More Migrating Birds

As waves of wet weather persistently roll through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the tide of northbound migrants continues.  Here are few of today’s highlights…

Eastern Kingbird
Though few in number several days ago, flycatchers are now quite common.  Many of the Eastern Kingbirds we’re now seeing will stay to nest in trees bordering grasslands and pastures.
Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatchers nest along streams and other bodies of water where herbaceous growth and scattered shrubs are plentiful.  Lacking favorable habitat, many will continue moving north in coming days.
Lincoln's Sparrow
The seldom seen Lincoln’s Sparrow likes wet thickets for layovers during its passage through the lower Susquehanna valley.  They are often the last of the migratory sparrows to transit the area in May.  These elusive birds nest primarily in boggy thickets far to the north of our region, mostly in Canada.
Northern Parula
Colorful warblers are still arriving.  Remember to watch for them in unusual places due to stormy weather.  Earlier today, we spotted this Northern Parula prowling a lakeside willow instead of spending its time among the crown foliage and vines adorning mature forest trees.  Breezy conditions ahead of an afternoon shower may have prompted this bird to seek caterpillars and other grub in this protected location.
Least and Solitary Sandpipers
As May churns on, more and more shorebirds will be moving through on their way to nesting grounds in the interior of Canada.  This flock of Least and Solitary Sandpipers was found on the muddy margins of a man-made pond.  Flooded portions of farm fields and stormwater basins are also good places to see these migrants as they trek north.

Snow Geese, Bald Eagles, and More at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

To take advantage of this unusually mild late-winter day, observers arrived by the thousands to have a look at an even greater number of migratory birds gathered at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Here are some highlights…

Trails at Middle creek Wildlife Management Area
Multitudes of Sunday hikers enjoyed the warm afternoon on Middle Creek’s many trails.
Painted Turtles
In one of Middle Creek’s numerous impoundments, newly emerged Painted Turtles bask in the sunshine.
Brown-headed Cowbird
Native blackbirds, particularly males including this Brown-headed Cowbird, are arriving to stake out a claim on suitable breeding territory.
Red-winged Blackbirds
Male Red-winged Blackbirds visit the feeding station at the Middle Creek W.M.A. Visitor’s Center.
Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbirds regularly maintain close association with Red-winged Blackbirds, a frequent victim of the former’s nest parasitism, the practice of laying and abandoning their eggs in a host species’ abode.  By early May, adult “red-wings” can often be seen tending fledged cowbird young raised at the expense of their own progeny.
Common Grackles displaying.
Male Common Grackles display their colors in an attempt to establish dominance.
White-crowned Sparrow
Visitor’s to Middle Creek’s Willow Point Trail not only had a chance to see thousands of geese and other waterfowl, but they might also get a good look at some of the handsome White-crowned Sparrows that have been there during recent weeks.
Tree Swallow
The first Tree Swallows of the season have arrived to stake a claim to nest boxes located throughout the refuge’s grasslands.
Killdeer
Bare croplands and muddy shorelines around Middle Creek’s lakes and ponds are attracting migrating Killdeer.  Some will stay to nest.
Ring-billed Gulls
Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls arrived during the late afternoon to spend the night on the main lake.
Red-tailed Hawk
A Red-tailed Hawk was seen hunting mice and exhibiting territorial behavior.  It is probably protecting a nest site somewhere on the refuge.
Canada Geese
Canada Geese could be seen coming and going, with migratory birds apparently supplementing the resident flock.  This group flushed when a Bald Eagle passed close by.
Bald Eagles
You could hold a Bald Eagle I.D. clinic at Middle Creek W.M.A. right now.  Dozens of birds of varying age classes could be seen in the trees surrounding the main lake and the larger ponds.  Currently, fifty or more could be present.  At least one Golden Eagle has been seen as well.
Adult Bald Eagle
An adult Bald Eagle in definitive plumage investigating the inhabitants of the lake.
Second-year Bald Eagle
This Bald Eagle in its second calendar year is not yet one year of age, but it has already begun replacing dark body feathers with a light plumage that will earn it the nickname “white belly” for this and its third year.  It will start molting its long hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers soon after its first birthday.
Second-year Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk
Another second-year immature Bald Eagle, this one being scolded by the aforementioned territorial Red-tailed Hawk.  Though showing some wear in the tail, this eagle still has a full set of lengthy hatch-year (juvenile) flight feathers and remains mostly dark below when compared to the bird of the same age class seen in the previous image.  As in other birds, diet, genetics, stress, climatic conditions, and many other factors will frequently vary the timing of molt among individuals in a population of Bald Eagles.
Third-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its third calendar year still retaining numerous long juvenile wing and tail feathers.   In coming months, as it reaches its second birthday, it will begin replacing the remaining older plumage with a set of new flight feathers.
Fourth-year Bald Eagle
An immature Bald Eagle in its fourth calendar year approaches its third birthday with a rather conspicuous long juvenile feather remaining in each wing.  These feathers will soon be replaced.  In addition, the body plumage will darken, the head will begin to show more white, and the bill will become yellow.  In about two more years, the bird will attain its familiar adult definitive plumage.  Click the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab at the top of this page to learn more about determining the age of these and other birds of prey.
Snow Geese and Observers at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Bald Eagles draw a crowd, but the real attraction at Middle Creek W.M.A. in late winter is Snow Geese,…
Snow Geese
…thousands of them.
Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
Migratory Snow Geese, an annual spectacle at Middle Creek.
Snow Geese and hundreds of onlookers.
Snow Geese and hundreds of delighted onlookers.

Snow Geese at M.C.W.M.A.

Snow geese at Middle Creek W.M.A.
The late afternoon sky filled with Snow Geese.
Short-eared Owl at M.C.W.M.A.
As daylight waned and the Snow Geese returned to the main lake for the night, more than one hundred lucky observers were treated to the rare sight of several Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) emerging to hunt the refuge’s managed grasslands for mice and voles.  For many of these visitors, it was a memorable first-time experience.

Birds of Snow-covered Farmland

When the ground becomes snow covered, it’s hard to imagine anything lives in the vast wide-open expanses of cropland found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s fertile valleys.

Snow-covered Farm Field
A snow-covered field with no standing vegetation.  For nearly all wild birds, mammals, and other animals, modern agricultural practices offer no means of sustenance, particularly during the winter months.

Yet, there is one group of birds that can be found scrounging a living from what little exists after a season of high-intensity farming.  Meet the Horned Lark.

Horned Larks
Horned Larks occur year-round in the lower Susquehanna region.  Birds found wintering here are hardy individuals that breed in the arctic tundra, terrain reminiscent of our treeless farmlands.  Another population of larks seems to have adapted to no-till farming, nesting with some success in unplowed fields during the early part of the growing season.  The impact of herbicide application on survival of these broods could be a topic of research for an energetic student out there…hint, hint.
A Flock of Horned Larks
Nearly invisible on bare ground, Horned Larks are much more conspicuous after a fresh snowfall.  For protection from predators, they gather in flocks.  During the days of raw manure application, 300 to 500 larks could be found attracted to a freshly spread strip in a snow-covered field.  Modern liquid manure, which contains fewer undigested seeds and grains for larks, is not as attractive to these and other birds.
Horned Larks in Snow
During severe storms, we’ve seen Horned Larks remain active throughout the night.  We’ve even witnessed them taking shelter by burying themselves in the snow.
Horned Lark in Flight
To find food, Horned Larks are constantly on the move…
Horned Lark
…seeking out bare ground or the seed-bearing tops of plant stems that remain exposed above the snow.
Horned Larks Feeding at Roadside
Following storms, Horned Larks often gather along roadsides where snow removal has revealed “weed” seeds and other tiny morsels that, though they are almost imperceptible to us, are a meal for a Horned Lark.
A Horned Lark munching "weed" seeds.
A Horned Lark munching “weed” seeds.
Horned Larks and Lapland Longsrurs
Flocks of wintering Horned Larks will sometimes contain one or more of the several much less numerous species with a similar proclivity for tundra-like environs during the colder months.  We examined this gathering a little bit more closely…
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks
…and found these Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus).  In winter, Lapland Longspurs (the two streaked birds: one to the far left and the other high-stepping the white line) can be hard to discern from the earth tones of farmland habitat.  Breeding males, however, are a brilliant white with a chestnut-colored nape and a black bib, mask, and cap.  On rare occasions, these males in spectacular alternate plumage can be found in the lower Susquehanna valley prior to their departure to nesting areas near the treeline in northern Canada and Alaska.
Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs
A close-up image (through the windshield) of a roadside flock of Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs (top, far right, and third from bottom).

If you decide to take a little post-storm trip to look for Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, be sure to drive carefully.  Do your searching on quiet rural roads with minimal traffic.  Stop and park only where line-of-sight and other conditions allow it to be done safely.  Use your flashers and check your mirrors often.  Think before you stop and park—don’t get stuck or make a muddy mess.  And most important of all, be aware that you’re on a roadway—get out of the way of traffic.

Eastern Meadowlarks
Flushed from roadside feeding areas by passing automobiles, these Eastern Meadowlarks were previously displaced from their grassland and pasture foraging areas by snow cover.

If you’re not going out to look for larks and longspurs, we do have a favor to ask of you.  Please remember to slow down while you’re driving.  Not only is this an accident-prone time of year for people in cars and trucks, it’s a dangerous time for birds and other wildlife too.  They’re at greatest peril of getting run over while concentrated along roadsides looking for food following snow storms.

American Pipit
The American Pipit is another barren-field specialist that can be found feeding at roadside following snowstorms, particularly when they coincide with the bird’s migration in late fall or early spring.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Snow Bunting
The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), like the Lapland Longspur, occurs among flocks of Horned Larks in winter.  Other barren-ground birds you’ll see feeding along country roads following significant snowfalls include Savannah and Vesper Sparrows.
Killdeer
During mild winters, Killdeer may linger in farmlands where they are more easily heard than seen…until it snows.

Four Common Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers are perhaps best known for the occasions throughout history when an enormous congregation of these insects—a “plague of locusts”—would assemble and rove a region to feed.  These swarms, which sometimes covered tens of thousands of square miles or more, often decimated crops, darkened the sky, and, on occasion, resulted in catastrophic famine among human settlements in various parts of the world.

The largest “plague of locusts” in the United States occurred during the mid-1870s in the Great Plains.  The Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus), a grasshopper of prairies in the American west, had a range that extended east into New England, possibly settling there on lands cleared for farming.  Rocky Mountain Locusts, aside from their native habitat on grasslands, apparently thrived on fields planted with warm-season crops.  Like most grasshoppers, they fed and developed most vigorously during periods of dry, hot weather.  With plenty of vegetative matter to consume during periods of scorching temperatures, the stage was set for populations of these insects to explode in agricultural areas, then take wing in search of more forage.  Plagues struck parts of northern New England as early as the mid-1700s and were numerous in various states in the Great Plains through the middle of the 1800s.  The big ones hit between 1873 and 1877 when swarms numbering as many as trillions of grasshoppers did $200 million in crop damage and caused a famine so severe that many farmers abandoned the westward migration.  To prevent recurrent outbreaks of locust plagues and famine, experts suggested planting more cool-season grains like winter wheat, a crop which could mature and be harvested before the grasshoppers had a chance to cause any significant damage.  In the years that followed, and as prairies gave way to the expansive agricultural lands that presently cover most of the Rocky Mountain Locust’s former range, the grasshopper began to disappear.  By the early years of the twentieth century, the species was extinct.  No one was quite certain why, and the precise cause is still a topic of debate to this day.  Conversion of nearly all of its native habitat to cropland and grazing acreage seems to be the most likely culprit.

The critically endangered Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), a species not photographed since 1962 and not confirmed since 1963, fed on Rocky Mountain Locusts during its spring migration through the Great Plains.  Excessive hunting and conversion of grasslands to agriculture are believed responsible for the bird’s demise.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image by Christina Nelson)

In the Mid-Atlantic States, the mosaic of the landscape—farmland interspersed with a mix of forest and disturbed urban/suburban lots—prevents grasshoppers from reaching the densities from which swarms arise.  In the years since the implementation of “Green Revolution” farming practices, numbers of grasshoppers in our region have declined.  Systemic insecticides including neonicotinoids keep grasshoppers and other insects from munching on warm-season crops like corn and soybeans.  And herbicides including 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) have, in effect, become the equivalent of insecticides, eliminating broadleaf food plants from the pasturelands and hayfields where grasshoppers once fed and reproduced in abundance.  As a result, few of the approximately three dozen species of grasshoppers with ranges that include the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are common here.  Those that still thrive are largely adapted to roadsides, waste ground, and small clearings where native and some non-native plants make up their diet.

Here’s a look at four species of grasshoppers you’re likely to find in disturbed habitats throughout our region.  Each remains common in relatively pesticide-free spaces with stands of dense grasses and broadleaf plants nearby.

CAROLINA GRASSHOPPER

Dissosteira carolina

Carolina Grasshopper
The Carolina Grasshopper, also known as the Carolina Locust or Quaker, is one of the band-winged grasshoppers.  It is commonly found along roadsides and on other bare ground near stands of tall grass and broadleaf plants.
Carolina Grasshopper
The Carolina Grasshopper is variable in color, ranging from very dark brown…
Carolina Grasshopper
…to a rich tan or khaki shade.  These earth-tone colors provide the insect with effective camouflage while spending time on the ground.
Carolina Grasshopper wing
The Carolina Grasshopper is most readily detected and identified when it flies.  The colors of the wings resemble those of the Mourning Cloak butterfly.
Great Black Wasp on goldenrod.
Carolina Grasshoppers are among the preferred victims of Great Black Wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus).  A female wasp stings the grasshopper to paralyze it, then drags it away to one of numerous cells in an underground burrow where she lays an egg on it.  The body of the disabled grasshopper then provides nourishment for the larval wasp.

