Arboreal Birds and Tent Caterpillars

During the past week, we’ve been exploring wooded slopes around the lower Susquehanna region in search of recently arrived Neotropical birds—particularly those migrants that are singing on breeding territories and will stay to nest.  Coincidentally, we noticed a good diversity of species in areas where tent caterpillar nests were apparent.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Nest
The conspicuous nest of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum), a native species of moth.  The first instar of the larval caterpillars hatch in early spring from egg masses laid on the limbs of the host tree by an adult female moth during the previous spring.  Soon after they begin feeding on the host tree’s first tender shoots, these tiny, seldom-noticed larvae start communal construction of a silk tent to act as a shelter and greenhouse-like solar collector that will both provide protection from the elements and expedite their growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
The familiar last instar of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar is the most consumptive stage of the animal’s life.  After feeding in the treetops, they will descend to the ground and seek a sheltered location to pupate.  Adult moths emerge in several weeks to take to the air, mate, and produce eggs to be deposited on a host tree for hatching next year.  The favorite host tree in forests of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: native Black Cherry.

Here’s a sample of the variety of Neotropical migrants we found in areas impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  All are arboreal insectivores, birds that feed among the foliage of trees and shrubs searching mostly for insects, their larvae, and their eggs.

Yellow-throated Vireo
The Yellow-throated Vireo nests, feeds, and spends the majority of its time feeding among canopy foliage.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee is a flycatcher found in mature woodlands.  It feeds not only among the limbs and leaves, but is an aerial predator as well.
Northern Parula
The Northern Parula nests in mature forests along rivers and on mountainsides, particularly where mature trees are draped with thick vines.
Hooded Warbler
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) is found among thick understory growth on forested slopes.
Ovenbird
The Ovenbird builds a domed, oven-like nest on the ground and forages in the canopy.
Kentucky Warbler
The Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa) nests in woodland undergrowth, often near steep, forested slopes.
Worm-eating Warbler
The Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) nests among woody understory growth on forested hillsides.
Scarlet Tanager
The Scarlet Tanager is often difficult to observe because of its affinity for the canopy of mature forest trees.

In the locations where these photographs were taken, ground-feeding birds, including those species that would normally be common in these habitats, were absent.  There were no Gray Catbirds, Carolina Wrens, American Robins or other thrushes seen or heard.  One might infer that the arboreal insectivorous birds chose to establish nesting territories where they did largely due to the presence of an abundance of tent caterpillars as a potential food source for their young.  That could very well be true—but consider timing.

Already Gone-  By the time Neotropical migrants arrive in our area, the larval stages of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s life cycle are already coming to an end.  The nests that these native insects constructed to capture the energy of the springtime sun have allowed the larvae to exit and browse foliage when conditions were suitable, then return for shelter when they were not.  While inside, the larvae could move among the chambers of their structure to find locations with a temperature that best suited their needs.  Therein the solar heating and communal warmth sped up digestion and growth.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar
Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now in their bristly final-instar stage and the majority have already moved to the ground to each seek a place to pupate and metamorphose into an adult moth.  Arboreal Neotropical birds have scarcely had a chance to feed upon them, and ground-feeding species seem to lack any temptation.  As for the adult moths, they fly only at night and live for just one day, offering little in the way of food for aerial, arboreal, or ground-feeding birds.
Wild Turkey
Having left arboreal environs, Eastern Tent Caterpillar larvae are now food for ground-feeding birds like our resident Wild Turkeys.  They need only get past the bristly hairs on the caterpillar’s back and the foul taste that may result from its limited diet of cyanogenic Black Cherry leaves.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
The arboreal Yellow-billed Cuckoo (seen here) and its close relative the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) are the two species of birds in our area known to regularly feed on bristly tent caterpillars.  But having just arrived from the tropics to nest, they’ll need to rely on other insects and their larvae as sources of food for their young.
Black Cherry defoliated by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Final-instar Eastern Tent Caterpillars often defoliate Black Cherry trees before moving to the ground to pupate. Their timing allows them to feed on the fresh foliage while it is still young and tender, and to largely avoid becoming food for the waves of Neotropical birds that arrive in the lower Susquehanna basin in May.

So why do we find this admirable variety of Neotropical bird species nesting in locations with tent caterpillars?  Perhaps it’s a matter of suitable topography, an appropriate variety of native trees and shrubs, and an attractive opening in the forest.

American Redstart
An American Redstart singing in a Black Cherry.  Unlike others in the vicinity, this tree nestled among several very large Eastern White Pines showed no signs of tent caterpillar activity.  It may be that for one reason or another, no adult female moth deposited her eggs on this particular tree.  During our visits, Black Cherry was but one of the diverse variety of native trees and shrubs found growing on the sloping topography that created attractive habitat for the nesting birds we found.  We happened to notice that a majority, but not all, of those Black Cherry trees were impacted by Eastern Tent Caterpillars.
Black Cherry in Flower
The end of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar’s larval surge may spell the end of their nests for the year, but it’s not the end for the Black Cherry and other host trees in the Prunus (cherry) and Malus (apple) genera.  Because it’s still early in the season, they have plenty of time to re-leaf and many will still flower and produce fruit.  Those flowers and foliage will attract numerous other insects (including pollinators) that benefit breeding birds.
Blue-winged Warbler
The Blue-winged Warbler inhabits shrubby breaks in the forest such as this utility right-of-way where Black Cherry trees have sprouted after their seeds arrived in waste deposited by fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds.  Already attractive to a variety of insectivores, these openings soon lure egg-laying Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to the cherry trees growing therein.  Even in dense forest, a small clearing created by a cluster of dead trees makes good bird habitat and will sooner or later be visited by fruit-eating species that will inadvertently sow seeds of Black Cherry, starting yet another stand of host trees for Eastern Tent Caterpillars.  It’s the gap in the forest that often attracts the birds, some of which plant the host trees, which sometimes entice Eastern Tent Caterpillar moths to lay their eggs.
Red-Eyed Vireo
Adapt and Reuse-  A Red-eyed Vireo visits an Eastern Tent Caterpillar nest…
Red-eyed Vireo
…and ignores the few remaining occupants that could easily be seized to instead collect silk to reinforce its own nest.

Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the presence of Eastern Tent Caterpillar nests can often be an indicator of a woodland opening, natural or man-made, that is being reforested by Black Cherry and other plants which improve the botanical richness of the site.  For numerous migratory Neotropical species seeking favorable places to nest and raise young, these regenerative areas and the forests surrounding them can be ideal habitat.  For us, they can be great places to see and hear colorful birds.

Scarlet Tanager
Our Lucky Break-  This Scarlet Tanager descended from the treetops to feed on spiders in a small forest clearing.

Prescribed Fire: Controlled Burns for Forest and Non-forest Habitats

Homo sapiens owes much of its success as a species to an acquired knowledge of how to make, control, and utilize fire.  Using fire to convert the energy stored in combustible materials into light and heat has enabled humankind to expand its range throughout the globe.  Indeed, humans in their furless incomplete mammalian state may have never been able to expand their populations outside of tropical latitudes without mastery of fire.  It is fire that has enabled man to exploit more of the earth’s resources than any other species.  From cooking otherwise unpalatable foods to powering the modern industrial society, fire has set man apart from the rest of the natural world.

In our modern civilizations, we generally look at the unplanned outbreak of fire as a catastrophe requiring our immediate intercession.  A building fire, for example, is extinguished as quickly as possible to save lives and property.  And fires detected in fields, brush, and woodlands are promptly controlled to prevent their exponential growth.  But has fire gone to our heads?  Do we have an anthropocentric view of fire?  Aren’t there naturally occurring fires that are essential to the health of some of the world’s ecosystems?  And to our own safety?  Indeed there are.  And many species and the ecosystems they inhabit rely on the periodic occurrence of fire to maintain their health and vigor.

For the war effort- The campaign to reduce the frequency of forest fires got its start during World War II with distribution of this poster in 1942.  The goal was to protect the nation’s timber resources from accidental or malicious loss due to fire caused by man-made ignition sources.  The release of the Walt Disney film “Bambi” during the same year and the adoption of the Smokey the Bear mascot in 1944 softened the message’s delivery, but the public relations outreach continued to be a key element of a no-fire policy to save trees for lumber.  Protection and management of healthy forest ecosystems in their entirety has only recently become a priority.  (National Archives image)

Man has been availed of the direct benefits of fire for possibly 40,000 years or more.  Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the earliest humans arrived as early as 12,000 years ago—already possessing skills for using fire.  Native plants and animals on the other hand, have been part of the ever-changing mix of ecosystems found here for a much longer period of time—millions to tens of millions of years.  Many terrestrial native species are adapted to the periodic occurrence of fire.  Some, in fact, require it.  Most upland ecosystems need an occasional dose of fire, usually ignited by lightning (though volcanism and incoming cosmic projectiles are rare possibilities), to regenerate vegetation, release nutrients, and maintain certain non-climax habitat types.

But much of our region has been deprived of natural-type fires since the time of the clearcutting of the virgin forests during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This absence of a natural fire cycle has contributed to degradation and/or elimination of many forest and non-forest habitats.  Without fire, a dangerous stockpile of combustible debris has been collecting, season after season, in some areas for a hundred years or more.  Lacking periodic fires or sufficient moisture to sustain prompt decomposition of dead material, wildlands can accumulate enough leaf litter, thatch, dry brush, tinder, and fallen wood to fuel monumentally large forest fires—fires similar to those recently engulfing some areas of the American west.  So elimination of natural fire isn’t just a problem for native plants and animals, its a potential problem for humans as well.

Indiangrass on Fire
Indiangrass (seen here), Switchgrass, Big Bluestem, and Little Bluestem are native species requiring periodic forms of disturbance to eliminate competition by woody plants.  These warm-season grasses develop roots that penetrate deep into the soil, sometimes to depths of six feet or more, allowing them to survive severe drought and flash fire events.  In the tall grass prairies, these extensive root systems allow these grasses to return following heavy grazing by roaming herds of American Bison (Bison bison).  Without these habitat disturbances, warm season grasslands succumb to succession in about seven years.  With their periodic occurrence, the plants thrive and provide excellent wildlife habitat, erosion control, and grazing forage.

To address the habitat ailments caused by a lack of natural fires, federal, state, and local conservation agencies are adopting the practice of “prescribed fire” as a treatment to restore ecosystem health.  A prescribed fire is a controlled burn specifically planned to correct one or more vegetative management problems on a given parcel of land.  In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is used to…

      • Eliminate dangerous accumulations of combustible fuels in woodlands.
      • Reduce accumulations of dead plant material that may harbor disease.
      • Provide top kill to promote oak regeneration.
      • Regenerate other targeted species of trees, wildflowers, grasses, and vegetation.
      • Kill non-native plants and promote growth of native plants.
      • Prevent succession.
      • Remove woody growth and thatch from grasslands.
      • Promote fire tolerant species of plants and animals.
      • Create, enhance, and/or manage specialized habitats.
      • Improve habitat for rare species (Regal Fritillary, etc.)
      • Recycle nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material.

Let’s look at some examples of prescribed fire being implemented right here in our own neighborhood…

Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fires are typically planned for the dormant season extending from late fall into early spring with burns best conducted on days when the relative humidity is low.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fire is used regularly at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to keep accumulations of woody and herbaceous fuels from accumulating on and around the training range areas where live ordinance and other sources of ignition could otherwise spark large, hard-to-control wildfires.
Prescribed Fire at Fort Indiantown Gap
Prescribed fires replace the periodic natural burns that would normally reduce the fuel load in forested areas.  Where these fuels are allowed to accumulate, south-facing slopes are particularly susceptible to extreme fires due to their exposure to the drying effects of intense sunlight for much of the year.  The majority of small oaks subjected to treatment by the prescribed fire shown here will have the chance to regenerate without immediate competition from other species including invasive plants.  The larger trees are mostly unaffected by the quick exposure to the flames.  Note too that these fires don’t completely burn everything on the forest floor, they burn that which is most combustible.  There are still plenty of fallen logs for salamanders, skinks, and other animals to live beneath and within.

