This Week at Regional Hawk Watches

With nearly all of the Neotropical migrants including Broad-winged Hawks gone for the year, observers and counters at eastern hawk watches are busy tallying numbers of the more hardy species of diurnal raptors and other birds.  The majority of species now coming through will spend the winter months in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the southern United States and Mexico.

Here is a quick look at the raptors seen this week at two regional counting stations: Kiptopeke Hawk Watch near Cape Charles, Virginia, and Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.

Kiptopeke Hawk Watch
The hawk-watching platform at Kiptopeke State Park is located along Chesapeake Bay near the southern tip of Delmarva Peninsula.  In autumn, thousands of raptors and other birds migrate through the Atlantic Coastal Plain Province.  Those that follow the shorelines south frequently concentrate in spectacular numbers before crossing the mouths of the bays they encounter.  This phenomenon makes both Cape May, New Jersey, on Delaware Bay and Kiptopeke, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay exceptional places to experience fall flights of migrating birds.
Second Mounatin Hawk Watch
A Sharp-shinned Hawk is counted as it swoops by the owl decoy at Second Mountain Hawk Watch at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation.  Migrating raptors save energy by riding updrafts of air created by winds blowing against the slopes of the mountainsides in the Ridge and Valley Province.
Sharp-shinned Hawk
A Sharp-shinned Hawk passes the lookout at Second Mountain Hawk Watch.  “Sharp-shins” are currently the most numerous migrants both on the coast and at inland counting stations.
Sharp-shinned Hawk
A Sharp-shinned Hawk nearly passes observers unnoticed as it skims the treetops.
Sharp-shinned Hawk at owl decoy.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk eyes up an owl decoy.  Under cover of darkness, nocturnal owls could rather easily prey upon young and small adult hawks and falcons, both on the nest or at roost.  Accordingly, many diurnal raptors instinctively harass owls to drive them from their presence.  An owl decoy at the lookout helps attract migrating birds for a closer look.
Cooper's Hawk
An adult Cooper’s Hawk flaps its way past a counting station.  Like the similar Sharp-shinned Hawk, the larger Cooper’s Hawk is a member of the genus Accipiter.  As a proportion of the annual fall Accipiter flight, the Cooper’s Hawk is more numerous at coastal hawk watches than at inland sites.
Osprey
The majority of Osprey migrate along the coast, but a few are still being seen at inland hawk watches.
Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles are commonly seen at both coastal and inland lookouts.  Their movements continue well into late fall.
Northern Harrier
A Northern Harrier illuminated by a setting sun.  Northern Harriers are often still flying when many other species have gone to roost for the day.
An adult male Northern Harrier flying in misty weather.
An adult male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost”, flying in misty weather, at a time when few other birds were in the air. 
American Kestrel
The American Kestrel, like our other falcons, is seen in greatest concentrations at coastal counting stations.  It is our most numerous falcon.
Merlin
The Merlin provides only a brief observation opportunity as it passes the lookout.  These falcons are dark, speedy, and easily missed as they fly by.
Tree Swallow
While moving south, Merlins often accompany flights of migrating Tree Swallows, a potential food source.
Merlin with Dragonfly
A Merlin consumes a dragonfly.  Eating is no reason to stop moving.
Juvenile "Tundra Peregrine"
The “Tundra Peregrine” is an arctic-breeding Peregrine Falcon that travels a distance of over 6,000 miles to southern South America for winter.  It is strictly a migratory species in our region with numbers peaking during the first two weeks of October each year.  These strong fliers have little need for the updrafts from mountain ridges, inland birds often observed flying in a north to south direction.  The majority of “Tundra Peregrines” are observed following coastlines, with some migrating offshore to make landfall at points as far south as Florida and the Caribbean islands before continuing across water again to reach the northern shores of Central and South America.  This “Tundra Peregrine” is a juvenile bird on its first southbound trip.

During coming days, fewer and fewer of these birds will be counted at our local hawk watches.  Soon, the larger raptors—Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Golden Eagles—will be thrilling observers.  Cooler weather will bring several flights of these spectacular species.  Why not plan a visit to a lookout near you?  Click on the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page for site information and a photo guide to identification.  See you at the hawk watch!