DIFFERENTIAL GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus differentialis

Differential Grasshopper nymph.
Differential Grasshopper nymph with small “fairy wings”.
Differential Grasshopper
An adult female Differential Grasshopper with fully developed wings.
An adult female Differential Grasshopper
An adult female Differential Grasshopper

TWO-STRIPED GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus bivittatus

Two-striped Grasshopper nymph.
An early-stage Two-striped Grasshopper nymph.
Two-striped Grasshopper nymph.
A Two-striped Grasshopper nymph in a later stage.
Two-striped Grasshopper
An adult female Two-striped Grasshopper.
Two-striped Grasshopper
An adult female Two-striped Grasshopper.  Note the pale stripe originating at each eye and joining near the posterior end of the wings to form a V-shaped pattern.
Two-striped Grasshopper
An adult female Two-striped Grasshopper.

RED-LEGGED GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus femurrubrum

A Red-legged Grasshopper hiding in dense urban vegetation.
An adult male Red-legged Grasshopper hiding in dense urban vegetation.
Red-legged Grasshopper
The Red-legged Grasshopper may currently be our most abundant and widespread species.
Red-legged Grasshopper
An adult male Red-legged Grasshopper.
Red-legged Grasshopper
An adult female Red-legged Grasshopper.

Protein-rich grasshoppers are an important late-summer, early-fall food source for birds.  The absence of these insects has forced many species of breeding birds to abandon farmland or, in some cases, disappear altogether.

During the mid-twentieth century, the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), a notoriously nomadic species, transited the Atlantic from Africa to colonize the Americas…and they did it without any direct assistance from humans.  During the 1970s and early 1980s, a nesting population of Cattle Egrets on river islands adjacent to the Susquehanna’s Conejohela Flats off Washington Boro was the largest inland rookery in the northeastern United States.  The Lancaster County Bird Club censused the birds each August and found peak numbers in 1981 (7,580).  During their years of abundance, V-shaped flocks of Cattle Egrets from the rookery islands ventured into grazing lands throughout portions of Lancaster, York, Dauphin, and Lebanon Counties to hunt grasshoppers.  These daily flights were a familiar summertime sight for nearly two decades.  Then, in the early 1980s, reductions in pastureland acreage and plummeting grasshopper numbers quickly took their toll.  By 1988, the rookery was abandoned.  The Cattle Egrets had moved on.  (Vintage 33 mm image)
During the summer and early fall, juvenile and adult Ring-necked Pheasants feed heavily on grasshoppers.  Earlier and more frequent mowing along with declining numbers of grasshoppers on farmlands due to an increase in pesticide use were factors contributing to the crash of the pheasant population in the early 1980s.
Wild Turkey
To the delight of Wild Turkeys, each of the four species of grasshoppers shown above frequents clearings and roadsides adjacent to forest areas.  While changes in grasshopper distribution have been detrimental to populations of birds like pheasants, they’ve created a feeding bonanza for turkeys.
Wild Turkeys feeding on grasshoppers along a forest road.
Wild Turkeys feeding on an abundance of grasshoppers along a forest road.
An American Kestrel feeds on a grasshopper while ignoring the abundance of Spotted Lanternflies swarming the adjacent utility pole.  In Susquehanna valley farmlands, grasshopper and kestrel numbers are down.  Lanternflies, on the other hand, have got it made.
Early Successional Growth
Maintaining areas bordering roads, forests, wetlands, farmlands, and human development in a state of early succession can provide and ideal mix of mature grasses and broadleaf plants for grasshoppers, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

A Visit to a Beaver Pond

To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis).  They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago.  Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established.  Have a look.

A Beaver Pond
Vegetation surrounding the inundated floodplain helps sequester nutrients and sediments to purify the water while also providing excellent wildlife habitat.
A beaver lodge.
The beaver lodge was built among shrubs growing in shallow water in the middle of the pond.
Woolgrass in a beaver pond.
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) is a bulrush that thrives as an emergent and as a terrestrial plant in moist soils bordering the pond.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting Cardinal Flower.
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting a Cardinal Flower.
Green Heron
A Green Heron looking for small fish, crayfish, frogs, and tadpoles.
A Green Heron stalks potential prey.
The Green Heron stalking potential prey.
A Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed.
A Wood Duck feeding on the tiny floating plant known as Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor).
A Least Sandpiper feeding along the muddy edge of a beaver pond.
A Least Sandpiper poking at small invertebrates along the muddy edge of the beaver pond.
Solitary Sandpiper
A Solitary Sandpiper.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
Pectoral Sandpiper
A Pectoral Sandpiper searches for its next morsel of sustenance.
A Sora rail in a beaver pond.
The Sora (Porzana carolina) is a seldom seen rail of marshlands including those created by North American Beavers.  Common Cattails, sedges, and rushes provide these chicken-shaped wetland birds with nesting and loafing cover.

Isn’t that amazing?  North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems.  Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed?  Let the beavers do the job!

Shorebirds on the Mud in York County, Pennsylvania

At Lake Redman just to the south of York, Pennsylvania, a draw down to provide drinking water to the city while maintenance is being performed on the dam at neighboring Lake Williams, York’s primary water source, has fortuitously coincided with autumn shorebird migration.  Here’s a sample of the numerous sandpipers and plovers seen today on the mudflats that have been exposed at the southeast end of the lake…

Least Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
One of a hundred or more Least Sandpipers seen on mudflats at Lake Redman today.
 A Semipalmated Plover and a Least Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Semipalmated Plover and a Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpipers at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Pectoral Sandpipers.
A Pectoral Sandpiper and Least Sandpipers at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Pectoral Sandpiper and two Least Sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper.
A Stilt Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Stilt Sandpiper feeding.
Stilt Sandpiper consuming an edible at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stilt Sandpiper consuming an edible.
Stilt Sandpiper at rest at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stilt Sandpiper at rest.
A Solitary Sandpiper at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Solitary Sandpiper
A Lesser Yellowlegs at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Lesser Yellowlegs.
A Greater Yellowlegs at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
A Greater Yellowlegs.
Osprey at Lake Redman, York County, Pennsylvania.
Stirring up the shorebird crowd every now and then were several Ospreys, but all would soon be back to the business of feeding in the mud.
An Osprey hovers above shallow water near the mudflats as it searches for fish.
An Osprey hovers above shallow water near the mudflats as it searches for fish.

Not photographed but present at Lake Redman were at least two additional species of shorebirds, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper—bringing the day’s tally to ten.  Not bad for an inland location!  It’s clearly evident that these waders overfly the lower Susquehanna valley in great numbers during migration and are in urgent need of undisturbed habitat for making stopovers to feed and rest so that they might improve their chances of surviving the long journey ahead of them.  Mud is indeed a much needed refuge.

Shorebirds and Stormwater Retention Ponds

Your best bet for finding migrating shorebirds in the lower Susquehanna region is certainly a visit to a sandbar or mudflat in the river.  The Conejohela Flats off Washington Boro just south of Columbia is a renowned location.  Some man-made lakes including the one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area are purposely drawn down during the weeks of fall migration to provide exposed mud and silt for feeding and resting sandpipers and plovers.  But with the Susquehanna running high due to recent rains and the cost of fuel trending high as well, maybe you want to stay closer to home to do your observing.

Fortunately for us, migratory shorebirds will drop in on almost any biologically active pool of shallow water and mud that they happen to find.  This includes flooded portions of fields, construction sites, and especially stormwater retention basins.  We stopped by a new basin just west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and found more than two dozen shorebirds feeding and loafing there.  We took each of these photographs from the sidewalk paralleling the south shore of the pool, thus never flushing or disturbing a single bird.

Stormwater retentrion basin.
Designed to prevent stream flooding and pollution, this recently installed stormwater retention basin along US 322 west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, has already attracted a variety of migrating plovers and sandpipers.
Killdeer
Killdeer stick close to exposed mud as they feed.
Least Sandpipers
Two of more than a dozen Least Sandpipers found busily feeding in the inch-deep water.
Lesser Yellowlegs
A Lesser Yellowlegs searching for small invertebrates.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Two Lesser Yellowlegs work out a disagreement.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are quick to colonize the waters held in well-engineered retention basins.  Proper construction and establishment of a functioning food chain/web in these man-made wetlands prevents them from becoming merely temporary cesspools for breeding mosquitos.

So don’t just drive by those big puddles, stop and have a look.  You never know what you might find.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.  They are most frequently seen on gravel and sand bars adjacent to the river’s grassy islands, but unusually high water for this time of year prevents them from using this favored habitat.  As a result, you might be lucky enough to discover Pectoral Sandpipers on almost any mudflat in the area.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller but very similar Least Sandpipers.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller, but otherwise very similar, Least Sandpipers.
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and a Least and Pectoral Sandpiper (left).
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and Least and Pectoral Sandpipers (left).

Photo of the Day

Shorebird identification can be notoriously difficult, but it’s a skill best learned with practice.  Now is a good time to become familiar with the two most common species of plovers found in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Numbers of both are increasing on local mudflats as waves of southbound migrants begin to arrive.  The Killdeer in the lower left is a familiar nesting species of barren fields, stone parking lots, and gravel roofs.  Its numbers swell during spring and fall migration, with some lingering into winter until either snow cover or a hard freeze prompts them to finally depart for milder climes.  The Semipalmated Plovers in the upper right are strictly a migratory species in our area, nesting in northern Canada and Alaska and wintering along the American coastlines from Oregon and Delmarva south to Chile and Argentina.  You’ll notice that the Semipalmated Plover has just a single neck ring while the Killdeer has two.  That’s how you can tell them apart in a jiffy.  It’s that easy.

Shorebirds and More at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp?  Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points.  Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States.  So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.

2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp. Your Federal Duck Stamp is your free pass to visit the nation's National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.
Your Federal Duck Stamp is your admission ticket for entry into many of the country’s National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.

Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money?  Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.

Northern Bobwhite
This pair of Northern Bobwhite, a species now extirpated from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and the rest of Pennsylvania, escorted us into the refuge.  At Bombay Hook, they don’t waste your money mowing grass.  Instead, a mosaic of warm-season grasses and early successional growth creates ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhite and other wildlife.
Shearness Pool at Bombay Hook N.W.R.
Twice each day, high tide inundates mudflats in the saltwater tidal marshes at Bombay Hook prompting shorebirds to move into the four man-made freshwater pools.  Birds there can often be observed at close range.  The auto tour route through the refuge primarily follows a path atop the dikes that create these freshwater pools.  Morning light is best when viewing birds on the freshwater side of the road, late-afternoon light is best for observing birds on the tidal saltwater side.
Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron at high tide on the edge of a tidal creek that borders Bombay Hook’s tour route at Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Semipalmated Sandpipers stream into Raymond Pool to escape the rising tide in the salt marsh.
Semipalmated Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitcher
More Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) arrive at Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers
Two more Short-billed Dowitchers on the way in.
Sandpipers, Avocets, Egrets, and Mallards
Recent rains have flooded some of the mudflats in Bombay Hook’s freshwater pools. During our visit, birds were often clustered in areas where bare ground was exposed or where water was shallow enough to feed.  Here, Short-billed Dowitchers in the foreground wade in deeper water to probe the bottom while Semipalmated Sandpipers arrive to feed along the pool’s edge.  Mallards, American Avocets, and egrets are gathered on the shore.
Short-billed Dowitchers
More Short-billed Dowitchers arriving to feed in Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers gathered in shallow water where mudflats are usually exposed during mid-summer in Raymond Pool.
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers, several Short-billed Dowitchers, and some Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) crowd onto a mud bar at Bear Swamp Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster's Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher
A zoomed-in view of the previous image showing a tightly packed crowd of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster’s Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher (upper left).
Short-billed Dowitchers
Short-billed Dowitchers wading to feed in the unusually high waters of Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret in Raymond Pool.  A single Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) can been seen flying near the top of the flock of dowitchers just below the egret.
Stilt Sandpiper among Short-billed Dowitchers
Zoomed-in view of a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), the bird with white wing linings.
American Avocets
American Avocets probe the muddy bottom of Raymond Pool.
Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers
Among these Short-billed Dowitchers, the second bird from the bottom is a Dunlin. This sandpiper, still in breeding plumage, is a little bit early.  Many migrating Dunlin linger at Bombay Hook into October and even November.
Least Sandpiper
This Least Sandpiper found a nice little feeding area all to itself at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool
Greater Yellowlegs
A Greater Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Caspian Tern
A Caspian Tern patrolling Raymond Pool.
Marsh Wren singing
The chattering notes of the Marsh Wren’s (Cistothorus palustris) song can be heard along the tour road wherever it borders tidal waters.
Marsh Wren Nest
This dome-shaped Marsh Wren nest is supported by the stems of Saltwater Cordgrass (Sporobolus alterniflorus), a plant also known as Smooth Cordgrass.  High tide licks at the roots of the cordgrass supporting the temporary domicile.
Seaside Dragonlet
By far the most common dragonfly at Bombay Hook is the Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice).  It is our only dragonfly able to breed in saltwater.  Seaside Dragonlets are in constant view along the impoundment dikes in the refuge.
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds are still nesting at Bombay Hook, probably tending a second brood.
Bobolink
Look up!   A migrating Bobolink passes over the dike at Shearness Pool.
Mute Swans and Canada Geese
Non-native Mute Swans and resident-type Canada Geese in the rain-swollen Shearness Pool.
Trumpeter Swans
A pair of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) as seen from the observation tower at Shearness Pool.  Unlike gregarious Tundra and Mute Swans, pairs of Trumpeter Swans prefer to nest alone, one pair to a pond, lake, or sluggish stretch of river.  The range of these enormous birds was restricted to western North America and their numbers were believed to be as low as 70 birds during the early twentieth century.  An isolated population consisting of several thousand birds was discovered in a remote area of Alaska during the 1930s allowing conservation practices to protect and restore their numbers.  Trumpeter Swans are slowly repopulating scattered east coast locations following recent re-introduction into suitable habitats in the Great Lakes region.
Great Egret
A Great Egret prowling Shearness Pool.
Snowy Egret
A Snowy Egret in Bear Swamp Pool.
A hen Wood Duck (second from right) escorts her young.
Wood Ducks in Bear Swamp Pool.
Black-necked Stilt and young.
A Bombay Hook N.W.R. specialty, a Black-necked Stilt and young at Bear Swamp Pool.