 

Prescribed fire in grassland.
A prescribed fire in late winter prevents this grassland consisting of Big Bluestem and native wildflowers from being overtaken by woody growth and invasive species.  Fires such as this that are intended to interrupt the process of succession are repeated at least every three to five years.
Prescribed Fire to Control Invasive Species
In its wildlife food plots, prescribed fire is used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to prevent succession and control invasive species such as Multiflora Rose, instead promoting the growth of native plants.
A woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.
An example of a woodlot understory choked with combustible fuels and dense tangles of invasive Multiflora Rose.  A forester has the option of prescribing a dose of dormant-season fire for a site like this to reduce the fuel load, top kill non-native vegetation, and regenerate native plants.
Precribed Fire to Eliminate Woody Growth
A dose of prescribed fire was administered on this grassland to kill the woody growth of small trees beginning to overtake the habitat by succession.
Precribed Fire Education Sign at middle creek Wildlife Management Area
The Pennsylvania Game Commission employs prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and on many of their other holdings to maintain grasslands.
Prescribed fire is used to eliminate invasive species including Multiflora Rose from grasslands at Middle Creek W.M.A.  Annual burns on the property are conducted in a mosaic pattern so that each individual area of the grassland is exposed to the effects of fire only once every two to five years.  Without fire or some type of mechanical or chemical intervention, succession by woody trees and shrubs would take hold after about seven years.
Prescribed fire is planned for a fraction of total grassland acreage at Middle Creek W.M.A. each year.  Another section of the mosaic is targeted in the following year and yet another in the year that follows that.  Because burns are conducted in the spring, grassland cover is available for wildlife throughout the winter.  And because each year’s fire burns only a portion of the total grassland acreage, wildlife still has plenty of standing grass in which to take shelter during and after the prescribed fire.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Prescribed fire at Middle Creek W.M.A. provides grassland habitat for dozens of species of birds and mammals including the not-so-common Grasshopper Sparrow…
Ring-necked Pheasant
…and stocked Ring-necked Pheasants that do nest and raise young there.
Prescribed Burn Maintains Savanna-like Habitat
On a few sites in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed , prescribed fire is being used to establish and maintain savanna-like grasslands.  This one, located on a dry, south-facing slope near numerous man-made sources of ignition, can easily be dosed with periodic prescribed burns to both prevent succession and reduce fuel accumulations that may lead to a devastating extreme fire.
Pitch Pines in Savanna-like Habitat
One year following a prescribed burn, this is the autumn appearance of a savanna-like habitat with fire-tolerant Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), Bear Oak, warm-season grasses, and a variety of nectar-producing wildflowers for pollinators.  These ecosystems are magnets for wildlife and may prove to be a manageable fit on sun-drenched sites adjacent to man-made land disturbances and their sources of ignition.
Red-headed Woodpecker Adult and Juvenile
Savanna-like grasslands with oaks and other scattered large trees, some of them dead, make attractive nesting habitat for the uncommon Red-headed Woodpecker.
Wild Turkey in Savanna-like Habitat
Prescribed fire can benefit hungry Wild Turkeys by maintaining savanna-like grasslands for an abundance of grasshoppers and other insects in summer and improving the success of mast-producing oaks for winter.
Buck Moth
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the caterpillar of the rare Eastern Buck Moth feeds on the foliage of the Bear Oak, also known as the Scrub Oak, a shrubby species that relies upon periodic fire to eliminate competition from larger trees in its early successional habitat.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.
Leaves of the Bear Oak in fall.  The Bear Oak regenerates readily from top kill caused by fire.
Reed Canary Grass
Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is a native cool-season grass with a colorful inflorescence in spring.  But given the right situation, it can aggressively overtake other species to create a pure stand lacking biodiversity.  It is one of the few native species which is sometimes labelled “invasive”.
Prescribed Burn to Reduce Prevalence of Reed Canary Grass
Prescribed fire can be used to reduce an overabundance of Reed Canary Grass and its thatch in wetlands.  Periodic burning can help restore species diversity in these habitats for plants and animals including rare species such as the endangered Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii).
On the range areas at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, disturbances by armored vehicles mimic the effects of large mammals such as the American Bison which periodically trampled grasses to prevent succession and the establishment of woody plants on its prairie habitat.  To supplement the activity of the heavy vehicles and to provide suitable habitat for the very rare Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) butterflies found there, prescribed fire is periodically employed to maintain the grasslands on the range.  These burns are planned to encourage the growth of “Fort Indiantown Gap Little Bluestem” grass as well as the violets used as host plants by the Regal Fritillary caterpillars.  These fires also promote growth of a variety of native summer-blooming wildflowers to provide nectar for the adults butterflies.
Depiction of Pennsylvania's Last American Bison, Killed in Union County in 1801. (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A last record of a wild American Bison killed in Pennsylvania was an animal taken in the Susquehanna watershed in Union County in 1801.  The species is thereafter considered extirpated from the state.  Since that time, natural disturbances needed to regenerate warm-season grasses have been limited primarily to fires and riverine ice scour.  The waning occurrence of both has reduced the range of these grasses and their prairie-like ecosystems in the commonwealth.  (Exhibit: State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg)
A male Regal Fritillary on the range at Fort Indiantown Gap, where armored vehicles and prescribed fire provide suitable prairie-like habitat for this vulnerable species.
Honey Bee Collecting Minerals After Prescribed Burn
Prescribed fires return the nutrients and minerals contained in dead plant material to the soil.  Following these controlled burns, insects like this Honey Bee can often be seen collecting minerals from the ashes.
Fly Collecting Minerals from Burned Grasses
A Greenbottle Fly gathering minerals from the ash following a prescribed burn.

In Pennsylvania, state law provides landowners and crews conducting prescribed fire burns with reduced legal liability when the latter meet certain educational, planning, and operational requirements.  This law may help encourage more widespread application of prescribed fire in the state’s forests and other ecosystems where essential periodic fire has been absent for so very long.  Currently in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, prescribed fire is most frequently being employed by state agencies on state lands—in particular, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on State Forests and the Pennsylvania Game Commission on State Game Lands.  Prescribed fire is also part of the vegetation management plan at Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and on the land holdings of the Hershey Trust.  Visitors to the nearby Gettysburg National Military Park will also notice prescribed fire being used to maintain the grassland restorations there.

For crews administering prescribed fire burns, late March and early April are a busy time.  The relative humidity is often at its lowest level of the year, so the probability of ignition of previous years’ growth is generally at its best.  We visited with a crew administering a prescribed fire at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area last week.  Have a look…

Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire.
Members of a Pennsylvania Game Commission burn crew provide visitors to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area with an overview of prescribed fire and the equipment and techniques they use to conduct a burn.
Burn Boss Checking Weather
Pennsylvania Game Commission Southeast Region Forester Andy Weaver will fulfill the role of Burn Boss for administering this day’s dose of fire.  His responsibilities include assessing the weather before the burn and calculating a probability of ignition.
Burn Boss Briefing Crew
The Burn Boss briefs personnel with information on site layout, water supply location(s), places of refuge, emergency procedures, the event’s goals and plan of action, crew assignments, and the results of the weather check: wind from the northwest at 5 miles per hour, temperature 48 degrees, and the relative humidity 63%. Today’s patient is a parcel of warm-season grasses receiving a dose of fire to eliminate invasive non-native plants, woody growth, and thatch.  The probability of ignition is 20%, but improving by the minute.
Prescribed Fire Test Burn
To begin the burn, a test fire is started in the downwind corner of the parcel, which also happens to be the bottom of the slope.  Fuel ignition is good.  The burn can proceed.
Igniting the Fire
Crews proceed uphill from the location of the test fire while igniting combustibles along both flanks of the area being treated.
Prescribed Fire Crew Member with Equipment
A drip torch is used to ignite the dried stems and leaves of warm-season grasses and wildflowers.  Each member of the burn crew wears Nomex fire-resistant clothing and carries safety equipment including a two-way radio, a hydration pack, and a cocoon-like emergency fire shelter.
Wildfire ATV
An all-terrain vehicle equipped with various tools, a fire pump, hose, and a small water tank accompanies the crew on each flank of the fire.
Prescribed Fire
A mowed strip of cool-season grasses along the perimeter of the burn area is already green and functions as an ideal fire break.  While the drip torch is perfect for lighting combustibles along the fire’s perimeter, the paintball gun-looking device is an effective tool used to lob incendiaries into the center areas of the burn zone for ignition.
Effective Fire Break
With green cool-season grasses already growing on the trails surrounding the burn zone, very little water was used to contain this prescribed fire.  Where such convenient fire breaks don’t already exist, crews carry tools including chain saws, shovels, and leaf blowers to create their own.  They also carry flame swatters, backpack water pumps, shovels, and other tools to extinguish fires if necessary.  None of these items were needed to control this particular fire.
Halting the Process of Succession in a Grassland with Prescribed Fire
This fast-burning fire provides enough heat to damage the cambium layer of the woody tree and shrub saplings in this parcel being maintained as a grassland/wildflower plot, thus the process of succession is forestalled.  Burns conducted during previous years on this and adjacent fields have also controlled aggressive growth of invasive Multiflora Rose and Olives (Elaeagnus species).
Containing the Fire on the Flanks
Crews proceed up the slope while maintaining the perimeter by igniting dry plant material along the flanks of the burn zone.
The Crew Monitors the Burn
Ignition complete, the crews monitor the fire.
Prescribed Fire: Natural Mosaic-style Burn Pattern
The Burn Boss surveys the final stages of a safe and successful prescribed fire.  The fire has left behind a mosaic of burned and unburned areas, just as a naturally occurring event may have done.  Wildlife dodging the flames may be taking refuge in the standing grasses, so there is no remedial attempt to go back and ignite these areas.  They’ll be burned during prescribed fires in coming years.
Great Spangled Fritillary
By June, this grassland will again be lush and green with warm-season grasses and blooming wildflowers like this Common Milkweed being visited by a Great Spangled Fritillary.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
And later in the summer, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Joe-pye Weed.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Indiangrass in flower in mid-summer.
Bobolinks in Indiangrass
Bobolinks glow in the late August sun while taking flight from a stand of warm-season grasses maintained using springtime prescribed fire.  The small dots on the dark background at the top of the image are multitudes of flying insects, many of them pollinators.  The vegetation is predominately Indiangrass, excellent winter cover for birds, mammals, and other wildlife.

Prescribed burns aren’t a cure-all for what ails a troubled forest or other ecosystem, but they can be an effective remedy for deficiencies caused by a lack of periodic episodes of naturally occurring fire.  They are an important option for modern foresters, wildlife managers, and other conservationists.

Four Common Grasshoppers

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

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

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

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

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

CAROLINA GRASSHOPPER

Dissosteira carolina

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

DIFFERENTIAL GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus differentialis

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

TWO-STRIPED GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus bivittatus

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

RED-LEGGED GRASSHOPPER

Melanoplus femurrubrum

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

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

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

Wild Senna, a Showy Background Plant for Your Wildflower Garden

Looking for a native wildflower that’s tall, showy, and a great choice for attracting wildlife, especially butterflies and bees?  Then check out Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa).

Wild Senna in a roadside wildflower garden on Pennsylvania State Gamelands.
Wild Senna currently blooming in a roadside wildflower garden on Pennsylvania State Game Lands.

Wild Senna, also known as American Senna, is a host plant for the larvae of Cloudless Sulphur and Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe) butterflies.  It thrives in almost any moist, well-drained soil in habitats including open woodlands, forest edges, meadows, and gardens like yours.  Its height at flowering ranges from three to six feet.  If you prefer, this perennial wildflower can even be cultivated as a shrub-like form.  It is easily grown from seed, which is available from Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania, as well as numerous other vendors.  And don’t forget to give Wild Senna’s two close relatives, Partridge Pea and Maryland Senna, a try as well.  They attract the same species of butterflies and are just as easy to grow.  You’ll like ’em.

Cloudless Sulphur
Cloudless Sulphur butterflies from populations in the south colonize the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each summer in varying numbers.
Close-up view of a Wild Senna flower cluster.
Close-up view of a Wild Senna flower cluster.  Typical of members of the pea family, the  seeds of all native Senna species develop within pods after blooming and are sought after by wildfowl (Galliformes), particularly Northern Bobwhite.
Partridge Pea in flower with seed pods.
Partridge Pea with flowers and seed pods in the susquehannawildlife.net garden.  Smaller than the other Senna species, Partridge Pea reaches a height of just two to three feet.

