Smoky Skies in the Lower Susquehanna Region

During the coming two weeks, peak numbers of migrating Neotropical birds will be passing through the northeastern United States including the lower Susquehanna valley.  Hawk watches are staffed and observers are awaiting big flights of Broad-winged Hawks—hoping to see a thousand birds or more in a single day.

During its passage through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, an adult Broad-winged Hawk sails over Second Mountain Hawk Watch in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
A hatch-year/juvenile Broad-winged Hawk gazes toward hawk watchers on the ground.

Broad-winged hawks feed on rodents, amphibians, and a variety of large insects while on their breeding grounds in the forests of the northern United States and Canada.  They depart early, journeying to wintering areas in Central and South America before frost robs them of a reliable food supply.

The Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina), this one photographed at Second Mountain Hawk Watch on September 8th, is the rarest of the lower Susquehanna region’s migratory dragonflies.  Autumn Broad-winged Hawk movements coincide with southbound flights of the Carolina Saddlebags and the more numerous migratory dragonfly species: Common Green Darner, Wandering Glider, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, and Black Saddlebags.  “Broad-wings” will often eat these and other dragonflies during migration and can sometimes be seen catching and feeding upon them while still soaring high overhead.

While migrating, Broad-winged Hawks climb to great altitudes on thermal updrafts and are notoriously difficult to see from ground level.  Bright sunny skies with no clouds to serve as a backdrop further complicate a hawk counter’s ability to spot passing birds.  Throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the coming week promises to be especially challenging for those trying to observe and census the passage of high-flying Broad-winged Hawks.  The forecast of hot and humid weather is not so unusual, but the addition of smoke from fires in the western states promises to intensify the haze and create an especially irritating glare for those searching the skies for raptors.

Smoke from fires along the California coast and in central Utah can be seen streaming east this morning.  (NOAA/GOES image)
Smoke from western fires and humid air creates a band of haze in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and states to the south this morning.   (NOAA/GOES image)

 

A migrating Broad-winged Hawk in the glare of a hazy sky.  In addition to visibility problems, swarms of Spotted Lanternflies above the treetops make distant hawks difficult to discern for hawk watchers scanning the horizon with binoculars.

It may seem gloomy for the mid-September flights in 2021, but hawk watchers are hardy types.  They know that the birds won’t wait.  So if you want to see migrating “Broad-wings” and other species, you’ve got to get out there and look up while they’re passing through.

Migrating Ospreys typically fly low enough and are large enough to be spotted even during the haziest of conditions.
Bald Eagles like this fourth-year bird can ascend to great altitude, but their size usually prevents them from sneaking past a lookout unnoticed.
Peregrines escape notice not due to hazy sky conditions, but because they pass by so quickly.  They’re being seen at local hawk watches now through October.

These hawk watches in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are currently staffed by official counters and all welcome visitors:

    • Rocky Ridge County Park Hawk Watch—3699 Deininger Road off Mount Zion Road (Route 24) northeast of York, Pennsylvania.
    • Second Mountain Hawk Watch—off Cold Spring Road on the grounds of Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
    • Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch—where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

—or you can just keep an eye on the sky from wherever you happen to be.  And don’t forget to check the trees and shrubs because warbler numbers are peaking too!  During recent days…

Northern Parula at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Black-and-white Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.
Cape May Warbler at Chiques Rock County Park in Lancaster County.
Bay-breasted Warbler at Rocky Ridge County Park in York County.

Big Fallout

Okay, so it happened to be cloudy with drizzle at sunrise—not the best conditions for observing birds in the treetops.  But that inclement weather effectively grounded the overnight flight of migrating songbirds leading to a really big fallout in the lower Susquehanna valley this morning.

While straining one’s neck to gaze up into the forest canopy, hundreds of migrants including warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers could be seen.  Identifying each was impossible.

Here are of few of this morning’s arrivals.  Manually setting the camera to a slower shutter speed compensated a little bit for the backlighting caused by cloudy conditions.

Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus).
Bay-breasted Warbler.
Black-throated Green Warbler.
Nashville Warbler.
Northern Parula (Setophaga americana).

Peak numbers of Broad-winged Hawks will pass through the area during the coming two weeks.  They most often migrate in groups, with sizes ranging from several individuals to hundreds or even thousands of birds.  Despite this being a less than ideal day for riding thermals and gliding off towards the southwest to continue their journey to the tropics, some “broad-wings” ventured aloft and were on their way soon after the drizzle subsided during mid-morning.

A Broad-winged Hawk lifts off from the cover of the forest where it spent the night.
The same Broad-winged Hawk (bottom) and an adult Bald Eagle gain altitude on a thermal updraft before the former glides away toward the southwest.

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.

CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

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.

CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS