Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition. Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics. The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.
DAY EIGHT—May 28, 1983
“Bentsen State Park, Texas”
“Alarm at 6:00 A.M. After breakfast we traveled to Falcon State Park and toured the whole camp area, stopping many places to observe birds. We ran up a good list.”
And so we left what had been our home for the last several days and headed west. In the forty years since our departure that morning, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park has experienced a number of operational changes. Today, it is a World Birding Center site. For conducting the seasonal hawk census, a tower has been erected to provide counters and observes with an unrestricted view above the treetops. If you wanted to camp in the park now, you would need reservations and would have to hike your gear in to one of only a few primitive campsites. Trailer and motor home accommodations no longer exist. A tram service is now available for touring the park by motor vehicle.
Falcon State Park is located along the east shore of Falcon Reservoir. There are no shade trees beneath which one can escape the scorching rays of the sun on a hot day. This is the easternmost section of the scrubland’s Tamaulipan Saline Thornscrub, a xeric plant community of head-high brush found only on clay soils with a particularly high salinity. Many of the plants look similar to other varieties of shrubs and small trees with which one may be familiar, except nearly all of them are covered with nasty thorns and prickles. And yes, there are cactus. You can’t make your way bushwhacking cross country without obtaining cuts, gashes, and scars to show for it. The Falcon State Recreation Area bird checklist published in 1977 has a nice description of the plants found there—mesquite, ebano, guaycan, blackbrush and catclaw acacia, granjeno, coyotillo, huisache, tasajillo, prickly pear, allthorn, cenizo, colima, and yucca. In the margins between the thornscrub growth, there is an abundance of grasses and wildflowers. On nearby ridges, Tamaulipan Calcareous Thornscrub, a similar xeric plant community, occupies soils with a higher content of calcium carbonate. Together, these communities comprise much of the Tamaulipan Mezquital ecoregion of scrublands in Starr County and western Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande valley of Texas.
After being greeted by a Greater Roadrunner at the campsite, we took a walk to the nearby shoreline of the reservoir. We spotted Olivaceous Cormorants perched on some dead limbs in the water nearby. Known today as Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus), it is yet another specialty of the Rio Grande Valley. Elsewhere on or near the water—Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Osprey, Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri), Least Tern, and Caspian Tern were seen.
In the thornscrub around the campground, which, like Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, we had pretty much to ourselves, we saw Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Ground Dove, Inca Dove, and White-tipped Dove. A single Chihuahuan Raven was a fly by. We saw and smelled several road-killed Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), but never found one alive.
Then, it started to rain. Not just a shower, but a soaker that persisted through much of the day. Rainy days can make for great birding, so we kept at it. Unfortunately, such days aren’t too ideal for photography, so we did only what we could without ruining our equipment.
“Finally we drove to the spillway of the dam and parked.”
Falcon Dam was another of the numerous flood-control projects built on the Rio Grande during the middle of the twentieth century. Behind it, Falcon Reservoir stores water for irrigation and operation of a hydroelectric generating station located within the dam complex. Construction of the dam and power plant was a joint venture shared by Mexico and the United States. The project was dedicated by Presidents Adolfo Ruiz Cortines and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
Rainy days aside, the route precipitation takes to reach the Falcon Reservoir and the Lower Rio Grande Valley includes hundreds of miles through arid grasslands and scrublands. Along the way, much of that water is lost to natural processes including evaporation and aquifer recharge, but an increasing percentage of the volume is being removed by man for civil, industrial, and agricultural uses. Can the Rio Grande and its tributaries continue to meet demand?
“On the way in we saw and photographed an apparent sick or injured Swainson’s Hawk. We approached it very close.”
“At the spillway we sat in the camper, except when the rain slackened, then we stood out and watched in vain for the Green or Ringed Kingfisher, which we never did see.”
At the spillway House Sparrows, Rough-winged Swallows, and Cliff Swallows were nesting on the dam, the latter two species grabbing flying insects above the waters of the Rio Grande.
“I made dinner here at this spillway and we continued to watch. The rain almost stopped, so we walked down the road about 1 1/2 miles, during which time we saw a lifer for Harold — Hook-billed Kite. We followed Father Tom’s directions to a spot for the Ferruginous Owl — no luck.”