Some Good Reasons to Postpone Mowing Until Mid-August

Here in a series of photographs are just a handful of the reasons why the land stewards at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and other properties where conservation and propagation practices are employed delay the mowing of fields composed of cool-season grasses until after August 15 each year.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlarks, birds of large pastures, hay lots and other meadows of cool-season grasses, build their nests and raise their young on the ground.  In the years since the early twentieth century, loss in the volume of acreage maintained in the lower Susquehanna Valley as grassland habitat types has dramatically reduced the prevalence and abundance of this and other birds with similar nesting requirements.  During the most recent fifty years, early and frequent mowing and other practices introduced as part of agriculture’s Green Revolution have all but eliminated ground-nesting grassland species from the region.
Grasshopper Sparrow
Like the meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) nest on the ground in fields of cool-season grasses.  Mowing prior to the time the young leave the nest and are able to fly away can obliterate a generation of grassland birds.  Because their life span is short, widespread loss of an entire year of reproduction can quickly impact overall populations of native sparrows and other small birds.  Delayed mowing can improve numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows as well as Savannah Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and the very rare Henslow’s Sparrow (Centronyx henslowii).
Bobolink
The Bobolink, like the meadowlark, is a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae).  It too requires grasslands free of disturbances like mowing for the duration of the nesting season which, for this particular bird, lasts until mid-August in the lower Susquehanna region.  In places lacking their specific habitat requirements, Bobolinks will seldom be detected except as flyovers during migration.
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced to the lower Susquehanna basin, and their populations were maintained thereafter, by stocking for the purpose of hunting.  But throughout the middle twentieth century, there was a substantial population of ring-necks breeding in fields of cool-season grasses in farmlands throughout the region.  High-intensity agriculture with frequent mowing eliminated not only nesting habitat in grasslands, but winter cover in areas of early successional growth.  Populations of Ring-necked Pheasants, as well as native Northern Bobwhite, crumbled during the late 1970s and early 1980s due to these changes.  For these resident birds that don’t migrate or routinely travel great distances to find new places to live and breed, widespread habitat loss can be particularly catastrophic.  Not surprisingly, the Northern Bobwhite is no longer found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and has been extirpated from all of Pennsylvania.
Blue Grosbeak
At places like Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area where a mix of grasslands, early successional growth, and even some cropland are maintained, the Blue Grosbeak has extended its range well north of the Mason-Dixon and has become a regular nesting species during recent decades.  Good habitat management does pay dividends.

Right now is a good time to visit Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to see the effectiveness a delayed mowing schedule can have when applied to fields of cool-season grasses.  If you slowly drive, walk, or bicycle the auto tour route on the north side of the lake, you’ll pass through vast areas maintained as cool-season and warm-season grasses and early successional growth—and you’ll have a chance to see these and other grassland birds raising their young.  It’s like a trip back in time to see farmlands they way they were during the middle years of the twentieth century.

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.

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


DAY NINE—May 29, 1983

“Falcon Dam State Park, Texas”

“To the spillway area after breakfast and saw Ringed Kingfisher, Baird’s Sandpiper, and 2 Black-necked Stilts.  Stopped to photograph the Swainson’s Hawk which had flown in a tree.  Also saw a Blue Grosbeak.”

The Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) was notably larger than the Belted Kingfishers with which we were so familiar, so it was easy to identify.  This was yet another tropical species found north only as far as the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Baird’s Sandpiper was a pretty good find for this location in late May.

Swainson's Hawk
The Swainson’s Hawk we discovered yesterday in a water-logged flightless condition had recovered.  Shortly after this photograph was taken and we had taken leave of the bird, we looked back and saw it flying away to the north.  Soon, it was out of sight.

“We drove to Santa Margarita Ranch to search for the elusive Brown Jay.”

While en route to Santa Margarita Ranch, we stopped twice to photograph birds we spotted along the way.

Plain Chachalacas
This family of Plain Chachalacas was spotted crossing the road near Falcon Dam.
Harris's Hawks
Harris’s Hawks are known to hunt in groups, hence their alternate common name “Wolf Hawk”.  We spotted these two and several others, presumably a mated pair and their recently fledged young, hunting an area of thornscrub not far from Santa Margarita Ranch near the town of Falcon Heights, Texas.

Beside the road just outside the entrance to the ranch, we observed a Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps), a tiny chickadee-like like bird with a yellow head and throat.  Verdins reside in both thornscrub and desert throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

“Rancho Santa Margarita is a group of 8 houses.  Cattle roam at will.  We walked a long way along the river — No luck.  Had lunch in the camper and repeated the morning walk.  Cattle dung all over the place.  The dung rollers were as interesting to watch as the leaf-carrying ants.  Met a Mr. McQueary who had seen them 30 min. ago, so he led us to where he had seen them, but — No luck.”

Upon arriving at Santa Margarita Ranch intending to find Brown Jays (Psilorhinus morio), we drove over the in-ground cattle gate at the entrance and back the dirt driveway to the small cluster of houses where we parked.  We checked in with a resident there and slipped them a dollar or two a head for letting us spend the day on their land.  As we walked away from the houses, we noticed some intermittent movement in a pile of construction debris along the dirt road leading to the river.  Initially thinking we may have caught glimpses of some small rodents dashing around, we watched patiently until we saw at least two Blue Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus cyanogenys) among the lumber and tin.  The pair was obviously finding insects or other sources of prey there

To find Brown Jays, one of the five target species of the trip, Father Tom had advised us to follow the advice in James Lane’s A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  The recommendations contained therein brought us to Santa Margarita Ranch.  As was the case upriver near Falcon Dam, the Tamaulipan Saline Thornscrub that covers much of the property turns abruptly to subtropical riparian forest near the banks of the Rio Grande where wetter soils predominate.  The habitat was excellent, and we were certain the birds were there, but despite significant effort, we just couldn’t bump into Brown Jays at Santa Margarita Ranch.

We did however get good looks at another Hook-billed Kite sailing above the trees downriver.  During our second walk, Harold, Steve, and I waded down a short section of the Rio Grande in hopes of getting better looks into an area of shoreline forest too thick to enter by land.  Despite recent rains, the water was low, restricted by gates at Falcon Dam to little more than the flow needed to operate the turbines and generate electricity.  We saw orioles, Red-billed Pigeon, and Great Kiskadee—but no Brown Jays.

Bewick's Wren
We heard an Olive Sparrow and this Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) singing in some thornscrub along the edge of the riparian forest at Santa Margarita Ranch.  It took some effort to finally catch a glimpse of the wren.

“On the way out…found a nest of Pyrrhuloxia and saw a 6 ft. snake hanging from a bush with a rabbit in his mouth.  The snake caught the rabbit by the shoulder and it was working hard to get free.  Finally the snake dropped the rabbit, and they both went out of sight.” 

Pyrrhuloxia
A Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) in the thornscrub along the dirt entrance/exit road to Santa Magarita Ranch.
Pyrrhuloxia
The pair of Pyrrhuloxia had their nest well-hidden.  We were lucky to have spotted it, but we dared not approach any closer for pictures for fear of frightening the nestlings and prompting premature fledging.

As we eased our way out the dirt road at Santa Magarita Ranch, we began hearing a blood-curdling series of squeals.  Russ stopped the van and as we peered into the thornscrub, we could catch glimpses of an Eastern Cottontail thrashing around.  At first we thought it had somehow become snagged in the quagmire of prickles on the dense vegetation.  Then we spotted the snake draped over the shrubs and attempting in vain to lift the cottontail off the ground.  The struggle, and the squealing, continued for several minutes as we labored to identify the snake.  As the snake attempted to reposition the cottontail so that it could swallow it head first, the rabbit broke free and escaped.  All was silent as the snake quickly fled as well.  As it slithered away we could see just how long it really was—5 to 6 feet or more.  You know, things really are bigger in Texas.  Based upon its large size, overall tan-brown color, and the rapid speed with which it left the scene, we determined it was a Western Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus).

“Back to the spillway at Falcon Dam — No luck.  Met Ron Huffman who is leading a trip for 3 women.  We will meet him at the spillway tomorrow AM early.  Back at our camp site for supper — shower and shave.  The Lesser Nighthawks were trilling late in the evening.”

During the evening, we found Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) and Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata) in the area of the campsite.  Then, as darkness settled in, the calls of Common Pauraque, Common Nighthawks, and Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) commenced.  We walked down the road to a spot where we could overlook a lower-lying area of thornscrub in hopes of catching a glimpse of some of these nightjars, particularly the latter species, as they patrolled for flying insects.  But under cloudy skies and being miles from any man-made sources of light, it was too dark to see anything flying around.

Scaled Quail
Just before sunset, this Scaled Quail appeared among the thornscrub near our campsite.

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


DAY FOUR—May 24, 1983

“AOK Campground—South of Kingsville, Texas”

“Arose at 6:30 A.M. to the tune of Common Nighthawks.  After breakfast, we headed for Harlingen.  While driving south we saw six pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  At Harlingen we phoned Father Tom, who is an expert birder for the area.”

As we drove south to Harlingen, much our 100-mile route was through the Laureles division of the King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States.  It covers over 800,000 acres and is larger than the state of Rhode Island.  The road there was as straight as an arrow with wire fences on both sides and scrubland as far as the eye could see.  Things really are bigger in Texas.

Once in Harlingen, we did two things no one needs to do anymore:

      1.   Find a coin-operated telephone to place a call to Father Tom.
      2.   Ask Father Tom for the latest tips on the locations of rare and/or target birds.

Today, nearly everyone traveling such distances to find birds is carrying a cellular phone and many can use theirs to access internet sites and databases such as eBird to get current sighting information.  Back in 1983, Father Tom Pincelli was a dear friend to birders visiting the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Few places had a person who was willing to answer the phone and field inquiries regarding the latest whereabouts of this or that bird.  To remain current, he also had to religiously (forgive me for the pun) collect sighting information from the observers with whom he had contact.  For locations elsewhere across the country, a birder in 1983 was happy just to have a phone number for a hotline with a tape-recorded message listing the unusual sightings for its covered region.  If you were lucky, the volunteer logging the sightings would be able to update the tape once a week.  For those who dialed his number, Father Tom provided an exceptionally personal experience.

Since 1983, Father Tom Pincelli, also known as “Father Bird”, has tirelessly promoted birding and conservation throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  His efforts have included hosting a P.B.S. television program and writing columns for local newspapers.  He has been instrumental in developing the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  The public sentiment he has generated for the birding paradise that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley has helped facilitate the acquisition and/or protection of many key parcels of land in the region.

“After receiving information on locations of Tropical Parula, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Hook-billed Kite, Brown Jay, and Clay-colored Robin, we went on to check out the Brownsville Airport where we will meet Harold and Steve Thursday noon.”

If we were going to see these five species in the American Birding Association listing area, then we would have to see them in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  All five were target birds for each of us, including Harold who had few other possibilities for new species on the trip.  Father Tom provided us with tips for finding each.

I noticed as we began moving around Harlingen and Brownsville that Russ was swiftly getting his bearings—he had been here before and was starting to remember where things were.  His ability to navigate his way around allowed us to keep moving and see a lot in a short time.

In Harlingen, we easily found Mourning Doves and the non-native Rock Pigeons, species we see regularly in Pennsylvania.  We became more enthusiastic about doves and pigeons soon after when we saw the first of the several other species native to south Texas, the diminutive Inca Dove (Columbina inca), also known as the Mexican Dove.

“Next, to the Brownsville Dump to see the White-necked Ravens — Then to Mrs. Benn’s in Brownsville for the Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  Both lifers for Larry.”

For birders wanting to see a White-necked Raven in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Brownsville Dump was the place to go.  With very little effort—excluding a trip of nearly 2,000 miles to get there—we found them.  Today, birders still go to the Brownsville Dump to find White-necked Ravens, though the dump is now called the Brownsville Landfill and the bird is known as the Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus).

Mrs. Benn’s home was in a verdant residential neighborhood in Brownsville.  She welcomed birders to come and see the Buff-bellied Hummingbirds that visited her feeder filled with sugar water.  I don’t recall whether or not she kept a guest book for visitors to sign, but if she did, it would have included hundreds—maybe thousands—of names of people from all over North America who came to her garden to get a look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  After arriving, we waited a short time and sure enough, we watched a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) sipping Mrs. Benn’s home-brewed nectar from her glass feeder.  This emerald hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species with a breeding range that extends north into the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  When not breeding, a few will wander north and east along the Gulf Coastal Plain as far as Florida.

Other finds at Mrs Benn’s included White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), and Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus), a species also known as Mexican Titmouse.