Common Raven
It’s not all hawks at the hawk watch.  Even the coastal sites are now seeing fun birds like the playful Common Raven on a regular basis.
Eastern Meadowlarks in a Loblolly Pine.
Coastal locations are renowned places to see migrating songbirds in places outside of their typical habitat.  Here a flock of Eastern Meadowlarks has set down in the top of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) in downtown Cape Charles, Virginia, not far from Kiptopeke Hawk Watch.

Fire and Ice at Conewago Falls

This morning, the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed experienced remotely the effects of fire and ice.

At daybreak, the cold air mass that brought the first freeze of the season to northernmost New England gave us a taste of the cold with temperatures below 50 degrees throughout.

The air temperature at daybreak in the Gettysburg Basin east of Conewago Falls.

At sunrise, the cloudless sky had a peculiar overcast look with no warm glow on buildings, vegetation, and terrain.  Soon, the sun was well above the horizon, yet there was still a sort of darkness across the landscape.

Smoke from massive wildland fires in the Pacific Coast States created a haze that persisted throughout the day in the Susquehanna valley.
Away from traffic and the odors of agriculture and urban life, the smell of wood smoke was easily detectable.  The haze from fires almost 3,000 miles away made it appear to be an overcast day at Conewago Falls.
Due to the sudden cold, there were no insects flying above the Susquehanna during the first hour of daylight this morning, so swallows gathered in the trees to conserve energy until the hunt would be more productive.
The diabase boulders at Conewago Falls retain heat and provide an even better refuge from the cold than a dead tree on a chilly morning.  Here, a juvenile and an adult Tree Swallow (center) are surrounded by Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Hundreds of each of these migratory species were feeding at the falls today.
Two dozen or more Barn Swallows, including this juvenile, were seen among the swarming birds.
Several late Bank Swallows, including this one (bottom center), were among the flocks of migrants at Conewago Falls this morning.  One Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) was seen as well.
A Great Egret (Ardea alba) and a Great Blue Heron.
An Osprey searching the clear pools and rapids for a morning meal.
A juvenile Bald Eagle with the same goal in mind.
The same Bald Eagle keeping a close watch on the Osprey.  Bald Eagles frequently ambush Ospreys to steal their catch.  For a young eagle, acquiring the skill of fish theft may improve its chances of survival, at least until the Ospreys head south.

All that bright filtered sunlight was ideal for photographing butterflies along the Conewago Falls shoreline.  Have a look.

During the late morning, dozens of Monarch butterflies migrated past Conewago Falls.  This one paused to feed.
The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is a Monarch mimic.  Its appearance fools would-be predators into thinking it is a Monarch and possesses the same foul flavor as the milkweed-raised model.
This Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) was among the late-season butterflies at Conewago Falls.
The Common Buckeye is presently just that, very common on flowers and moist sandy soil around the falls.
The Painted Lady is a regularly-occurring migratory species of butterfly.
The Red Admiral is typically a common to abundant migrant.  So far in 2020, they are scarce in the lower Susquehanna valley. 

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 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.

A Springtime Quiz

The mild winter has apparently minimized weather-related mortality for the local Green Frog population.  With temperatures in the seventies throughout the lower Susquehanna valley for this first full day of spring, many recently emerged adults could be seen and, on occasion, heard.  Yellow-throated males tested their mating calls—reminding the listener of the sound made by the plucking of a loose banjo string.

Here’s a gathering of Green Frogs seen this afternoon along the edge of a small pond.  How many can you find in this photograph?

If you venture out, keep alert for the migrating birds of late winter and early spring.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are moving through on their way north.  Look for them in mature trees in woodlands, suburbs, and city parks.
The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), our largest sparrow, is a thrush-like denizen of shrubby forest understories and field edges.  It is an early spring and late autumn transient in the lower Susquehanna valley.
While stopping to rest and feed during their northbound spring journey, Ring-necked Ducks and other diving duck species visit wetlands and flooded timber along the Susquehanna River as well as clear ponds and lakes elsewhere in the watershed.
Eastern Bluebirds are presently migrating through the area.  Some will stay to breed where nest boxes or natural cavities are available in suitable habitat.
Tree Swallows are now arriving.  In open grasslands, pastures, and adjacent to almost any body of water, they will nest in boxes like those placed for bluebirds.
Keep that bird bath clean and fill it with fresh water, the American Robin flights are peaking right now.  Breeding males like this one are starting to sing and defend nesting territories.
Red-winged Blackbirds, like other native blackbirds, are moving through in a fraction of the numbers that were seen in the lower Susquehanna valley during the latter decades of the twentieth century.  They remain a common breeding species in pastures and cattail wetlands.
And of course, keep an eye to the sky.  There are still thousands of Snow Geese in the area.

