Birds of the Sunny Grasslands

With the earth at perihelion (its closest approach to the sun) and with our home star just 27 degrees above the horizon at midday, bright low-angle light offered the perfect opportunity for doing some wildlife photography today.  We visited a couple of grasslands managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to see what we could find…

Grasslands and Hedgerows
On this State Game Lands parcel, prescribed fire is used to maintain a mix of grasslands and brushy early successional growth.  In nearby areas, both controlled fire and mechanical cutting are used to remove invasive species from hedgerows and the understory of woodlots.  Fire tolerant native species then have an opportunity to recolonize the forest and improve wildlife habitat.  This management method also reduces the fuel load in areas with the potential for uncontrolled wildfires.
The sun-dried fruits of a Common Persimmon tree found growing in a hedgerow.
The sun-dried fruits of a native Common Persimmon tree found growing in a hedgerow.
Savanna-like Grasslands
Just one year ago, mechanical removal of invasive trees and shrubs (including Multiflora Rose) on this State Game Land was followed by a prescribed fire to create this savanna-like grassland.
Song Sparrow
Hundreds of Song Sparrows were found in the grasses and thickets at both locations.
White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrows were also abundant, but prefer the tangles and shrubs of the thickets.
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbirds were vigilantly guarding winter supplies of berries in the woodlots and hedgerows.
Swamp Sparrow
In grasses and tangles on wetter ground, about a dozen Swamp Sparrows were discovered.
White-crowned Sparrow
The adult White-crowned Sparrow is always a welcome find.
White-crowned Sparrow
And seeing plenty of juvenile White-crowned Sparrows provides some assurance that there will be a steady stream of handsome adult birds arriving to spend the winter during the years to come.
Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Juncos were encountered only in the vicinity of trees and large shrubs.
Savannah Sparrow
Several Savannah Sparrows were observed.  Though they’re mostly found in treeless country, this particular one happened to pose atop a clump of shrubs located within, you guessed it, the new savanna-like grasslands.
Winter Wren
A tiny bird, even when compared to a sparrow, the Winter Wren often provides the observer with just a brief glimpse before darting away into the cover of a thicket.
Standing Clump of Timber
Within grasslands, scattered stands of live and dead timber can provide valuable habitat for many species of animals.
A "snag" with an excavated nest cavity.
Woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds rely upon an abundance of “snags” (standing dead trees) for breeding sites.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
This Red-bellied Woodpecker and about a dozen others were found in trees left standing in the project areas.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker soaks up some sun.
Pileated Woodpecker
This very cooperative Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be preoccupied by insect activity on the sun-drenched bark of the trees.  This denizen of mature forests will oft times wander into open country where larger lumber is left intact.

Pileated Woodpecker

Northern Harrier
Just as things were really getting fun, some late afternoon clouds arrived to dim the already fading daylight.  Just then, this Northern Harrier made a couple of low passes in search of mice and voles hidden in the grasses.
Northern Harrier
It was a fitting end to a very short, but marvelously sunny, early winter day.

Sparrows in the Thicket

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of the Day

Right now, White-throated Sparrows are arriving for the winter throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  They are common inhabitants of brushy fields and woodlot edges.  “White-throats” are a bit fussy about spending time in suburban gardens, not liking things overly “tidy”.  They are often seen feeding upon weed seeds near or on the ground and can be attracted to white millet and cracked corn scattered atop a short stump or flat boulder.  Listen for the male’s song, typically heard beginning in the spring ahead of and during migration back to the breeding grounds, a whistled “old-sam-peabody-peabody-peabody” that they sometimes can’t resist practicing on a sunny winter day.

Slow Down When There’s Snow on the Ground

It’s just common sense to take it easy and drive carefully when snow covers streets and highways.  Everyone knows that.  But did you know that slowing down when the landscape is blanketed in white can save lives even after the roadways have been cleared?

Following significant snowfalls such as the one earlier this week, birds and other wildlife are attracted to bare ground along the edges of plowed pavement.  They are often so preoccupied with the search for food that they ignore approaching cars and trucks until it is too late.

Take a look at the species found today along a one mile stretch of plowed rural roadway in the lower Susquehanna valley.