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

The Lower Rio Grande Valley from Rio Grande City east to the Gulf of Mexico is actually the river’s outflow delta.  At least six historic channels have been delineated in Texas on the north side of the river’s present-day course.  An equal number may exist south of the border in Mexico.  Hundreds of oxbow lakes known as “resacas” mark the paths of the former channels through the delta.  Many resacas are the centerpieces of parks, wildlife refuges, and housing developments.  Still others are barely detectable after being buried in silt deposits left by the meandering river.  Channelization, land disturbances related to agriculture, and a boom in urbanization throughout the valley have disconnected many of the most recently formed resacas from the river’s floodplain, preventing them from absorbing the impact of high-water events.  These alterations to natural morphology can severely aggravate flooding and water pollution problems.

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

“On to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  We walked to Pintail Lake and saw 6 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and 2 Mississippi Kites and 1 Pied-billed Grebe.  We drove the route thru the park with great results—Anhingas, Least Grebe, and more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande is not only a birder’s mecca, 300 species of butterflies have been identified there.  That’s half the species known to occur in the United States!  Its subtropical riparian forest and resaca lakes provide habitat for hundreds of migratory and resident bird species including many Central and South American species that reach the northern limit of their range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Two endangered cats occur in the park—the Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and the Jaguarundi  (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

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

We saw no cats at Santa Ana, but did quite well with the birds.  Our list included the species listed above plus Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis); Louisiana Heron, now known as Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor); Plain Chachalacas; Purple Gallinule; Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata); American Coot; Killdeer; Greater Yellowlegs; the coastal Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla); and its close relative of the central flyway and continental interior, the Franklin’s Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan).  Others finds were White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and House Sparrow.  A real standout was the colorful Green Jay (Cyanocorax luxosus), yet another tropical Central American species found north only as far as the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

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

“We were unlucky not to find a campground at McAllen, so we went on to Bentsen State Park where we got a camp spot.  After a sauerkraut supper, we birded till dark, then showered and wrote up the log.  Very hot today.”

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, is located along the Rio Grande river and features dense subtropical riparian forest that grows in the naturally-deposited silt levees of the floodplain surrounding several lake-like oxbow resacas.  Montezuma Bald Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) is a native specialty found there but nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  During our visit, we marveled at the epiphyte Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) adorning many of the more massive trees in the park.  Willows lined much of the river shoreline.

Over time, flood control projects such as man-made dams, drainage ditches, and levees have impaired stormwater capture and aquifer recharge in the floodplain.  These alterations to watershed hydrology have resulted in drier soils in many sections of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s riparian forests.  Where drier conditions persist, xeric (dry soil) scrubland plants are slowly overtaking the moisture-dependent species.  As a result, the park’s woodlands are composed of trees with a variety of microclimatic requirements—Anaqua (Ehretia anacua), Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia), Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano), hackberry, mesquite, Mexican Ash (Fraxinus berlandieriana), retama, and tepeguaje are the principle species.  The park’s subtropical Texas Wild Olive (Cordia boissieri) grows in the wild nowhere north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

While a majority of birders visiting Benten-Rio Grande State Park come to see the more tropical specialties of the riparian woods, searching the brushy habitat of the park’s scrubland can afford one the opportunity to see species typical of the southwestern United States and deserts of Mexico.  This scrubland of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is part of the Tamaulipan Mezquital ecoregion, an area of xeric (dry soil) shrublands and deserts that extends northwest from the delta through most of south Texas and into the bordering provinces of northeastern Mexico.

Our campsite was located in prime birding habitat.  We were a short walk away from one of the park’s flooded oxbow resacas and vegetation was thick along the roadsides.  It was no surprise that the place abounded with birds.  An evening stroll yielded Plain Chachalaca, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, White-fronted Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Green Jay, Altamira Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, and Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus).  At nightfall, we listened to the calls of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), Common Nighthawks, and Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a nightjar of Central and South America that nests only as far north as the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The Common Pauraque is the tropical counterpart of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, a Neotropical migrant that nests in scattered forest locations throughout eastern North America.

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

I would note that we saw no “snowbirds”—long-term vacationers from the northern states and Canada who fill the park through the cooler months of fall, winter, and spring.  They were gone for the summer.  But for a few other friendly folks, we had the entire campground to ourselves for the duration of our stay.

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


DAY THREE—May 23, 1983

For Russ, Harold, and Steve, this trip would target several bird species each individual had never observed at any prior time in their lives.  Upon seeing a new bird, they could add it to their personal “life list”.  They, like thousands of other “listers”, were dedicated to the goal of having a life list that included over 600 species seen in the American Birding Association (A.B.A.) area—North America north of Mexico.  Harold had traveled throughout much of North America (and the world) and had an A.B.A. life list well in excess of 600 species, thus he had seen nearly all of the regularly occurring birds in the coverage area.  His chance for seeing new species was limited to vagrants that might wander into North America or tropical birds that, over time, had extended their range north of Mexico into the United States.  I don’t recall  how many species Russ and Steve had seen, but I know each had very few opportunities for new finds east of the Rocky Mountains.  For all three of these men, the Lower Rio Grande Valley presented a best bet to add multiple species to their lists.  I had never been south of Cape Hatteras or west of Pennsylvania, so I had the opportunity to add dozens of species to a life list.  Throughout the trip, Russ, Harold, and Steve enthusiastically helped me locate and see new species.  As a result, I saw over 50 new birds to add to my list.

One of the functions of the American Birding Association was to decide which bird species an observer could add to the life list.  The official A.B.A. list was revised regularly to include not only regularly occurring native species, but vagrants as well.  One of the trickier determinations was the status of introduced species.  Back in 1983, a birder could count a Ring-necked Pheasant seen in Pennsylvania on their A.B.A. life list because they were thought to be freely reproducing with a population sustainably established in the state.  Today, they are considered an exotic release and are not countable under A.B.A. rules.

Enter the Black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus), a member of the pheasant family that back in 1983, was countable under A.B.A. rules.  Native to India, the Black Francolin was introduced into southwest Louisiana in 1961 and was apparently reproducing and established.  Russ had a tip that they were seen with some regularity in areas of farmland, marsh, and oil fields south of Vinton, Louisiana.  It was one of this trip’s target species for his life list.

“Ready for Black Francolin.  Up at 5:30 — After breakfast, we went to Gum Cove Road.  No Francolins, but at the end of the blacktop road, we had 5 Purple Gallinules in the scope at one time.  King Rails were plentiful.  We found a dead male Painted Bunting.  Later, we saw a very beautiful live one.  Water everywhere.  Flooded fields everywhere.  The road was flooded for about 50 yards at one point.  White Ibis were abundant.”

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinicus) were common along Gum Cove Road.  In silhouette from a distance, those that were perching atop the shrubs raised hopes that we had located the sought after Blank Francolin, but they were all Purple Gallinules.  We weren’t overly disappointed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Painted Bunting
The live male Painted Bunting (Passerina cirus) seen along Gum Cove Road.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

Other sightings of note along Gum Cove Road included: Northern Bobwhite, Common Nighthawk, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Forster’s Tern, Black Tern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Brown Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major), and Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)—a very large and noisy blackbird I had never seen before.

Glossy Ibis
A Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) in a flooded area along Gum Cove Road.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

The reader may be interested to know that today, the area between Vinton and the Gulf of Mexico has largely been surrendered to the forces of the hurricanes that strike the region with some regularity.  Cameron Parish* is a sparsely populated buffer zone of marshes, abundant wildlife, and oil and gas wells.  Its population of more than 9,000 in 1983 has plunged to less than 6,000 today.  Hurricane Rita (2005) and Hurricane Ike (2008) precipitated the sharp decline.  The latter hurricane had a 22-foot storm surge that flooded areas 60 miles inland of the coastline.  Following these storms, the majority of severely damaged and destroyed homes were not rebuilt and residents in the most affected areas relocated.  In 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall at Cameron Parish with record-tying 150 mph winds and a storm surge that pushed flood waters inland to Lake Charles.  Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta followed with 100 mph winds.  For government agencies, the emergency response required by these two storms was minimized by the reduced presence of people and/or their personal property.

* A parish in Louisiana is similar to a county in other states.

Category 4 Hurricane Laura making landfall at Cameron Parish, Louisiana, on August 27, 2020, with wind speeds of 150 mph.  Had this storm come ashore to the east at New Orleans or to the west at Houston, it would have catastrophically impacted a million people or more.  (N.O.A.A./National Weather Service image)

“After a quick stop at the camp grounds, where I slipped and fell in the shower last nite, we headed south.  Larry saw many birds en route.”

Russ took a bad fall on a slippery wet concrete floor and had bruises to show for it.  It worried me; he was 71 years old at the time.  But he was adamant about continuing on and did so with great vigor.

Just hours after a sojourn through the swampy parcels south of Vinton, we were cruising through the metropolis of Houston, Texas, then across a landscape with less cultivated cropland and more scrubland with grazing.  Here and there, but primarily to the east of Houston, blankets of roadside wildflowers painted the landscape with eye-popping color.  Lady Bird Johnson encouraged the plantings soon after she and Lyndon returned to Texas upon leaving life in the White House in 1969.  The sight of those vivid blooms was so memorable and so beautiful.  One couldn’t resist making nasty comparisons to the gobs of mowed grass and mangled trash along the highways back in Pennsylvania.

Birds along the way: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Common Nighthawk, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue, Heron, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Laughing Gull, Black Tern, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Painted Bunting.  I saw my first Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) near Woodsboro, Texas, and added both to my life list.

“We stopped for the nite at an A OK camp ground 7 miles south of Kingsville.”

Day Three: Vinton, Louisiana, to Kingsville, Texas, a distance of 404 miles.  (United States Geological Survey base image)

Birds at the camp included two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying overhead, Common Nighthawk, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Blue Grosbeak, and another “lifer”—Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre).

We also saw a Mexican Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys mexicanus), easily identified by the rows of white spots running the length of its back.

While relaxing at the campsite that evening, we watched the landscape darken and remarked how interesting it was that the glowing red sun had yet to set below the distant horizon—a land so very flat and air so hazy and humid.

Common Nighthawk
We found this Common Nighthawk roosting on a tree limb near our campsite.  During our first few days in Louisiana and Texas, it became increasingly evident that we were in the midst of their peak northbound spring movement.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

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


Back in late May of 1983, four members of the Lancaster County Bird Club—Russ Markert, Harold Morrrin, Steve Santner, and your editor—embarked on an energetic trip to find, observe, and photograph birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  What follows is a daily account of that two-week-long expedition.  Notes logged by Markert some four decades ago are quoted in italics.  The images are scans of 35 mm color slide photographs taken along the way by your editor.


The trip was scheduled to coincide with breeding season in order to provide a good chance of locating a number of tropical species that happen to reach the northern limit of their range along the Lower Rio Grande.  In addition, there was the possibility of seeing many northbound end-of-season spring migrants funneling through the valley as they followed the Gulf Coast on their way to nesting grounds in eastern and central sections of the United States and Canada.

DAY ONE—May 21, 1983

The trip began at Russ Markert’s home in Lititz, Pennsylvania where I slept the night before departure.  Markert’s van camper would be both our mode of transportation and accommodation for the journey.  Upon arrival in south Texas, we would pick up Harold Morrin and Steve Santner at the Brownsville Airport.  They would join us for a week before returning by air to Pennsylvania.

“Larry slept at my house last night so we could get an early start today — camper packed and read to go.  Arose at 5:30.  We alternated driving, about every two hours.  Heavy rain through Virginia and West Virginia.  Arrived at Sweetwater KOA, Tennessee, at 5:30 P.M.  The weather turned to rain.”

Day One: Lititz, Pennsylvania, to Sweetwater, Tennessee, a distance of 656 miles.  (United States Geological Survey base image)

Northern Bobwhite were among the many birds of farm and field at the Sweetwater KOA campground.  After dinner and before the rain began, I recall going for a swim in the pool, something I craved being able to do during the sweltering evenings we would experience in south Texas during the week to follow.

Hidden Surprises

If you’re like us, you’re forgoing this year’s egg hunt due to the prices, and, well, because you’re a little bit too old for such a thing.

Instead, we took a closer look at some of our wildlife photographs from earlier in the week.  We’ve learned from experience that we don’t always see the finer details through the viewfinder, so it often pays to give each shot a second glance on a full-size screen.  Here are a few of our images that contained some hidden surprises.