If you’re staying close to home, be sure to check out the changing appearance of the birds you see nearby.  Some species are losing their drab winter basic plumage and attaining a more colorful summer breeding alternate plumage.

European Starlings are losing their spotted winter (basic) plumage and beginning to display a glossy multicolored set of breeding feathers.
An American Goldfinch in transition from winter (basic) plumage to bright yellow, black, and white summer colors.

So just how many Green Frogs were there in that first photograph?  Here’s the answer.

If you counted seven, you did really well.  Numbers eight and nine are very difficult to discern.

Happy Spring.  For the benefit of everyone’s health, let’s hope that it’s a hot and humid one!

State of Confusion

The humid rainy remains of Hurricane Nate have long since passed by Pennsylvania, yet mild wet weather lingers to confuse one’s sense of the seasons.  This gloomy misty day was less than spectacular for watching migrating birds and insects, but some did pass by.  Many resident animals of the falls are availing themselves of the opportunity to continue active behavior before the cold winds of autumn and winter force a change of lifestyle.

Warm drizzle at daybreak prompted several Northern Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer) to begin calling from the wetlands in the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls.  An enormous chorus of these calls normally begins with the first warm rains of early spring to usher in this tiny frog’s mating season.  Today, it was just a few “peeps” among anxious friends.

The tiny Northern Spring Peeper is recognized by the dark “X” across its back.  Soon, shelter must be found among loose bark and fallen logs to commence hibernation.  Emergence, often prompted by warm spring rains, will quickly be followed by a growing chorus of breeding calls as sometimes hundreds of these frogs assemble in vernal pools where mating will then occur.

Any additional river flow that resulted from the rains of the previous week is scarcely noticeable among the Pothole Rocks.  The water level remains low, the water column is fairly clear, and the water temperatures are in the 60s Fahrenheit.

It’s no real surprise then to see aquatic turtles climbing onto the boulders in the falls to enjoy a little warmth, if not from the sun, then from the stored heat in the rocks.  As usual, they’re quick to slide into the depths soon after sensing someone approaching or moving nearby.  Seldom found anywhere but on the river, these skilled divers are Common Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica), also known as Northern Map Turtles.  Their paddle-like feet are well adapted to swimming in strong current.  They are benthic feeders, feasting upon a wide variety of invertebrates found among the stone and substrate of the river bottom.

Adult Common Map Turtles hibernate communally on the river bottom in a location protected from ice scour and turbulent flow, often using boulders, logs, or other structures as shelter from strong current.  The oxygenation of waters tumbling through Conewago Falls may be critical to the survival of the turtles overwintering downstream.  Dissolved oxygen in the water is absorbed by the nearly inactive turtles as they remain submerged at their hideout through the winter.  Though Common Map Turtles, particularly males, may occasionally move about in their hibernation location, they are not seen coming to the surface to breathe.

The Common Map Turtles in the Susquehanna River basin are a population disconnected from that found in the main range of the species in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi basin.  Another isolated population exists in the Delaware River.

Common Map Turtles, including this recently hatched young seen in August, are often observed climbing onto rocks in the river.
Note the oversize swimming fin adaptations of the feet on this adult Common Map Turtle found among the Pothole Rocks in Conewago Falls.  Young and adults are capable of navigating some strong current to feed and escape danger.
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SOURCES

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.  2002.  Status Report of the Northern Map Turtle.  Canadian Wildlife Service.  Ottawa, Ontario.

Summer Breeze

A moderate breeze from the south placed a headwind into the face of migrants trying to wing their way to winter quarters.  The urge to reach their destination overwhelmed any inclination a bird or insect may have had to stay put and try again another day.

Blue Jays were joined by increasing numbers of American Robins crossing the river in small groups to continue their migratory voyages.  Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and a handful of sandpipers headed down the river route.  Other migrants today included a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), and a few Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser), House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula).

The afternoon belonged to the insects.  The warm wind blew scores of Monarchs toward the north as they persistently flapped on a southwest heading.  Many may have actually lost ground today.  Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies were observed battling their way south as well.  All three of the common migrating dragonflies were seen: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), and Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).

