A Pre-dawn Thunderstorm and a Fallout of Migrating Birds

In recent days, the peak northbound push of migratory birds that includes the majority of our colorful Neotropical species has been slowed to a trickle by the presence of rain, fog, and low overcast throughout the Mid-Atlantic States.  Following sunset last evening, the nocturnal flight resumed—only to be grounded this morning during the pre-dawn hours by the west-to-east passage of a fast-moving line of strong thundershowers.  The NOAA/National Weather Service images that follow show the thunderstorms as well as returns created by thousands of migrating birds as they pass through the Doppler Radar coverage areas that surround the lower Susquehanna valley.

Sterling, Virginia, Doppler Radar west of Washington, D.C., at 4:00 A.M. E.D.T. indicates a dense flight of northbound migrating birds located just to the south of the approaching line of rain and thunderstorms over the State College, Pennsylvania, radar coverage area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
More northbound birds are indicated at 4 A.M. by the radar station located at Dover, Delaware…  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
…and by the Mount Holly, New Jersey, radar site.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Many of the migrating birds shown here over the Binghamton, New York, radar station at 4 A.M. probably overflew the lower Susquehanna region earlier in the night.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And these birds over Albany, New York’s, radar station at 4 A.M. are mostly migrants that passed north over New Jersey and easternmost Pennsylvania last evening and during the wee hours of this morning.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Just after 4 A.M., flashes of lightning in rapid succession repeatedly illuminated the sky over susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Despite the rumbles of thunder and the din of noises typical for our urban setting, the call notes of nocturnal migrants could be heard as these birds descended in search of a suitable place to make landfall and seek shelter from the storm.  At least one Wood Thrush and a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) were in the mix of species passing overhead.  A short time later at daybreak, a Great Crested Flycatcher was heard calling from a stand of nearby trees and a White-crowned Sparrow was seen in the garden searching for food.  None of these aforementioned birds is regular here at our little oasis, so it appears that a significant and abrupt fallout has occurred.

White-crowned Sparrow
A White-crowned Sparrow in the headquarters garden at daybreak.  It’s the first visit by this species in a decade or more.

Looks like a good day to take the camera for a walk.  Away we go!

Gray Catbird
Along woodland edges, in thickets, and in gardens, Gray Catbirds were everywhere today.  We heard and/or saw hundreds of them.
American Redstart
During our travels, American Redstarts were the most frequently encountered warbler.  Look for them in low-lying forested habitats.
Many early-arriving Baltimore Orioles have already begun building nests.  But widespread territorial fighting today may be an indication that some latecomer orioles became trespassers after dropping in on existing territories during the morning fallout.
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireos are difficult to see but easily heard in forested areas throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Scarlet Tanager
If the oriole isn’t the showiest of the Neotropical migrants, then the Scarlet Tanager is certainly a contender…
Scarlet Tanager
Listen for their burry, robin-like song in the treetops of mature upland forests.
Wood Thrush
No woodland chorus is complete without the flute-like harmony of the Wood Thrush.  Look and listen for them in rich forests with dense understory vegetation.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Wood-Pewee, another forest denizen, has an easy song to learn…a series of ascending “pee-a-wee” phrases interspersed with an occasional descending “pee-urr”.  It was one of the few flycatchers we found today, but more are certainly on the way.  Their numbers should peak in coming days.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warblers can be especially numerous during migration but tend to peak prior to the arrival of the bulk of the Neotropical species.  This was the only “yellow-rump” we encountered today.  The majority have already passed through on their way to breeding grounds to our north.
Common Yellowthroat
If today you were to visit a streamside thicket or any type of early successional habitat, you would probably find this perky little warbler there, the Common Yellowthroat.
Yellow Warbler
The Yellow Warbler likes streamside thickets too.  You can also find them along lakes, ponds, and wetlands, especially among shrubby willows and alders.
White-crowned Sparrow
While nowhere near the headquarters garden, we ran into another White-crowned Sparrow in less-than-ideal habitat.  This one was in a row of trees in a paved parking lot.
Bobolink
Not all songbirds migrate at night. The Bobolink is an example of a diurnal (day-flying) migrant.  They’re currently arriving in hay fields that are spared the mower until after nesting season.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
While looking for Neotropical species and other late-season migrants, we also found numerous early arrivals that had already begun their breeding cycles.  We discovered this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its nest in a Black Walnut tree…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
…then, later in the day, we found this one in its nest, again in a Black Walnut tree.  Note the freshly emerging set of leaves and flower clusters.  With many tree species already adorned in a full set of foliage, open canopies in stands of walnuts we found growing in reforested areas seemed to be good places to see lots of migrants and other birds today.  It’s hard to say whether birds were more numerous in these sections of woods or were just easier to observe among the sparse leaf cover.  In either case, the nut-burying squirrels that planted these groves did us and the birds a favor.