As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes.  Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects a vast parcel of tidal salt marsh and an extensive network of tidal creeks. These areas are not only essential wildlife habitat, but are critical components for maintaining water quality in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab
The shells of expired Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs were formerly widespread and common among the naturally occurring flotsam along the high tide line on Delaware Bay.  We found just this one during our visit to Bombay Hook.  Man has certainly decimated populations of this ancient crustacean during recent decades.
As the tide goes out, it’s a good time for a quick walk into the salt marsh on the boardwalk trail opposite Raymond Pool.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Among the Saltmarsh Cordgrass along the trail and on the banks of the tidal creek there, a visitor will find thousands and thousands of Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs (Minuca pugnax).
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs and their extensive system of burrows help prevent the compaction of tidal soils and thus help maintain ideal conditions for the pure stands of Saltwater Cordgrass that trap sediments and sequester nutrients in coastal wetlands.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab
A male Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab peers from its den.
Great Egret
Herons and egrets including this Great Egret are quite fond of fiddler crabs.  As the tide goes out, many will venture away from the freshwater pools into the salt marshes to find them.
Green Heron
A Green Heron seen just before descending into the cordgrass to find fiddler crabs for dinner.
Clapper Rail
A juvenile Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans crepitans) emerges from the cover of the cordgrass along a tidal creek to search for a meal.
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis leave their high-tide hiding place in Shearness Pool to head out into the tidal marshes for the afternoon.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide in the marshes opposite Shearness Pool.
Ospey
An Osprey patrols the vast tidal areas opposite Shearness Pool.

No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Buntings nest in areas of successional growth and yes, that is a Spotted Lanternfly on the grape vine at the far right side of the image.
Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) are common nesting birds at Bombay Hook.  This one was in shrubby growth along the dike at the north end of Shearness Pool.
Trumpet Creeper and Poison Ivy
These two native vines are widespread at Bombay Hook and are an excellent source of food for birds. The orange flowers of the Trumpet Vine are a hummingbird favorite and the Poison Ivy provides berries for numerous species of wintering birds.
Pileated Woodpecker in Sweet Gum
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the numerous birds that supplements its diet with Poison Ivy berries.  The tree this individual is visiting is an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a species native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Delaware.  The seed balls are a favorite winter food of goldfinches and siskins.
Red-bellied Slider and Painted Turtle
Finis Pool has no frontage on the tidal marsh but is still worth a visit.  It lies along a spur road on the tour route and is located within a deciduous coastal plain forest.  Check the waters there for basking turtles like this giant Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubiventris) and much smaller Painted Turtle.
White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity is common along the road to Finis Pool.
Fowler's Toad
Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) breed in the vernal ponds found in the vicinity of Finis Pool and elsewhere throughout the refuge.
Turk's Cap Lily
The National Wildlife Refuge System not only protects animal species, it sustains rare and unusual plants as well.  This beauty is a Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), a native wildflower of wet woods and swamps.
Wild Turkey
Just as quail led us into the refuge this morning, this Wild Turkey did us the courtesy of leading us to the way out in the afternoon.

We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon.  And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.

Uncommonly Good Looks at a Less-Than-Common Shorebird: Hudsonian Godwit at Middle Creek W.M.A.

Visitors stopping by Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area this week found yet another post-breeding wanderer feeding in the shallows of the main lake and adjacent pond along Hopeland Road—a juvenile Little Blue Heron.

The juvenile Little Blue Heron is a white bird resembling an egret during its first year.  At about one year of age, it begins molt into a deep blue adult plumage.  Young birds are notorious for roaming inland and north from breeding areas along the Atlantic coast and throughout the south.  They are a post-breeding wanderer nowhere near as rare as the Limpkin seen at Middle Creek a week ago; a few are found each summer in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Juvenile Little Blue Heron
A juvenile Little Blue Heron currently at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Note the yellow legs and pale beak, field marks that help separate this species from the Great Egret and Snowy Egret.

As oft times happens, birders attracted to see one unusual bird find another in the vicinity.  So with fall shorebird migration ramping up, the discovery of something out of the ordinary isn’t a total surprise, particularly where habitat is good and people are watching.

Hudsonian Godwit
A Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) has arrived on mudflats at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

The arrival of a Hudsonian Godwit is not an unheard of occurrence in the lower Susquehanna region, but locating one that sticks around and provides abundant viewing opportunities is a rarity.  This adult presumably left the species’ breeding areas in Alaska or central/western Canada in recent weeks to begin its southbound movement.  Hudsonian Godwits pass through the eastern United States only during the autumn migration, and the majority fly by without being noticed along a route that mostly takes them offshore of the Mid-Atlantic States.

Hudsonian Godwit, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Least Sandpiper
The Hudsonian Godwit (right) at Middle Creek W.M.A. feeding with other migrating shorebirds…a Lesser Yellowlegs (top) and a Least Sandpiper (left).
Hudsonian Godwit
To probe the muddy bottom for invertebrates, Hudsonian Godwits will often wade in deeper water than accompanying species.
Hudsonian Godwit feeding
This godwit seemed to be capturing small snails, presumably the young of the thousands of adult Acute Bladder Snails (Physellla acuta) seen here covering the surface of the mud.  This species of air-breathing freshwater snail is tolerant of low levels of dissolved oxygen and is frequently the only mollusk found in polluted waters of the lower Susquehanna valley.
Hudsonian Godwit feeding
For feeding shorebirds, the young snails may be more edible than the adults due to their fragile shells.  Small birds like the Least Sandpiper may also be consuming the gelatinous egg masses.  In North America, the Acute Bladder Snail was believed to be an introduced species from Europe.  DNA testing has now determined that it is actually a native species that was instead transported into Europe from North America early in the nineteenth century or before.  Locally, the snails were known as Physella heterostropha and were thought to be native.  However, the recent genetic tests have shown Physella heterostropha and Physella integra, a snail first described by Lancaster County naturalist Samuel S. Haldeman, to be synonyms of Physella acuta.  Click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about these mollusks.
Hudsonian Godwit at Middle Creek W.M.A. 
The Hudsonian Godwit at Middle Creek W.M.A., you may never get a better look! 

A Limpkin’s Journey to Pennsylvania: A Waffle House Serving Escargot at Every Exit

Mid-summer can be a less than exciting time for those who like to observe wild birds.  The songs of spring gradually grow silent as young birds leave the nest and preoccupy their parents with the chore of gathering enough food to satisfy their ballooning appetites.  To avoid predators, roving families of many species remain hidden and as inconspicuous as possible while the young birds learn how to find food and handle the dangers of the world.

But all is not lost.  There are two opportunities for seeing unique birds during the hot and humid days of July.

First, many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and godwits begin moving south from breeding grounds in Canada.  That’s right, fall migration starts during the first days of summer, right where spring migration left off.  The earliest arrivals are primarily birds that for one reason on another (age, weather, food availability) did not nest this year.  These individuals will be followed by birds that completed their breeding cycles early or experienced nest failures.  Finally, adults and juveniles from successful nests are on their way to the wintering grounds, extending the movement into the months we more traditionally start to associate with fall migration—late August into October.

For those of you who find identifying shorebirds more of a labor than a pleasure, I get it.  For you, July can bring a special treat—post-breeding wanderers.  Post-breeding wanderers are birds we find roaming in directions other than south during the summer months, after the nesting cycle is complete.  This behavior is known as “post-breeding dispersal”.  Even though we often have no way of telling for sure that a wandering bird did indeed begin its roving journey after either being a parent or a fledgling during the preceding nesting season, the term post-breeding wanderer still applies.  It’s a title based more on a bird sighting and it’s time and place than upon the life cycle of the bird(s) being observed.  Post-breeding wanderers are often southern species that show up hundreds of miles outside there usual range, sometimes traveling in groups and lingering in an adopted area until the cooler weather of fall finally prompts them to go back home.  Many are birds associated with aquatic habitats such as shores, marshes, and rivers, so water levels and their impact on the birds’ food supplies within their home range may be the motivation for some of these movements.  What makes post-breeding wanderers a favorite among many birders is their pop.  They are often some of our largest, most colorful, or most sought-after species.  Birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, stilts, avocets, terns, and raptors are showy and attract a crowd.

While it’s often impossible to predict exactly which species, if any, will disperse from their typical breeding range in a significant way during a given year, some seem to roam with regularity.  Perhaps the most consistent and certainly the earliest post-breeding wanderer to visit our region is the “Florida Bald Eagle”.  Bald Eagles nest in “The Sunshine State” beginning in the fall, so by early spring, many of their young are on their own.   By mid-spring, many of these eagles begin cruising north, some passing into the lower Susquehanna valley and beyond.  Gatherings of dozens of adult Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam during April and May, while our local adults are nesting and after the wintering birds have gone north, probably include numerous post-breeding wanderers from Florida and other Gulf Coast States.

So this week, what exactly was it that prompted hundreds of birders to travel to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from all over the Mid-Atlantic States and from as far away as Colorado?

Birders observing something special at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on July 10, 2023.

Was it the majestic Great Blue Herons and playful Killdeer?

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron and a Killdeer.

Was it the colorful Green Herons?

Green Heron
Green Heron

Was it the Great Egrets snapping small fish from the shallows?

Great Egret
Great Egret

Was it the small flocks of shorebirds like these Least Sandpipers beginning to trickle south from Canada?

Least Sandpipers
Least Sandpipers

All very nice, but not the inspiration for traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see a bird.

It was the appearance of this very rare post-breeding wanderer…

Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
A Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County.  The Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is the only surviving member of the family Aramidae.

…Pennsylvania’s first record of a Limpkin, a tropical wading bird native to Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and South America.  Many observers visiting Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area had never seen one before, so if they happen to be a “lister”, a birder who keeps a tally of the wild bird species they’ve seen, this Limpkin was a “lifer”.

The Limpkin is an inhabitant of vegetated marshlands where it feeds almost exclusively upon large snails of the family Ampullariidae, including the Florida Applesnail (Pomacea paludosa), the largest native freshwater snail in the United States.

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
In the United States, the native range of the Limpkin lies within the native range of the Florida Applesnail, shown here in gold.  Introduced populations of the snail are shown in brown.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)
A spectacular nineteenth-century rendition of the Florida Applesnail, including an egg mass, illustrated by Helen E. Lawson in Samuel S. Haldeman’s “Monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United States”.

Observations of the Limpkin lingering at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area have revealed a pair of interesting facts.  First, in the absence of Florida Applesnails, this particular Limpkin has found a substitute food source, the non-native Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis).  And second, Chinese Mystery Snails have recently become established in the lakes, pools, and ponds at the refuge, very likely arriving as stowaways on Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) and/or American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), native transplants brought in during recent years to improve wetland habitat and process the abundance of nutrients (including waterfowl waste) in the water.

A Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Chinese Mystery Snail is the largest freshwater snail in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
By hitching a ride on aquatic transplants like this Spatterdock, non-native freshwater snails are easily vectored into new areas outside their previous range.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily, flowering in August.
American Lotus in flower at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Blooming American Lotus transplants in a pool at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area during August.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
Limpkin holding Chinese Mystery Snail
The Limpkin is seen here maneuvering the the snail in its bill, a set of mandibles specially adapted for extracting the bodies of large freshwater snails from their shells.
Limpkin Grasping Chinese Mystery Snail
The tweezers-like tip of the bill is used to grasp the shell by the rim of the opening or by the “trapdoor” (operculum) that protects the snail inside.
Chinese Mystery Snail
A posed Chinese Mystery Snail showing its “trapdoor”, the operculum protecting the soft body tissue when the animal withdraws inside.  The tips of the Limpkin’s bill close tightly like the end of a tweezers to grasp the operculum and remove it and the snail’s body from the shell.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Limpkin Removing Chinese Mystery Snail from Shell
The tweezers-tipped bill, which is curved slightly to the right in some Limpkins, is slid into the shell to grasp the snails body and remove it for consumption.  The entire extraction process takes 10 to 30 seconds.

The Middle Creek Limpkin’s affinity for Chinese Mystery Snails may help explain how it was able to find its way to Pennsylvania in apparent good health.  Look again at the map showing the range of the Limpkin’s primary native food source, the Florida Applesnail.  Note that there are established populations (shown in brown) where these snails were introduced along the northern coast of Georgia and southern coast of South Carolina…

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
Native (gold) and non-native (brown) ranges of the Florida Applesnail.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…now look at the latest U.S.G.S. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map showing the ranges (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails…

Range (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…and now imagine that you’re a happy-go-lucky Limpkin working your way up the Atlantic Coastal Plain toward Pennsylvania and taking advantage of the abundance of food and sunshine that summer brings to the northern latitudes.  It’s a new frontier.  Introduced populations of Chinese Mystery Snails are like having a Waffle House serving escargot at every exit along the way!

Be sure to click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about the Chinese Mystery Snail and its arrival in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Once there, you’ll find some additional commentary about the Limpkin and the likelihood of Everglade Snail Kites taking advantage of the presence of Chinese Mystery Snails to wander north.  Be certain to check it out.

Everglade Snail Kite
The endangered Everglade Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus), a Florida Applesnail specialist, has survived in part due to its ability to adapt to eating the non-native Pomacea maculata applesnails which have become widespread in Florida following releases from aquaria.  The adaptation?…a larger body and bill for eating larger snails.  (National Park Service image)

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Eleven


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 ELEVEN—May 31, 1983

“AOK Camp, Texas — 7 Miles S. of Kingsville”

“Went south to the 1st rest stop south of Sarita — No Tropical Parula.  Lots of other birds.  We added Summer Tanager and Lesser Goldfinch.”