The warm weather and summer breeze are expected to continue as the rain and wind from Hurricane Nate, today striking coastal Alabama and Mississippi, progresses toward the Susquehanna River watershed during the coming forty-eight hours.

This Great Blue Heron was joined by numerous other fishermen and a good number of sightseers in the falls today.
A colorful young Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) takes advantage of the sun-heated surface of a Pothole Rock to remain nimble and active.  Cooler weather will soon compel this and other reptiles to find shelter for winter hibernation.
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Swallows by the Thousands

A fresh breeze from the north brought cooler air and a reminder that summer is gone and autumn has arrived.

Fast-moving dark clouds provided a perfect backdrop for viewing passing diurnal migrants.  Bald Eagles utilized the tail wind to cruise down the Susquehanna toward Chesapeake Bay and points further south.  A migrating Merlin began a chase from which a Northern Flicker narrowly escaped by finding shelter among Pothole Rocks and a few small trees.  The season’s first American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varia), and American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) moved through.

Blue Jays continued their hesitant crossings of the river at Conewago Falls.  The majority completed the journey by forming groups of a dozen or more birds and following the lead of a lone American Robin, a Northern Flicker, or, odd as it appeared, a small warbler.

By far the most numerous migrants today were swallows.  Thousands of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and hundreds of Tree Swallows were on the wing in search of what was suddenly a sparse flying insect supply.  To get out of the brisk wind, some of the more resourceful birds landed on the warm rocks.  To satisfy their appetite, many were able to pick crawling arthropods from the surface of the boulders.  They swallow them whole.

A few of the thousands of swallows seen at Conewago Falls today.
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Blue Jay Way

The Neotropical birds that raised their young in Canada and in the northern United States have now logged many miles on their journey to warmer climates for the coming winter.  As their density decreases among the masses of migrating birds, a shift to species with a tolerance for the cooler winter weather of the temperate regions will be evident.

Though it is unusually warm for this late in September, the movement of diurnal migrants continues.  This morning at Conewago Falls, five Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) lifted from the forested hills to the east, then crossed the river to continue a excursion to the southwest which will eventually lead them and thousands of others that passed through Pennsylvania this week to wintering habitat in South America.  Broad-winged Hawks often gather in large migrating groups which swarm in the rising air of thermal updrafts, then, after gaining substantial altitude, glide away to continue their trip.  These ever-growing assemblages from all over eastern North America funnel into coastal Texas where they make a turn to south around the Gulf of Mexico, then continue on toward the tropics.  In the coming weeks, a migration count at Corpus Christi in Texas could tally 100,000 or more Broad-winged Hawks in a single day as a large portion of the continental population passes by.  You can track their movement and that of other diurnal raptors as recorded at sites located all over North America by visiting hawkcount.org on the internet.  Check it out.  You’ll be glad you did.

Nearly all of the other migrants seen today have a much shorter flight ahead of them.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were on the move.  Migrating American Robins (Turdus migratorius) crossed the river early in the day, possibly leftovers from an overnight flight of this primarily nocturnal migrant.  The season’s first Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) arrived.  American Goldfinches are easily detected by their calls as they pass overhead.  Look carefully at the goldfinches visiting your feeder, the birds of summer are probably gone and are being replaced by migrants currently passing through.

By far, the most conspicuous migrant today was the Blue Jay.  Hundreds were seen as they filtered out of the hardwood forests of the diabase ridge to cautiously cross the river and continue to the southwest.  Groups of five to fifty birds would noisily congregate in trees along the river’s edge, then begin flying across the falls.  Many wary jays abandoned their small crossing parties and turned back.  Soon, they would try the trip again in a larger flock.

Sensing that they are being watched, Blue Jays are hesitant to fly across the narrow Susquehanna at Conewago Falls without first assembling into a flock.  The local constabulary often penalizes those who freelance and do not move in orderly groups.

A look at this morning’s count reveals few Neotropical migrants.  With the exception of the Broad-winged Hawks and warblers, the migratory species seen today will winter in a sub-tropical temperate climate, primarily in the southern United States, but often as far north as the lower Susquehanna River valley.  The individual birds observed today will mostly continue to a winter home a bit further south.  Those that will winter in the area of Conewago Falls will arrive in October and later.

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) can be found year-round at Conewago Falls, provided there is open water and adequate food.  Migrants from breeding colonies to the north will soon supplement the local population.
The Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is a summer resident at Conewago Falls.  Migration of the local population and of those from further north will soon begin.  All will be gone by the time ice forms on the river.  Cormorants are often seen drying their feathers in sunlight following a series of feeding dives.