There’s obviously more spring migration to come, so do make an effort to visit an array of habitats during the coming weeks to see and hear the wide variety of birds, including the spectacular Neotropical species, that visit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each May.  You won’t regret it!

Wood Ducks
Wood Ducks arrived in February and March to breed in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Soon after hatching in April or May, the young leave the nest cavity to travel under the watchful gaze of their ever-vigilant mother as they search for food along our local waterways.  If you’re fortunate, you might catch a glimpse of a brood and hen while you’re out looking at the more than one hundred species of birds that occur in our region during the first half of May.  Good luck!

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.

The Fog of a January Thaw

As week-old snow and ice slowly disappears from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed landscape, we ventured out to see what might be lurking in the dense clouds of fog that for more than two days now have accompanied a mid-winter warm spell.

York Haven Dam Powerhouse
After freezing to a slushy consistency earlier this week, the Susquehanna is already beginning to thaw.   Below the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls, the water is open and ice-free.
Mallards and a pair of American Wigeon on a frozen lake.
On frozen man-made lakes and ponds, geese and ducks like these Mallards and American Wigeon are presently concentrated around small pockets of open water.
American Robin in a Callery pear
During the past ten days, American Robin numbers have exploded throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  The majority of these birds may be a mix of both those coming south to escape the late onset of wintry conditions to our north and those inching north into our region as early spring migrants.
American Robin
The January thaw has melted the snow from lawns and fields to provide thousands of visiting robins with a chance to forage for earthworms.
Cooper's Hawk
A visit by this young Cooper’s Hawk to the susquehannnawildlife.net headquarters garden sent songbirds scrambling…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…but did nothing to unnerve our resident Eastern Gray Squirrels,…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…which promptly went into tail-waving mode to advertise their presence.
Red-tailed Hawk
But earlier in the week, when heavy snow cover in the rural areas surrounding our urbanized neighborhood made it difficult for rodent-eating raptors to find food, we received brief visits from both a Red-tailed Hawk…
Red-shouldered Hawk
…and this young Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon bird of prey most often found in wet woods and other lowlands.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
To escape notice during visits by these larger raptors, our squirrels remained motionless and commenced performance of their best bump-on-a-log impressions.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight.
Unimpressed, each of our visiting buteos remained for just a few minutes before moving on in search of more favorable hunting grounds and prey.
Early Successional Growth
As snow melted and exposed bare ground in fields of early successional growth, we encountered…
White-crowned Sparrow
…a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, most in first-winter plumage…
American Tree Sparrow
…and at least a dozen American Tree Sparrows.  During the twentieth century, these handsome songbirds were regular winter visitors to the lower Susquehanna region.  During recent decades, they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find.  Currently, moderate numbers appear to be arriving to escape harsher weather to our north.
Adult Male Northern Harrier
What could be more appropriate on a foggy, gray evening than finding a “gray ghost” (adult male Northern Harrier) patrolling the fields in search of mice and voles.

If scenes of a January thaw begin to awaken your hopes and aspirations for all things spring, then you’ll appreciate this pair of closing photographs…

Pileated Woodpecker in Silver Maple
The maroon-red flower buds of Silver Maples are beginning to swell.  And woodpeckers including Pileated Woodpeckers are beginning to drum, a timber-pounding behavior they use to establish breeding territories in habitats with suitable sites for cavity nesting.
Skunk Cabbage
In wet soil surrounding spring seeps and streams, Skunk Cabbage is rising through the leaf litter to herald the coming of a new season.  Spring must surely be just around the corner.

Want Healthy Floodplains and Streams? Want Clean Water? Then Make Room for the Beaver

I’m worried about the beaver.  Here’s why.

Imagine a network of brooks and rivulets meandering through a mosaic of shrubby, sometimes boggy, marshland, purifying water and absorbing high volumes of flow during storm events.  This was a typical low-gradient stream in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in the days prior to the arrival of the trans-Atlantic human migrant.  Then, a frenzy of trapping, tree chopping, mill building, and stream channelization accompanied the east to west waves of settlement across the region.  The first casualty: the indispensable lowlands manager, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

Beaver Traps
Nineteenth-century beaver traps on display in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Soon after their arrival, Trans-Atlantic migrants (Europeans) established trade ties to the trans-Beringia migrants (“Indians”) already living in the lower Susquehanna valley and recruited them to cull the then-abundant North American Beavers.  By the early 1700s, beaver populations (as well as numbers of other “game” animals) were seriously depleted, prompting the Conoy, the last of the trans-Beringia migrants to reside on the lower Susquehanna, to disperse.  The traps pictured here are samples of the types which were subsequently used by the European settlers to eventually extirpate the North American Beaver from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during the 1800s.