The Sarita Rest Area along Route 77 was like a little oasis of taller trees in the Texas scrubland.  We received reports from the birders we met yesterday at Falcon Dam that recently, Tropical Parula had been seen there.  We searched the small area and listened carefully, but to no avail.  For these warblers, nesting season was over.  We were surprised to find Lesser Goldfinches in the trees.  Back in 1983, the coastal plain of Texas was pretty far east for the species.  Steve was a bit skeptical when we first spotted them, but once they came into plain view, he was a believer.  I recall him finally exclaiming, “They are Lesser Goldfinches.”  Summer Tanager was another wonderful surprise.  Today, the Sarita Rest Area remains a stopping point for birders in south Texas.  Both Lesser Goldfinch and Tropical Parula were seen there this spring.

After our roll of dice at the Sarita Rest Area, we continued south through the King Ranch en route back to Brownsville.

“Saw a Coyote on the way.”

Western Coyote
We spotted this Lower Rio Grande Coyote (Canis latrans microdon) near a watering hole on the King Ranch property along Route 77 near Sarita, Texas.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on a fence along Route 77 at the King Ranch.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

“Took Steve to the airport and drove out to Boca Chica where Harold went swimming.” 

The drive from Brownsville out Boca Chica Boulevard to the Gulf of Mexico passes through about 18 miles of the outermost flats of the river delta that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  This area is of course susceptible to the greatest impacts from tropical weather, especially hurricanes.  During our visit, we passed a small cluster of ranch houses about two or three miles from the beach.  This was the village known as Boca Chica.  Otherwise, the area was desolate and left to the impacts of the weather and to the wildlife.

The mouth of the Rio Grande, and thus the international border with Mexico, was and still is about two miles south of Boca Chica Beach.  Before the construction of dams and other flood control measures on the river, the path of the Rio Grande through the alluvium deposits on this outer section of delta would vary greatly.  Accumulations of eroded material, river flooding, tides, and storms would conspire to change the landscape prompting the river to seek the path of least resistance and change its course.  Surrounding the segments of abandoned channel, these changes leave behind valuable wetlands including not only the resacas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but similar features in tidal sections of the outer delta.  When left to function in their natural state, deltas manage silt and pollutants in the waters that pass through them using ancient physical, biological, and chemical processes that require no intervention from man.

Harold was determined to go for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico before boarding a flight home.  We all liked the beach.  Why not?  You may remember trips to the shore in the summertime.  Back in the pre-casino days, we used to go to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to visit Steel Pier.  For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Steel Pier was the Jersey Shore’s amusement park at sea.  There were rides, food stands, arcades, daily concerts with big name acts, diving shows, and ballroom dances.

There were, back then, attractions at Steel Pier that were creatively promoted to give the visitor the impression that they were going to see something more profound or amazing than was was delivered.  You know, things advertised to draw you in, but its not quite what you expected.

For example, there was an arcade game promising to show you a chicken playing baseball.  Okay, I’ll bite.  Turns out the chicken did too.  You put your money in the machine and watched as the chicken came out and rounded the diamond eating poultry food as it was offered at each of the bases.  Hmmm…to suggest that this was a chicken playing baseball seems like a bit of a stretch.

They had a diving bell there too.  Wow!  We’ll go below the waves and view the fish, octopi, and other sights through the water-tight windows while we descend to the ocean floor.  You would pay to get inside, then they would lower the bell down through a hole in the pier.  Once below the rolling surf, you would get to look at the turbid seawater sloshing around at the window like dirty suds in a washing machine.  If you were lucky, some trash might briefly get stuck on the glass.  To imply that this was a chance to see life beneath waves was B. S., and I don’t mean bathysphere.

Then there was a girl riding a diving horse.  You would hike all the way to the end of the pier and watch the preliminary show with these divers plunging through a hole in the deck and into the choppy Atlantic below.  They were very good, but no, we never saw Rodney Dangerfield do a “Triple Lindy” there.  And then it was time for the finale.  Wow, is that horse going to dive in the ocean?  How do they get the horse back up on the pier?  Forget it.  Instead of that, they walked poor Mr. Ed up a ramp into a box, then the girl climbs on his back, the door opens, and she nudges Ol’ Ed to into a plunge followed by a thumping splash into a swimming pool on the deck.  Not bad, but not what we were expecting.  Since we had to walk almost  a quarter of a mile out to sea to get there, they kinda led us to believe that the amazing equine was going to leap into the Atlantic—horse hockey!

Preceding all this fun was a guy back in the early 1930s, William Swan, who, in June 1931, flew a “rocket-powered plane” at Bader Field outside Atlantic City.  The plane was actually a glider on which a rocket was fired producing about 50 pounds of thrust to boost it airborne after assistants got it rolling by pushing it.  In newspaper articles and on newsreels afterward, he would promote the future of rocket planes carrying passengers across the ocean at 500 miles per hour.  Using a glider equipped with pontoons for landing in the ocean, he promised to make several flights daily from Steel Pier.  Those who came to see him may have, at best, watched him fire small rockets he had attached to his craft—little more.

What does all this have to do with Boca Chica Beach?  It turn out two years later, William Swan is hyping a new innovation—a rocket-powered backpack.  He’d demonstrate it during a skydiving exhibition at the Del-Mar Beach Resort, a cluster of 20 cabins and community buildings on Boca Chica Beach.  According to his deceptive promotions, Swan would jump out of a plane and light flares as he fell.  Then he’d ignite the backpack rocket and land on the shoreline in front of the crowd.  The event was expected to draw 3,000 carloads of people.  When the big day came, just over 1,000 cars showed up. The event was a bust and the weather was bad, cloudy with a mist over the gulf.  During a break in the clouds, the pilot took Swan aloft.  Swan ordered him out to sea and to 8,500 feet, a higher altitude than planned.  Then he jumped.  He dropped the flares, which didn’t then ignite, and neither did the rocket.  He opened his chute at 6,000 feet and the crowd watched as Swan drifted into the mist offshore and was never seen again.  There were rumors both that he used the stunt as a way to flee to Mexico to start a new life and that he had committed suicide.  Others believed he died accidentally.  To learn the full story of Billy Swan, check out The Rocketeer Who Never Was, by Mark Wade.

Forward fifty years to our visit to Boca Chica Beach.  The Del-Mar Beach Resort, built in the 1920s as a cluster of 20 cabins and a ballroom, was gone.  It was destroyed by a hurricane later in the same year Swan disappeared—1933.  The resort, which was hoped would be the start of a seaside vacation city, never reopened.  In 1983, we saw just a handful of beach goers and the birds, that’s it.  One could look down to the south and see the area of the Rio Grande’s mouth and Mexico, but there were no structures of note.  It was peaceful and alive with wildlife.  We were sorry we didn’t have more time there.

“Here we added Least Tern, Brown Pelican and Sandwich Tern.”

Laughing Gulls on the sands of Boca Chica beach
Laughing Gulls on the sands of Boca Chica Beach.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Royal Tern
A Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) along the Gulf of Mexico shore at Boca Chica Beach.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Least Tern
Least Terns are a sand-nesting species, thus are vulnerable to disturbances created by recreational use of beaches.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Brown Pelicans
Back in 1983, finding Brown Pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) wasn’t as easy as it is today.  Back then, their numbers were still recovering from a severe population crash caused by the effects of D.D.T., which thinned eggs shells and precipitated widespread nesting failures.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

Today, the Village of Boca Chica and Boca Chica Beach are the location of SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility.  Those of the village’s ranch houses built in 1967 that have survived hurricane devastation over the years have been incorporated into the “Starbase” production and tracking facility.  The launch pad and testing area is along the beach just behind the dunes at the end of Boca Chica Boulevard.

The latest launch, just more than a month ago, was the maiden flight of “Starship”, a 394-foot behemoth that is the largest rocket ever flown.  The “Super Heavy Booster” first stage’s 33 Raptor engines produce 17.1 million pounds of thrust making Starship the most powerful rocket ever flown.  See, things really are bigger in Texas.

Last month’s unmanned orbital test launch ended when the Starship spacecraft failed to separate at staging.  As the booster section commenced its roll manuever to return to the launch pad, the entire assembly began tumbling out of control.  It exploded and rained debris into the gulf along a stretch of the downrange trajectory.

Boca Chica and Starbase
The Village of Boca Chica is now the SpaceX “Starbase” production and tracking complex. The rockets are rolled two miles out Boca Chica Boulevard to the beach-side launch pad.  Areas in dark blue are units in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image)

Development of Starbase is opposed by many due to noise, safety, and environmental concerns.  Boca Chica Boulevard (Texas Route 4) is frequently closed due to activity at the launch pad site, thus excluding residents and tourists from visiting the beach.  With over 1,200 people already working at Starbase, demand for housing in the Brownsville area has increased.  Some have accused SpaceX CEO Elon Musk of promoting gentrification of the area—running up housing prices to force out the lower-income residents.  He has responded with a vision of a new city at Boca Chica, his “space port”.

Does history have an applicable lesson for us here?  When Musk talks about going to the Moon and Mars, or ferrying a hundred people around the world on his Starship, is it just another Steel Pier-style deception?  Is Musk a modern-day William Swan?  A very talented marketer?  Could be.  And is the whole thing setting up a large-scale replay of the Del-Mar Beach Resort’s demise in 1933?  Is building a city on the outer edges of a river delta asking for an outcome similar to the one suffered by New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina?  It’s likely.  After all, building on or near a beach, floodplain, or delta is a short-sighted venture to begin with.  If the party doing the developing doesn’t suffer the consequences of defying the laws of nature, one of the poor suckers in the successive line of buyers and occupants will.  This isn’t rocket science folks.  Its weather, climate, and erosion, and its been altering coastlines, river courses, and the composition and distribution of life forms on this planet for millions of years.  And guess what.  These factors will continue to alter Earth for millions of years more after man the meddler is long gone.  You’re not going to stop their effects, and you’re not going to escape their wrath by ignoring them.  So if you’re smart, you’ll get out of their way and stay there!

Billy Swan was probably broke when he came to Boca Chica.  He reportedly borrowed 20 bucks from the resort operator just to cover his personal expenses during his backpack rocket event.  Elon Musk comes to Boca Chica with over 100 billion dollars and capital from other private investors to boot.   Despite some obvious exaggerations about colonizing the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies, he just might be able to at least get people there for short-term visits.  And that’s quite an accomplishment.

Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars.  Ravaging and overpopulating the Earth with an eye on migrations to the Moon and Mars for refuge is silliness.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend time at a pristine beach like Boca Chica than time at this rocky hole.  These desolate orbs might be nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, and neither would you.  (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory image)

“Then took Harold to the airport.  We left him at 3:30 and headed north on Route 77, got as far as Victoria.  Had a flat on the way.  Larry had the spare on in 10 minutes.  We stopped at a picnic area for the nite, because we could not find the camping area.”

If we were going to have a flat, we had it at the right place.  We were just outside Raymondville, Texas, at a newly constructed highway interchange.  The wide, level shoulder allowed us to get the camper off to the side of the road in a safe place to jack it up and change the tire.  Easy.  We were thereafter homeward bound.

Forty Years Ago in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Day Four


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:

      1.   Find a coin-operated telephone to place a call to Father Tom.
      2.   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.

White-winged Dove
We identified this White-winged Dove at Mrs. Benn’s house in Brownsville.
Green Anole
In Mrs. Benn’s lush subtropical garden beneath a canopy of tall trees we found this male Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) displaying its red throat patch.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

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.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is the site of a boom in urbanization.  Undeveloped private holdings and government lands including numerous parks and refuges provide sanctuary for some of the valley’s unique wildlife.  The parcels colored dark blue on the map are units of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service base image)

“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).

Ocelot
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the secretive Ocelot, like the Jaguarundi, is at the northern limit of its eastern range. Time will tell how urban development including construction of the border wall will impact the distribution and survival of these and other terrestrial species there.  (A modern digital image)
Jaguarundi
Jaguarundi.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image)

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.

Mississippi Kite
During spring (April-May) and fall (August-September), Mississippi Kites migrate by the thousands through the skies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Both Santa Ana and nearby Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park have hosted formal hawk counts in recent years.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Black-necked Stilt
A Black-necked Stilt at Santa Ana N.W.R.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Least Grebe
A Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) with young in a man-made canal that mimics flooded resaca habitat at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks take off from a pond at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Altamira Oriole
The spectacular colors of Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis) dazzled us every time we saw them.  This was my first, seen soon after arriving at Santa Ana N.W.R. where the checklist still had the species listed under its former name, Lichtenstein’s Oriole. The Altamira Oriole ranges north of Mexico only into the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

“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.

A Plain Chachalaca at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula), a pheasant-like wildfowl of the dense riparian forest and scrubland at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Plain Chachalacas
Seldom did we see a Plain Chachalaca alone, there were always others nearby.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
White-fronted Dove
Like the chachalacas, this White-fronted Dove was attracted to some birdseed scattered on a big log behind our campsite.  This species is now known as White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) and is at the northern tip of its range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

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.

Photo of the Day

Wilson's Snipe
A northbound flock of migrating Wilson’s Snipe.  In coming weeks, other shorebird/sandpiper species are on the way as well.

Photo of the Day

A juvenile Ring-billed Gull with a freshly caught Gizzard Shad is pursued by a hungry adult Great Black-backed Gull on the Susquehanna at Conowingo Dam.
A juvenile Ring-billed Gull with a freshly caught Gizzard Shad is pursued by a hungry adult Great Black-backed Gull on the Susquehanna at Conowingo Dam.

An Encore of the Susquehanna Seawatch

In late March and early April, a rainy night and fog at daybreak can lead to an ideal morning for spotting migratory waterfowl and seabirds during their layover on the lower Susquehanna.  Visibility was just good enough to spot these birds at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, most of them feeding at midriver.