The long-distance migrating insect so beloved among butterfly enthusiasts shows signs of improving numbers.  Today, more than two dozen Monarchs were seen crossing the falls and slowly flapping and gliding their way to Mexico.

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Yellowlegs for Breakfast

A few nocturnal migrants flew through the moonlit night to arrive at Conewago Falls for a sunrise showing this morning.  A dozen warblers were in the treetops and a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) chattered away in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands.  Three species of shorebirds were in the falls and on the Pothole Rocks: Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

A Greater Yellowlegs (right) and two Lesser Yellowlegs sandpipers dropped by for breakfast.

The diurnal migration was highlighted by a Merlin (Falco columbarius), an Osprey, and a Bald Eagle, each flying down the river.  Most of the other birds in the falls seemed content to linger and feed.  There’s no need to hurry folks, only trouble lurks down there in paradise at the moment.

A light to moderate flight of nocturnal migrants in the eastern United States is displayed on NOAA National Weather Service NEXRAD radar at 4:58 AM EDT.  The eye of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
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Piles of Green Tape

A couple of inches of rain this week caused a small increase in the flow of the river, just a burp, nothing major.  This higher water coincided with some breezy days that kicked up some chop on the open waters of the Susquehanna upstream of Conewago Falls.  Apparently it was just enough turbulence to uproot some aquatic plants and send them floating into the falls.

Piled against and upon the upstream side of many of the Pothole Rocks were thousands of two to three feet-long flat ribbon-like opaque green leaves of Tapegrass, also called Wild Celery, but better known as American Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana).  Some leaves were still attached to a short set of clustered roots.  It appears that most of the plants broke free from creeping rootstock along the edge of one of this species’ spreading masses which happened to thrive during the second half of the summer.  You’ll recall that persistent high water through much of the growing season kept aquatic plants beneath a blanket of muddy current.  The American Eelgrass colonies from which these specimens originated must have grown vigorously during the favorable conditions in the month of August.  A few plants bore the long thread-like pistillate flower stems with a fruit cluster still intact.  During the recent few weeks, there have been mats of American Eelgrass visible, the tops of their leaves floating on the shallow river surface, near the east and west shorelines of the Susquehanna where it begins its pass through the Gettysburg Basin near the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge at Highspire.  This location is a probable source of the plants found in the falls today.

Uprooted American Eelgrass floating into the Pothole Rocks under the power of a north wind.  Note the white thread-like pistillate flower stem to the left and the small rooted specimen to the upper right.  The latter is likely a plant from the creeping rootstock on the edge of a colony.  As a native aquatic species, American Eelgrass is a critical link in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay food chain.  Its decimation by pollution during the twentieth century led to migration pattern alterations and severe population losses for the Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) duck.
American Eelgrass, a very small specimen, found growing in a low-lying Pothole Rock alongside the accumulations of freshly arriving material from upstream.  Note that the creeping rootstock has leaves growing from at least three nodes on this plant.  Eelgrass dislocations are regular occurrences which sometimes begin new colonies, like the small one seen here in this Diabase Pothole Rock Microhabitat.

The cool breeze from the north was a perfect fit for today’s migration count.  Nocturnal migrants settling down for the day in the Riparian Woodlands at sunrise included more than a dozen warblers and some Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis).  Diurnal migration was underway shortly thereafter.

A moderate flight of nocturnal migrants is indicated around NEXRAD sites in the northeastern states at 3:18 AM EDT.  The outer rain bands of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys as the storm closes in on the peninsula.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Four Bald Eagles were counted as migrants this morning.  Based on plumage, two were first-year eagles (Juvenile) seen up high and flying the river downstream, one was a second-year bird (Basic I) with a jagged-looking wing molt, and a third was probably a fourth year (Basic III) eagle looking much like an adult with the exception of a black terminal band on the tail.  These birds were the only ones which could safely be differentiated from the seven or more Bald Eagles of varying ages found within the past few weeks to be lingering at Conewago Falls.  There were as many as a dozen eagles which appeared to be moving through the falls area that may have been migrating, but the four counted were the only ones readily separable from the locals.

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) were observed riding the wind to journey not on a course following the river, but flying across it and riding the updraft on the York Haven Diabase ridge from northeast to southwest.

Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia) seem to have moved on.  None were discovered among the swarms of other species today.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Caspian Terns, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) were migrating today, as were Monarch butterflies.

Not migrating, but always fun to have around, all four wise guys were here today.  I’m referring to the four members of the Corvid family regularly found in the Mid-Atlantic states: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), and Common Raven (Corvus corax).

It looks like a big Blue Jay, but it’s not.  This Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) takes a break after flying around the falls trying to shake a marauding Ruby-throated Hummingbird off its tail.
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SOURCES

Klots, Elsie B.  1966.  The New Field Book of Freshwater Life.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons.  New York, NY.

Suggestive Selling

A Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) glowed in the first sunlight of the day as it began illuminating the treetops.  I’m not certain of the cause, but I often have the urge to dig into a bowl of orange sherbet after seeing one these magnificent blackbirds.  That’s right, in the Americas, orioles and blackbirds are members of the same family, Icteridae.  Look at blackbirds more carefully, you might see the resemblance.

Sunshine at dawn and migrating warblers were again active in the foliage.  Eight species were identified today.  Off to the tropics they go.  To the land of palm and citrus, yes citrus…limes, lemons, grapefruits, and oranges.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are on the way toward the gulf states, then on to Central and South America.  Five dashed by the rocky lookout in the falls this morning.  Remember, keep your feeders clean, wash and rinse all the parts, and refill them with a fresh batch of “nectar”, four or five parts water to one part sugar.  Repeating this process daily during hot weather should keep contamination from overtaking your feeder.  It’s not a bad idea to rotate two feeders.  Have one cleaned, rinsed, and air drying while the second is filled and in use at your feeding station, then just swap them around.  Your equipment will be just as clean as it is at the sanitary dairy…you know, where they make sherbet.

The first of the season Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia), giant freshwater versions of the terns you see at the seashore, passed through the falls late this morning.  Their bills are blood-red, not orange like the more familiar terns on the coast.  They’re stunning.

Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) have been at the falls for several weeks.  Total numbers and the composition of the age groups in the flock change over the days, so birds appear to be trickling through and are then replaced by others coming south.  The big push of southbound migrants for this and many other species that winter locally in the Mid-Atlantic region and in the southern United States is still more than a month away.  There are still plenty more birds to come after the hours of daylight are reduced and the temperatures take a dip.

A Ring-billed Gull on the lookout for a morning snack.  They’ll eat almost anything and do a good job of keeping the river picked clean of the remains of animals that have met misfortune.  They’ll linger around landfills, hydroelectric dams, and fast-food restaurant parking lots through the winter.
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are common around the falls due to the abundance of carrion in the vicinity and because of the strong thermal updrafts of air over the sun-heated Pothole Rocks.  These rising currents provide lift for circling vultures.  We would expect migrating birds of a number of species will also take advantage of these thermals to gain altitude and extend the distance of their glides.

Some migrating butterflies were counted today.  Cloudless Sulphurs, more of a vagrant than a migrant, and, of course, Monarchs.  I’ll bet you know the Monarch, it’s black and orange.  How can you miss them, colored orange.

That’s it, that’s all for now, I bid you adieu…I’m going to have a dip of orange sherbet, or two.

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Harvey Passes By

Rain from the remnants of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey ended just after daybreak this morning.  Locally, the precipitation was mostly absorbed into the soil.   There was little runoff and no flooding.  The river level at Conewago Falls is presently as low as it has been all summer.  Among the pools and rapids of the Pothole Rocks, numbers of migrating birds are building.

Mist and a low cloud ceiling created poor visibility while trying to see early morning birds, but they’re here.  The warblers are moving south and a small wave of them was filtering through the foliage on the edge of the Riparian Woodlands.  One must bend backwards to have a look, and most could not be identified due to the poor lighting in the crowns of the trees where they were zipping about.  Five species of warblers and two species of vireos were discerned.

There are increasing concentrations of swallows feeding on insects over the falls.  Hundreds were here today, mostly Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).  Bank Swallows (Stelgidopteryx riparia) numbered in the hundreds, far below the thousands, often 10,000, which staged here for migration and peaked during the first week of September annually during the 1980s and 1990s.  Their numbers have been falling steadily.  Loss of nesting locations in embankments near water may be impacting the entire population.  A reduction in the abundance of late-summer flying insects here on the lower Susquehanna River may be cause for them to abandon this area as a migration staging point.

