Thoughts of October in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed bring to mind scenes of brilliant fall foliage adorning wooded hillsides and stream courses, frosty mornings bringing an end to the growing season, and geese and other birds flying south for the winter.
The autumn migration of birds spans a period equaling nearly half the calendar year. Shorebirds and Neotropical perching birds begin moving through as early as late July, just as daylight hours begin decreasing during the weeks following their peak at summer solstice in late June. During the darkest days of the year, those surrounding winter solstice in late December, the last of the southbound migrants, including some hawks, eagles, waterfowl, and gulls, may still be on the move.
During October, there is a distinct change in the list of species an observer might find migrating through the lower Susquehanna valley. Reduced hours of daylight and plunges in temperatures—particularly frost and freeze events—impact the food sources available to birds. It is during October that we say goodbye to the Neotropical migrants and hello to those more hardy species that spend their winters in temperate climates like ours.
The need for food and cover is critical for the survival of wildlife during the colder months. If you are a property steward, think about providing places for wildlife in the landscape. Mow less. Plant trees, particularly evergreens. Thickets are good—plant or protect fruit-bearing vines and shrubs, and allow herbaceous native plants to flower and produce seed. And if you’re putting out provisions for songbirds, keep the feeders clean. Remember, even small yards and gardens can provide a life-saving oasis for migrating and wintering birds. With a larger parcel of land, you can do even more.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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).
Klots, Elsie B. 1966. The New Field Book of Freshwater Life. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, NY.
We all know that birds (and many other animals) migrate. It’s a survival phenomenon which, above all, allows them to utilize their mobility to translocate to a climate which provides an advantage for obtaining food, enduring seasonal weather, and raising offspring.
In the northern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly north in the spring to latitudes with progressively greater hours of daylight to breed, nest, and provide for their young. In the southern hemisphere there are similar movements, these to the south during their spring (our autumn). The goal is the same, procreation, though the landmass offering sustenance for species other than seabirds is limited “down under”. Interestingly, there are some seabirds that breed in the southern hemisphere during our winter and spend our summer (their winter) feeding on the abundant food sources of the northern oceans.
Each autumn, migratory breeding birds leave their nesting grounds as the hours of sunlight slowly recede with each passing day. They fly to lower latitudes where the nights aren’t so long and the climate is less brutal. There, they pass their winter season.
Food supply, weather, the start/finish of the nesting cycle, and other factors motivate some birds to begin their spring and autumn journeys. But overall, the hours of daylight and the angle of the sun prompt most species to get going.
But what happens after birds begin their trips to favorable habitats? Do they follow true north and south routes? Do they fly continuously, day and night? Do they ease their way from point to point, stopping to feed along the way? Do they all migrate in flocks? Well, the tactics of migration differ widely from bird species to species, from population to population, and sometimes from individual to individual. The variables encountered when examining the dynamics of bird migration are seemingly endless, but fascinatingly so. Bird migration is well-studied, but most of its intricacies and details remain a mystery.
Consider for a moment that just 10,000 years ago, an Ice Age was coming to an end, with the southernmost edge of the most recent glaciers already withdrawn into present-day Canada from points as near as the upper Susquehanna River watershed. Back then, the birds migrating to the lower portion of the drainage basin each spring probably weren’t forest-dwelling tropical warblers, orioles, and other songbirds. The migratory birds that nested in the lower Susquehanna River valley tens of millennia ago were probably those species found nesting today in taiga and tundra much closer to the Arctic Circle. And the ancestors of most of the tropical migrants that nest here now surely spent their entire lives much closer to the Equator, finding no advantage by journeying to the frigid Susquehanna valley to nest. It’s safe to say that since those times, and probably prior to them, migration patterns have been in a state of flux.
During the intervening years since the great ice sheets, birds have been able to adapt to the shifts in their environment on a gradual basis, often using their unmatched mobility to exploit new opportunities. Migration patterns change slowly, but continuously, resulting in differences that can be substantial over time. If the natural transformations of habitat and climate have kept bird migration evolving, then man’s impact on the planet shows great potential to expedite future changes, for better or worse.
Now, let’s look at two different bird migration strategies, that of day-fliers or diurnal migrants, and that of night-fliers, the nocturnal migrants.