Without the widespread presence of beavers, stream ecology quickly collapsed.  Pristine waterways were all at once gone, as were many of their floral and faunal inhabitants.  It was a streams-to-sewers saga completed in just one generation.  So, if we really want to restore our creeks and rivers, maybe we need to give the North American Beaver some space and respect.  After all, we as a species have yet to build an environmentally friendly dam and have yet to fully restore a wetland to its natural state.  The beaver is nature’s irreplaceable silt deposition engineer and could be called the 007 of wetland construction—doomed upon discovery, it must do its work without being noticed, but nobody does it better.

North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Beavers were reintroduced to the Susquehanna watershed during the second half of the twentieth century.
A beaver dam on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
A beaver dam and pond on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Floodplain Wetlands Managed by North American Beavers
Beaver dams not only create ponds, they also maintain shallow water levels in adjacent areas of the floodplain creating highly-functional wetlands that grow the native plants used by the beaver for food.  These ecosystems absorb nutrients and sediments.  Prior to the arrival of humans, they created some of the only openings in the vast forests and maintained essential habitat for hundreds of species of plants as well as animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.  Without the beaver, many of these species could not, and in their absence did not, exist here.
The beaver lodge provides shelter from the elements and predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Their newly constructed lodge provides shelter from the elements and from predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes Visit a Beaver-managed Floodplain in the lower Susquehanna valley
Floodplains managed by North American Beavers can provide opportunities for the recovery of the uncommon, rare, and extirpated species that once inhabited the network of streamside wetlands that stretched for hundreds of miles along the waterways of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Great Blue Heron
A wintering Great Blue Heron is attracted to a beaver pond by the abundance of fish in the rivulets that meander through its attached wetlands.
Sora Rail in Beaver Pond
Beaver Ponds and their attached wetlands provide nesting habitat for uncommon birds like this Sora rail.
Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed in Beaver Pond
Lesser Duckweed grows in abundance in beaver ponds and Wood Ducks are particularly fond of it during their nesting cycle.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a Beaver Pond
Beaver dams maintain areas of wet soil along the margins of the pond where plants like Woolgrass sequester nutrients and contain runoff while providing habitat for animals ranging in size from tiny insects to these rare visitors, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis).
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.

Few landowners are receptive to the arrival of North American Beavers as guests or neighbors.  This is indeed unfortunate.  Upon discovery, beavers, like wolves, coyotes, sharks, spiders, snakes, and so many other animals, evoke an irrational negative response from the majority of people.  This too is quite unfortunate, and foolish.

North American Beavers spend their lives and construct their dams, ponds, and lodges exclusively within floodplains—lands that are going to flood.  Their existence should create no conflict with the day to day business of human beings.  But humans can’t resist encroachment into beaver territory.  Because they lack any basic understanding of floodplain function, people look at these indispensable lowlands as something that must be eliminated in the name of progress.  They’ll fill them with soil, stone, rock, asphalt, concrete, and all kinds of debris.  You name it, they’ll dump it.  It’s an ill-fated effort to eliminate these vital areas and the high waters that occasionally inundate them.  Having the audacity to believe that the threat of flooding has been mitigated, buildings and poorly engineered roads and bridges are constructed in these “reclaimed lands”.  Much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed has now been subjected to over three hundred years-worth of these “improvements” within spaces that are and will remain—floodplains.  Face it folks, they’re going to flood, no matter what we do to try to stop it.  And as a matter of fact, the more junk we put into them, the more we displace flood waters into areas that otherwise would not have been impacted!  It’s absolute madness.

By now we should know that floodplains are going to flood.  And by now we should know that the impacts of flooding are costly where poor municipal planning and negligent civil engineering have been the norm for decades and decades.  So aren’t we tired of hearing the endless squawking that goes on every time we get more than an inch of rain?  Imagine the difference it would make if we backed out and turned over just one quarter or, better yet, one half of the mileage along streams in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to North American Beavers.  No more mowing, plowing, grazing, dumping, paving, spraying, or building—just leave it to the beavers.  Think of the improvements they would make to floodplain function, water quality, and much-needed wildlife habitat.  Could you do it?  Could you overcome the typical emotional response to beavers arriving on your property and instead of issuing a death warrant, welcome them as the talented engineers they are?  I’ll bet you could.