Northern Shovelers are regular migrants, more often seen on ponds and in wetlands than on the river.
A pair of American Wigeons head upriver.
A Horned Grebe.
A small flock of northbound Buffleheads.
Ring-necked Ducks.
Lesser Scaup, eight of the more than 100 seen along Front Street in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Governor’s Residence.  Note how the white bar on the wing’s secondaries becomes diffused and dusky in the primaries.
Lesser Scaup spend the winter on bays and lakes to our south.
More Scaup, the lead bird with bright white extending through the secondaries into the primaries is possibly a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).
Long-tailed Ducks, formerly known as Oldsquaw, are a diving duck that winters on the Great Lakes and on bays along the Atlantic Coast.  They nest on freshwater ponds and lakes in the tundra of Canada and Alaska.
A male Common Merganser.
This pair of Hooded Mergansers may be nesting in a tree cavity nearby.
The local Peregrine Falcon grabbed a passing Common Grackle…
…prompting the more than 100 Bonaparte’s Gulls in the vicinity to quickly depart and fly upstream.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Northern Flicker
It pays to keep an eye on the trees along the shoreline too.  Migrants like this Northern Flicker are beginning to come through in numbers.

Seawatch on the Susquehanna

Birds that one might expect to see wintering among the surf and in tidal waters along the Atlantic coast are currently making their way up the Susquehanna on a route that will ultimately lead most to nesting sites in Canada.  To see them as pass, one needs simply to find a good vantage point along the river from which to begin watching.  Here are some of today’s sightings from the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge (Route 462) at Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.

Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Mergansers
Red-breasted Mergansers spend the winter primarily on saltwater bays.  They are regular springtime migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.
Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Merganser
A male Red-breasted Merganser.
Double-crested Cormorants spend the winter in a variety of salt and brackish water habitats.  Some birds breed on the lower Susquehanna, but the vast majority nest to the north of the Great Lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gulls winter throughout the Atlantic Coastal Plain and nest as far south as the Great Lakes region.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls winter on the Atlantic from the surf zone to several miles offshore.  In the southern states, some pass the colder months on inland lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's and ring-billed Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few Ring-billed Gulls swarm over the lower Susquehanna River at the Route 30 bridge.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
While in flight, Bonaparte’s Gulls can resemble terns.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls.
Bonaparte’s Gulls headed upriver.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls are regular spring migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.

Photo of the Day

The Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata), also known as the Common Snipe, is a regular late-fall and early-spring migrant that sometimes visits spring seeps, wet meadows, vegetated brooks, and man-made stormwater basins during stopovers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  The long bill is used to probe moist soils for prey consisting of worms and other invertebrates.  Snipe sometimes linger into the winter, provided soft unfrozen ground is available for foraging.  And yes, the snipe is a real bird, not just folklore invented by the mischievous adolescents you knew when you were a kid.  Remember how they tried to lure you into a “snipe hunt” so they could abandon you in a dark forest?  Remember how nobody ever fell for their nonsense, but they kept trying?  Sad, isn’t it?

A Visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

It’s surprising how many millions of people travel the busy coastal routes of Delaware each year to leave the traffic congestion and hectic life of the northeast corridor behind to visit congested hectic shore towns like Rehobeth Beach, Bethany Beach, and Ocean City, Maryland.  They call it a vacation, or a holiday, or a weekend, and it’s exhausting.  What’s amazing is how many of them drive right by a breathtaking national treasure located along Delaware Bay just east of the city of Dover—and never know it.  A short detour on your route will take you there.  It’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a quiet but spectacular place that draws few crowds of tourists, but lots of birds and other wildlife.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Route 9, a lightly-traveled coastal road east of Dover, Delaware.  Note the Big Bluestem and other warm season grasses in the background.  Bombay Hook, like other refuges in the system, is managed for the benefit of the wildlife that relies upon it to survive.  Within recent years, most of the mowed grass and tilled ground that once occurred here has been replaced by prairie grasses or successional growth, much to the delight of Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and other species.

Let’s join Uncle Tyler Dyer and have a look around Bombay Hook.  He’s got his duck stamp and he’s ready to go.

Uncle Ty’s current United States Fish and Wildlife Service Duck Stamp displayed on his dashboard is free admission to the tour road at Bombay Hook and other National Wildlife Refuges.
The refuge at Bombay Hook includes woodlands, grasslands, and man-made freshwater pools, but it is predominately a protectorate of thousands of acres of tidal salt marsh bordering and purifying the waters of Delaware Bay.  These marshes are renowned wintering areas for an Atlantic population of Snow Goose known as the “Greater Snow Goose” (Anser caerulescens atlanticus).  Witnessing thousands of these birds rising over the marsh and glowing in the amber light of a setting sun is an unforgettable experience.
Trails at various stops along the auto tour route lead to observation towers and other features. This boardwalk meanders into the salt marsh grasses and includes a viewing area alongside a tidal creek.  Our visit coincided with a very high tide induced by east winds and a new moon.
During high tide, an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) seeks higher ground near the boardwalk and the wooded edge of the salt marsh.
As the tide rises, fast-flying shorebirds scramble from flooded mudflats in the salt marsh on the east side of the tour road.
When high tide arrives in the salt marshes, shorebirds and waterfowl often concentrate in the man-made freshwater pools on the west side of the tour road.  Glaring afternoon sun is not the best for viewing birds located west of the road.  For ideal light conditions, time your visit for a day when high tide occurs in the morning and recedes to low tide in the afternoon.
A view looking west into Shearness Pool, largest of the freshwater impoundments at Bombay Hook.
Bombay Hook has many secretive birds hiding in its wetlands, but they can often be located by the patient observer.  Here, two Pied-billed Grebes feed in an opening among the vegetation in a freshwater pool.
One of Bombay Hook’s resident Bald Eagles patrols the wetlands.
American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) gather by the hundreds at Bombay Hook during the fall.  A passing eagle will stir them into flight.
An American Avocet, a delicate wader with a peculiar upturned bill.
As soon as the tide begins receding, shorebirds and waterfowl like these Green-winged Teal begin dispersing into the salt marshes to feed on the exposed mudflats.
The woodlands and forested areas of the refuge host resident songbirds and can be attractive to migrating species like this Yellow-rumped Warbler.
For much of its course, the tour road at Bombay Hook is located atop the dike that creates the man-made freshwater pools on the western edge of the tidal salt marsh.  If you drive slowly and make frequent stops to look and listen, you’ll notice an abundance of birds and other wildlife living along this border between two habitats.  Here, a Swamp Sparrow has a look around.
Savannah Sparrows are common along the tour road where native grasses grow wild.
Bombay Hook is renowned for its rarities. One of the attractions during the late summer and autumn of 2021 was a group of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), vagrants from the southern states, seen here with Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula).
Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets at Bombay Hook.

Remember to go the Post Office and get your duck stamp.  You’ll be supporting habitat acquisition and improvements for the wildlife we cherish.  And if you get the chance, visit a National Wildlife Refuge.  November can be a great time to go, it’s bug-free!  Just take along your warmest clothing and plan to spend the day.  You won’t regret it.

A Visit to the Post Office, for Just One Stamp

It’s been more than a year and a half since Uncle Tyler Dyer has been on one of our outings.  He’s been laying low, keeping to himself—to protect his health.  So he was quite excited when we made our way to the Delaware coast to have a look at some marine and beach life at Cape Henlopen State Park.

Uncle Ty hadn’t visited the Atlantic shoreline here for almost two decades, and he was more than a bit startled at what he saw…

Cape Henlopen State Park has spectacular wild dunes and pine forests, but notice how clean the high-tide line is on the beach.  This is not a good sign.  During our walks, we found not one mollusk shell (clam, scallop, snail, etc.), skate egg case, whelk egg case, dead fish, or other sign of benthic life from the adjacent surf and sea.
We found the remains of Mole Crabs (Emerita talpoida), also known as sand fleas, a crustacean that burrows into the surf-washed sands of the beach, but there were no signs of life from deeper waters.
One of a dozen or so Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) observed consuming Mole Crabs. There was little else for these birds to eat.  Sanderlings (Calidris alba) and other shorebirds typically found foraging along the surf’s edge were totally absent.
Atlantic Ghost Crabs (Ocypode quadrata) live in the predominantly dry sands of the beach, above the high tide line.  Missing were the remains of aquatic crabs, including Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs (Limulus polyphemus), and other invertebrates that are often found washing in with the tide.
If you want to see an Atlantic Horseshoe Crab, you may have no better option than to visit the aquariums at the state park’s nature center.

A nearly sterile beach might be delightful for barefoot sunbathers and the running of the dogs, but Uncle Ty isn’t the barefoot type.  He likes his sandals and a slow peaceful stroll with plenty of flora and fauna to have a look at.  We could tell he was getting bored.  So we headed home.

Along the way, Uncle Ty asked to stop at the Post Office.  He wanted to get a stamp.  Thinking he was going to fire off a terse letter of protest to the powers that be about what he saw at the beach, we obliged.

Soon, Uncle Ty trotted down the steps of the Post Office with his stamp.

Uncle Tyler Dyer with his one stamp.  The 2021-2022 Federal Duck Stamp is available at most local Post Offices.  According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, ninety-eight percent of the $25 purchase price goes directly to acquiring and protecting wetland habitat.

Uncle Ty bought a duck stamp, so naturally we asked him when he decided to take up hunting.  He explained, “Man, I gave that stuff up when I was thirteen.  I’ve got the Thoreau/Walden mindset—hunting is something of an adolescent pursuit.”

It turns out Uncle Ty bought a duck stamp to support wetland acquisition and improvements, not only to benefit ducks and other wildlife living there, but to improve water quality.  In Delaware, tidal estuary restoration work is underway at both the Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges on Delaware Bay.  These projects will certainly enhance the salt marsh’s filtration capabilities and just might improve the populations of benthic life in the bay and adjacent ocean at Cape Henlopen.

Uncle Ty tossed the stamp atop the dashboard and we were again on our way, but we weren’t going directly home.  We made a stop along the way.  A stop we’ll share with you next time.

Shorebirds at Middle Creek

Late August and early September is prime time to see migrating shorebirds as they pass through the lower Susquehanna valley during their autumn migration, which, believe it or not, can begin as early as late June.  These species that are often assumed to spend their lives only near the seashore are regular visitors each fall as they make their way from breeding grounds in the interior of Canada to wintering sites in seacoast wetlands—many traveling as far south as Central and South America.

Low water levels on the Susquehanna River often coincide with the shorebird migration each year, exposing gravel and sand bars as well as vast expanses of muddy shorelines as feeding and resting areas for these traveling birds.  This week though, rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred arrived to increase the flow in the Susquehanna and inundate most of the natural habitat for shorebirds.  Those on the move must either continue through the area without stopping or find alternate locations to loaf and find food.

The draining and filling of wetlands along the river and elsewhere in the region has left few naturally-occurring options.  The Conejohela Flats south of Columbia offer refuge to many migrating sandpipers and their allies, the river level there being controlled by releases from the Safe Harbor Dam during all but the severest of floods.  Shorebirds will sometimes visit flooded fields, but wide-open puddles and farmland resembling mudflats is more of springtime occurrence—preceding the planting and growth of crops.  Well-designed stormwater holding facilities can function as habitat for sandpipers and other wildlife.  They are worth checking on a regular basis—you never know what might drop in.

Right now, there is a new shorebird hot spot in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed—Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  The water level in the main impoundment there has been drawn down during recent weeks to expose mudflats along the periphery of nearly the entire lake.  Viewing from “Stop 1” (the roadside section of the lake in front of the refuge museum) is best.  The variety of species and their numbers can change throughout the day as birds filter in and out—at times traveling to other mudflats around the lake where they are hidden from view.  The birds at “Stop 1” are backlit in the morning with favorable illumination developing in the afternoon.

Have a look at a few of the shorebirds currently being seen at Middle Creek…

The Killdeer is familiar as a breeding bird in the lower Susquehanna region.  Large numbers can congregate ahead of and during migration on mudflats and gravel bars.
The Least Sandpiper is one of the “peeps”, a group of very small shorebirds.  This species is quite common at Middle Creek right now.  Note the plants beginning to grow in the mud.  Later in the fall, after the shorebirds are gone, raising the water level in the lake will flood these newly vegetated areas to provide an abundance of food for migrating waterfowl.  This cycle can be repeated annually to support transient birds during what is often the most vulnerable time of their lives…fall migration.
The Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) is an uncommon “peep” along the east coast during autumn migration.  On the lower Susquehanna it is most frequently encountered on the vegetated gravel bars in mid-river during the last days of August or first days of September each year.  The mudflats and shallows at Middle Creek are providing a suitable alternative for this juvenile bird.
Numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs are increasing as flocks drop by for a rest and refueling.  Bring your binoculars and your spotting scope to see the oddities that may be hiding among these groups of newly-arriving migrants.

The aquatic environs at Middle Creek attract other species as well.   Here are some of the most photogenic…

Wood Ducks atop the dam.
The migration of Caspian Terns coincides with that of shorebirds.  Just look at that blood-red bill; it’s unmistakable.  Two of these big terns are currently patrolling Middle Creek’s lake and shoreline.
A female American Kestrel creates a stir among the “peeps” as it passes by.  The larger falcons (the Merlin and Peregrine) can be expected to more readily take advantage of concentrations of shorebirds as a food supply.
Osprey migration is underway, and many will stop at Middle Creek while in transit.
Even if shorebirds aren’t your thing, there are almost always Bald Eagles to be seen at Middle Creek.  See you there!

Maximum Variety

You’ll want to go for a walk this week.  It’s prime time to see birds in all their spring splendor.  Colorful Neotropical migrants are moving through in waves to supplement the numerous temperate species that arrived earlier this spring to begin their nesting cycle.  Here’s a sample of what you might find this week along a rail-trail, park path, or quiet country road near you—even on a rainy or breezy day.