Blue-winged Teal and American Black Ducks
We photographed these Blue-winged Teal and American Black Ducks as they were feeding in a meadow wetland…

..but upon closer inspection we located…

Common Green Darner
…a Common Green Darner patrolling for mosquitoes and other prey.  The Common Green Darner is a migratory species of dragonfly.  After mating, they deposit their eggs in wetland pools, ponds, and slow-moving streams.

Water Strider
We photographed this Water Strider as it was “walking” across a pool in a small stream that meanders through a marshy meadow…

..but after zooming in a little closer we found…

Water Strider with a Mosquito
…a mosquito coming to deposit its eggs had been seized as a mid-day meal.   Look at how the legs of the Water Strider use the surface tension of the pool to allow it to “walk on water”, even while clutching and subduing its prey.

Canada Geese
We photographed these resident Canada Geese in a small plowed cornfield in an area managed mostly as a mix of cool-season and warm-season grassland…

..but then, following further examination, we discovered…

Ring-necked Pheasant
…a hen Ring-necked Pheasant on a nest.

THE BAD EGG

Red-winged Blackbirds
We photographed this small group of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds while it was feeding among corn stubble in a plowed field…

…but a careful search of the flock revealed…

Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds
…three female Brown-headed Cowbirds among them (the unstreaked brown birds, two to the far left and one among the “red-wings” to the right).  Cowbirds practice nest parasitism as a means of putting their young up for adoption.  Red-winged Blackbirds and numerous other species are the unknowing victims.  The female cowbird discreetly deposits her egg(s) in the adopting party’s nest and abandons it.  The cowbird egg and the hatchling that follows is cared for by the victim species, often at the expense of their own young.

Are Your Eggs All They’re Cracked Up To Be?

Looks like I’m gonna be in the doghouse again—this time by way of the hen house.  But why should I care?  Here we go.

A few weeks ago, back when eggs were still selling for less than five dollars a dozen, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture renewed calls for owners and caretakers of outdoor flocks of domestic poultry (backyard chickens) to keep their birds indoors to protect them from the spread of  bird flu—specifically “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza” (H.P.A.I.).  At least one story edited and broadcast by a Susquehanna valley news outlet gave the impression that “vultures and hawks” are responsible for the spread of avian flu in chickens.  To see if recent history supports such a deduction, let’s have a look at the U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s 2022-2023 list of the  detection of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in birds affected in counties of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in Pennsylvania.

H.P.A.I. 2022 Confirmed Detections as of January 13, 2023

This listing includes date of detection, county of collection, type/species of bird, and number of birds affected.  WOAH (World Organization for Animal Health) birds include backyard poultry, game birds raised for eventual release, domestic pet species, etc.

12/30/2022  Adams            Black Vulture

12/15/2022   Lancaster     Canada Goose

12/15/2022   Lebanon        Black Vulture

12/15/2022   Adams            Black Vulture (3)

11/8/2022     Cumberland Black Vulture (4)

11/4/2022      Dauphin         WOAH Non-Poultry (130)

10/19/2022   Dauphin         Captive Wild Rhea (4)

10/17/2022   Adams            Commercial Turkey (15,100)

10/11/2022    Adams            WOAH Poultry (2,800)

9/30/2022    Lancaster      Mallard

9/30/2022    Lancaster      Mallard

9/29/2022     Lancaster     WOAH Non-Poultry (180)

9/29/2022     York                 Commercial Turkey (25,900)

8/24/2022     Dauphin         Captive Wild Crane

7/15/2022      Lancaster     Great Horned Owl

7/15/2022      York                 Bald Eagle

7/15/2022      Dauphin         Bald Eagle

6/16/2022      Dauphin         Black Vulture

6/16/2022      Dauphin         Black Vulture (4)

5/31/2022      Lancaster      Black Vulture (2)

5/31/2022      Lancaster      Black Vulture

5/10/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (72,300)

4/29/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Duck (19,300)

4/27/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Broiler (18,100)

4/26/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (307,400)

4/22/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Broiler (50,300)

4/20/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (1,127,700)

4/20/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (879,400)

4/15/2022-Lncstr-Commercial Egg Layer (1,380,500)

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, it’s pretty obvious that the outbreak of avian flu got its foothold inside some of the area’s big commercial poultry houses.  Common sense tells us that hawks, vultures, and other birds didn’t migrate north into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed carrying bird flu, then kick in the doors of the enclosed hen houses to infect the flocks of chickens therein.   Anyone paying attention during these past three years knows that isolation and quarantine are practices more easily proposed than sustained.  Human footprints are all over the introduction of this infection into these enormous flocks.  Simply put, men don’t wipe their feet when no one is watching!  The outbreak of bird flu in these large operations was brought under control quickly, but not until teams of state and federal experts arrived to assure proper sanitary and isolation practices were being implemented and used religiously to prevent contaminated equipment, clothing, vehicles, feed deliveries, and feet from transporting virus to unaffected facilities.  Large poultry houses aren’t ideal enclosures with absolute capabilities for excluding or containing viruses and other pathogens.  Exhaust systems often blow feathers and waste particulates into the air surrounding these sites and present the opportunity for flu to be transported by wind or service vehicles and other conveyances that pass through contaminated ground then move on to other sites—both commercial and non-commercial.  Waste material and birds (both dead and alive) removed from commercial poultry buildings can spread contamination during transport and after deposition.  The sheer volume of the potentially infected organic material involved in these large poultry operations makes absolute containment of an outbreak nearly impossible.

A farm with a biosecurity perimeter or control area.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)
A U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service Veterinary Services employee decontaminates footwear at the entrance to a biosecurity zone.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)

Looking at the timeline created by the list of U.S.D.A. detections, the opportunity for bird flu to leave the commercial poultry loop probably happened when wild birds gained access to stored or disposed waste and dead animals from an infected commercial poultry operation.  For decades now, many poultry operations have dumped dead birds outside their buildings where they are consumed by carrion-eating mammals, crows, vultures, Bald Eagles, and Red-tailed Hawks.  For these species, discarded livestock is one of the few remaining food sources in portions of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed where high-intensity farming has eliminated other forms of sustenance.  They will travel many miles and gather in unnatural concentrations to feast on these handouts—creating ideal circumstances for the spread of disease.

The sequence of events indicated by the U.S.D.A. list would lead us to infer that vultures and Bald Eagles were quick to find and consume dead birds infected with H5N1—either wild species such as waterfowl or more likely domestic poultry from commercial operations or from infectious backyard flocks that went undetected.  As the report shows, Black Vultures in particular seem to be susceptible to morbidity.  Their frequent occurrence as victims highlights the need to dispose of potentially infectious poultry carcasses properly—allowing no access for hungry wildlife including scavengers.

Black Vultures
Black Vultures and other scavengers including Bald Eagles are attracted to improperly discarded poultry carcasses and will often loiter in areas where dumping occurs.

The positive test on a Great Horned Owl is an interesting case.  While the owl may have consumed an infected wild bird such as a crow, there is the possibility that it consumed or contacted a mammalian scavenger that was carrying the virus.  Aside from rodents and other small mammals, Great Horned Owls also prey upon Striped Skunks with some regularity.  Most of the dead poultry from flu-infected commercial flocks was buried onsite in rows of above-ground mounds.  Skunks sniff the ground for subterranean fare, digging up invertebrates and other food.  Buried chickens at a flu disposal site would constitute a feast for these opportunistic foragers.  A skunk would have no trouble at all finding at least a few edible scraps at such a site.  Then a Great Horned Owl could easily seize and feed upon such a flu virus-contaminated skunk.

Striped Skunk
Striped Skunks and many other mammals are readily attracted by improperly discarded poultry carcasses.

BACKYARD POULTRY

Before we proceed, the reader must understand the seldom-stated and never advertised mission of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture—to protect the state’s agriculture industry.  That’s it; that’s the bottom line.  Regulation and enforcement of matters under the purview of the agency have their roots in this goal.  While they may also protect the public health, animal health, and other niceties, the underlying purpose of their existence in its current manifestation is to protect the agriculture industry(s) as a whole.

This is not a trait unique to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.  It is at the core of many other federal and state agencies as well.  Following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, a novel decrying “wage slavery” in the meat packing industry, the federal government took action, not for the purpose of improving the working conditions for labor, but to address the unsanitary food-handling practices described in the book by creating an inspection program to restore consumer confidence in the commercially-processed meat supply so that the industry would not crumble.

Locally, few things make the dairy industry and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture more nervous than small producers selling “raw milk”.  In the days before pasteurization and refrigeration, people were frequently sickened and some even died from drinking bacteria-contaminated “raw milk”.  In Pennsylvania, the production and sale of dairy products including “raw milk” is closely regulated and requires a permit.  Retention of a permit requires submitting to inspections and passing periodic herd and product testing.  Despite the dangers, many consumers continue to buy “raw milk” from farms without permits.  These sales are like a ticking time bomb.  The bad publicity from an outbreak of food-borne illness traced back to a dairy product—even if it originated in an “outlaw” operation—could decimate sales throughout the industry.  Because just one sloppy farm selling “raw milk” could instantly erode consumer confidence and cause an industry-wide collapse of the market resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in sales, it is a deeply concerning issue.

Enter the backyard chicken—a two-fold source of anxiety for the poultry industry and its regulators.  Like unregulated meat and dairy products, eggs and meat from backyard poultry flocks are often marketed without being monitored for the pathogens responsible for the transmission of food-borne illness.  From the viewpoint of the poultry industry, this situation poses a human health risk that in the event of an outbreak, could erode consumer confidence, not only in homegrown organic and free-range products, but in the commercial line of products as well.  Consumers can be very reactive upon hearing news of an outbreak, recalling few details other than “the fowl is foul”— then refraining from buying poultry products.  The second and currently most concerning source of trepidation among members of the poultry industry though is the threat of avian flu and other diseases being harbored in and transmitted via flocks of backyard birds.

The Green Revolution, the post-World War II initiative that integrated technology into agriculture to increase yields and assure an adequate food supply for the growing global population, brought changes to the way farmers raised poultry for market.  Small-scale poultry husbandry slowly disappeared from many farms.  Instead, commercial operations concentrated birds into progressively-larger indoor flocks to provide economy of scale.  Over time, genetics and nutrition science have provided the American consumer with a line of readily available high-quality poultry products at an inexpensive price.  Within these large-scale operations, poultry health is closely monitored.  Though these enclosures may house hundreds of thousands of birds, the strategy during an outbreak of communicable disease is to contain an outbreak to the flock therein, writing it off so to speak to prevent the pathogens from finding their way into the remainder of the population in a geographic area, thus saving the industry at the expense of the contents of a single operation.  Adherence to effective biosecurity practices can contain outbreaks in this way.

An offshoot of the Green Revolution, a large-scale poultry operation.
Modern science has produced a genetic map of the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) allowing faster development of varieties with improved disease resistance, productivity, and other traits.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Peggy Greb)
A technician checks eggs produced by immunized birds for the presence of flu virus.  A flu vaccine could provide an added layer of protection to biosecurity in the poultry industry.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Stephen Ausmus)

The renewed popularity of backyard poultry is a reversal of the decades-long trend towards reliance on ever-larger indoor operations for the production of birds and eggs.  But backyard flocks may make less-than-ideal neighbors for commercial operations, particularly when birds are left to roam outdoors.  Visitors to properties with roaming chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys may pick up contamination on their shoes, clothing, tires, and equipment, then transmit the pathogenic material to flocks at other sites they visit without ever knowing it.  Even the letter carrier can carry virus from a mud puddle on an infected farm to a grazing area on a previously unaffected one.  Unlike commercial operations, hobby farms frequently buy, sell, and trade livestock and eggs without regard to disease transmission.  The rate of infection in these operations is always something of a mystery.  No state or county permits are required for keeping small numbers of poultry and outbreaks like avian flu are seldom reported by caretakers of flocks of home-raised birds, though their occurrence among them may be widespread.  The potential for pathogens like avian flu virus circulating long-term among flocks of backyard poultry in close proximity to commercial houses is a real threat to the industry.

Live poultry and eggs are frequently sold to and traded among operators of backyard flocks without monitoring for disease.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Keith Weller.)