Time to Eat

A glimpse of the rowdy guests crowding the Thanksgiving Day dinner table at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters…

White-breasted Nuthatch
A male White-breasted Nuthatch visits a peanut feeder…
White-breasted Nuthatch
…soon to be joined by a female White-breasted Nuthatch.
Downy Woodpecker
A male Downy Woodpecker gets a bill full of suet.
Carolina Wren
A Carolina Wren nibbles at a peanut.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
An Eastern Gray Squirrel stuffs itself on peanuts dropped by the birds.
Northern Mockingbird
A territorial Northern Mockingbird stands guard over its supply of Common Winterberry fruit.
Eastern Bluebird
To avoid the mockingbird’s aggression, the Eastern Bluebirds opted out of fresh fruit in favor of raisins offered at the feeders.
American Robin
This persistent American Robin has made an art of repeatedly sneaking in to quickly devour a few berries before being chased away by the vigilant mockingbird.
Dark-eyed Junco
After everyone has had their fill, Dark-eyed Juncos clean up the leftovers.

A Visit to a Beaver Pond

To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis).  They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago.  Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established.  Have a look.

A Beaver Pond
Vegetation surrounding the inundated floodplain helps sequester nutrients and sediments to purify the water while also providing excellent wildlife habitat.
A beaver lodge.
The beaver lodge was built among shrubs growing in shallow water in the middle of the pond.
Woolgrass in a beaver pond.
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) is a bulrush that thrives as an emergent and as a terrestrial plant in moist soils bordering the pond.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting Cardinal Flower.
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting a Cardinal Flower.
Green Heron
A Green Heron looking for small fish, crayfish, frogs, and tadpoles.
A Green Heron stalks potential prey.
The Green Heron stalking potential prey.
A Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed.
A Wood Duck feeding on the tiny floating plant known as Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor).
A Least Sandpiper feeding along the muddy edge of a beaver pond.
A Least Sandpiper poking at small invertebrates along the muddy edge of the beaver pond.
Solitary Sandpiper
A Solitary Sandpiper.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
Pectoral Sandpiper
A Pectoral Sandpiper searches for its next morsel of sustenance.
A Sora rail in a beaver pond.
The Sora (Porzana carolina) is a seldom seen rail of marshlands including those created by North American Beavers.  Common Cattails, sedges, and rushes provide these chicken-shaped wetland birds with nesting and loafing cover.

Isn’t that amazing?  North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems.  Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed?  Let the beavers do the job!

Photo of the Day

White-tailed Deity and her fawns.
For this White-tailed Deity and her fawns, a dry shoreline provides an opportunity to access the moist, tender greens of emergent plants on a hot summer afternoon.

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.

Peanuts! Get Your Peanuts!

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Peanut Feeder
Don’t want to feed suet to the birds around your home during the blazing heat of summer?  Well, you might be glad to know that peanuts offered in one of these expanded metal tube feeders make a great substitute.  They provide a nutritious supplement to naturally occurring foods for nuthatches, chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, finches, and woodpeckers including this Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Secured to a vertical length of wire hung from a horizontal tree limb, these feeders have proven so puzzling to the squirrels at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters that they no longer make any effort to raid them. 
House Finch
Though marketed primarily to dispense suet nuggets, powder-coated metal mesh feeders can be used for sunflower seeds too.  This juvenile House Finch plucks the black oil variety from one of the tubes in our garden.  Seeds that fall are quickly scarfed up by ground-feeding species including Northern Cardinals, Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus), and frustrated squirrels.  Fewer seeds are lost if the larger varieties of sunflower such as “grey stripe” are used.

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


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 ELEVEN—May 31, 1983

“AOK Camp, Texas — 7 Miles S. of Kingsville”

“Went south to the 1st rest stop south of Sarita — No Tropical Parula.  Lots of other birds.  We added Summer Tanager and Lesser Goldfinch.”

The Sarita Rest Area along Route 77 was like a little oasis of taller trees in the Texas scrubland.  We received reports from the birders we met yesterday at Falcon Dam that recently, Tropical Parula had been seen there.  We searched the small area and listened carefully, but to no avail.  For these warblers, nesting season was over.  We were surprised to find Lesser Goldfinches in the trees.  Back in 1983, the coastal plain of Texas was pretty far east for the species.  Steve was a bit skeptical when we first spotted them, but once they came into plain view, he was a believer.  I recall him finally exclaiming, “They are Lesser Goldfinches.”  Summer Tanager was another wonderful surprise.  Today, the Sarita Rest Area remains a stopping point for birders in south Texas.  Both Lesser Goldfinch and Tropical Parula were seen there this spring.

After our roll of dice at the Sarita Rest Area, we continued south through the King Ranch en route back to Brownsville.

“Saw a Coyote on the way.”

Western Coyote
We spotted this Lower Rio Grande Coyote (Canis latrans microdon) near a watering hole on the King Ranch property along Route 77 near Sarita, Texas.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on a fence along Route 77 at the King Ranch.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

“Took Steve to the airport and drove out to Boca Chica where Harold went swimming.” 