“Back at the spillway we had supper and then repeated the hike — no Ferruginous Owl, but a Barn Owl and Great Horned Owl. Back to our #201 campsite and wrote up the day’s log.”
Trees along the river provided habitat for orioles and other species. Since the rain had subsided, we decided to see what might come out and begin feeding. Soon, we not only saw an Altamira Oriole, but found Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) and the yellow and black tropical species, Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda), formerly known as Black-headed Oriole. Three species of orioles on a backdrop of lush green subtropical foliage, it was magnificent.
Along the dirt road below the dam, the mix of scrubland and subtropical riparian forest made for excellent birding. We not only found a soaring Hook-billed Kite, one of the target birds for the trip, but we had good looks at both a Great Horned Owl, then a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) that we flushed from the bare ground in openings among the vegetation as we walked the through. Both had probably pounced on some sort of small prey species prior to our arrival. Because there are seldom crows or ravens to bother them, owls here are more active during than day than they are elsewhere. The subject of this afternoon’s intensive search, the elusive and diminutive Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum), is routinely diurnal. Other sightings on our two walks included Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Northern Bobwhite, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Northern Cardinal, and Painted Bunting.
The day finished as so many others had earlier during the trip—with insect-hunting Common Nighthawks calling from the skies around our campsite.
Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition. Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics. The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.
DAY FOUR—May 24, 1983
“AOK Campground—South of Kingsville, Texas”
“Arose at 6:30 A.M. to the tune of Common Nighthawks. After breakfast, we headed for Harlingen. While driving south we saw six pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. At Harlingen we phoned Father Tom, who is an expert birder for the area.”
As we drove south to Harlingen, much our 100-mile route was through the Laureles division of the King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States. It covers over 800,000 acres and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. The road there was as straight as an arrow with wire fences on both sides and scrubland as far as the eye could see. Things really are bigger in Texas.
Once in Harlingen, we did two things no one needs to do anymore:
Find a coin-operated telephone to place a call to Father Tom.
Ask Father Tom for the latest tips on the locations of rare and/or target birds.
Today, nearly everyone traveling such distances to find birds is carrying a cellular phone and many can use theirs to access internet sites and databases such as eBird to get current sighting information. Back in 1983, Father Tom Pincelli was a dear friend to birders visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Few places had a person who was willing to answer the phone and field inquiries regarding the latest whereabouts of this or that bird. To remain current, he also had to religiously (forgive me for the pun) collect sighting information from the observers with whom he had contact. For locations elsewhere across the country, a birder in 1983 was happy just to have a phone number for a hotline with a tape-recorded message listing the unusual sightings for its covered region. If you were lucky, the volunteer logging the sightings would be able to update the tape once a week. For those who dialed his number, Father Tom provided an exceptionally personal experience.
Since 1983, Father Tom Pincelli, also known as “Father Bird”, has tirelessly promoted birding and conservation throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley. His efforts have included hosting a P.B.S. television program and writing columns for local newspapers. He has been instrumental in developing the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. The public sentiment he has generated for the birding paradise that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley has helped facilitate the acquisition and/or protection of many key parcels of land in the region.
“After receiving information on locations of Tropical Parula, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Hook-billed Kite, Brown Jay, and Clay-colored Robin, we went on to check out the Brownsville Airport where we will meet Harold and Steve Thursday noon.”
If we were going to see these five species in the American Birding Association listing area, then we would have to see them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. All five were target birds for each of us, including Harold who had few other possibilities for new species on the trip. Father Tom provided us with tips for finding each.
I noticed as we began moving around Harlingen and Brownsville that Russ was swiftly getting his bearings—he had been here before and was starting to remember where things were. His ability to navigate his way around allowed us to keep moving and see a lot in a short time.
In Harlingen, we easily found Mourning Doves and the non-native Rock Pigeons, species we see regularly in Pennsylvania. We became more enthusiastic about doves and pigeons soon after when we saw the first of the several other species native to south Texas, the diminutive Inca Dove (Columbina inca), also known as the Mexican Dove.
“Next, to the Brownsville Dump to see the White-necked Ravens — Then to Mrs. Benn’s in Brownsville for the Buff-bellied Hummingbird. Both lifers for Larry.”