Diurnal migrants are the most familiar to people who notice birds on the move. The majority of these species have one thing in common, some form of defense to lessen the threat of becoming the victim of a predator while flying in daylight. Of course the vultures, hawks, and eagles fly during the day. Swallows and swifts employ speed and agility on the wing to avoid becoming prey, as do hummingbirds. Finches have an undulating flight, never flying on a horizontal plane, which makes their capture more difficult. Other songbirds seen migrating by day, Red-winged Blackbirds for example, congregate into flocks soon after breeding season to avoid being alone. Defense flocks change shape constantly as birds position themselves toward the center and away from the vulnerable fringes of the swarm. The larger the flock, the safer the individual. For a lone bird, large size can be a form of protection against all but the biggest of predators. Among the more unusual defenses is that of birds like Indigo Buntings and other tropical migrants that fly across the Gulf of Mexico each autumn (often completing a portion of the flight during the day), risking exhaustion at sea to avoid the daylight hazards, including numerous predators, found in the coastal and arid lands of south Texas. Above all, diurnal migrants capture our attention and provide a spectacle which fascinates us. Perhaps diurnal migrants attract our favor because we can just stand or sit somewhere and watch them go by. We can see, identify, and even count them. It’s fantastic.
What about a bird like the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)? It is often seen migrating in flocks during the day (the truly migratory ones flying much higher than the local year-round resident “transplants”), but then, during the big peak movements of spring and fall, they can be heard overhead all through the night. Perhaps the Canada Goose and related waterfowl bridge the gap between day and night, introducing us to the secretive starlight and moonshine commuters, the nocturnal migrants.
The skies are sometimes filled with thousands of them, mostly small perching birds and waders. These strangers in the night fly inconspicuously in small groups or individually, and most can be detected when passing above us only when heard making short calls to remain in contact with their travel partners. They need not worry about predators, but instead must have a method of finding their way. Many, like the Indigo Bunting, can navigate by the stars, a capability which certainly required many generations to refine. The nocturnal migrants begin moving just after darkness falls and ascend without delay to establish a safe flight path void of obstacles (though lights and tall structures can create a deadly counter to this tactic). Often, the only clue we have that a big overnight flight has occurred is the sudden appearance of new bird species or individuals, on occasion in great numbers, in a place where we observe regularly. Just days ago, the arrival of various warbler species at Conewago Falls indicated that there was at least a small to moderate movement of these birds during previous nights.
In recent years, the availability of National Weather Service radar has brought the capability to observe nocturnal migrants into easy reach. Through the night, you can log on to your local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service radar page (State College for the Conewago Falls area) and watch on the map as the masses of migrating bird pass through the sweep of the radar beam. As they lift off just after nightfall, rising birds will create an echo as they enter the sweeping beam close to the radar site. Then, due to the incline of the transmitted signal and the curvature of the earth, migrants will be displayed as an expanding donut-like ring around the radar’s map location as returns from climbing birds are received from progressively higher altitudes at increasing distances from the center of the site’s coverage area. On a night with a local or regional flight, several radar locations may show signs of birds in the air. On nights with a widespread flight, an exodus of sorts, the entire eastern half of the United States may display birds around the sites. You’ll find the terrain in the east allows it to be well-covered while radars in the west are less effective due to the large mountains. At daybreak, the donut-shaped displays around each radar site location on the map contract as birds descend out of the transmitted beam and are no longer detected.
Weather systems sometimes seem to motivate some flights and stifle others. The first example seen below is a northbound spring exodus, the majority of which is probably migrants from the tropics, the Neotropical migrants, including our two dozen species of warblers. A cold front passing into the northeastern United States appears to have stifled any flight behind it, while favorable winds from the southwest are motivating a heavy concentration ahead of the front.
The second and third examples seen below are an autumn nocturnal migration movement, probably composed of many of the same tropics-bound species which were on the way north in the previous example. Note that during autumn, the cold front seems to motivate the flight following its passage. Ahead of the front, there is a reduced and, in places, undetectable volume of birds. The two images below are separated by about 42 hours.
You can easily learn much more about birds (and insects and bats) on radar, including both diurnal and nocturnal migrants, by visiting the Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website. There you’ll find information on using the various mode settings on NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) to differentiate between birds, other flying animals, and inanimate airborne or grounded objects. It’s superbly done and you’ll be glad you gave it a try.
Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website: http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/ as accessed September 6, 2017.
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.
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.