The drive from Brownsville out Boca Chica Boulevard to the Gulf of Mexico passes through about 18 miles of the outermost flats of the river delta that is the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  This area is of course susceptible to the greatest impacts from tropical weather, especially hurricanes.  During our visit, we passed a small cluster of ranch houses about two or three miles from the beach.  This was the village known as Boca Chica.  Otherwise, the area was desolate and left to the impacts of the weather and to the wildlife.

The mouth of the Rio Grande, and thus the international border with Mexico, was and still is about two miles south of Boca Chica Beach.  Before the construction of dams and other flood control measures on the river, the path of the Rio Grande through the alluvium deposits on this outer section of delta would vary greatly.  Accumulations of eroded material, river flooding, tides, and storms would conspire to change the landscape prompting the river to seek the path of least resistance and change its course.  Surrounding the segments of abandoned channel, these changes leave behind valuable wetlands including not only the resacas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but similar features in tidal sections of the outer delta.  When left to function in their natural state, deltas manage silt and pollutants in the waters that pass through them using ancient physical, biological, and chemical processes that require no intervention from man.

Harold was determined to go for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico before boarding a flight home.  We all liked the beach.  Why not?  You may remember trips to the shore in the summertime.  Back in the pre-casino days, we used to go to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to visit Steel Pier.  For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Steel Pier was the Jersey Shore’s amusement park at sea.  There were rides, food stands, arcades, daily concerts with big name acts, diving shows, and ballroom dances.

There were, back then, attractions at Steel Pier that were creatively promoted to give the visitor the impression that they were going to see something more profound or amazing than was was delivered.  You know, things advertised to draw you in, but its not quite what you expected.

For example, there was an arcade game promising to show you a chicken playing baseball.  Okay, I’ll bite.  Turns out the chicken did too.  You put your money in the machine and watched as the chicken came out and rounded the diamond eating poultry food as it was offered at each of the bases.  Hmmm…to suggest that this was a chicken playing baseball seems like a bit of a stretch.

They had a diving bell there too.  Wow!  We’ll go below the waves and view the fish, octopi, and other sights through the water-tight windows while we descend to the ocean floor.  You would pay to get inside, then they would lower the bell down through a hole in the pier.  Once below the rolling surf, you would get to look at the turbid seawater sloshing around at the window like dirty suds in a washing machine.  If you were lucky, some trash might briefly get stuck on the glass.  To imply that this was a chance to see life beneath waves was B. S., and I don’t mean bathysphere.

Then there was a girl riding a diving horse.  You would hike all the way to the end of the pier and watch the preliminary show with these divers plunging through a hole in the deck and into the choppy Atlantic below.  They were very good, but no, we never saw Rodney Dangerfield do a “Triple Lindy” there.  And then it was time for the finale.  Wow, is that horse going to dive in the ocean?  How do they get the horse back up on the pier?  Forget it.  Instead of that, they walked poor Mr. Ed up a ramp into a box, then the girl climbs on his back, the door opens, and she nudges Ol’ Ed to into a plunge followed by a thumping splash into a swimming pool on the deck.  Not bad, but not what we were expecting.  Since we had to walk almost  a quarter of a mile out to sea to get there, they kinda led us to believe that the amazing equine was going to leap into the Atlantic—horse hockey!

Preceding all this fun was a guy back in the early 1930s, William Swan, who, in June 1931, flew a “rocket-powered plane” at Bader Field outside Atlantic City.  The plane was actually a glider on which a rocket was fired producing about 50 pounds of thrust to boost it airborne after assistants got it rolling by pushing it.  In newspaper articles and on newsreels afterward, he would promote the future of rocket planes carrying passengers across the ocean at 500 miles per hour.  Using a glider equipped with pontoons for landing in the ocean, he promised to make several flights daily from Steel Pier.  Those who came to see him may have, at best, watched him fire small rockets he had attached to his craft—little more.

What does all this have to do with Boca Chica Beach?  It turn out two years later, William Swan is hyping a new innovation—a rocket-powered backpack.  He’d demonstrate it during a skydiving exhibition at the Del-Mar Beach Resort, a cluster of 20 cabins and community buildings on Boca Chica Beach.  According to his deceptive promotions, Swan would jump out of a plane and light flares as he fell.  Then he’d ignite the backpack rocket and land on the shoreline in front of the crowd.  The event was expected to draw 3,000 carloads of people.  When the big day came, just over 1,000 cars showed up. The event was a bust and the weather was bad, cloudy with a mist over the gulf.  During a break in the clouds, the pilot took Swan aloft.  Swan ordered him out to sea and to 8,500 feet, a higher altitude than planned.  Then he jumped.  He dropped the flares, which didn’t then ignite, and neither did the rocket.  He opened his chute at 6,000 feet and the crowd watched as Swan drifted into the mist offshore and was never seen again.  There were rumors both that he used the stunt as a way to flee to Mexico to start a new life and that he had committed suicide.  Others believed he died accidentally.  To learn the full story of Billy Swan, check out The Rocketeer Who Never Was, by Mark Wade.