Bank and Tree Swallows by the hundreds were feeding upon flying insects above the waters of Conewago Falls today.  Lesser numbers of Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) joined the swarm.

Clear weather in the coming nights and days may get the migrants up and flying in large numbers.  For those species headed to the tropics for winter, the time to get moving has arrived.

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Birds of a Feather-The Basics

When we look at birds, we are fascinated by the unique structure and appearance of their feathers.  They set birds apart from all other life forms on the planet.  Feathers enable most birds to achieve a feat long envied by humans…flight.  Birds on the wing awaken a curiosity in man.  They are generally the largest animals one will see in the air.  People want to know the name of a bird they see flying by, and want to know more about it.  The method and style of bird flight can aid an observer who attempts to determine which of the world’s 10,000 bird species he or she is studying.  Body shape and bird sounds often tell us a lot about the birds we encounter.  But most often, we rely on the unique colors, patterns, and shapes of the feathers, the plumage, to identify the bird we are seeing.

To birds, feathers are survival.  They are lightweight and strong to support the mechanics of flight.  Feathers are superb insulators against the elements, and provide additional buoyancy for birds spending time on the water.  For most birds, feathers provide a coloration and a texture similar to their surroundings, enabling them to hide from predators or to stalk prey.  In the case of some species, extravagant showy plumage is acquired, at least during the breeding season, and often only by males, as a way to attract a mate, intimidate rivals, defend a territory, or lure an intruder away from a nest site.  Because they become worn and damaged, all feathers are periodically molted and replaced by fresh plumage.

The feathers worn by a young bird leaving the nest are called the juvenile plumage.  Typically, this is followed by a molt into a basic (non-breeding) plumage.  The oft times extravagant breeding feathers are the result of a molt into an alternate (breeding) plumage.

While making field observations, the species, subspecies, gender, age, and other vital statistics of a bird can often by discerned easily by noting the plumage.  In the case of some other birds, diligence, experience, research, and an exceptionally good look and/or a photograph may be required to interpret these particulars.  In still other instances, a trained expert with a specimen in the hand is the only method of learning the bird’s identity and background.

This juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) left the nest wearing plumage very similar to that of its parents.  In lieu of bright colors, the male House Wren relies upon a vigorous bubbly song and a scrappy demeanor to defend its breeding territory.  This species nests in cavities on the edges of the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls.  Males may have more than one mate.  House Wrens probably migrate at night and will winter in the southern border states and further south.

The age at which birds acquire adult breeding and non-breeding plumages varies by species.  Many juvenile birds resemble adults in basic (non-breeding) plumage as soon as they leave the nest.  For these birds, there is little difference between their juvenile plumage and the appearance of the feathers which follow the molt into their first basic (non-breeding) plumage.  Bird species which sexually mature within their first year may acquire their first basic (non-breeding) plumage before arrival of their first winter, followed by an alternate (breeding) plumage by their first spring.  This is particularly true for smaller short-lived birds.  Other species, normally larger long-lived ones, may experience a sequence of molts through multiple basic (non-breeding) plumages over a period of years prior to resembling an adult.  Some of these species, such as eagles, retain their juvenile plumage for as long as a year before extensive molting into a first basic (non-breeding) plumage begins.  Still others, including many gulls, attain a first-winter (formative) plumage prior to molting into their first basic (non-breeding) set of feathers.  Sexual maturity and initiation of an annual molt to alternate (breeding) plumage, if there is one, may take as long as three to five years for these bigger birds.

For nearly all species of birds, the molts which produce basic (non-breeding) plumage occur on at least an annual basis and include a total replacement of feathers.  This process renews worn and missing plumes including the flight feathers of the wings and tail.  Any molt to alternate (breeding) plumage often excludes the replacement of the feathers of the wings and tail.  There are many exceptions to these generalities.