Following snow storms, birds that normally feed among leaf litter on the forest floor or in thickets and fields are attracted to plowed roads.  During their urgent search for food, many are struck and killed by motor vehicles.
White-throated Sparrows commonly congregate along roads passing through woodlands and thickets.
A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow looks for food among leaves along the edge of snow-free pavement.
Adult White-crowned Sparrows take cover in roadside shrubs until traffic passes.  Within moments they’ll return to a patch of bare ground along the road’s narrow shoulder.
Dark-eyed Juncos are commonly encountered along roads through snow-covered weedy fields and suburbia.
Song Sparrows gather along roads traversing brushy areas.
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrows and, to the upper right, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) take refuge in a small roadside sapling after fleeing a passing automobile.
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was attracted to berry-laden shrubs and vines in a road cut with a southern exposure and patches of bare ground.
Following a snowfall, Eastern Bluebirds are regularly seen feeding along the edges of rural roads.
Horned Larks gather along the snow-free margins of roads through tundra-like farmland.

For many species of wildlife in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the fragmented and impaired state of habitat already challenges their chances of surviving the winter.  Snow cover can isolate them from their limited food supplies and force them to roadsides and other dangerous locations to forage.  Mauling them with motor vehicles just adds to the escalating tragedy, so do wildlife and yourself a favor—please slow down.

Even in areas with  ideal habitat, snow cover will cause birds and other wildlife to explore bare ground along highways while seeking food.
Ring-necked Pheasants frequently become traffic casualties.  These birds feeding at roadside due to the snow cover are in increased peril.

Get Away From It All

For those of you who dare to shed that filthy contaminated rag you’ve been told to breathe through so that you might instead get out and enjoy some clean air in a cherished place of solitude, here’s what’s around—go have a look.

Northern Flickers have arrived.  Look for them anywhere there are mature trees.  Despite the fact that flickers are woodpeckers, they often feed on the ground.  You’ll notice the white rump and yellow wing linings when they fly away.
The tiny Chipping Sparrow frequently nests in small trees in suburban gardens.  Lay off the lawn treatments to assure their success.
Field Sparrows (Spizella fusilla) are a breeding species in abandoned fields where successional growth is underway.
White-throated Sparrows spend the winter in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Their numbers are increasing now as waves of migrants pass through on their way north.
Northbound flocks of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) are currently found feeding in forest swamps along the Susquehanna.  Their noisy calls sound like a chorus of squeaking hinges.
Migratory Red-shouldered Hawks are also making feeding stops at area wetlands.
The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) is easily identified by its tail pumping behavior.  Look for it in shrubs along the river shoreline or near lakes and streams.  Palm Warblers are among the earliest of the warblers to move through in the spring.

The springtime show on the water continues…

Common Loons will continue migrating through the area during the upcoming month.
Buffleheads are still transiting the watershed.
Horned Grebes are occurring on the river and on local lakes.
Seeing these one-year-old male Hooded Mergansers, the bachelors, wandering around without any adult males or females is a good sign.  The adults should have moved on to the breeding grounds and local pairs should be well into a nesting cycle by now.  Hatching could occur any day.
Like Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks are cavity nesters, but their egg laying, incubation, and hatching often occurs a month or more later than that of the hoodies.  Judging by the attentiveness of the drake, this pair of woodies is probably in the egg-laying stage of its breeding cycle right now.
Redheads (Aythya americana) are stopping for a rest on their way north.
In spring, Double-crested Cormorants proceed up the river in goose-like flocks with adult birds like these leading the way.

Hey, what are those showy flowers?

That’s Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna).  It’s often called Fig Buttercup.  In early April it blankets stream banks throughout the lower Susquehanna region.  If you don’t remember seeing it growing like that when you were younger, there’s a reason.  Lesser Celandine is an escape from cultivation that has become invasive.  While the appearance is tolerable; it’s the palatability that ruins everything.  It’s poisonous if eaten by people or livestock.
The Eastern Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a dainty native wildflower of riparian forests and other woodlands throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.
The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is beginning to bloom now.  It’s a native of the region’s damp forests.
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is not native to the Susquehanna watershed, but neither is it considered invasive.  It creates colorful patches in riparian forests.
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a strikingly beautiful native wildflower that grows on undisturbed forested slopes throughout the Susquehanna valley.

