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.
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.
And now, without further ado, it’s time for the waterfowl of Wildwood Lake—in order of their occurrence.
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.
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.
Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year. If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year. On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper. On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby. The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days. The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.
A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.
Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.
Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent. Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years. Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.
It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation. His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year. The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there. In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves. Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that! It was the most lackluster year in memory.
If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible. There would be no cause for greater alarm. It would be a matter of cause and effect. But the problem is more widespread.
Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna. And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes. A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration. In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous. What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south? The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?
Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere. These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends. They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.
There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone. None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline. Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds? Did they die off? Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction? Is it global warming? Is it Three Mile Island? Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?
The answer might not be so cryptic. It might be right before our eyes. And we’ll explore it during 2020.
In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. You should go too. They have lots of food there.
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.
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.
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 (Cygnuscolumbianus), 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!
A very light fog lifted quickly at sunrise. Afterward, there was a minor movement of migrants: forty-nine Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring Gulls, a Red-shouldered Hawk following the river to the southeast, and small flocks totaling nine Cedar Waxwings and twenty-eight Red-winged Blackbirds.
In the Riparian Woodland, small mixed flocks of winter resident and year-round resident birds were actively feeding. They must build and maintain a layer of body fat to survive blustery cold nights and the possible lack of access to food during snowstorms. There’s no time to waste; nasty weather could bring fatal hardship to these birds soon.
It was a crisp clear morning with birdless blue skies. The migration has mostly drawn to a close; very little was seen despite a suitable northwest breeze to support a flight. There were no robins and no blackbirds. Not even a starling was seen today. The only highlights were a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and a couple of Swamp Sparrows.
And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s time for a Thanksgiving Day culinary reminder from the local Conewago Falls Turkey…
Temperatures plummeted to well below freezing during the past two nights, but there was little sign of it in Conewago Falls this morning. The fast current in the rapids and swirling waters in flooded Pothole Rocks did not freeze. Ice coated the standing water in potholes only in those rocks lacking a favorable orientation to the sun for collecting solar heat during the day to conduct into the water during the cold nights.
On the shoreline, the cold snap has left its mark. Ice covers the still waters of the wetlands. Frost on exposed vegetation lasted until nearly noontime in shady areas. Insect activity is now grounded and out of sight. The leaves of the trees tumble and fall to cover the evidence of a lively summer.
The nocturnal bird flight is narrowing down to just a few species. White-throated Sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), and Song Sparrows are still on the move. Though their numbers are not included in the migration count, hundreds of the latter are along the shoreline and in edge habitat around the falls right now. Song Sparrows are present year-round, migrate at night, and are not seen far from cover in daylight, so migratory movements are difficult to detect. It is certain that many, if not all of the Song Sparrows here today have migrated and arrived here recently. The breeding population from spring and summer has probably moved further south. And many of the birds here now may remain for the winter. Defining the moment of this dynamic, yet discrete, population change and logging it in a count would certainly require different methods.
Diurnal migration was foiled today by winds from southerly directions and moderating temperatures. The only highlight was an American Robin flight that extended into the morning for a couple of hours after daybreak and totaled over 800 birds. This flight was peppered with an occasional flock of blackbirds. Then too, there were the villains.
They’re dastardly, devious, selfish, opportunistic, and abundant. Today, they were the most numerous diurnal migrant. Their numbers made this one of the biggest migration days of the season, but they are not recorded on the count sheet. It’s no landmark day. They excite no one. For the most part, they are not recognized as migrants because of their nearly complete occupation of North America south of the taiga. If people build on it or alter it, these birds will be there. They’re everywhere people are. If the rotten attributes of man were wrapped up into one bird, an “anthropoavian”, this would be it.
Meet the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Introduced into North America in 1890, the species has spread across the entire continent. It nests in cavities in buildings and in trees. Starlings are aggressive, particularly when nesting, and have had detrimental impacts on the populations of native cavity nesting birds, particularly Red-headed Woodpeckers, Purple Martins (Progne subis), and Eastern Bluebirds. They commonly terrorize these and other native species to evict them from their nest sites. European Starlings are one of the earlier of the scores of introduced plants and animals we have come to call invasive species.
Today, thousands of European Starlings were on the move, working their way down the river shoreline and raiding berries from the vines and trees of the Riparian Woodlands. My estimate is between three and five thousand migrated through during the morning. But don’t worry, thousands more will be around for the winter.
It was a placid morning on Conewago Falls with blue skies dotted every now and then by a small flock of migrating robins or blackbirds. The jumbled notes of a singing Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in the Riparian Woodland softly mixed with the sounds of water spilling over the dam. The season’s first Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors), Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were seen.
There was a small ruckus when one of the adult Bald Eagles from a local pair spotted an Osprey passing through carrying a fish. This eagle’s effort to steal the Osprey’s catch was soon interrupted when an adult eagle from a second pair that has been lingering in the area joined the pursuit. Two eagles are certainly better than one when it’s time to hustle a skinny little Osprey, don’t you think?
But you see, this just won’t do. It’s a breach of eagle etiquette, don’t you know? Soon both pairs of adult eagles were engaged in a noisy dogfight. It was fussing and cackling and the four eagles going in every direction overhead. Things calmed down after about five minutes, then a staring match commenced on the crest of the dam with the two pairs of eagles, the “home team” and the “visiting team”, perched about 100 feet from each other. Soon the pair which seems to be visiting gave up and moved out of the falls for the remainder of the day. The Osprey, in the meantime, was able to slip away.
In recent weeks, the “home team” pair of Bald Eagles, seen regularly defending territory at Conewago Falls, has been hanging sticks and branched tree limbs on the cross members of the power line tower where they often perch. They seem only to collect and display these would-be nest materials when the “visiting team” pair is perched in the nearby tower just several hundred yards away…an attempt to intimidate by homesteading. It appears that with winter and breeding time approaching, territorial behavior is on the increase.
In the afternoon, a fresh breeze from the south sent ripples across the waters among the Pothole Rocks. The updraft on the south face of the diabase ridge on the east shore was like a highway for some migrating hawks, falcons, and vultures. Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures streamed off to the south headlong into the wind after leaving the ridge and crossing the river. A male and female Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), ten Red-tailed Hawks, two Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), six Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two Merlins crossed the river and continued along the diabase ridge on the west shore, accessing a strong updraft along its slope to propel their journey further to the southwest. Four high-flying Bald Eagles migrated through, each following the east river shore downstream and making little use of the ridge except to gain a little altitude while passing by.
Late in the afternoon, the local Bald Eagles were again airborne and cackling up a storm. This time they intercepted an eagle coming down the ridge toward the river and immediately forced the bird to climb if it intended to pass. It turned out to be the best sighting of the day, and these “home team” eagles found it first. It was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in crisp juvenile plumage. On its first southward voyage, it seemed to linger after climbing high enough for the Bald Eagles to loose concern, then finally selected the ridge route and crossed the river to head off to the southwest.