A mid-summer nesting species, the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, male (left and right) molts into a glamorous alternate plumage for the breeding season.  The adult female’s alternate plumage (top) is a subdued green-yellow and black.  Her feathers resemble the foliage around the nest and offer protection from discovery during incubation.  Juvenile plumage (bottom) is similar to that of the female, but duller with a buffy tone.  By November each of these birds will have molted into a tan-buff basic (non-breeding) plumage, the male’s with a slight yellow hue.  During their first spring, juveniles attain sexual maturity and, like the adults from the previous year, molt into alternate (breeding) plumage.  The breeding birds seen here will probably winter in the southern United States, and birds that nested to our north will arrive to remain as winter residents.  Various stages of molt can be seen simultaneously during spring and autumn migrations as populations of goldfinches from multiple latitudes intermingle as they pass through the Susquehanna River watershed.
This juvenile Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius), lacks the namesake dark markings on its white underside, thus it presently resembles an adult in basic (non-breeding) plumage.  Upon reaching sexual maturity, it will molt into a spotted alternate (breeding) plumage for the nesting season during each remaining year of its life.  Females of this species defend a territory and lay eggs in a nest located among cover near the shoreline.  A female may have as many as five mates.  Males alone incubate the eggs, usually four, for 20-24 days.  The young leave the nest upon hatching and are escorted by the male for about two to three additional weeks.  They are the only sandpiper to nest on the Susquehanna River shoreline.  Spotted Sandpipers migrate to the southern border states and further south for winter.  At Conewago Falls, they arrive in late April to nest, with birds, possibly migrants from further north, remaining until well into October.  In any plumage, you can easily recognize the Spotted Sandpiper by its habit of teetering its body at the hips to pump the tail up and down.
Bald Eagles go through a series of five molts before reaching adult plumage.  The first plumage, Juvenile, is nearly all dark brown with white linings along the forward underside of the wings.  The wing and tail feathers are a bit longer than in later plumages to aid the inexperienced birds during their clumsy first flights.  Due to the additional feather length, Juveniles look larger than older birds, but they are not as heavy as their seniors.  The bird seen here flying above Conewago Falls is probably in its second year.  This plumage, Basic I, also known as “White Belly I”, is characterized by a nearly full set of new flight feathers.  Note that some of the longer Juvenile feathers are still present, giving the wings a jagged sloppy look, particularly near the center of the trailing edge.  Third-year (Basic II) birds often have at least some white belly feathers and are sometimes known as “White Belly II” Bald Eagles.  Basic II birds typically possess a complete set of adult flight feathers, so the trailing edge of the wing has a neater and more uniform appearance.

The Bald Eagle in the two photographs above is in its first year.  This plumage, known as “Juvenile”, is characterized by dark flight feathers which appear uniformly long in length when the bird is airborne.  The eye is dark brown.  The iris of the eye will lighten in the second year (Basic I) and will become cream-colored by the third year (Basic II).  The bill, which is all dark gray when the bird is in the nest, has begun the slow progression to a yellow color that will be complete in the bird’s fifth year (Basic IV).  Third year (Basic II) birds molt to white crown and throat feathers, but have a dark set of feathers through the eye producing an “Osprey face” in most individuals.  In its fourth year (Basic III), this eagle will molt to a white tail with just a thin dark brown terminal band.  The head will become nearly all white except for a few dark spots through the eye, which will have a yellow iris.  A cleaner white head and tail will develop during the fifth year (Basic IV) and will persist through the familiar adult Bald Eagle plumages (Definitive Plumage) for the remainder of its life.

The Juvenile and non-breeding (basic) plumages of late-summer may seem drab and confusing, but learning them is a worthwhile endeavor.  Consider that most of the birds coming south during the migration will be adorned in this fashion.  The birds of North America are in their greatest numerical mass of the year right now, and nearly all are females, juveniles, other non-adults, or molting males.  There are few males in breeding plumage among the autumn waves of migrants.  In the coming months, there will be an abundance of opportunities to enjoy these marvels on wings, so getting to know the birds in non-breeding feathers is time well spent.  Make haste and get ready.  For our feathered friends, it’s autumn and they’re on their way south.

Here come the confusing fall migrants.  Twelve Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) and sixteen unidentified “peep” sandpipers (Calidris species) were seen feeding in Conewago Falls on August 27.  This Semipalmated Sandpiper is either an adult in worn alternate (breeding) plumage or a Juvenile.  Adults of this species molt into basic plumage on the wintering grounds.  The Semipalmated Sandpiper breeds in the high arctic tundra and winters in the West Indies and northern South America.
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SOURCES

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

Hayman, Peter; John Marchant, and Tony Prater.  1986.  Shorebirds, An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.

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

McCullough, Mark A.  1989.  Molting Sequence and Aging Of Bald Eagles.  The Wilson Bulletin.  101:1-10.