Forward fifty years to our visit to Boca Chica Beach.  The Del-Mar Beach Resort, built in the 1920s as a cluster of 20 cabins and a ballroom, was gone.  It was destroyed by a hurricane later in the same year Swan disappeared—1933.  The resort, which was hoped would be the start of a seaside vacation city, never reopened.  In 1983, we saw just a handful of beach goers and the birds, that’s it.  One could look down to the south and see the area of the Rio Grande’s mouth and Mexico, but there were no structures of note.  It was peaceful and alive with wildlife.  We were sorry we didn’t have more time there.

“Here we added Least Tern, Brown Pelican and Sandwich Tern.”

Laughing Gulls on the sands of Boca Chica beach
Laughing Gulls on the sands of Boca Chica Beach.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Royal Tern
A Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) along the Gulf of Mexico shore at Boca Chica Beach.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Least Tern
Least Terns are a sand-nesting species, thus are vulnerable to disturbances created by recreational use of beaches.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Brown Pelicans
Back in 1983, finding Brown Pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) wasn’t as easy as it is today.  Back then, their numbers were still recovering from a severe population crash caused by the effects of D.D.T., which thinned eggs shells and precipitated widespread nesting failures.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

Today, the Village of Boca Chica and Boca Chica Beach are the location of SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility.  Those of the village’s ranch houses built in 1967 that have survived hurricane devastation over the years have been incorporated into the “Starbase” production and tracking facility.  The launch pad and testing area is along the beach just behind the dunes at the end of Boca Chica Boulevard.

The latest launch, just more than a month ago, was the maiden flight of “Starship”, a 394-foot behemoth that is the largest rocket ever flown.  The “Super Heavy Booster” first stage’s 33 Raptor engines produce 17.1 million pounds of thrust making Starship the most powerful rocket ever flown.  See, things really are bigger in Texas.

Last month’s unmanned orbital test launch ended when the Starship spacecraft failed to separate at staging.  As the booster section commenced its roll manuever to return to the launch pad, the entire assembly began tumbling out of control.  It exploded and rained debris into the gulf along a stretch of the downrange trajectory.

Boca Chica and Starbase
The Village of Boca Chica is now the SpaceX “Starbase” production and tracking complex. The rockets are rolled two miles out Boca Chica Boulevard to the beach-side launch pad.  Areas in dark blue are units in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  (United States Fish and Wildlife Service image)

Development of Starbase is opposed by many due to noise, safety, and environmental concerns.  Boca Chica Boulevard (Texas Route 4) is frequently closed due to activity at the launch pad site, thus excluding residents and tourists from visiting the beach.  With over 1,200 people already working at Starbase, demand for housing in the Brownsville area has increased.  Some have accused SpaceX CEO Elon Musk of promoting gentrification of the area—running up housing prices to force out the lower-income residents.  He has responded with a vision of a new city at Boca Chica, his “space port”.

Does history have an applicable lesson for us here?  When Musk talks about going to the Moon and Mars, or ferrying a hundred people around the world on his Starship, is it just another Steel Pier-style deception?  Is Musk a modern-day William Swan?  A very talented marketer?  Could be.  And is the whole thing setting up a large-scale replay of the Del-Mar Beach Resort’s demise in 1933?  Is building a city on the outer edges of a river delta asking for an outcome similar to the one suffered by New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina?  It’s likely.  After all, building on or near a beach, floodplain, or delta is a short-sighted venture to begin with.  If the party doing the developing doesn’t suffer the consequences of defying the laws of nature, one of the poor suckers in the successive line of buyers and occupants will.  This isn’t rocket science folks.  Its weather, climate, and erosion, and its been altering coastlines, river courses, and the composition and distribution of life forms on this planet for millions of years.  And guess what.  These factors will continue to alter Earth for millions of years more after man the meddler is long gone.  You’re not going to stop their effects, and you’re not going to escape their wrath by ignoring them.  So if you’re smart, you’ll get out of their way and stay there!

Billy Swan was probably broke when he came to Boca Chica.  He reportedly borrowed 20 bucks from the resort operator just to cover his personal expenses during his backpack rocket event.  Elon Musk comes to Boca Chica with over 100 billion dollars and capital from other private investors to boot.   Despite some obvious exaggerations about colonizing the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies, he just might be able to at least get people there for short-term visits.  And that’s quite an accomplishment.

Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars.  Ravaging and overpopulating the Earth with an eye on migrations to the Moon and Mars for refuge is silliness.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend time at a pristine beach like Boca Chica than time at this rocky hole.  These desolate orbs might be nice places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, and neither would you.  (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory image)

“Then took Harold to the airport.  We left him at 3:30 and headed north on Route 77, got as far as Victoria.  Had a flat on the way.  Larry had the spare on in 10 minutes.  We stopped at a picnic area for the nite, because we could not find the camping area.”

If we were going to have a flat, we had it at the right place.  We were just outside Raymondville, Texas, at a newly constructed highway interchange.  The wide, level shoulder allowed us to get the camper off to the side of the road in a safe place to jack it up and change the tire.  Easy.  We were thereafter homeward bound.

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.

Photo of the Day

A Reforestation Project
Visible in the background of this image, an infestation of invasive Emerald Ash Borer larvae has killed the trees in a woodlot comprised exclusively of Green Ash.  Left standing, the dead snags provide excellent habitat for a number of animal species including cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers, known consumers of these destructive larvae.  To reforest the mowed field in the foreground, a variety of native deciduous trees have been planted.  In areas where a diversity of trees are not present to furnish a source of seeds for natural succession, manually planting an array of seedlings provides some insurance against the risk of allowing establishment of a single pioneer species such as the vulnerable Green Ash.  The white plastic tubes on the young trees offer protection from the ever-browsing White-tailed Deity.

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

American Robin
We don’t have a resident groundhog at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, but the arrival of an American Robin to begin cleaning the abundance of berries from our holly trees and shrubs gives us the idea that spring is just around the corner.  We could hardly be happier.

In the Doghouse

Am I the only one who feels like Oliver Wendell Douglas living in an eccentric society overrun by millions of dogs, cats, and other domestic animals that have assumed the identity of Arnold Ziffel?

Just asking.

Before society drifted away into a prosperity-induced coma of fantasy, it was the only dog you would see in a restaurant.  (Public Domain image by Hansuan Fabregas)

Migratory Waterfowl on Local Ponds and Lakes

Following the deep freeze of a week ago, temperatures soaring into the fifties and sixties during recent days have brought to mind thoughts of spring.  In the pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, Green Frogs are again out and about.

Green Frogs
A pair of Green Frogs seen today alongside the headquarters pond.  A sign of spring?

But is this really an early spring?  Migrating waterfowl indicate otherwise.  Having been forced south from the Great Lakes during the bitter cold snap, a variety of our tardy web-footed friends belatedly arrived on the river and on the Susquehanna Flats of upper Chesapeake Bay about ten days ago.  Now, rising water from snow melt and this week’s rains have forced many of these ducks onto local lakes and ponds where ice coverage has been all but eliminated by the mild weather.  For the most part, these are lingering autumn migrants.  Here’s a sample of some of the waterfowl seen during a tour of the area today…

Snow Geese
Like other late-season migrants, Snow Geese take advantage of open water on area lakes until ice forces them south to the Atlantic Coastal Plain.  In a little more than a month from now, they’ll begin working their way north again.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Mute Swans
The non-native Mute Swan has become an invasive species.  Because they are predominantly non-migratory, groups of Mute Swans congregating in valuable wetland habitat can decimate these aquatic ecosystems with their persistent year-round feeding.  Their long necks help them consume enormous quantities of benthic foods that would otherwise be available to migratory diving ducks during their autumn and spring stopovers.
Gadwalls
Small flocks of Gadwalls will sometimes spend the winter on ice-free vegetated ponds in the lower Susquehanna region.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.  Let’s take a closer look!
Redheads, Lesser Scaup, and Canvasback
Six Redheads, three Lesser Scaup (top row left), and a Canvasback (upper right).
Redheads
Redheads.
Buffleheads
Buffleheads.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
Lesser Scaup
A female (right) and a first-winter male (left) Lesser Scaup.
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck.

With the worst of winter’s fury still to come, it’s time to say farewell to most of these travelers for a little while.  With a little luck, we’ll see them again in March or April.

Striped Skunk
Our official susquehannawildlife.net prognosticator climbed out of its winter hideout today to have a look around.   Then, without hesitation, the forecast for 2023 was issued, “Winter Stinks!”

The Gasoline and Gunpowder Gang’s Second-biggest Holiday of the Year

For members of the gasoline and gunpowder gang in Pennsylvania, the coming two weeks are the second-biggest holiday of the year.  Cloaked in ceremonial orange, worshipers of the White-tailed Deity are making their annual pilgrimage into the great outdoors to beat the bushes in search of their idol.  For the fortunate among the faithful, their devotion culminates in a testosterone/adrenaline-charged sacrifice of the supreme being.

