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.
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 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.
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?
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.
A Flock of Seagulls?
At the moment there is a heavy snow falling, not an unusual occurrence for mid-February, nevertheless, it is a change in weather. Forty-eight hours ago we were in the midst of a steady rain and temperatures were in the sixties. The snow and ice had melted away and a touch of spring was in the air.
Anyone casually looking about while outdoors during these last several days may have noticed that birds are indeed beginning to migrate north in the lower Susquehanna valley. Killdeer, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles are easily seen or heard in most of the area now.
Just hours ago, between nine o’clock this morning and one o’clock this afternoon, there was a spectacular flight of birds following the river north, their spring migration well underway. In the blue skies above Conewago Falls, a steady parade of Ring-billed Gulls was utilizing thermals and riding a tailwind from the south-southeast to cruise high overhead on a course toward their breeding range.
The swirling hoards of Ring-billed Gulls attracted other migrants to take advantage of the thermals and glide paths on the breeze. Right among them were 44 Herring Gulls, 3 Great Black-backed Gulls, 12 Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus), 10 Canada Geese, 3 Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), 6 Common Mergansers, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, 6 Bald Eagles (non-adults), 8 Black Vultures, and 5 Turkey Vultures.
In the afternoon, the clouds closed in quickly, the flight ended, and by dusk more than an inch of snow was on the ground. Looks like spring to me.
A steady stream of birds was on the move this morning over Conewago Falls. There were hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, scores of Herring Gulls, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls to dominate the flight. Then too there were thirteen Mallards, Turkey Vultures and a Black Vulture, twenty or more American Robins, a half a dozen Bald Eagles (juvenile and immature birds), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, and, perhaps most unusual of all, a flock of a dozen Scoters (Melanitta species), a waterfowl typical of the Mid-Atlantic surf in winter. All of these birds were diligently following the river, and into a headwind no less.
“Hold on just a minute there, buster,” you may say, “I’ve looked at the migration count by dutifully clicking on the logo above and there is nothing but zeroes on the count sheet for today. The season totals have not changed since the previous count day!”
Ah-ha, my dedicated friend, correct you are. It seems that today’s bird flight was solely in one direction. And that direction was upriver, moving north into a north breeze, on a heading which conflicts with all logic for creatures that should still be headed south for winter. As a result, none of the birds observed today were counted on the “Autumn Migration Count”.
You might say, “Don’t you know that Winter Solstice was three days ago, so autumn and autumn migration is over.”
Okay, point well taken. I should therefore clarify that what we title as “Autumn Migration Count” is more accurately a census of birds, insects, and other creatures transiting from northerly latitudes to more favorable latitudes to the south for winter. This transit can begin as early as late June and extend into the first weeks of winter. While most of this movement is motivated by the reduced hours of daylight during the period, late season migrants are often responding to ice, bad weather, or lack of food to prompt a journey further south. Migration south in late December and January occurs even while the amount of daylight is increasing slightly in the days following the Winter Solstice.
So what of the birds seen flying north today? There was some snow cover that has melted away, and the ice that formed on the river a week ago is gone due to the milder than normal temperatures this week.
One may ask, “Were the birds seen today migrating north?”
Let’s look at the species seen moving upriver today a try to determine their motivation.
First, and perhaps most straight-forward, is the huge flight of gulls. Wintering gulls on the Susquehanna River near Conewago Falls tend to spend their nights in flocks on the water or on treeless islands and rocky outcrops in the river. Many hundreds, sometimes thousands, find such favorable sites along the fifteen mile stretch of river from Conewago Falls downstream to Lake Clarke and the Conejohela Flats at Washington Boro. Each morning most of these gulls venture out to suburbia, farmland, landfill, hydroelectric dams, and other sections of river in search of food. Gulls are very able fliers and easily cover dozens of miles outbound and inbound each day in search of food. Many of the gulls seen this morning were probably on their way to the Harrisburg metropolitan area to eat trash. Barring any extraordinary buildups of ice on this section of river, one would expect these gulls to remain and make these daily excursions to food sources through early spring.
Second, throughout the season Bald Eagles have been tallied on the migration count with caution. Flight altitude, behavior, plumage, and the reaction of the “local” eagles to these transients was carefully considered before counting an eagle as a migrant. They roam a lot, particularly when young, and range widely to feed. The movement of eagles up the river today was probably food related. A gathering of adult, juvenile, and immature Bald Eagles could be seen more than a half mile upstream from the migration count lookout. Those moving up the river seemed to assemble with the “locals” there throughout the morning. White-tailed Deities occasionally drown, particularly when there is thin or unstable ice on the river (as there was last week) and they attempt to tread upon it. Then, their bodies are often stranded among rocks, in trees, or on the crown of the dam. After such a mishap, their carcasses become meals for carrion-eaters in the falls. Such an unfortunate deity, or another source of food, may have been attracting the eagles in numbers today.
Next, Black and Turkey Vultures often roam widely in search of food. The small numbers seen headed up-river today would tend to mean very little when trying to determine if there is a trend or population shift. Again, food may have been luring them upriver from nearby roosts.
And finally, the scoters, Mallards, American Robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds may have been wandering as well. Toward mid-day, the wind speed picked up and the direction changed to the east. This raises the possibility that these and others of the birds seen today may sense a change in weather, and may seek to take flight from the inclement conditions. Prompted by the ocean breeze and in an attempt to avoid a storm, was there some movement away from the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the upper Piedmont today? Many species may make these types of reactive movements. Is it possible that some birds flee or avoid ever-changing storm tracks and alter there wintering locations based on jet streams, water currents, and other climatic conditions? Probably. These are interesting dynamics and something worthy of study outside the simpler methods of a migration count.
…And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain… –Jimmy Webb
The lower Susquehanna valley’s first snowfall of the season arrived yesterday. By this morning it measured just an inch in depth at Conewago Falls, more to the south and east, less to the west and north. By mid-morning a cold fresh to moderate breeze from the northwest was blowing through the falls and stirring up ripples on the river.
Gulls sailed high overhead on the wind, taking a speedy ride downriver toward Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic coast, and countless fast-food restaurant parking lots where surviving winter weather is more of a sure thing. Nearly a thousand Ring-billed Gulls soared past the migration count lookout today. Thirteen Herring Gulls and four Great Black-backed Gulls were among them.
Other migrants today included a Mallard, twenty-nine American Black Ducks, two Bald Eagles, eleven Black Vultures, fifteen Turkey Vultures, five American Goldfinches, and fifteen Red-winged Blackbirds. The wintery weather seems to be prompting these late-season travelers to be on their way.
You know, today was like many other days at the falls. As I arrive, I have the habit of checking all the power line towers on both river shorelines to see what may be there awaiting discovery. More often than not, something interesting is perched on one or more of the structures…
Yes friends, while the birds migrated through high above, down below a coordinated effort was underway to replace some of the electric transmission cable that stretches across the Susquehanna River at Conewago Falls. As you’ll see, this project requires precise planning, preparation, and skill. And it was fascinating to watch!
Swallows by the Thousands
A fresh breeze from the north brought cooler air and a reminder that summer is gone and autumn has arrived.
Fast-moving dark clouds provided a perfect backdrop for viewing passing diurnal migrants. Bald Eagles utilized the tail wind to cruise down the Susquehanna toward Chesapeake Bay and points further south. A migrating Merlin began a chase from which a Northern Flicker narrowly escaped by finding shelter among Pothole Rocks and a few small trees. The season’s first American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varia), and American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) moved through.
Blue Jays continued their hesitant crossings of the river at Conewago Falls. The majority completed the journey by forming groups of a dozen or more birds and following the lead of a lone American Robin, a Northern Flicker, or, odd as it appeared, a small warbler.
By far the most numerous migrants today were swallows. Thousands of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and hundreds of Tree Swallows were on the wing in search of what was suddenly a sparse flying insect supply. To get out of the brisk wind, some of the more resourceful birds landed on the warm rocks. To satisfy their appetite, many were able to pick crawling arthropods from the surface of the boulders. They swallow them whole.
Blue Jay Way
The Neotropical birds that raised their young in Canada and in the northern United States have now logged many miles on their journey to warmer climates for the coming winter. As their density decreases among the masses of migrating birds, a shift to species with a tolerance for the cooler winter weather of the temperate regions will be evident.
Though it is unusually warm for this late in September, the movement of diurnal migrants continues. This morning at Conewago Falls, five Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) lifted from the forested hills to the east, then crossed the river to continue a excursion to the southwest which will eventually lead them and thousands of others that passed through Pennsylvania this week to wintering habitat in South America. Broad-winged Hawks often gather in large migrating groups which swarm in the rising air of thermal updrafts, then, after gaining substantial altitude, glide away to continue their trip. These ever-growing assemblages from all over eastern North America funnel into coastal Texas where they make a turn to south around the Gulf of Mexico, then continue on toward the tropics. In the coming weeks, a migration count at Corpus Christi in Texas could tally 100,000 or more Broad-winged Hawks in a single day as a large portion of the continental population passes by. You can track their movement and that of other diurnal raptors as recorded at sites located all over North America by visiting hawkcount.org on the internet. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
Nearly all of the other migrants seen today have a much shorter flight ahead of them. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were on the move. Migrating American Robins (Turdus migratorius) crossed the river early in the day, possibly leftovers from an overnight flight of this primarily nocturnal migrant. The season’s first Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) arrived. American Goldfinches are easily detected by their calls as they pass overhead. Look carefully at the goldfinches visiting your feeder, the birds of summer are probably gone and are being replaced by migrants currently passing through.
By far, the most conspicuous migrant today was the Blue Jay. Hundreds were seen as they filtered out of the hardwood forests of the diabase ridge to cautiously cross the river and continue to the southwest. Groups of five to fifty birds would noisily congregate in trees along the river’s edge, then begin flying across the falls. Many wary jays abandoned their small crossing parties and turned back. Soon, they would try the trip again in a larger flock.
A look at this morning’s count reveals few Neotropical migrants. With the exception of the Broad-winged Hawks and warblers, the migratory species seen today will winter in a sub-tropical temperate climate, primarily in the southern United States, but often as far north as the lower Susquehanna River valley. The individual birds observed today will mostly continue to a winter home a bit further south. Those that will winter in the area of Conewago Falls will arrive in October and later.
The long-distance migrating insect so beloved among butterfly enthusiasts shows signs of improving numbers. Today, more than two dozen Monarchs were seen crossing the falls and slowly flapping and gliding their way to Mexico.