The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of more than two dozen species of warblers passing through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed right now.  Look for it in the middle and bottom branches of deciduous forest growth.
The Veery and other woodland thrushes sing a melodious song.  Veerys remain through the summer to nest in damp mature deciduous forests.
The American Redstart, this one a first-spring male, is another of the variety of warblers arriving now.  Redstarts nest in deciduous forests with a dense understory.
Adaptable inquisitive Gray Catbirds are here to nest in any shrubby habitat, whether in a forest or a suburban garden.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptilia caerulea) arrive in April, so they’ve been here for a while.  They spend most of their time foraging in the treetops.  The gnatcatcher’s wheezy call alerts the observer to their presence.
Look way up there, it’s a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers building a nest.
The Eastern Phoebe, a species of flycatcher, often arrives as early as mid-March.  This particular bird and its mate are already nesting beneath a stone bridge that passes over a woodland stream.
Orchard Orioles (Icturus spurius) are Neotropical migrants that nest locally in habitats with scattered large trees, especially in meadows and abandoned orchards.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Baltimore Oriole is a more widespread breeding species than the Orchard Oriole.  In addition to the sites preferred  by the latter, it will nest in groves of mature trees on farms and estates, in parks, and in forest margins where the canopy is broken.
The Warbling Vireo (Vireo  gilvus) nests in big trees along streams, often sharing habitat with our two species of orioles.
Eastern Towhees arrive in numbers during April.  They nest in thickets and hedgerows, where a few stragglers can sometimes be found throughout the winter.
The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a migrant from the tropics that sometimes nests locally in thorny thickets.  Its song consists of a mixed variety of loud phrases, reminding the listener of mimics like catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds.
Thickets with fragrant blooms of honeysuckle and olive attract migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Look for them taking a break on a dead branch where they can have a look around and hold on tight during gusts of wind.
The Eastern Kingbird, a Neotropical flycatcher, may be found near fields and meadows with an abundance of insects.  In recent years, high-intensity farming practices have reduced the occurrence of kingbirds as a nesting species in the lower Susquehanna valley.  The loss of pasture acreage appears to have been particularly detrimental.
Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) can be found in grassy fields throughout the year.  Large parcels that go uncut through at least early July offer them the opportunity to nest.
Male Bobolinks have been here for just more than a week.  Look for them in alfalfa fields and meadows.  Like Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks nest on the ground and will lose their eggs and/or young if fields are mowed during the breeding cycle.
Cattail marshes are currently home to nesting Swamp Sparrows.  Wetlands offer an opportunity to see a variety of unique species in coming weeks.
Shorebirds like this Solitary Sandpiper will be transiting the lower Susquehanna basin through the end of May.  They stop to rest in wetlands, flooded fields, and on mudflats and alluvial islets in the region’s larger streams.  Many of these shorebirds nest in far northern Canada.  So remember, they need to rest and recharge for the long trip ahead, so try not to disturb them.

Conowingo Dam: Cormorants, Eagles, Snakeheads and a Run of Hickory Shad

Meet the Double-crested Cormorant,  a strangely handsome bird with a special talent for catching fish.  You see, cormorants are superb swimmers when under water—using their webbed feet to propel and maneuver themselves with exceptional speed in pursuit of prey.

Like many species of birds that dive for their food, Double-crested Cormorants run across the surface of the water to gain speed for a takeoff.  Smaller wings may make it more difficult to get airborne, but when folded, they provide improved streamlining for submerged swimming.

Double-crested Cormorants, hundreds of them, are presently gathered along with several other species of piscivorous (fish-eating) birds on the lower Susquehanna River below Conowingo Dam near Rising Sun, Maryland.  Fish are coming up the river and these birds are taking advantage of their concentrations on the downstream side of the impoundment to provide food to fuel their migration or, in some cases, to feed their young.

Double-crested Cormorants, mostly adult birds migrating toward breeding grounds to the north, are gathered on the rocks on the east side of the river channel below Conowingo Dam.  A Great Blue Heron from a nearby rookery can be seen at the center of the image.
Bald Eagles normally gather in large numbers at Conowingo Dam in the late fall and early winter.  Presently there are more than 50 there, and the majority of them are breeding age adults.  Presumably they are still on their way north to nest.  Meanwhile, local pairs are already feeding young, so it seems these transient birds are running a bit late.  Many of them can be seen on the rocks along the east side of the river channel,…
…on the powerline trestles on the island below the dam…
…in the trees along the east shore,…
…and in the trees surrounding Fisherman’s Park on the west shore.

In addition to the birds, the movements of fish attract larger fish, and even larger fishermen.

Anglers gather to fish the placid waters below the dam’s hydroelectric powerhouse .  Only a few of the generating turbines are operating, so the flow through the dam is minimal.
Some water is being released along the west shoreline to attract migratory river herring to the west fish lift for sorting and retention as breeding stock for a propagation program.  The east lift, the passage that hoists American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) to a trough that allows them to swim over the top of the dam to waters upriver, will begin operating as soon as these larger migratory fish begin arriving.

The excitement starts when the sirens start to wail and the red lights begin flashing.  Yes friends, it’s showtime.

Red lights and sirens are a warning that additional flow is about to be released from the dam.  Boaters should anticipate rough water and persons in and along the river need to seek higher ground immediately.
Gates are opened at mid-river to release a surge of water through the dam.
The wake from the release quickly reaches the shoreline, raising the water level in moments.
Experienced anglers know that the flow through the dam gets fish moving and can improve the catch significantly, especially in spring when many species are ascending the river.

Within minutes of the renewed flow, birds are catching fish.

A Double-crested Cormorant with a young Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus).
A Double-crested Cormorant fleeing others trying to steal its Channel Catfish.
Another Double-crested Cormorant eating a Channel Catfish.  Did you realize that Channel Catfish were an introduced species in the Susquehanna River system?
An Osprey with a stick, it’s too busy building a nest right now to fish.
Great Blue Herons swallow their prey at the spot of capture, then fly back to the nest to regurgitate a sort of “minced congealed fish product” to their young.

Then the anglers along the wave-washed shoreline began catching fish too.

This young man led off a flurry of catches that would last for the remainder of the afternoon.
Though Gizzard Shad are filter feeders that don’t readily take baits and lures, they are regularly foul-hooked and reeled in from the large schools that ascend the river in spring.
Gizzard Shad are very abundant in the lower Susquehanna, providing year-round forage for many species of predatory animals including Bald Eagles.
A Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a Gizzard Shad.
This angler soon helped another fisherman by landing his large catch, a Northern Snakehead (Channa argus).
The teeth of a Northern Snakehead are razor sharp.  It is an aggressive non-native invasive species currently overtaking much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Anglers are encouraged to fish for them, catch them, keep them, and kill them at the site of capture.  Never transport a live Northern Snakehead  anywhere at any time.  It is illegal in both Maryland and Pennsylvania to possess a live snakehead. 
Northern Snakehead advisory sign posted at Exelon Energy’s Conowingo Fishermen’s Park.
A stringer of Northern Snakeheads.  This species was imported from Asia as a food fish, so it has excellent culinary possibilities.  It’s better suited for a broiler or frying pan than a river or stream.
Another stringer of Northern Snakeheads.  It’s pretty safe to say that they have quickly become one of the most abundant predatory fish in the river.  Their impact on native species won’t be good, so catch and eat as many as you can.  Remember, snakeheads swim better in butter and garlic than in waters with native fish.
This foul-hooked Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), a native species of sucker, was promptly released.
Striped Bass are anadromous fish that leave the sea in spring to spawn in fresh water.  They ascend the Susquehanna in small numbers, relying upon the operation of the fish passages at the Conowingo, Holtwood, Safe Harbor, and York Haven Dams to continue their journey upstream.  During spring spawning, Striped Bass in the Susquehanna River and on the Susquehanna Flats portion of the upper Chesapeake Bay are not in season and may not be targeted, even for catch-and-release.  This accidental catch was immediately turned loose.
After removal from the hook, this hefty Smallmouth Bass was returned to the river.  Many anglers are surprised to learn that Smallmouth Bass are not native to the Susquehanna basin.
This angler’s creel contains a Northern Snakehead (left) and a Walleye (right).  Did you know that the Walleye (Sander vitreus) is an introduced species in the Susquehanna watershed?
By late afternoon, anglers using shad darts began hooking into migrating Hickory Shad (Alosa mediocris), a catch-and-release species in Maryland.
Hickory Shad are recognized by their lengthy lower jaw.  They are anadromous herring that leave the sea to spawn in freshwater streams.  Hickory Shad ascend the Susquehanna as far as Conowingo Dam each year, but shy away from the fish lifts.  Downriver from the dam, they do ascend Deer Creek along the river’s west shore and Octoraro Creek on the east side.  In Pennsylvania, the Hickory Shad is an endangered species.
A Hickory Shad angled on a dual shad dart rig.  During the spring spawning run, they feed mostly on small fish, and are the most likely of the Susquehanna’s herring to take the hook.
Simultaneous hook-ups became common after fours hours worth of release water from the dam worked its way toward the mouth of the river and got the schools moving.  Water temperatures in the mid-to-upper-fifties trigger the ascent of Hickory Shad.  On the Susquehanna, those temperatures were slow to materialize in the spring of 2021, so the Hickory Shad migration is a bit late.
Catch-and-release fishing for Hickory Shad appears to be in full swing not only at the dam, but along the downstream shoreline to at least the mouth of Deer Creek at Susquehanna State Park too.
Many Hickory Shad could be seen feeding on some of the millions of caddisflies (Trichoptera) swarming on the river.  These insects, along with earlier hatches of Winter Stoneflies (Taeniopterygidae), not only provide forage for many species of fish, but  are a vital source of natural food for birds that migrate up the river in March and April each year.  Swallows, Ring-billed Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls are particularly fond of snatching them from the surface of the water.
A Winter Stonefly (Taeniopterygidae) from an early-season hatch on the Susquehanna River at the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.  (March 3, 2021)
Just below Conowingo Dam, a lone fly fisherman was doing a good job mimicking the late-April caddisfly hatch, successfully reeling in numerous surface-feeding Hickory Shad.
You may have noticed the extraordinary number of introduced fish species listed in this account of a visit to Conowingo Dam.  Sorry to say that there are two more: the Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) and the Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus).  Like the Northern Snakehead, each has become a plentiful invasive species during recent years.  Unlike the Northern Snakehead, these catfish are “native transplants”, species introduced from populations in the Mississippi River and Gulf Slope drainages of the United States.  So if you visit the area, consider getting a fishing license and catching a few.  Like the snakeheads, they too are quite palatable.

The arrival of migrating Hickory Shad heralds the start of a movement that will soon include White Perch, anadromous American Shad, and dozens of other fish species that swim upstream during the springtime.  Do visit Fisherman’s Park at Conowingo Dam to see this spectacle before it’s gone.  The fish and birds have no time to waste, they’ll soon be moving on.

To reach Exelon’s Conowingo Fisherman’s Park from Rising Sun, Maryland, follow U.S. Route 1 south across the Conowingo Dam, then turn left onto Shuresville Road, then make a sharp left onto Shureslanding Road.  Drive down the hill to the parking area along the river.  The park’s address is 2569 Shureslanding Road, Darlington, Maryland.

A water release schedule for the Conowingo Dam can be obtained by calling Exelon Energy’s Conowingo Generation Hotline at 888-457-4076.  The recording is updated daily at 5 P.M. to provide information for the following day.

And remember, the park can get crowded during the weekends, so consider a weekday visit.

Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, and Migrating Canada Geese

Spring migration is underway and waterfowl are on the move along the lower Susquehanna River.  Here is a sample of sightings collected during a walk across the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Columbia-Wrightsville this morning.

At the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, the Susquehanna was cresting this morning after recent rains and accompanying snow melt.
An overnight breeze from the southwest and calm winds during the morning hours created ideal conditions for flocks of Canada Geese to begin migrating north from Chesapeake Bay through the lower Susquehanna valley.
These three Common Mergansers and a Common Goldeneye (right) are some of the hundreds of diving ducks presently gathered on the river in the vicinity of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.
Common Goldeneyes and a first-winter male Bufflehead (upper right).  All of the ducks seen today in the waters surrounding the bridge are benthic feeders, diving to the river bottom to pluck invertebrates from the substrate.
A male Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula).
A female Common Goldeneye.
A pair of Common Goldeneyes in flight.
A pair of Buffleheads in flight.
Common Goldeneyes repositioning for another series of feeding dives.
During the morning flight, thousands of Canada Geese were seen moving north in flocks numbering about 50 to 100 birds each.  The bird in the lower right was one of thousands of Ring-billed Gulls seen headed upriver as well.
As they pass over the lower Susquehanna region, migrating Canada Geese are typically observed flying much higher than flocks from the local resident populations, often reaching the cruising altitudes of aircraft.  Aviators are always alert for flights of resident geese around airfields.  But to prevent bird strikes during days like today when thousands of migratory geese traverse the airspace, air traffic controllers can become extra busy relaying the location and altitude of potential targets to pilots flying aircraft entering areas where birds have been reported.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the great spring migration.  Do make a point of getting out to observe the spectacle.  And remember, keep looking up—you wouldn’t want to miss anything.

2020: A Good Year

You say you really don’t want to take a look back at 2020?  Okay, we understand.  But here’s something you may find interesting, and it has to do with the Susquehanna River in 2020.

As you may know, the National Weather Service has calculated the mean temperature for the year 2020 as monitored just upriver from Conewago Falls at Harrisburg International Airport.  The 56.7° Fahrenheit value was the highest in nearly 130 years of monitoring at the various stations used to register official climate statistics for the capital city.  The previous high, 56.6°, was set in 1998.

Though not a prerequisite for its occurrence, record-breaking heat was accompanied by a drought in 2020.  Most of the Susquehanna River drainage basin experienced drought conditions during the second half of the year, particularly areas of the watershed upstream of Conewago Falls.  A lack of significant rainfall resulted in low river flows throughout late summer and much of the autumn.  Lacking water from the northern reaches, we see mid-river rocks and experience minimal readings on flow gauges along the lower Susquehanna, even if our local precipitation happens to be about average.

Back in October, when the river was about as low as it was going to get, we took a walk across the Susquehanna at Columbia-Wrightsville atop the Route 462/Veteran’s Memorial Bridge to have a look at the benthos—the life on the river’s bottom.