For birders wanting to see a White-necked Raven in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Brownsville Dump was the place to go. With very little effort—excluding a trip of nearly 2,000 miles to get there—we found them. Today, birders still go to the Brownsville Dump to find White-necked Ravens, though the dump is now called the Brownsville Landfill and the bird is known as the Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus).
Mrs. Benn’s home was in a verdant residential neighborhood in Brownsville. She welcomed birders to come and see the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds that visited her feeder filled with sugar water. I don’t recall whether or not she kept a guest book for visitors to sign, but if she did, it would have included hundreds—maybe thousands—of names of people from all over North America who came to her garden to get a look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird. After arriving, we waited a short time and sure enough, we watched a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) sipping Mrs. Benn’s home-brewed nectar from her glass feeder. This emerald hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species with a breeding range that extends north into the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. When not breeding, a few will wander north and east along the Gulf Coastal Plain as far as Florida.
Other finds at Mrs Benn’s included White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), and Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus), a species also known as Mexican Titmouse.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley from Rio Grande City east to the Gulf of Mexico is actually the river’s outflow delta. At least six historic channels have been delineated in Texas on the north side of the river’s present-day course. An equal number may exist south of the border in Mexico. Hundreds of oxbow lakes known as “resacas” mark the paths of the former channels through the delta. Many resacas are the centerpieces of parks, wildlife refuges, and housing developments. Still others are barely detectable after being buried in silt deposits left by the meandering river. Channelization, land disturbances related to agriculture, and a boom in urbanization throughout the valley have disconnected many of the most recently formed resacas from the river’s floodplain, preventing them from absorbing the impact of high-water events. These alterations to natural morphology can severely aggravate flooding and water pollution problems.
“On to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. We walked to Pintail Lake and saw 6 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and 2 Mississippi Kites and 1 Pied-billed Grebe. We drove the route thru the park with great results—Anhingas, Least Grebe, and more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande is not only a birder’s mecca, 300 species of butterflies have been identified there. That’s half the species known to occur in the United States! Its subtropical riparian forest and resaca lakes provide habitat for hundreds of migratory and resident bird species including many Central and South American species that reach the northern limit of their range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Two endangered cats occur in the park—the Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and the Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).
We saw no cats at Santa Ana, but did quite well with the birds. Our list included the species listed above plus Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis); Louisiana Heron, now known as Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor); Plain Chachalacas; Purple Gallinule; Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata); American Coot; Killdeer; Greater Yellowlegs; the coastal Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla); and its close relative of the central flyway and continental interior, the Franklin’s Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan). Others finds were White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and House Sparrow. A real standout was the colorful Green Jay (Cyanocorax luxosus), yet another tropical Central American species found north only as far as the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
“We were unlucky not to find a campground at McAllen, so we went on to Bentsen State Park where we got a camp spot. After a sauerkraut supper, we birded till dark, then showered and wrote up the log. Very hot today.”
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, is located along the Rio Grande river and features dense subtropical riparian forest that grows in the naturally-deposited silt levees of the floodplain surrounding several lake-like oxbow resacas. Montezuma Bald Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a native specialty found there but nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. During our visit, we marveled at the epiphyte Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) adorning many of the more massive trees in the park. Willows lined much of the river shoreline.
Over time, flood control projects such as man-made dams, drainage ditches, and levees have impaired stormwater capture and aquifer recharge in the floodplain. These alterations to watershed hydrology have resulted in drier soils in many sections of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s riparian forests. Where drier conditions persist, xeric (dry soil) scrubland plants are slowly overtaking the moisture-dependent species. As a result, the park’s woodlands are composed of trees with a variety of microclimatic requirements—Anaqua (Ehretia anacua), Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia), Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano), hackberry, mesquite, Mexican Ash (Fraxinus berlandieriana), retama, and tepeguaje are the principle species. The park’s subtropical Texas Wild Olive (Cordia boissieri) grows in the wild nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
While a majority of birders visiting Benten-Rio Grande State Park come to see the more tropical specialties of the riparian woods, searching the brushy habitat of the park’s scrubland can afford one the opportunity to see species typical of the southwestern United States and deserts of Mexico. This scrubland of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is part of the Tamaulipan Mezquital ecoregion, an area of xeric (dry soil) shrublands and deserts that extends northwest from the delta through most of south Texas and into the bordering provinces of northeastern Mexico.