There are a variety of motivations for tending backyard poultry.  While for some it is merely a form of pet keeping, others are more serious about the practice—raising and breeding exotic varieties for show and trade.  Increasingly, backyard flocks are being established by people seeking to provide their own source of eggs or meat.  For those with larger home operations,  supplemental income is derived from selling their surplus poultry products.  Many of these backyard enthusiasts are part of a movement founded on the belief that, in comparison to commercially reared birds, their poultry is raised under healthier and more humane conditions by roaming outdoors.  Organic operators believe their eggs and meat are safer for consumption—produced without the use of chemicals.  For the movement’s most dedicated “true believers”, the big poultry industry is the antagonist and homegrown fowl is the only hope.  It’s similar to the perspective members of the “raw milk” movement have toward pasteurized milk.  True believers are often willing to risk their health and well-being for the sake of the cause, so questioning the validity of their movement can render a skeptic persona non grata.

What’s in your eggs?  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Peggy Greb)

For the consumer, the question arises, “Are eggs and poultry from the small-scale operations better?”

While many health-conscious animal-friendly consumers would agree to support the small producer from the local farm ahead of big business, the reality of supplying food for the masses requires the economy of scale.  The billions of people in the world can’t be fed using small-scale and/or organic growing methods.  The Green Revolution has provided record-high yields by incorporating herbicides, insecticides, plastic, and genetic modification into agriculture.  To protect livestock and improve productivity, enormous indoor operations are increasingly common.  Current economics tell the story—organic production can’t keep up with demand, that’s why the prices for items labelled organic are so much higher.

A commercial poultry operation (in this case turkeys) produces economical consumer products.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Scott Bauer)

To the consumer, buying poultry raised outdoors is an appealing option.  Compared to livestock crowded into buildings, they feel good about choosing products from small operations where birds roam free and happy in the sunshine.

An outdoor flock of backyard chickens.  (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Service image)

But is the quality really better?  Some research indicates not.  Salmonella outbreaks have been traced back to poultry meat sourced from small unregulated operations.  Studies have found dioxins in eggs produced by hens left to forage outdoors.  The common practice of burning trash can generate a quantity of ash sufficient to contaminate soils with dioxins, chemical compounds which persist in the environment and in the fatty tissue of animals for years.  The presence of elevated levels of dioxins in eggs from outdoor grazing operations may pose a potential consumer confidence liability for the entire egg industry.

Birds raised or kept in an outdoor zoo or backyard poultry setting can be susceptible to viruses and other pathogens when wild birds including vultures and hawks become attracted to the captives’ food and water when it is placed in an accessible location.  In addition, hunting and scavenging birds are opportunistic— attracted to potential food animals when they perceive vulnerability.  Selective breeding under domestication has rendered food poultry fat, dumb, and too genetically impaired for survival in the wild.  These weaknesses instantly arouse the curiosity of raptors and other predators whose function in the food web is to maintain a healthy population of animals at lower tiers of the food chain by selectively consuming the sickly and weak.  In settings such as those created by high-intensity agriculture and urbanization, wild birds may find the potential food sources offered by outdoor zoos and backyard poultry irresistible.  As a result they may perch, loaf, and linger around these locations—potentially exposing the captive birds to their droppings and transmission of bird flu and other diseases.

Variation produced under domestication has left poultry unfit for life among the perils found outdoors.  (United States Department of Agriculture image)
Turkey Vulture and White-tailed Deer
Millions of years of natural selection have made scavengers and predators ideally suited for the role of detecting and consuming dead, dying, and diseased wild animals, thus reducing accumulations of rotting carcasses and the spread of infectious pathogens among prey species.  Their distribution and reproductive success is closely controlled by the availability of food.  Humans need not disturb this balance or create unnatural congregations of these animals by providing supplemental foods such as dead poultry.

While outdoor poultry operations usually raise far fewer birds than their commercial counterparts, their animals are still kept in densities high enough to promote the rapid spread of microbiological diseases.  Clusters of outdoor flocks can become a reservoir of pathogens with the capability of repeatedly circulating disease into populations of wild birds and even into commercial poultry operations—threatening the industry and food supply for millions of people.  For this reason, state and federal agencies are encouraging operators to keep backyard poultry indoors—segregated from natural and anthropogenic disease vectors and conveyances that might otherwise visit and interact with the flock.

BACK TO THE FUTURE?—NOT LIKELY

The hobby farmer, the homesteader, the pet keeper, and the consumer seldom realize what the modern farmer is coming to know—domestic livestock must be segregated from the sources of contamination and disease that occur outdoors.  Adherence to this simple concept helps assure improved health for the animals and a safer food supply for consumers.  In the future, outdoor production of domestic animals, particularly those used as a food supply, is likely to be classified as an outdated and antiquated form of animal husbandry.

Outside and Inside Animals
It’s as simple as ABC and 123.
Cage-free chickens can be housed within the protective envelop of a building where they can be segregated from the microbes and pollutants found outdoors.  The U.S.D.A. defines “free-range” poultry as birds with some access to an outdoor setting where the benefits of biosecurity and quarantine are, for all intents and purposes, nullified.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by Stephen Ausmus)
Pigs
Pigs raised outdoors by homesteaders and hobby farmers pose the threat of spreading a number of diseases including Swine Fevers and Brucellosis into pork industry operations.   Escaped individuals are often attracted to commercial hog houses where they can loiter outside and contaminate the ground surrounding entrance ways used by personnel tending the animals.  Like other domestic animals, pigs should be contained inside buildings for biosecurity.
Dairy cows in an indoor feed lot.
Dairy cows and other cattle raised within well-designed indoor and semi-indoor settings are less prone to injury and consumption of contaminated foods and water.
Domestic Cat
Domestic Cats (Felis catus), particularly when allowed to roam outdoors, can contract the parasite Toxoplasma gondii during interactions with mice.  Humans, dogs, pigs, and other animals coming in contact with the Toxoplasma oocysts shed in feline feces can contract Toxoplasmosis, a disease with various physical and mental health symptoms.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately three million cases of Toxoplasmosis among humans in the United States annually.

THE THREAT FROM PRIONS

If there are three things the world learned from the SARS CoV-2 (Covid-19) epidemic, it’s that 1) eating or handling bush meat can bring unwanted surprises, 2) dense populations of very mobile humans are ideal mediums for uncontrolled transmission of disease, and 3) quarantine is easier said than done.

If you think viruses are bad, you don’t even want to know about prions.  Prions are a prime example of why now is a good time to begin housing domestic animals, including pets, indoors to segregate them from wildlife.  And prions are a good example of why we really ought to think twice about relying on wild animals as a source of food.  Prions may make us completely rethink the way we interact with animals of any kind—but we had better do our thinking fast because prions turn the brains of their victims into Swiss cheese.

Stained slide of cow brain tissue affected by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The pale-colored air pockets are voids in the tissue caused by the disease.  (United States Department of Agriculture image by the late Dr. Al Jenny)

Diseases caused by prions are rapidly progressing neurodegenerative disorders for which there is no cure.  Prions are an abnormal isoform of a cellular glycoprotein.  They are currently rare, but prions, because they are not living entities, possess the ability to begin accumulating in the environment.  They not only remain in detritus left behind by the decaying carcasses of afflicted animals, but can also be shed in manure—entering soils and becoming more and more prevalent over time.  Some are speculating that they could wind up being man’s downfall.

The  Centers for Disease Control lists these human afflictions caused by prions…

The Centers for Disease Control lists these prion-caused ailments of other animals…

Dairy cows in a pasture.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder fatal to cattle.  It is caused by the same prion that, when consumed or otherwise contracted by humans, causes Creutzfekd-Jokob Disease (CJD).
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal disease caused by a prion, is currently spreading among populations of the White-tailed Deity in the mid-Atlantic region.  Prions are understood to be folded proteins, not living things, thus they are not destroyed by cooking and other disinfection practices.  If you are wondering whether various forms of these pathogens will begin accumulating in the environment and affecting more and more species with new and more frightening afflictions, well, time will tell.  Meanwhile, we at susquehannawildlife.net are staying away from “game” and any other form of bush meat.  Thanks, but no thanks!
The future with a safe food supply will require domestic animals to be contained indoors while wildlife roams unmolested outdoors.

SOURCES

Schoeters, Greet, and Ron Hoogenboom.  2006.  Contamination of Free-range Chicken Eggs with Dioxins and Dioxin-like Polychlorinated Biphenyls.  Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.  (10):908-14.

Szczepan, Mikolajczyk, Marek Pajurek, Malgorzata Warenik-Bany, and Sebastian Maszewski.  2021.  Environmental Contamination of Free-range Hen with Dioxin.  Journal of Veterinary Research.  65(2):225-229.

U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service.  2022 Confirmations of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022/2022-hpai-commercial-backyard-flocks as accessed January 14, 2023.

U.S.D.A. Animal and Plant Inspection Service.  2022 Confirmations of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.  aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022/2022-hpai-wild-birds  as accessed January 14, 2023.

Photo of the Day

Wild Turkey
A warm weekend will give foraging Wild Turkeys a chance to continue finding protein-rich grasshoppers and crickets before freezing weather forces them to transition to seeds, berries, acorns, hickory nuts, and other fare for sustenance.  Watch for gobblers and hens in forest clearings while you’re out and about having a gander at the fall foliage.

Blooming in Early July: Great Rhododendron

With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire?  Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), also known as Rosebay.

Great Rhododendron
The Great Rhododendron is an evergreen shrub found growing in the forest understory on slopes with consistently moist (mesic) soils.  The large, thick leaves make it easy to identify.  During really cold weather, they may droop and curl, but they still remain green and attached to the plant.

Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife.  The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Pinxter Flower in bloom
A close relative of the Great Rhododendron is the Pinxter Flower, also known as the Pink Azalea.

Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging.  Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants.  In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions.  Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth.  A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed.  In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site.  These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees.  In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) may be particularly sensitive to the loss of winter shelter and travel lanes provided by thickets of Great Rhododendron and other members of the heather/heath family.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens.   Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.

Great Rhododendron Flower Cluster
Great Rhododendrons sport an attractive blossom cluster.  The colors of the flower, especially the markings found only on the uppermost petal, guide pollinators to the stamens (male organs) and pistil (female organ).
Bumble Bee Pollinating a Great Rhododendron Flower
To this Bumble Bee (Bombus species), the yellowish spots on the uppermost petal of the Great Rhododendron may appear to be clumps of pollen and are thus an irresistible lure.  

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron.  One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves.  Go have a look.  You’ll be glad you did.

Great Rhododendron along Route 125 near Ravine
Great Rhododendron along Route 125 along the base of the north slope of Second Mountain north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Great Rhododendron along Swatara Creek
Great Rhododendrons beginning to bloom during the second week of July along Swatara Creek north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Note how acid mine drainage continues to stain the rocks (and pollute the water) in the upper reaches of this tributary of the lower Susquehanna.

Photo of the Day

It’s Gallo the Wild Turkey reminding you how delicious, nutritious, and filling macaroni and cheese can be as your center of the plate selection this holiday.  And if macaroni and cheese isn’t filling enough for you, there’s always filling.  But, remember, food safety experts remind us to never cook filling inside a bird.  So why invite a turkey to dinner?  Just eat more mac and cheese…and filling.  Gobble it up.

A Visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon, Very Soon: Brood X Periodical Cicadas

Yesterday, a hike through a peaceful ridgetop woods in the Furnace Hills of southern Lebanon County resulted in an interesting discovery.  It was extraordinarily quiet for a mid-April afternoon.  Bird life was sparse—just a pair of nesting White-breasted Nuthatches and a drumming Hairy Woodpecker.  A few deer scurried down the hillside.  There was little else to see or hear.  But if one were to have a look below the forest floor, they’d find out where the action is.

Not much action in the deer-browsed understory of this stand of hardwoods.
Upon discovery beneath a rock, this invertebrate quickly backed its way down the burrow, promptly seeking shelter in the underground section of the excavation.
A closeup of the same image reveals the red eyes of this Periodical Cicada (Magicicada species) nymph.  It has reached the end of seventeen years of slowly feeding upon the sap from a tree root to nourish its five instars (stages) of larval development.

2021 is an emergence year for Brood X, the “Great Eastern Brood”—the largest of the 15 surviving broods of Periodical Cicadas.  After seventeen years as subterranean larvae, the nymphs are presently positioned just below ground level, and they’re ready to see sunlight.  After tunneling upward from the deciduous tree roots from which they fed on small amounts of sap since 2004, they’re awaiting a steady ground temperature of about 64 degrees Fahrenheit before surfacing to climb a tree, shrub, or other object and undergo one last molt into an imago—a flying adult.

