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!

Piles of Green Tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestive Selling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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