. Not surprisingly, the Northern Bobwhite is no longer found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and has been extirpated from all of Pennsylvania.
At places like Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area where a mix of grasslands, early successional growth, and even some cropland are maintained, the Blue Grosbeak has extended its range well north of the Mason-Dixon and has become a regular nesting species during recent decades. Good habitat management does pay dividends.
Right now is a good time to visit Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to see the effectiveness a delayed mowing schedule can have when applied to fields of cool-season grasses. If you slowly drive, walk, or bicycle the auto tour route on the north side of the lake, you’ll pass through vast areas maintained as cool-season and warm-season grasses and early successional growth—and you’ll have a chance to see these and other grassland birds raising their young. It’s like a trip back in time to see farmlands they way they were during the middle years of the twentieth century.
It’s surprising how many millions of people travel the busy coastal routes of Delaware each year to leave the traffic congestion and hectic life of the northeast corridor behind to visit congested hectic shore towns like Rehobeth Beach, Bethany Beach, and Ocean City, Maryland. They call it a vacation, or a holiday, or a weekend, and it’s exhausting. What’s amazing is how many of them drive right by a breathtaking national treasure located along Delaware Bay just east of the city of Dover—and never know it. A short detour on your route will take you there. It’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a quiet but spectacular place that draws few crowds of tourists, but lots of birds and other wildlife.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Route 9, a lightly-traveled coastal road east of Dover, Delaware. Note the Big Bluestem and other warm season grasses in the background. Bombay Hook, like other refuges in the system, is managed for the benefit of the wildlife that relies upon it to survive. Within recent years, most of the mowed grass and tilled ground that once occurred here has been replaced by prairie grasses or successional growth, much to the delight of Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and other species.
Let’s join Uncle Tyler Dyer and have a look around Bombay Hook. He’s got his duck stamp and he’s ready to go.
Uncle Ty’s current United States Fish and Wildlife Service Duck Stamp displayed on his dashboard is free admission to the tour road at Bombay Hook and other National Wildlife Refuges.
The refuge at Bombay Hook includes woodlands, grasslands, and man-made freshwater pools, but it is predominately a protectorate of thousands of acres of tidal salt marsh bordering and purifying the waters of Delaware Bay. These marshes are renowned wintering areas for an Atlantic population of Snow Goose known as the “Greater Snow Goose” (Anser caerulescens atlanticus). Witnessing thousands of these birds rising over the marsh and glowing in the amber light of a setting sun is an unforgettable experience.
Trails at various stops along the auto tour route lead to observation towers and other features. This boardwalk meanders into the salt marsh grasses and includes a viewing area alongside a tidal creek. Our visit coincided with a very high tide induced by east winds and a new moon.
During high tide, an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) seeks higher ground near the boardwalk and the wooded edge of the salt marsh.
As the tide rises, fast-flying shorebirds scramble from flooded mudflats in the salt marsh on the east side of the tour road.
When high tide arrives in the salt marshes, shorebirds and waterfowl often concentrate in the man-made freshwater pools on the west side of the tour road. Glaring afternoon sun is not the best for viewing birds located west of the road. For ideal light conditions, time your visit for a day when high tide occurs in the morning and recedes to low tide in the afternoon.
A view looking west into Shearness Pool, largest of the freshwater impoundments at Bombay Hook.
Bombay Hook has many secretive birds hiding in its wetlands, but they can often be located by the patient observer. Here, two Pied-billed Grebes feed in an opening among the vegetation in a freshwater pool.
One of Bombay Hook’s resident Bald Eagles patrols the wetlands.
American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) gather by the hundreds at Bombay Hook during the fall. A passing eagle will stir them into flight.
An American Avocet, a delicate wader with a peculiar upturned bill.
As soon as the tide begins receding, shorebirds and waterfowl like these Green-winged Teal begin dispersing into the salt marshes to feed on the exposed mudflats.
The woodlands and forested areas of the refuge host resident songbirds and can be attractive to migrating species like this Yellow-rumped Warbler.