Here, approximately one dozen Periodical Cicada nymphs have tunneled into pre-emergence positions beneath a rock.  Seventeen-year Periodical Cicadas, sometimes mistakenly called “seventeen-year locusts”, are the longest-lived of our insects.
Note the wings and red eyes beneath the exoskeleton of this Periodical Cicada nymph. Within weeks it will join billions of others in a brief emergence to molt, dry, fly, mate, and die.
Adult (imago) Periodical Cicadas.  Brood X includes all three species of seventeen-year Periodical Cicadas: Magicicada septendecim, M. cassinii, and M. septendecula.  All Periodical Cicadas in the United States are found east of the Great Plains, the lack of trees there prohibiting the expansion of their range further west.  Seventeen-year life cycles account for twelve of the fifteen broods of Periodical Cicadas; the balance live for thirteen years.  The range of Brood X includes the lower Susquehanna basin and parts of Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.  (United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service image)
The flight of Periodical Cicadas peaks in late-May and June.  Shown here is the Eastern Scissor Grinder, an “Annual Cicada” that emerges later in the season, peaking yearly during July and August.

The woodlots of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed won’t be quiet for long.  Loud choruses of male Periodical Cicadas will soon roar through forest and verdant suburbia.  They’re looking for love, and they’re gonna die trying to find it.  And dozens and dozens of animal species will take advantage of the swarms to feed themselves and their young.  Yep, the woods are gonna be a lively place real soon.

Did you say Periodical Cicadas?  We can hardly wait!

Slow Down When There’s Snow on the Ground

It’s just common sense to take it easy and drive carefully when snow covers streets and highways.  Everyone knows that.  But did you know that slowing down when the landscape is blanketed in white can save lives even after the roadways have been cleared?

Following significant snowfalls such as the one earlier this week, birds and other wildlife are attracted to bare ground along the edges of plowed pavement.  They are often so preoccupied with the search for food that they ignore approaching cars and trucks until it is too late.

Take a look at the species found today along a one mile stretch of plowed rural roadway in the lower Susquehanna valley.

Following snow storms, birds that normally feed among leaf litter on the forest floor or in thickets and fields are attracted to plowed roads.  During their urgent search for food, many are struck and killed by motor vehicles.
White-throated Sparrows commonly congregate along roads passing through woodlands and thickets.
A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow looks for food among leaves along the edge of snow-free pavement.
Adult White-crowned Sparrows take cover in roadside shrubs until traffic passes.  Within moments they’ll return to a patch of bare ground along the road’s narrow shoulder.
Dark-eyed Juncos are commonly encountered along roads through snow-covered weedy fields and suburbia.
Song Sparrows gather along roads traversing brushy areas.
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrows and, to the upper right, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) take refuge in a small roadside sapling after fleeing a passing automobile.
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was attracted to berry-laden shrubs and vines in a road cut with a southern exposure and patches of bare ground.
Following a snowfall, Eastern Bluebirds are regularly seen feeding along the edges of rural roads.
Horned Larks gather along the snow-free margins of roads through tundra-like farmland.

For many species of wildlife in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the fragmented and impaired state of habitat already challenges their chances of surviving the winter.  Snow cover can isolate them from their limited food supplies and force them to roadsides and other dangerous locations to forage.  Mauling them with motor vehicles just adds to the escalating tragedy, so do wildlife and yourself a favor—please slow down.

Even in areas with  ideal habitat, snow cover will cause birds and other wildlife to explore bare ground along highways while seeking food.
Ring-necked Pheasants frequently become traffic casualties.  These birds feeding at roadside due to the snow cover are in increased peril.

The Colorful Birds Are Here

You need to get outside and go for a walk.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t.  It’s prime time to see wildlife in all its glory.  The songs and colors of spring are upon us!

Flooding that resulted from mid-week rains is subsiding.  The muddy torrents of Conewago Falls are seen here racing by the powerhouse at the York Haven Dam.
Receding waters will soon leave the parking area at Falmouth and other access points along the river high and dry.
Migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are currently very common in the riparian woodlands near Conewago Falls.  They and all the Neotropical warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers are moving through the Susquehanna watershed right now.
A Baltimore Oriole feeds in a riverside maple tree.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are migrating through the Susquehanna valley.  These tiny birds may be encountered among the foliage of trees and shrubs as they feed upon insects .
Gray Catbirds are arriving.  Many will stay to nest in shrubby thickets and in suburban gardens.
American Robins and other birds take advantage of rising flood waters to feed upon earthworms and other invertebrates that are forced to the soil’s surface along the inundated river shoreline.
Spotted Sandpipers are a familiar sight as they feed along water’s edge.
The Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a Neotropical migrant that nests locally in wet shrubby thickets.  Let your streamside vegetation grow and in a few years you just might have these “wild canaries” singing their chorus of “sweet-sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet” on your property.

If you’re not up to a walk and you just want to go for a slow drive, why not take a trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and visit the managed grasslands on the north side of the refuge.  To those of us over fifty, it’s a reminder of how Susquehanna valley farmlands were before the advent of high-intensity agriculture.  Take a look at the birds found there right now.

Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nest in cattail marshes, but are very fond of untreated hayfields, lightly-grazed pastures, and fallow ground too.  These habitats are becoming increasingly rare in the lower Susquehanna region.  Farmers have little choice, they either engage in intensive agriculture or go broke.
Nest boxes are provided for Tree Swallows at the refuge.
Numbers of American Kestrels have tumbled with the loss of grassy agricultural habitats that provide large insects and small rodents for them to feed upon.
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are a migrant and winter resident species that favors small clumps of shrubby cover in pastures and fallow land.
When was the last time you saw an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) singing “spring-of-the-year” in a pasture near your home?
And yes, the grasslands at Middle Creek do support nesting Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colcichus).  If you stop for a while and listen, you’ll hear the calls of “kowk-kuk” and a whir of wings.  Go check it out.

And remember, if you happen to own land and aren’t growing crops on it, put it to good use.  Mow less, live more.  Mow less, more lives.

Fallout in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

Local birders enjoy going to the Atlantic coast of New Jersey and Delmarva in the winter.  The towns and beaches host far fewer people than birds, and many of the species seen are unlikely to be found anywhere else in the region.  Unusual rarities add to the excitement.

The regular seaside attraction in winter is the variety of diving ducks and similar water birds that feed in the ocean surf and in the saltwater bays.  Most of these birds breed in Canada and many stealthily cross over the landmass of the northeastern United States during their migrations.  If an inland birder wants to see these coastal specialties, a trip to the shore in winter or a much longer journey to Canada in the summer is normally necessary—unless there is a fallout.

Migrating birds can show up in strange places when a storm interrupts their flight.  Forest songbirds like thrushes and warblers frequently take temporary refuge in a wooded backyard or even in a city park when forced down by inclement weather.  Loons have been found in shopping center parking lots after mistaking the wet asphalt for a lake.  Fortunately though, loons, ducks, and other water birds usually find suitable ponds, lakes, and rivers as places of refuge when forced down.  For inland birders, a fallout like this can provide an opportunity to observe these coastal species close to home.

Not so coincidentally, it has rained throughout much of today in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, apparently interrupting a large movement of migrating birds.  There is, at the time of this writing, a significant fallout of coastal water birds here.  Hundreds of diving ducks and other benthic feeders are on the Susquehanna River and on some of the clearer lakes and ponds in the region.  They can be expected to remain until the storm passes and visibility improves—then they’ll promptly commence their exodus.

The following photographs were taken during today’s late afternoon thundershower at Memorial Lake State Park at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County.

A one-year-old male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).
Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) are a familiar sight in saltwater bays, not so familiar on inland bodies of water.
A small raft of Scaup (Aythya species).
A pair of Buffleheads.
A Common Loon that lands in a parking lot is unable to take flight again.  It must be transported to a body of water large enough for it to run across the surface and get the speed it needs to take off and resume its flight.  This Common Loon at Memorial Lake has selected an ideal fallout haven.  It will have plenty of runway space when it decides to leave.
A Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) in a heavy downpour.

Migrating land birds have also been forced down by the persistent rains.

The tail-pumping Eastern Phoebe is a common sight around the lower Susquehanna valley right now.  Many will stay to breed, often building their nests under a man-made bridge, porch. or other structure.

Why not get out and take a slow quiet walk on a rainy day.  It may be the best time of all for viewing certain birds and other wildlife.

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopovo) will often leave the cover of woodlands and forest to forage in the open during a rain shower.
During the final hours of this evening, wind-assisted flights of northbound migrating birds are indicated as blue masses around radar sites south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  These nocturnal flights may constitute yet another fallout in the area of the showers and storms shown passing west to east through Pennsylvania, adding to the existing concentration of grounded migrants in the lower Susquehanna valley.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

A Century of Extinction

Many are wont to say that they have no capacity for scientific pursuits, and having no capacity, they consequently have no love for them.  I do not believe, that as a general thing, a love for science is necessarily innate in any man.  It is the subject of cultivation and is therefore acquired.  There are doubtless many, whose love for these and kindred pursuits is hereditary, through the mental biases and preoccupations of their progenitors, but in the masses of mankind it is quite otherwise.  In this consists its redeeming qualities, for I do not think the truly scientific mind can either be an idle, a disorderly, or a very wicked one.  There may be scientific men, who, forgetful of its teachings, are imperious and ambitious–who may have foregone their fealty to their country and their God, but as a general thing they are humble, social and law-abiding.  If, therefore, there is a human being who desires to break off from old and evil associations, and form new and more virtuous ones, I would advise him to turn his attention to some scientific specialty, for the cultivation of a new affection, if there are no other and higher influences more accessible.  In this pursuit he will, in time, be enabled to supplant the old and heartfelt affection.  The occupation of his mind in the pursuit of scientific lore will wean him from vicious, trivial, and unmanly pursuits, and point out to him a way that is pleasant and instructive to walk in, which will ultimately lead to moral and intellectual usefulness.  I wish I was accessible to them, and possessed the ability to impress this truth with sufficient emphasis upon the minds of the rising generation.  This fact, that in all moral reformations, a love for the opposite of any besetting evil must be cultivated, before that evil can be surely eradicated, has been too much overlooked and too little valued in moral ethics.  But true progress in this direction implies that, under all circumstances, men should “act in freedom according to reason.”

                                                                            -Simon S. Rathvon

 

In the cellar of the North Museum on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is an assemblage of natural history specimens of great antiquity.  The core of the collection has its origins in the endeavors of a group of mid-to-late nineteenth-century naturalists whose diligence provided a most thorough study of the plants and animals found within what was at the time America’s most productive farming county.

The members of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County shared a passion for collecting, identifying, classifying, and documenting the flora and fauna of the region.  Some members were formally educated and earned a living in the field of science, but the majority were in the process of self-education and balanced their natural history occupation with an unrelated means to provide financially for their families.  The latter benefited greatly from their associations with the former, gaining expertise and knowledge while participating in the functions of the group.

On February 24, 1866, Simon S. Rathvon, the society’s Treasurer, read an essay in commemoration of the group’s fourth anniversary.  Rathvon earned a living as a tailor, first in Marietta, a thriving river town at the time, then in Lancaster City.  In 1840, Rathvon was elected into the Marietta Natural History Lyceum where, as a collections curator, he became associated with principals Judge John J. Libhart, an amateur ornithologist, and Samuel S. Haldeman, a geologist and soon to be widely-known malacologist.  Haldeman, in 1842, upon noticing the new member’s interest in beetles and other insects, provided books, guidance, and inspiration, thus intensifying Rathvon’s study of entomology.  Rathvon’s steadfast dedication eventually led to his numerous achievements in the field which included the publication of over 30 papers, many on the topic of agricultural entomology.  Rathvon’s scientific understanding of insect identification and taxonomy was a foundation for his practical entomology, which moved beyond mere insect collection to focus upon the study of the life histories of insects, particularly the good and bad things they do.  He then applied that knowledge to help growers solve pest problems, often stressing the value of beneficial species for maintaining a balance in nature.  From 1869 through 1884, Rathvon edited and published Lancaster Farmer, a monthly (quarterly from 1874) agricultural journal in which he educated patrons with his articles on “economic entomology”.  Rathvon continued earning a living in the tailor business, seemingly frustrated that his financially prudent advice on insect control in Lancaster Farmer failed to entice more would-be readers to part with the one dollar annual subscription fee.  For many years, Rathvon crafted articles for local newspapers and wrote reports for the United States Department of Agriculture.  In recognition of his achievements, Simon Rathvon received an honorary Ph.D. from Franklin and Marshall College in 1878.