Our campsite was located in prime birding habitat. We were a short walk away from one of the park’s flooded oxbow resacas and vegetation was thick along the roadsides. It was no surprise that the place abounded with birds. An evening stroll yielded Plain Chachalaca, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, White-fronted Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus). At nightfall, we listened to the calls of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Common Nighthawks, and Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a nightjar of Central and South America that nests only as far north as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The Common Pauraque is the tropical counterpart of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, a Neotropical migrant that nests in scattered forest locations throughout eastern North America.
I would note that we saw no “snowbirds”—long-term vacationers from the northern states and Canada who fill the park through the cooler months of fall, winter, and spring. They were gone for the summer. But for a few other friendly folks, we had the entire campground to ourselves for the duration of our stay.
Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh. For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.
The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl. We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.
Raw Beef Suet
In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare. Instead, we provide raw beef suet.
Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather. It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species. Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.
Niger (“Thistle”) Seed
Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia. By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets. Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground. European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.
Niger seed must be kept dry. Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders. A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded. Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!
Striped Sunflower Seed
Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid. The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks. The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”. For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.
Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor. Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden. Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms. The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.
Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees
The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees. After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year. In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).
Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon. They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive. They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers. You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it. You need to preorder for pickup in the spring. To order, check their websites now or give them a call. These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!
Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year. If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year. On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper. On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby. The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days. The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.
A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.
Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.
Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent. Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years. Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.
It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation. His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year. The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there. In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves. Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that! It was the most lackluster year in memory.
If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible. There would be no cause for greater alarm. It would be a matter of cause and effect. But the problem is more widespread.
Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna. And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes. A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration. In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous. What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south? The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?
Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere. These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends. They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.
There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone. None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline. Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds? Did they die off? Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction? Is it global warming? Is it Three Mile Island? Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?
The answer might not be so cryptic. It might be right before our eyes. And we’ll explore it during 2020.
In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. You should go too. They have lots of food there.
It seems as though the birds have grown impatient for typical spring weather to arrive. The increase in hours of daylight has signaled them that breeding time is here. No further delays can be entertained. They’ve got a schedule to keep.
Thursday, March 29: Winds began blowing from the southwest, breaking a cold spell which had persisted since last week’s snowfall. Birds were on the move ahead of an approaching rainy cold front.
Friday, March 30: Temperatures reached 60 degrees at last. Birds were again moving north through the day, despite rain showers and a change in wind direction—from the northwest and cooler following the passage of the front in the late morning.
Saturday, March 31: It was cooler, but birds were still on the wing headed north.
Sunday, April 1: The morning was pleasant, but conditions became cooler and breezy in the afternoon. Migratory and resident birds began feeding ahead of another storm.
Monday, April 2: Snow fell again, overnight and through the morning—a couple of inches. Most of the snow had melted away by late afternoon.
Many are wont to say that they have no capacity for scientific pursuits, and having no capacity, they consequently have no love for them. I do not believe, that as a general thing, a love for science is necessarily innate in any man. It is the subject of cultivation and is therefore acquired. There are doubtless many, whose love for these and kindred pursuits is hereditary, through the mental biases and preoccupations of their progenitors, but in the masses of mankind it is quite otherwise. In this consists its redeeming qualities, for I do not think the truly scientific mind can either be an idle, a disorderly, or a very wicked one. There may be scientific men, who, forgetful of its teachings, are imperious and ambitious–who may have foregone their fealty to their country and their God, but as a general thing they are humble, social and law-abiding. If, therefore, there is a human being who desires to break off from old and evil associations, and form new and more virtuous ones, I would advise him to turn his attention to some scientific specialty, for the cultivation of a new affection, if there are no other and higher influences more accessible. In this pursuit he will, in time, be enabled to supplant the old and heartfelt affection. The occupation of his mind in the pursuit of scientific lore will wean him from vicious, trivial, and unmanly pursuits, and point out to him a way that is pleasant and instructive to walk in, which will ultimately lead to moral and intellectual usefulness. I wish I was accessible to them, and possessed the ability to impress this truth with sufficient emphasis upon the minds of the rising generation. This fact, that in all moral reformations, a love for the opposite of any besetting evil must be cultivated, before that evil can be surely eradicated, has been too much overlooked and too little valued in moral ethics. But true progress in this direction implies that, under all circumstances, men should “act in freedom according to reason.”