Wasn’t that refreshing?  Now go take a walk.

Culinary Reminder

It was a crisp clear morning with birdless blue skies.  The migration has mostly drawn to a close; very little was seen despite a suitable northwest breeze to support a flight.   There were no robins and no blackbirds.  Not even a starling was seen today.  The only highlights were a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and a couple of Swamp Sparrows.

A Swamp Sparrow is coaxed from the dense leafy cover of the Riverine Grasslands of Conewago Falls.
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And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s time for a Thanksgiving Day culinary reminder from the local Conewago Falls Turkey…

“That’s the Conewago Falls Turkey Vulture if you don’t mind.  And I’m here to remind you that this Thanksgiving, you don’t have to fight your way in there to get first pickings of the feast.  Take it from me, let those flavors and aromas intensify over time.  And juices, who needs juices?  Let that stuff congeal so everything sticks to your ribs.  Are you paying attention?  I’m telling you, just back off, let the crowd die down, then get in there and devour those leftovers.  They’re the best.  You’ll thank me later!”

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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A Quick Getaway

It was a placid morning on Conewago Falls with blue skies dotted every now and then by a small flock of migrating robins or blackbirds.  The jumbled notes of a singing Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in the Riparian Woodland softly mixed with the sounds of water spilling over the dam.  The season’s first Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors), Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were seen.

There was a small ruckus when one of the adult Bald Eagles from a local pair spotted an Osprey passing through carrying a fish.  This eagle’s effort to steal the Osprey’s catch was soon interrupted when an adult eagle from a second pair that has been lingering in the area joined the pursuit.  Two eagles are certainly better than one when it’s time to hustle a skinny little Osprey, don’t you think?

But you see, this just won’t do.  It’s a breach of eagle etiquette, don’t you know?  Soon both pairs of adult eagles were engaged in a noisy dogfight.  It was fussing and cackling and the four eagles going in every direction overhead.  Things calmed down after about five minutes, then a staring match commenced on the crest of the dam with the two pairs of eagles, the “home team” and the “visiting team”, perched about 100 feet from each other.  Soon the pair which seems to be visiting gave up and moved out of the falls for the remainder of the day.  The Osprey, in the meantime, was able to slip away.

In recent weeks, the “home team” pair of Bald Eagles, seen regularly defending territory at Conewago Falls, has been hanging sticks and branched tree limbs on the cross members of the power line tower where they often perch.  They seem only to collect and display these would-be nest materials when the “visiting team” pair is perched in the nearby tower just several hundred yards away…an attempt to intimidate by homesteading.  It appears that with winter and breeding time approaching, territorial behavior is on the increase.

The second migrating Osprey of the day ran the gauntlet of marauding eagles without incident.

In the afternoon, a fresh breeze from the south sent ripples across the waters among the Pothole Rocks.  The updraft on the south face of the diabase ridge on the east shore was like a highway for some migrating hawks, falcons, and vultures.  Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures streamed off to the south headlong into the wind after leaving the ridge and crossing the river.  A male and female Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), ten Red-tailed Hawks, two Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), six Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two Merlins crossed the river and continued along the diabase ridge on the west shore, accessing a strong updraft along its slope to propel their journey further to the southwest.  Four high-flying Bald Eagles migrated through, each following the east river shore downstream and making little use of the ridge except to gain a little altitude while passing by.

(Top and Middle) Turkey Vultures riding the fresh breeze and teetering to-and-fro on up-tilted wings.  This wing posture is known as a dihedral.  (Bottom) More than 100 migrating Black Vultures climbed high on the afternoon breeze to make an oblique crossing of the river and maintain a southbound course.

Late in the afternoon, the local Bald Eagles were again airborne and cackling up a storm.  This time they intercepted an eagle coming down the ridge toward the river and immediately forced the bird to climb if it intended to pass.  It turned out to be the best sighting of the day, and these “home team” eagles found it first.  It was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in crisp juvenile plumage.  On its first southward voyage, it seemed to linger after climbing high enough for the Bald Eagles to loose concern, then finally selected the ridge route and crossed the river to head off to the southwest.

Ring-billed Gulls began feeding during the afternoon as clouds preceding stormy weather approached.
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