In Rathvon’s anniversary essay, he details the origins of the Linnaean Society as a natural science committee within the “Lancaster Historical, Mechanical, and Horticultural Society” founded in 1853.  The members of the committee, not finding sufficient support within the parent organization for their desired mission, “the cultivation and investigation of the natural history of Lancaster County…”, sought to form an independent natural history society.  In February of 1862, the “Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County” was founded to fulfill these ambitions.

Above all else, the written works by the members of the Linnaean Society and their predecessors have provided us with detailed accounts of the plants and animals found in Lancaster County, and in the lower Susquehanna River valley, using scientific binomial nomenclature, a genus and species name, as opposed to the variable folk and common names which, when used exclusively, often confuse or mislead readers.  Consider the number of common names a species could have if just one was assigned by each of the languages of the world.  Binomial nomenclature assigns one designation, a genus name and species name, in Latin, to each life-form (such as Homo sapiens for Humans), and it is adopted universally.

Rathvon would say of the naming of the Linnaean Society:

“…the name which the Society has adopted is in honorable commemoration of LINNAEUS, the great Swedish naturalist—one who may be justly regarded as a father in Natural Science.  To him belongs the honor of having first promulgated the “binomial system of nomenclature,” a system that has done more to simplify the study of natural science than any light that has been brought to the subject by any man in any age.”

Carl Linnaeus lived from 1707 to 1778, and published his first edition of Systema Naturae in 1735.

The names of a number of the members and corresponding members on the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County’s rolls remain familiar.  John P. McCaskey (educator) served as Corresponding Secretary.  Doctor Abram P. Garber was a prominent Lancaster botanist and society member.  Professor Samuel S. Haldeman (naturalist, geologist, and philologist), Professor J. L. LeConte (entomologist), Judge John J. Libhart, Professor Asa Gray (botanist), and the foremost legal egalitarian in the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, were  listed among the roster of corresponding members.

By the end of its fourth year, Rathvon enumerated the specimens in the collections of the society to exceed 32,000.  These included all the species of mosses and plants known in the county, 200 bird specimens, an enormous insect collection with nearly 12,000 Coleoptera (Beetles), and more than 1,400 mollusk shells.  The work of the society had already provided a thorough baseline of the flora and fauna of the lower Susquehanna River valley and Lancaster County.

Rathvon would continue as Treasurer and primary curator through the group’s first twenty-five years, their most active.  By 1887, their library contained over 1,000 volumes, they possessed over 40,000 specimens, and more than 600 scientific papers had been read at their meetings.

Many of the society’s specimens were moved to the custody of Franklin and Marshall College following the group’s dissolution.  In 1953, the collection found a home on the F&M campus at the newly constructed North Museum, named for benefactor Hugh M. North, where many of the specimens, particularly the birds, are on prominent display.

Among the mounted specimens in the North Museum collection is a Heath Hen, once a numerous coastal plain bird which was also of limited abundance in the Piedmont Province areas of southeast Pennsylvania prior to its rapid decline during the first half of the nineteenth century.  In southern Lancaster County, the burned grasslands of the serpentine barrens in Fulton Township may have provided suitable Heath Hen habitat prior to the bird’s demise.  Curiously, Judge John J. Libhart did not note the Heath Hen in his enumeration of the birds of Lancaster County in either 1844 or 1869, indicating it was seriously imperiled or may have already been extirpated.

The Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) became extinct in 1932.  While the collection of this particular specimen had little significant impact on the population of this subspecies as a whole, prolonged hunting pressure was largely responsible for decimating the numbers of Heath Hens on the mainland of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.   According to the museum tag, this specimen was “probably taken in southern Lancaster County prior to 1850”, and was part of the collection belonging to the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County.  It is among hundreds of bird specimens on display in antique wood and glass cabinets in the North Museum.

The Heath Hen was extirpated from its entire Atlantic Coastal Plain mainland range by the mid-1860s.  The last remaining population was restricted to Martha’s Vineyard where, for the first time, a conservation effort was initiated to try to save a species.  After some promising rebounds, the Heath Hen’s recovery failed for a variety of reasons including: the population’s isolation on an island, severe winter storms, feral cat predation, and a flawed understanding of methods for conducting mosaic burns to maintain the bird’s scrub habitat and prevent large catastrophic fires.  A large fire in 1906 reduced the island population to just 80 birds, then there was a strong rebound to an estimated 2,000 birds (800 counted) by April, 1916.  One month later, a fire burned twenty percent of Martha’s Vineyard, striking while females were on the nest, and leaving mostly males as survivors.  A downward spiral in numbers followed for another decade.  Finally, from 1929 until his death in 1932, “Booming Ben”, the last Heath Hen, searched the island every spring for a mate that wasn’t there.

Based on life history and the morphology of specimens, the Heath Hen has long been considered to be a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), a bird of the tallgrass prairies.  However, for more than a decade now, modern DNA analysis has kept taxonomists busy reclassifying and reworking the “tree of life”.  For certain species, genetic discoveries often disqualify the long-trusted practice of determining a binomial name based on the visual appearance of specimens.  Molecular study is making Linnaean classification more scientific, and is gradually untangling a web of names that man has been weaving for 200 years, often with scant evidence, in an effort to better understand the world around him.  In the case of the Heath Hen, DNA research has thus far failed to conclusively determine its relationship to other species of prairie chickens.  The lack of a sufficient pool of genetic material, particularly from mainland Heath Hens, reduces the ability of researchers to draw conclusions on this group of birds.  There remains the possibility that the Heath Hen was genetically distinct from the Greater Prairie Chickens of the mid-western United States.  This would be bad news for organizations studying the possibility of introducing the latter into the former’s historic range as a restoration program.

The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) specimen on display at the North Museum was collected by John C. Jenkins in Nanchez, Mississippi in 1835.  The specimen was remounted by conservator H. Justin Roddy.

The last Carolina Parakeet (the only parrot species native to the eastern United States) died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918, one hundred years ago this past week.  It was a species inhabiting primarily the lowland forests of the southeastern United States

In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart wrote of the species in 1869, “…Carolina Parrot, Accidental; a flock seen near Manheim by Mr. G. W. Hensel.”  Libhart did not mention the species in his earlier ornithological writings (1844).  Therefore, the Hensel sighting probably occurred sometime between 1844 and 1869.  The fate of a specimen reported to have been collected in the town of Willow Street sometime during the nineteenth century is unknown, the written details lack the date of its origin and other particulars that may clarify the authenticity of the sighting.

McKinley (1979) researched numerous historical sight records of Carolina Parakeets, but found no specimen from Lancaster County, or from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the District of Columbia, or Maryland to substantiate any of the reports in the Mid-Atlantic states.  In the days prior to high-speed photography, verification and documentation of the presence of an animal species relied on what seems today to be a brutal and excessive method of nature study, killing.  Lacking a specimen, the historical status of Carolina Parakeets in Pennsylvania, an area often considered to be within the bird’s former range, may be considered by many authorities to be hypothetical.

The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was abundant in the lower Susquehanna River valley through the early nineteenth century.  Specimens in the North Museum collection include colorful males in breeding plumage.  Several are from the original Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County collection.

The Passenger Pigeon, too, has been extinct for more than a century.  In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart listed the Passenger Pigeon by the common name “Wild Pigeon” and wrote of the species in 1869, “Migratory; spring and autumn; feeds on grain, oak and beach, mostly on berries; stragglers sometimes remain and breed in the county.”   There are numerous accounts of their precipitous decline both locally and throughout their former range, each illustrating the tragic loss of another portion of the North American natural legacy.

The North Museum specimen label describes the precipitous decline of the Passenger Pigeon in the lower Susquehanna River valley.

Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Ironically, the last Carolina Parakeet would die in the same enclosure just three-and-one-half years later.  In the wild, the final three records of Passenger Pigeons were all of birds that were shot for taxidermy mounts in 1900, 1901, and 1902—an embarrassing human legacy.

By the early twentieth century, concerned citizens were beginning to realize the danger posed to many species of flora and fauna by man’s activities.  In the eastern United States, the vast forests had been logged, the wetlands drained, and the streams and rivers dammed.  Nearly all of the landscape had been altered in some way.  Animals were harvested with little concern for the sustenance of their populations.  Nearly unnoticed, the seemingly endless abundance and diversity of wildlife found in the early days of European colonization had dwindled critically.

In 1844, Judge John J. Libhart noted the “Log-Cock” among the birds found in Lancaster County.  Fortunately, he included the scientific name “Picus pileatus”, the binomial nomenclature then recognized for the Pileated Woodpecker (specimens to right) among taxonomists.  A record of “Log-Cock” could confuse researchers, leaving them to guess whether Libhart was referring to a woodpecker, a woodcock, a grouse, or any number of other birds including the long-extinct(?) Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).  Of the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus today), Libhart wrote in 1869, “…now become rare and is only met with in old and extensive woods; breeds in the county.”  The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (specimen to left), a species of vast forests of large timber, living and dead, was restricted to the southeastern United States and Cuba.  Logging following the American Civil War and, to a lesser degree, shooting impacted both species detrimentally.  The Pileated Woodpecker recovered, the larger Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which has never been documented in the northeastern United States, has not.  These specimens are in the North Museum collection.

The movement to conserve and protect threatened species from relentless persecution owes its start to the Linnaean taxonomists, the specimen collectors who gave uniformly recognizable names to nearly all of North America’s plants and animals.  Significant too were John James Audubon and many others who used specimens as models to create accurate artwork which allowed scientists and citizens alike to learn to identify and name the living things they were seeing and, as time went by, not seeing.

Binomial nomenclature enabled the new conservationists to communicate accurately, reducing misunderstandings resulting from the use of many different names for one species or a shared name for multiple species.  Discussions on the status of Columba migratorius (the binomial name for Passenger Pigeon in the nineteenth century) could occur without using the confusing local names for the Passenger Pigeon such as Wood Pigeon or, here in Pennsylvania, Wild Pigeon, a term which could describe any number of free-ranging pigeon or dove species.  A binomial name, genus and species, makes the identity of a particular plant or animal, for lack of a more fitting term, specific.

Appreciation for the work completed by taxonomists who killed thousands of animals so each could be classified and assigned a name particular to its lineage is what finally motivated some to seek a cessation of the unchecked catastrophic killing of living things.  It’s the paradox of late nineteenth-century conservation.  The combined realization that a species is unique among other life-forms and that continuing to kill it for specimens, “style”, “sport”, or just an adrenaline thrill could eliminate it forever became an intolerable revelation.  The blood would be on the hands of an audacious mankind, and it was unthinkable.  Something had to be done.  Unfortunately for the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen, help came too late.

SOURCES

Greenburg, Joel.  2014.  A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.  Bloomsbury Publishing.  New York. 

Libhart, John J.  1844.  “Birds of Lancaster County”.  I. Daniel Rupp’s History of Lancaster County.  Gilbert Hills.  Lancaster, PA.

Libhart, John J.  1869.  “Ornithology”.  J. I. Mombert’s An Authentic History of Lancaster County.  J. E. Barr and Company.  Lancaster, PA.

McKinley, Daniel.  1979.  “History of the Carolina Parakeet in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia”.  Maryland Birdlife.  35(1):1-10.

Palkovacs, Eric P.; Oppenheimer, Adam J.; Gladyshev, Eugene; Toepfer, John E.; Amato, George; Chase, Thomas; Caccone, Adalgesia.  2004.  “Genetic Evaluation of a Proposed Introduction: The Case of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Extinct Heath Hen”.  Molecular Ecology.  13(7):1759-1769.

Rathvon, S. S.  1866.  An Essay on the Origin of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County, Its Objects and Progress.  Pearsol and Geist.  Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Wheeler, Alfred G., Jr. and Miller, Gary L.  2006.  “Simon Snyder Rathvon: Popularizer of Agricultural Entomology in Mid-19th Century America”.  American Entomologist.  52(1):36-47.

Winpenny, Thomas R.  1990.  “The Triumphs and Anguish of a Self-Made Man: 19th Century Naturalist S. S. Rathvon”.  Pennsylvania History.  57(2):136-149.