-Simon S. Rathvon
In the cellar of the North Museum on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is an assemblage of natural history specimens of great antiquity. The core of the collection has its origins in the endeavors of a group of mid-to-late nineteenth-century naturalists whose diligence provided a most thorough study of the plants and animals found within what was at the time America’s most productive farming county.
The members of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County shared a passion for collecting, identifying, classifying, and documenting the flora and fauna of the region. Some members were formally educated and earned a living in the field of science, but the majority were in the process of self-education and balanced their natural history occupation with an unrelated means to provide financially for their families. The latter benefited greatly from their associations with the former, gaining expertise and knowledge while participating in the functions of the group.
On February 24, 1866, Simon S. Rathvon, the society’s Treasurer, read an essay in commemoration of the group’s fourth anniversary. Rathvon earned a living as a tailor, first in Marietta, a thriving river town at the time, then in Lancaster City. In 1840, Rathvon was elected into the Marietta Natural History Lyceum where, as a collections curator, he became associated with principals Judge John J. Libhart, an amateur ornithologist, and Samuel S. Haldeman, a geologist and soon to be widely-known malacologist. Haldeman, in 1842, upon noticing the new member’s interest in beetles and other insects, provided books, guidance, and inspiration, thus intensifying Rathvon’s study of entomology. Rathvon’s steadfast dedication eventually led to his numerous achievements in the field which included the publication of over 30 papers, many on the topic of agricultural entomology. Rathvon’s scientific understanding of insect identification and taxonomy was a foundation for his practical entomology, which moved beyond mere insect collection to focus upon the study of the life histories of insects, particularly the good and bad things they do. He then applied that knowledge to help growers solve pest problems, often stressing the value of beneficial species for maintaining a balance in nature. From 1869 through 1884, Rathvon edited and published Lancaster Farmer, a monthly (quarterly from 1874) agricultural journal in which he educated patrons with his articles on “economic entomology”. Rathvon continued earning a living in the tailor business, seemingly frustrated that his financially prudent advice on insect control in Lancaster Farmer failed to entice more would-be readers to part with the one dollar annual subscription fee. For many years, Rathvon crafted articles for local newspapers and wrote reports for the United States Department of Agriculture. In recognition of his achievements, Simon Rathvon received an honorary Ph.D. from Franklin and Marshall College in 1878.
In Rathvon’s anniversary essay, he details the origins of the Linnaean Society as a natural science committee within the “Lancaster Historical, Mechanical, and Horticultural Society” founded in 1853. The members of the committee, not finding sufficient support within the parent organization for their desired mission, “the cultivation and investigation of the natural history of Lancaster County…”, sought to form an independent natural history society. In February of 1862, the “Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County” was founded to fulfill these ambitions.
Above all else, the written works by the members of the Linnaean Society and their predecessors have provided us with detailed accounts of the plants and animals found in Lancaster County, and in the lower Susquehanna River valley, using scientific binomial nomenclature, a genus and species name, as opposed to the variable folk and common names which, when used exclusively, often confuse or mislead readers. Consider the number of common names a species could have if just one was assigned by each of the languages of the world. Binomial nomenclature assigns one designation, a genus name and species name, in Latin, to each life-form (such as Homo sapiens for Humans), and it is adopted universally.
Rathvon would say of the naming of the Linnaean Society:
“…the name which the Society has adopted is in honorable commemoration of LINNAEUS, the great Swedish naturalist—one who may be justly regarded as a father in Natural Science. To him belongs the honor of having first promulgated the “binomial system of nomenclature,” a system that has done more to simplify the study of natural science than any light that has been brought to the subject by any man in any age.”
Carl Linnaeus lived from 1707 to 1778, and published his first edition of Systema Naturae in 1735.
The names of a number of the members and corresponding members on the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County’s rolls remain familiar. John P. McCaskey (educator) served as Corresponding Secretary. Doctor Abram P. Garber was a prominent Lancaster botanist and society member. Professor Samuel S. Haldeman (naturalist, geologist, and philologist), Professor J. L. LeConte (entomologist), Judge John J. Libhart, Professor Asa Gray (botanist), and the foremost legal egalitarian in the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, were listed among the roster of corresponding members.
