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.

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).

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)

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!

Yellowlegs for Breakfast

A few nocturnal migrants flew through the moonlit night to arrive at Conewago Falls for a sunrise showing this morning.  A dozen warblers were in the treetops and a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) chattered away in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands.  Three species of shorebirds were in the falls and on the Pothole Rocks: Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

A Greater Yellowlegs (right) and two Lesser Yellowlegs sandpipers dropped by for breakfast.

The diurnal migration was highlighted by a Merlin (Falco columbarius), an Osprey, and a Bald Eagle, each flying down the river.  Most of the other birds in the falls seemed content to linger and feed.  There’s no need to hurry folks, only trouble lurks down there in paradise at the moment.

A light to moderate flight of nocturnal migrants in the eastern United States is displayed on NOAA National Weather Service NEXRAD radar at 4:58 AM EDT.  The eye of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
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