As we begin our stroll across the river, we quickly notice Mallards and a Double-crested Cormorant (far left) feeding among aquatic plants.  You can see the leaves of the vegetation just breaking the water’s surface, particularly behind the feeding waterfowl.  Let’s have a closer look.
An underwater meadow of American Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana) as seen from atop the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Columbia-Wrightsville.  Also known as Freshwater Eelgrass, Tapegrass, and Wild Celery, it is without a doubt the Susquehanna’s most important submerged aquatic plant.  It grows in alluvial substrate (gravel, sand, mud, etc.) in river segments with moderate to slow current.  Water three to six feet deep in bright sunshine is ideal for its growth, so an absence of flooding and the sun-blocking turbidity of muddy silt-laden water is favorable.
Plants in the genus Vallisneria have ribbon-like leaves up to three feet in length that grow from nodes rooted along the creeping stems called runners.  A single plant can, over a period of years, spread by runners to create a sizable clump or intertwine with other individual plants to establish dense meadows and an essential wildlife habitat.
An uprooted segment of eelgrass floats over a thick bed of what may be parts of the same plant.  Eelgrass meadows on the lower Susquehanna River were decimated by several events: deposition of anthracite coal sediments (culm) in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, dredging of the same anthracite coal sediments during the mid-twentieth century, and the ongoing deposition of sediments from erosion occurring in farm fields, logged forests, abandoned mill ponds, and along denuded streambanks.  Not only has each of these events impacted the plants physically by either burying them or ripping them out by the roots, each has also contributed to the increase in water turbidity (cloudiness) that blocks sunlight and impairs their growth and recovery.
A submerged log surrounded by beds of eelgrass forms a haven for fishes in sections of the river lacking the structure found in rock-rich places like Conewago Falls.  A period absent of high water and sediment runoff extended through the growing season in 2020 to allow lush clumps of eelgrass like these to thrive and further improve water quality by taking up nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.  Nutrients used by vascular plants including eelgrass become unavailable for feeding detrimental algal blooms in downstream waters including Chesapeake Bay.
Small fishes and invertebrates attract predatory fishes to eelgrass beds.  We watched this Smallmouth Bass leave an ambush site among eelgrass’s lush growth to shadow a Common Carp as it rummaged through the substrate for small bits of food.  The bass would snatch up crayfish that darted away from the cover of stones disturbed by the foraging carp.
Sunfishes are among the species taking advantage of eelgrass beds for spawning.  They’ll build a nest scrape in the margins between clumps of plants allowing their young quick access to dense cover upon hatching.  The abundance of invertebrate life among the leaves of eelgrass nourishes feeding fishes, and in turn provides food for predators including Bald Eagles, this one carrying a freshly-caught Bluegill.

These improvements in water quality and wildlife habitat can have a ripple effect.  In 2020, the reduction in nutrient loads entering Chesapeake Bay from the low-flowing Susquehanna may have combined with better-than-average flows from some of the bay’s lesser-polluted smaller tributaries to yield a reduction in the size of the bay’s oxygen-deprived “dead zones”.  These dead zones typically occur in late summer when water temperatures are at their warmest, dissolved oxygen levels are at their lowest, and nutrient-fed algal blooms have peaked and died.  Algal blooms can self-enhance their severity by clouding water, which blocks sunlight from reaching submerged aquatic plants and stunts their growth—making quantities of unconsumed nutrients available to make more algae.  When a huge biomass of algae dies in a susceptible part of the bay, its decay can consume enough of the remaining dissolved oxygen to kill aquatic organisms and create a “dead zone”.  The Chesapeake Bay Program reports that the average size of this year’s dead zone was 1.0 cubic miles, just below the 35-year average of 1.2 cubic miles.

Back on a stormy day in mid-November, 2020, we took a look at the tidal freshwater section of Chesapeake Bay, the area known as Susquehanna Flats, located just to the southwest of the river’s mouth at Havre de Grace, Maryland.  We wanted to see how the restored American Eelgrass beds there might have fared during a growing season with below average loads of nutrients and life-choking sediments spilling out of the nearby Susquehanna River.  Here’s what we saw.

We followed the signs from Havre de Grace to Swan Harbor Farm Park.
Harford County Parks and Recreation’s Swan Harbor Farm Park consists of a recently-acquired farming estate overlooking the tidal freshwater of Susquehanna Flats.
Along the bay shore, a gazebo and a fishing pier have been added.  Both provide excellent observation points.
The shoreline looked the way it should look on upper Chesapeake Bay, a vegetated buffer and piles of trees and other organic matter at the high-water line.  There was less man-made garbage than we might find following a summer that experienced an outflow from river flooding, but there was still more than we should be seeing.
Judging by the piles of fresh American Eelgrass on the beach, it looks like it’s been a good year.  Though considered a freshwater plant, eelgrass will tolerate some brackish water, which typically invades upper Chesapeake Bay each autumn due to a seasonal reduction in freshwater inflow from the Susquehanna and other tributaries.  Saltwater can creep still further north when the freshwater input falls below seasonal norms during years of severe drought.  The Susquehanna Flats portion of the upper bay very rarely experiences an invasion by brackish water; there was none in 2020.
As we scanned the area with binoculars and a spotting scope, a raft of over one thousand ducks and American Coots (foreground) could be seen bobbing among floating eelgrass leaves and clumps of the plants that had broken away from their mooring in the mud.  Waterfowl feed on eelgrass leaves and on the isopods and other invertebrates that make this plant community their home.
While coots and grebes seemed to favor the shallower water near shore, a wide variety of both diving and dabbling ducks were widespread in the eelgrass beds more distant.  Discernable were Ring-necked Ducks, scaup, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, American Wigeons, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, American Black Ducks, and Buffleheads.

We noticed a few Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria) on the Susquehanna Flats during our visit.  Canvasbacks are renowned as benthic feeders, preferring the tubers and other parts of submerged aquatic plants (a.k.a. submersed aquatic vegetation or S.A.V.) including eelgrass, but also feeding on invertebrates including bivalves.  The association between Canvasbacks and eelgrass is reflected in the former’s scientific species name valisineria, a derivitive of the genus name of the latter, Vallisneria.

Canvasbacks on Chesapeake Bay.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image by Ryan Hagerty)

The plight of the Canvasback and of American Eelgrass on the Susquehanna River was described by Herbert H. Beck in his account of the birds found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, published in 1924:

“Like all ducks, however, it stops to feed within the county less frequently than formerly, principally because the vast beds of wild celery which existed earlier on broads of the Susquehanna, as at Marietta and Washington Borough, have now been almost entirely wiped out by sedimentation of culm (anthracite coal waste).  Prior to 1875 the four or five square miles of quiet water off Marietta were often as abundantly spread with wild fowl as the Susquehanna Flats are now.”

Beck quotes old Marietta resident and gunner Henry Zink:

“Sometimes there were as many as 500,000 ducks of various kinds on the Marietta broad at one time.”

The abundance of Canvasbacks and other ducks on the Susquehanna Flats would eventually plummet too.  In the 1950s, there were an estimated 250, 000 Canvasbacks wintering on Chesapeake Bay, primarily in the area of the American Eelgrass, a.k.a. Wild Celery, beds on the Susquehanna Flats.  When those eelgrass beds started disappearing during the second half of the twentieth century, the numbers of Canvasbacks wintering on the bay took a nosedive.  As a population, the birds moved elsewhere to feed on different sources of food, often in saltier estuarine waters.

Canvasbacks were able to eat other foods and change their winter range to adapt to the loss of habitat on the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.  But not all species are the omnivores that Canvasbacks happen to be, so they can’t just change their diet and/or fly away to a better place.  And every time a habitat like the American Eelgrass plant community is eliminated from a region, it fragments the range for each species that relied upon it for all or part of its life cycle.  Wildlife species get compacted into smaller and smaller suitable spaces and eventually their abundance and diversity are impacted.  We sometimes marvel at large concentrations of birds and other wildlife without seeing the whole picture—that man has compressed them into ever-shrinking pieces of habitat that are but a fraction of the widespread environs they once utilized for survival.  Then we sometimes harass and persecute them on the little pieces of refuge that remain.  It’s not very nice, is it?

By the end of 2020, things on the Susquehanna were getting back to normal.  Near normal rainfall over much of the watershed during the final three months of the year was supplemented by a mid-December snowstorm, then heavy downpours on Christmas Eve melted it all away.  Several days later, the Susquehanna River was bank full and dishing out some minor flooding for the first time since early May.  Isn’t it great to get back to normal?

The rain-and-snow-melt-swollen Susquehanna from Chickies Rock looking upriver toward Marietta during the high-water crest on December 27th.
Cresting at Columbia as seen from the Route 462/Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  A Great Black-backed Gull monitors the waters for edibles.
All back to normal on the Susquehanna to end 2020.
Yep, back to normal on the Susquehanna.  Maybe 2021 will turn out to be another good year, or maybe it’ll  just be a Michelin or Firestone.

SOURCES

Beck, Herbert H.  1924.  A Chapter on the Ornithology of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The Lewis Historical Publishing Company.  New York, NY.

White, Christopher P.  1989.  Chesapeake Bay, Nature of the Estuary: A Field Guide.  Tidewater Publishers.  Centreville, MD.

City Life: Gulls, Dabbling Ducks, and More

So you aren’t particularly interested in a stroll through the Pennsylvania woods during the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s second-biggest holiday of the year—the annual sacrifice-of-the-White-tailed-Deity ritual.  I get it.  Two weeks and nothing to do.  Well, why not try a hike through the city instead?  I’m not kidding.  You might be surprised at what you see.  Here are some photographs taken today during several strolls in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

First stop was City Island in the Susquehanna River—accessible from downtown Harrisburg or the river’s west shore by way of the Market Street Bridge.

From the middle of the Susquehanna River, City Island offers a spectacular view of the downtown Harrisburg skyline.  In summer, it’s the capital city’s playground.  During the colder months, it’s a great place to take a quiet walk and find unusual birds.
This Bald Eagle was in mature trees along the river shoreline near the Harrisburg Senator’s baseball stadium.
Ring-billed Gulls gather on the “cement beach” at the north end of City Island.
One of a dozen or so Herring Gulls seen from the island’s north end. This particular bird is a juvenile.
A Ring-billed Gull and some petite Bonaparte’s Gulls.  Really good birders will tell you to always check through flocks of these smaller gulls carefully.  It turns out they’re onto something.  Look closely at the gull to the right.
A bright red bill and more of a crescent shape to the black spot behind the eye, that’s an adult Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in winter plumage, a rare bird on the Susquehanna.  Black-headed Gulls have colonized North America from Europe, breeding in Iceland, southernmost Greenland, and rarely Newfoundland.

Okay, City Island was worth the effort.  Next stop is Wildwood Park, located along Industrial Road just north of the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex and the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) campus.  There are six miles of trails surrounding mile-long Wildwood Lake within this marvelous Dauphin County Parks Department property.

A flock of Killdeer at the south end of Wildwood Lake.  From November through February, a walk along the south and west sides of the impoundment can be a photographer’s dream. The light is suitable in the morning, then just keeps getting better as the day wears on.
Is this probable Carolina/Black-capped Chickadee hybrid a resident at Wildwood or just a visitor from a few miles to the north?  Currently, pure Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) nest in the mountains well to the north of Harrisburg, and pure Carolina Chickadees nest south of the city.  Harrisburg possibly remains within the intergrade/hybrid zone, an area where the ranges of the two species overlap, but probably not for long.  During recent decades, this zone has been creeping north, at times by as much as a half mile or more each year.  So if the capital city isn’t Carolina Chickadee territory yet, it soon will be.
Another chickadee likely to be a hybrid, this one with some white in the greater wing coverts like a Black-capped, but with a call even more rapid than that of the typical Carolina, the species known for uttering the faster “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”.  It sounded wired, like it had visited a Starbucks all morning.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, Carolina Chickadees have already replaced hybrids and pure Black-capped Chickadees as nesting birds in the Piedmont hills south of Harrisburg and the Great Valley.  This Carolina Chickadee was photographed recently in the Furnace Hills at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County.  The transition there was probably complete by the end of the twentieth century.  Note the characteristic overall grayish appearance of the wings and the neat lower border of the black bib on this bird, 
For comparison, a bird presumed to be a pure Black-capped Chickadee photographed earlier this month in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  This fall, “Black-caps”, like many other northern perching birds, are moving south to invade the lower elevations and milder climes of the Piedmont and Atlantic Coastal Plain Provinces.  Note the extensive areas of white in the wings, the long tail, the buffy flanks, and the jagged edge of the black bib.
Along Wildwood Lake’s west shore, an adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk was soon attracted to the commotion created by bantering chickadees and other songbirds.
Yellow during the first year, the eyes of the Sharp-shinned Hawk get redder as the bird ages.
Also along the west border of Wildwood Lake, temperatures were warm enough to inspire Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) to seek a sun bath atop logs in the flooded portions of the abandoned Pennsylvania Canal.

And now, without further ado, it’s time for the waterfowl of Wildwood Lake—in order of their occurrence.

A pair of Wood Ducks (hen left, drake right) with American Black Ducks and Canada Geese.
A pair of Northern Pintails.
A pair of American Wigeons (Mareca americana).
A hen (left) and drake (right) Gadwall.
Mallards.
A female Northern Shoveler.
An American Black Duck.
Canada Geese.
You just knew there had to be a booby prize, a “Blue Suede” (a.k.a. Blue Swede), a domestic variety of Mallard.
It’s a Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) sampler.  Clockwise from left: a juvenile male, a female, and an adult male.
A drake and two hen Green-winged Teal.  Isn’t that great light by late afternoon?

See, you don’t have to cloak yourself in bright orange ceremonial garments just to go for a hike.  Go put on your walking shoes and a warm coat, grab your binoculars and/or camera, and have a look at wildlife in a city near you.  You never know what you might find.

SOURCES

Taylor, Scott A., Thomas A. White, Wesley M. Hochachka, Valentina Ferretti, Robert L. Curry, and Irby Lovette.  2014.  “Climate-Mediated Movement of an Avian Hybrid Zone”.  Current Biology.  24:6  pp.671-676.

Bald Eagles Arriving at Conowingo Dam

You need to see this to believe it—dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Bald Eagles doing their thing and you can stand or sit in just one place to take it all in.

Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River near Darlington, Maryland, attracts piscivores galore.  Young Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) and other small fishes are temporarily stunned as they pass through the turbines and gated discharges at the hydroelectric facility’s power house.  Waiting for them in the rapids below are predatory fishes including Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis), White Perch (Morone americana), several species of catfishes, and more.  From above, fish-eating birds are on the alert for a disoriented turbine-traveler they can easily seize for a quick meal.

U.S. Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River atop the Conowingo Dam.  Conowingo Fisherman’s Park, the observation site for the dam’s Bald Eagles and other birds, is located downstream of the turbine building along the river’s west (south) shore.  As the name implies, the park is a superb location for angling.
Heed this warning.  Close your windows and sunroof or the vultures will subject your vehicle’s contents to a thorough search for food.  Then they’ll deposit a little consolation prize on your paint.
Scavenging Black Vultures congregate by the hundreds at Conowingo Dam to clean up the scraps left behind by people and predators.  They’ll greet you right in the parking lot.
Photographers line up downstream of the turbine building for an opportunity to get the perfect shot of a Bald Eagle.
The operator of the Conowingo Hydroelectric Generating Station, Exelon Energy, provides clean comfortable facilities for fishing, sightseeing, and wildlife observation.
There’s almost always a Peregrine Falcon zooming around the dam to keep the pigeons on their toes.
Double-crested Cormorants on the boulders that line the channel below the dam.  Hundreds are there right now.
Double-crested Cormorants dive for fish near the power house discharge, which, while just one small generator is operating, seems nearly placid.  The feeding frenzy really gets going when Conowingo begins generating with multiple large turbines and these gently flowing waters become torrential rapids filled with disoriented fishes.
Ring-billed Gulls seek to snag a small fish from the water’s surface.
After successfully nabbing shad or perch, these Double-crested Cormorants need to swallow their catch fast or risk losing it.  Stealing food is a common means of survival for the gulls, eagles, and other birds found here.
Where do migrating eagles go?  There are, right now, at least 50 Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam, with more arriving daily.  Numbers are likely to peak during the coming weeks.
Eagles can be seen perched in the woods along both river shorelines, even in the trees adjacent to the Conowingo Fisherman’s Park car lot.  Others take stand-by positions on the boulders below the dam.
To remind visiting eagles that they are merely guests at Conowingo, a resident Bald Eagle maintains a presence at its nest on the wooded slope above Fisherman’s Park.  Along the lower Susquehanna, female Bald Eagles lay eggs and begin incubation in January.
When an eagle decides to venture out and attempt a dive at a fish, that’s when the photographers rush to their cameras for a chance at a perfect shot.
The extraordinary concentrations of Bald Eagles at Conowingo make it an excellent place to study the plumage differences between birds of various ages.
Here’s a first-year Bald Eagle, also known as a hatch-year or juvenile bird.
A second-year or Basic I immature Bald Eagle.  Note the long juvenile secondaries giving the wings a ragged-looking trailing edge.
A third-year or Basic II immature Bald Eagle.
A second-year/Basic I immature Bald Eagle (top) and a third-year/Basic II immature Bald Eagle (bottom).
A second-year/Basic I immature Bald Eagle (bottom) and a third-year/Basic II immature Bald Eagle (top).  Note the white feathers on the backs of eagles in these age classes.
A third-year/Basic II immature Bald Eagle perched in a tree alongside the parking area.  Note the Osprey-like head plumage.
A sixth-year or older adult Bald Eagle in definitive plumage (left) and a fourth-year or Basic III immature Bald Eagle (right).
If you want to see the Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam, don’t wait.  While many birds are usually present throughout the winter, the large concentrations may start dispersing as early as December when eagles begin wandering in search of other food sources, particularly if the river freezes.
A pair of Bald Eagles is already working on a nest atop this powerline trestle downstream of Conowingo Dam.  By late December, most adult eagles will depart Conowingo to begin spending their days establishing and defending breeding territories elsewhere.  Any non-adult eagles still loitering around the dam will certainly begin receiving encouragement from the local nesting pair(s) to move along as well.

To reach Exelon’s Conowingo Fisherman’s Park from Rising Sun, Maryland, follow U.S. Route 1 south across the Conowingo Dam, then turn left onto Shuresville Road, then make a sharp left onto Shureslanding Road.  Drive down the hill to the parking area along the river.  The park’s address is 2569 Shureslanding Road, Darlington, Maryland.

As Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase, expect the parking lot to become full during weekends and over the Thanksgiving holiday.  To avoid the crowds, plan to visit during a weekday.

You can get the generating schedule for the Conowingo Dam by calling the Conowingo Generation Hotline at 888-457-4076.  The recording is updated daily at 5 P.M. to provide information for the following day.

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 Layover

After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned.  Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region.  Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.

A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States.  It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.

Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in flocks of as many as fifty birds gathered in weedy meadows and alfalfa fields for the week.
A Bobolink sheltering in a field of Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) during the rain on Friday, May 8th.
Two of seven Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) in a wet field on Friday, May 8.  Not-so-solitary after all.
Grounded by inclement weather, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) made visits to suburban bird feeders in the lower Susquehanna valley.  (Charles A. Fox image)

Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings.  The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted.  Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded.  Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source.  For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence.  So they wait.

A freeze warning was issued for Saturday morning, May 9, in the counties colored dark blue on the map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 3:28 A.M. Saturday morning, May 9, indicates a minor movement of birds in the Great Plains, but there are no notable returns shown around weather radar sites in the freeze area, including the lower Susquehanna valley.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
To avoid the cold wind on Saturday, May 9, this Veery was staying low to the ground within a thicket of shrubs in the forest.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler avoided the treetops and spent time in the woodland understory.  He sang not a note.  With birds conserving energy for the cold night(s) ahead, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the second Saturday in May.
A secretive Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) remained in a wetland thicket.
A Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) tucks his bill beneath a wing and fluffs-up to fight off the cold during a brief May 9th snow flurry.
In open country, gusty winds kept Eastern Kingbirds, a species of flycatcher, near the ground in search of the insects they need to sustain them.
Horned Larks are one of the few birds that attempt to scratch out an existence in cultivated fields.  The application of herbicides and the use of systemic insecticides (including neonicotinoids) eliminates nearly all weed seeds and insects in land subjected to high-intensity farming.  For most birds, including Neotropical migrants, cropland in the lower Susquehanna valley has become a dead zone.  Birds and other animals might visit, but they really don’t “live” there anymore.
Unable to find flying insects over upland fields during the cold snap, swallows concentrated over bodies of water to feed.  Some Tree Swallows may have abandoned their nests to survive this week’s cold.  Fragmentation of habitats in the lower Susquehanna valley reduces the abundance and diversity of natural food sources for wildlife.  For birds like swallows, events like late-season freezes, heat waves, or droughts can easily disrupt their limited food supply and cause brood failure.
For this Barn Swallow, attempting to hunt insects above the warm pavement of a roadway had fatal consequences.
Another freeze warning was issued for Sunday morning, May 10, in the counties colored dark blue on this map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 4:58 A.M. Sunday morning, May 10, again indicates the absence of a flight of migrating birds in the area subjected to freezing temperatures.  Unlike migrants earlier in the season, the Neotropical species that move north during the May exodus appear unwilling to resume their trek during freezing weather.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
On Sunday evening, May 10, a liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated around radar sites along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and, to a lesser degree, in central Pennsylvania.  The approaching rain and yet another cold front quickly grounded this flight.
After a one day respite, yet another freeze warning was issued for Tuesday morning, May 12.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And again, no flight in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze warning for Wednesday morning, May 13.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And the nocturnal flight: heavy in the Mississippi valley and minimal in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze on Thursday morning, May 14.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
At 3:08 A.M. on May 14th, a flight is indicated streaming north through central Texas and dispersing into the eastern half of the United States, but not progressing into New England.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The flight at eight minutes after midnight this morning.  Note the stormy cold front diving southeast across the upper Mississippi valley.  As is often the case, the concentration of migrating birds is densest in the warm air ahead of the front.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it.  The flights have resumed.

Indigo Bunting numbers are increasing as breeding populations arrive and migrants continue through.  Look for them in thickets along utility and railroad right-of-ways.
Common Yellowthroats and other colorful warblers are among the May migrants currently resuming their northward flights.
The echoes of the songs of tropical birds are beginning to fill the forests of the lower Susquehanna watershed.  The flute-like harmonies of the Wood Thrush are among the most impressive.
Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers with a surprisingly explosive song for their size.  Many arrived within the last two days to stake out a territory for breeding.  Listen for “teacher-teacher-teacher” emanating from a woodland near you.

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.

Clean Slate for 2020

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.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

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.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

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.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

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.

A clean slate for 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.

Tundra Swan Migration

There was a hint of what was to come.  If you were out and about before dawn this morning, you may have been lucky enough to hear them passing by high overhead.  It was 5:30 A.M. when I opened the door and was greeted by that distinctive nasal whistle.  Stepping through the threshold and into the cold, I peered into the starry sky and saw them, their feathers glowing orange in the diffused light from the streets and parking lots below.  Their size and snow-white plumage make Tundra Swans one of the few species of migrating birds you’ll ever get to visibly discern in a dark moonless nighttime sky.

The calm air at daybreak and through the morning transitioned to a steady breeze from the south in the afternoon.  Could this be it?  Would this be that one day in late February or the first half of March each year when waterfowl (and other birds too) seem to take advantage of the favorable wind to initiate an “exodus” and move in conspicuous numbers up the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to breeding grounds in the north?  Well, indeed it would be.  And with the wind speeding up the parade, an observer at a fixed point on the ground gets to see more birds fly by.

In the late afternoon, an observation location in the Gettysburg Basin about five miles east of Conewago Falls in Lancaster County seemed to be well-aligned with a northwesterly flight path for migrating Tundra Swans.  At about 5:30 P.M., the clear sky began clouding over, possibly pushing high-flying birds more readily into view.  During the next several hours, over three thousand Tundra Swans passed overhead, flocks continuing to pass for a short time after nightfall.  There were more than one thousand Canada Geese, the most numerous species on similar days in previous years.  Sometimes on such a day there are numerous ducks.  Not today.  The timing, location, and conditions put Tundra Swans in the spotlight for this year’s show.

Tundra Swans flying northwest, paralleling the Susquehanna five miles distant.
Tundra Swans winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain and often stage their northbound movements on the Piedmont along the lower Susquehanna River and at the nearby Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  The birds seen this evening are possibly coming directly from the coast or Chesapeake Bay.  With five hours of favorable wind helping them along, covering one hundred miles or more in an afternoon would be no problem.
High-flying Tundra Swans on their way to breeding grounds on, you guessed it, the arctic tundra in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Tundra Swans in the largest flocks, sometimes consisting of more than 200 birds, were often detected by their vocalizations as they approached.
Tundra Swan flights continued after sunset and nightfall.
All of the high-flying migratory Canada Geese seen this evening were on a more northerly course than the northwest-bound swans.  These geese probably spent the winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain near Chesapeake Bay and are now en route to breeding grounds in, you guessed it again, Canada.  They are not part of the resident Canada Goose population we see nesting throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.

Other migrants moving concurrently with the waterfowl included Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls (6+), American Robins (50+), Red-winged Blackbirds (500+), and Common Grackles (100+).

Though I’ve only seen such a spectacle only once during a season in recent years, there certainly could be another large flight of ducks, geese, or swans yet to come. The breeze is forecast to continue from southerly directions for at least another day.  Keep you eyes skyward, no matter where you might happen to be in the lower Susquehanna valley.  These or other migratory species may put on another show, a “big day”, just for you.

 

Bonaparte’s Invasion

The warm weather late last week and the several inches of rain that followed have left the farm fields of the lower Susquehanna valley a soggy muddy mess…waterlogged.  Runoff has made its way down the tributaries to raise the waters of the river and fill up its banks.

Migrating gulls find it difficult to locate food when the Susquehanna becomes a silty turbid torrent.  It’s not at all unusual to find hundreds of them enjoying a feast of earthworms in the agricultural uplands when conditions such as these exist.  As you may have guessed,  the birds alluded to are the familiar Ring-billed Gulls, the same species seen mooching french fries and other snacks in fast-food restaurant parking lots.  They are by far the most common inland gull in eastern North America.

A flock of gulls feeding in farmland in the Gettysburg Basin northeast of Conewago Falls.  Gulls frequently feed in wet farm fields where earthworms are the prized meal.

Ring-billed Gulls are notorious for loafing and feeding in flocks which seldom include other species of gulls.  They are frequently the smallest gull found in their inland habitats, so it is understandable that they may avoid the company of the larger and often more aggressive species.

However, today I was reminded that one must be ever vigilant and check for other species among those flocks presumed to consist solely of Ring-billed Gulls, particularly during times when the river is so inhospitable to passing migrants.

A few Ring-billed Gulls can be seen in this flock consisting almost entirely of noticeably smaller Bonaparte’s Gulls.
Bonaparte’s Gulls are easily recognized by their small size, black heads, and flashy white primary feathers in the wings.  They are the only small gull commonly found in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Two Ring-billed Gulls (upper left and upper center) are outflanked by Bonaparte’s Gulls.  Bonaparte’s Gulls spend the winter feeding in the surf along the Atlantic coast.  As spring migrants they peak in April, closely following the Susquehanna River as they journey through the area.  The adults will continue to the northwest, passing through the Great Lakes region to nesting areas in Canada.
Adult Bonaparte’s Gulls in breeding (alternate) plumage have conspicuous black heads.
Several first-year Bonaparte’s Gulls in basic plumage can found among the adults in this image.  Most notable is the one to the right of center (flying left).  Note its lack of flashy white in the primary feathers of the wings, a black tail bar, and the dark spot behind the eye instead of a black hood.  The black spot behind the eye is characteristic of all Bonaparte’s Gulls in basic (non-breeding) plumage, including adults.  Bonaparte’s Gulls mature in two years.
Bonaparte’s Gulls invade the farmlands of the Gettysburg Basin.  Despite their common name, they seem uninterested in french fries and similar cuisine.