By the end of its fourth year, Rathvon enumerated the specimens in the collections of the society to exceed 32,000. These included all the species of mosses and plants known in the county, 200 bird specimens, an enormous insect collection with nearly 12,000 Coleoptera (Beetles), and more than 1,400 mollusk shells. The work of the society had already provided a thorough baseline of the flora and fauna of the lower Susquehanna River valley and Lancaster County.
Rathvon would continue as Treasurer and primary curator through the group’s first twenty-five years, their most active. By 1887, their library contained over 1,000 volumes, they possessed over 40,000 specimens, and more than 600 scientific papers had been read at their meetings.
Many of the society’s specimens were moved to the custody of Franklin and Marshall College following the group’s dissolution. In 1953, the collection found a home on the F&M campus at the newly constructed North Museum, named for benefactor Hugh M. North, where many of the specimens, particularly the birds, are on prominent display.
Among the mounted specimens in the North Museum collection is a Heath Hen, once a numerous coastal plain bird which was also of limited abundance in the Piedmont Province areas of southeast Pennsylvania prior to its rapid decline during the first half of the nineteenth century. In southern Lancaster County, the burned grasslands of the serpentine barrens in Fulton Township may have provided suitable Heath Hen habitat prior to the bird’s demise. Curiously, Judge John J. Libhart did not note the Heath Hen in his enumeration of the birds of Lancaster County in either 1844 or 1869, indicating it was seriously imperiled or may have already been extirpated.
The Heath Hen was extirpated from its entire Atlantic Coastal Plain mainland range by the mid-1860s. The last remaining population was restricted to Martha’s Vineyard where, for the first time, a conservation effort was initiated to try to save a species. After some promising rebounds, the Heath Hen’s recovery failed for a variety of reasons including: the population’s isolation on an island, severe winter storms, feral cat predation, and a flawed understanding of methods for conducting mosaic burns to maintain the bird’s scrub habitat and prevent large catastrophic fires. A large fire in 1906 reduced the island population to just 80 birds, then there was a strong rebound to an estimated 2,000 birds (800 counted) by April, 1916. One month later, a fire burned twenty percent of Martha’s Vineyard, striking while females were on the nest, and leaving mostly males as survivors. A downward spiral in numbers followed for another decade. Finally, from 1929 until his death in 1932, “Booming Ben”, the last Heath Hen, searched the island every spring for a mate that wasn’t there.
Based on life history and the morphology of specimens, the Heath Hen has long been considered to be a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), a bird of the tallgrass prairies. However, for more than a decade now, modern DNA analysis has kept taxonomists busy reclassifying and reworking the “tree of life”. For certain species, genetic discoveries often disqualify the long-trusted practice of determining a binomial name based on the visual appearance of specimens. Molecular study is making Linnaean classification more scientific, and is gradually untangling a web of names that man has been weaving for 200 years, often with scant evidence, in an effort to better understand the world around him. In the case of the Heath Hen, DNA research has thus far failed to conclusively determine its relationship to other species of prairie chickens. The lack of a sufficient pool of genetic material, particularly from mainland Heath Hens, reduces the ability of researchers to draw conclusions on this group of birds. There remains the possibility that the Heath Hen was genetically distinct from the Greater Prairie Chickens of the mid-western United States. This would be bad news for organizations studying the possibility of introducing the latter into the former’s historic range as a restoration program.
The last Carolina Parakeet (the only parrot species native to the eastern United States) died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918, one hundred years ago this past week. It was a species inhabiting primarily the lowland forests of the southeastern United States
In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart wrote of the species in 1869, “…Carolina Parrot, Accidental; a flock seen near Manheim by Mr. G. W. Hensel.” Libhart did not mention the species in his earlier ornithological writings (1844). Therefore, the Hensel sighting probably occurred sometime between 1844 and 1869. The fate of a specimen reported to have been collected in the town of Willow Street sometime during the nineteenth century is unknown, the written details lack the date of its origin and other particulars that may clarify the authenticity of the sighting.
