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 impoundments, but it is largely comprised 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).  Thousands of these birds rising over the marsh into the glowing light of a setting sun is an unforgettable sight.
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.  Annual Cicadas like this Silver-bellied Cicada emerge later in the season, peaking yearly in 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.