For much of its course, the tour road at Bombay Hook is located atop the dike that creates the man-made freshwater pools on the western edge of the tidal salt marsh. If you drive slowly and make frequent stops to look and listen, you’ll notice an abundance of birds and other wildlife living along this border between two habitats. Here, a Swamp Sparrow has a look around.
Savannah Sparrows are common along the tour road where native grasses grow wild.
Bombay Hook is renowned for its rarities. One of the attractions during the late summer and autumn of 2021 was a group of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), vagrants from the southern states, seen here with Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula).
Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets at Bombay Hook.
Remember to go the Post Office and get your duck stamp. You’ll be supporting habitat acquisition and improvements for the wildlife we cherish. And if you get the chance, visit a National Wildlife Refuge. November can be a great time to go, it’s bug-free! Just take along your warmest clothing and plan to spend the day. You won’t regret it.
You’ll want to go for a walk this week. It’s prime time to see birds in all their spring splendor. Colorful Neotropical migrants are moving through in waves to supplement the numerous temperate species that arrived earlier this spring to begin their nesting cycle. Here’s a sample of what you might find this week along a rail-trail, park path, or quiet country road near you—even on a rainy or breezy day.
The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of more than two dozen species of warblers passing through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed right now. Look for it in the middle and bottom branches of deciduous forest growth.
The Veery and other woodland thrushes sing a melodious song. Veerys remain through the summer to nest in damp mature deciduous forests.
The American Redstart, this one a first-spring male, is another of the variety of warblers arriving now. Redstarts nest in deciduous forests with a dense understory.
Adaptable inquisitive Gray Catbirds are here to nest in any shrubby habitat, whether in a forest or a suburban garden.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptilia caerulea) arrive in April, so they’ve been here for a while. They spend most of their time foraging in the treetops. The gnatcatcher’s wheezy call alerts the observer to their presence.
Look way up there, it’s a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers building a nest.
The Eastern Phoebe, a species of flycatcher, often arrives as early as mid-March. This particular bird and its mate are already nesting beneath a stone bridge that passes over a woodland stream.
Orchard Orioles (Icturus spurius) are Neotropical migrants that nest locally in habitats with scattered large trees, especially in meadows and abandoned orchards.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Baltimore Oriole is a more widespread breeding species than the Orchard Oriole. In addition to the sites preferred by the latter, it will nest in groves of mature trees on farms and estates, in parks, and in forest margins where the canopy is broken.
The Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) nests in big trees along streams, often sharing habitat with our two species of orioles.
Eastern Towhees arrive in numbers during April. They nest in thickets and hedgerows, where a few stragglers can sometimes be found throughout the winter.
The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a migrant from the tropics that sometimes nests locally in thorny thickets. Its song consists of a mixed variety of loud phrases, reminding the listener of mimics like catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds.
Thickets with fragrant blooms of honeysuckle and olive attract migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Look for them taking a break on a dead branch where they can have a look around and hold on tight during gusts of wind.
The Eastern Kingbird, a Neotropical flycatcher, may be found near fields and meadows with an abundance of insects. In recent years, high-intensity farming practices have reduced the occurrence of kingbirds as a nesting species in the lower Susquehanna valley. The loss of pasture acreage appears to have been particularly detrimental.
Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) can be found in grassy fields throughout the year. Large parcels that go uncut through at least early July offer them the opportunity to nest.
Male Bobolinks have been here for just more than a week. Look for them in alfalfa fields and meadows. Like Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks nest on the ground and will lose their eggs and/or young if fields are mowed during the breeding cycle.
Cattail marshes are currently home to nesting Swamp Sparrows. Wetlands offer an opportunity to see a variety of unique species in coming weeks.
Shorebirds like this Solitary Sandpiper will be transiting the lower Susquehanna basin through the end of May. They stop to rest in wetlands, flooded fields, and on mudflats and alluvial islets in the region’s larger streams. Many of these shorebirds nest in far northern Canada. So remember, they need to rest and recharge for the long trip ahead, so try not to disturb them.