McKinley (1979) researched numerous historical sight records of Carolina Parakeets, but found no specimen from Lancaster County, or from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the District of Columbia, or Maryland to substantiate any of the reports in the Mid-Atlantic states. In the days prior to high-speed photography, verification and documentation of the presence of an animal species relied on what seems today to be a brutal and excessive method of nature study, killing. Lacking a specimen, the historical status of Carolina Parakeets in Pennsylvania, an area often considered to be within the bird’s former range, may be considered by many authorities to be hypothetical.
The Passenger Pigeon, too, has been extinct for more than a century. In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart listed the Passenger Pigeon by the common name “Wild Pigeon” and wrote of the species in 1869, “Migratory; spring and autumn; feeds on grain, oak and beach, mostly on berries; stragglers sometimes remain and breed in the county.” There are numerous accounts of their precipitous decline both locally and throughout their former range, each illustrating the tragic loss of another portion of the North American natural legacy.
Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. Ironically, the last Carolina Parakeet would die in the same enclosure just three-and-one-half years later. In the wild, the final three records of Passenger Pigeons were all of birds that were shot for taxidermy mounts in 1900, 1901, and 1902—an embarrassing human legacy.
By the early twentieth century, concerned citizens were beginning to realize the danger posed to many species of flora and fauna by man’s activities. In the eastern United States, the vast forests had been logged, the wetlands drained, and the streams and rivers dammed. Nearly all of the landscape had been altered in some way. Animals were harvested with little concern for the sustenance of their populations. Nearly unnoticed, the seemingly endless abundance and diversity of wildlife found in the early days of European colonization had dwindled critically.
The movement to conserve and protect threatened species from relentless persecution owes its start to the Linnaean taxonomists, the specimen collectors who gave uniformly recognizable names to nearly all of North America’s plants and animals. Significant too were John James Audubon and many others who used specimens as models to create accurate artwork which allowed scientists and citizens alike to learn to identify and name the living things they were seeing and, as time went by, not seeing.
Binomial nomenclature enabled the new conservationists to communicate accurately, reducing misunderstandings resulting from the use of many different names for one species or a shared name for multiple species. Discussions on the status of Columba migratorius (the binomial name for Passenger Pigeon in the nineteenth century) could occur without using the confusing local names for the Passenger Pigeon such as Wood Pigeon or, here in Pennsylvania, Wild Pigeon, a term which could describe any number of free-ranging pigeon or dove species. A binomial name, genus and species, makes the identity of a particular plant or animal, for lack of a more fitting term, specific.
Appreciation for the work completed by taxonomists who killed thousands of animals so each could be classified and assigned a name particular to its lineage is what finally motivated some to seek a cessation of the unchecked catastrophic killing of living things. It’s the paradox of late nineteenth-century conservation. The combined realization that a species is unique among other life-forms and that continuing to kill it for specimens, “style”, “sport”, or just an adrenaline thrill could eliminate it forever became an intolerable revelation. The blood would be on the hands of an audacious mankind, and it was unthinkable. Something had to be done. Unfortunately for the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen, help came too late.
Greenburg, Joel. 2014. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury Publishing. New York.
Libhart, John J. 1844. “Birds of Lancaster County”. I. Daniel Rupp’s History of Lancaster County. Gilbert Hills. Lancaster, PA.
Libhart, John J. 1869. “Ornithology”. J. I. Mombert’s An Authentic History of Lancaster County. J. E. Barr and Company. Lancaster, PA.
McKinley, Daniel. 1979. “History of the Carolina Parakeet in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia”. Maryland Birdlife. 35(1):1-10.
Palkovacs, Eric P.; Oppenheimer, Adam J.; Gladyshev, Eugene; Toepfer, John E.; Amato, George; Chase, Thomas; Caccone, Adalgesia. 2004. “Genetic Evaluation of a Proposed Introduction: The Case of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Extinct Heath Hen”. Molecular Ecology. 13(7):1759-1769.
Rathvon, S. S. 1866. An Essay on the Origin of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County, Its Objects and Progress. Pearsol and Geist. Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Wheeler, Alfred G., Jr. and Miller, Gary L. 2006. “Simon Snyder Rathvon: Popularizer of Agricultural Entomology in Mid-19th Century America”. American Entomologist. 52(1):36-47.
Winpenny, Thomas R. 1990. “The Triumphs and Anguish of a Self-Made Man: 19th Century Naturalist S. S. Rathvon”. Pennsylvania History. 57(2):136-149.