The White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity

Remember, emotions run high during this blood-letting festival—sometimes overwhelming secular attributes like logic and rational decision-making.  You don’t want to be in the crossfire—so stay out of the woods!

Eastern Gray Squirrel
Rifle season…it’s a good time to be a squirrel.

Photo of the Day

White-tailed Deity
Spent some time in the woods last evening visiting with the wild ungulates.  Throughout autumn, this big guy has been teasing not only the members of the gasoline and gunpowder gang, but dozens of other White-tailed Deity worshipers as well.  With hormones raging, he’s looking for love, so we left him to his business.

Photo of the Day

Mammals of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: A White-footed Mouse Peers from its Nest
Uncle Tyler Dyer reminds all his vegetarian friends to speak clearly when ordering the “House Salad” in a noisy restaurant, otherwise you may go hungry.  Unlike Uncle Ty, the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), seen here in its nest, is omnivorous, so it seldom goes hungry.

Emergence of the Turtles

Along the lower Susquehanna, an unseasonably mild day in early spring can provide an observer with the opportunity to witness an annual spectacle seldom seen by the average visitor to the river—concentrations of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of turtles as they emerge from their winter slumber to bathe in the year’s first surge of warm air and sunshine.

Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) spend the winter buried in mud along the river shoreline and in nearby Alluvial Terrace Wetlands.  We photographed this one just as it was digging its way out.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cold and stiff Snapping Turtle crawls away from the shade toward sun-drenched shallows where it will have a chance to limber up.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cruise in open water loosens up the muscles and gets rid of some of the accumulations of sticky mud and muck.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtles
Freshly emerged Painted Turtles clamber onto a log to bask in the cloud-filtered sun.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtle atop a Snapping Turtle
A Painted Turtle looking for a place to get out of the chilly water soon discovered the obvious solution.
It’s catching on, more Painted Turtles atop a Snapping Turtle in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Common Map Turtle
The Common Map Turtle (right) is the turtle most frequently observed basking on rocks and logs along the main stem of the Susquehanna.  To the left is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), an increasingly numerous invasive species.  The first Red-eared Sliders arrived in the river as, you guessed it, unwanted pets.  Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the local North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) for trimming the trees and providing a clear shot for this photograph!
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Painted Turtles
And now, a quick quiz.  Name the things that don’t belong in this picture?  Here’s a hint: a non-native Red-eared Slider (left) joins indigenous Painted Turtles atop a discarded tire in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

Photo of the Day

It’s that time again in Pennsylvania, the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s second-biggest holiday of the year.  Pious worshippers of the White-tailed Deity don brightly colored sacred ceremonial garb and depart on a pilgrimage to find the sovereign target of their passion.  For the faithful, the sacrifice ritual is accompanied by great emotion.  There can be sweating, trembling, and even hallucinations before the act commences and a tremendous sense of euphoria is savored, despite the heresy of it all.  Needless to say, you don’t want to be downrange when the trigger is pulled.  So, unless you’re cloaked in similar celebratory dress and glowing like the sun in a dark room, you had better stay out of the woods and fields for a while.

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.

Photo of the Day

The Woodchuck (Marmota monax), also known as the groundhog, gets no respect.  Shouldn’t it be the official state mammal of Pennsylvania?   After all, a nationally recognized holiday centers on the prognostications of the state’s favorite son, “Punxsutawney Phil”.  And think of all those state lottery tickets sold by that media groundhog, “Gus”.  Yep, only Pennsylvania would have an animal often named for a different state as its official mammal: the Virginia White-tailed Deity.

How to Remove a Mole in Just Five Minutes

Some consider them things of beauty.  Others reckon them hideous—better kept out of sight and out of mind.   They’re moles, and here’s how they’re removed in just five minutes.

Let’s begin…
…First Minute…
…Second Minute…
…Third Minute…
…Fourth Minute…
…Fifth Minute…
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) with an Eastern Mole (Scalopus aquaticus).

Moles—they’re an acquired taste.

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!

Piebald Deer at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

Except for a few injured stragglers, Snow Geese have departed Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties to continue their journey north to breeding grounds in Canada.  The crowds of observers are gone too.  So if you’re looking for a reason to pay a visit to a much quieter refuge, here it is—especially if you’re a devoted deer worshiper.

There is at least one white deer being seen on the refuge.  That’s right, a white deer.  Its unusual color is really becoming conspicuous as the landscape begins turning from shades of gray to various hues of bright green.

No, it’s not a reindeer.  This piebald White-tailed Deity was seen this afternoon on the west side of Kleinfeltersville Road north of the Middle Creek W.M.A. visitor’s center opposite the Willow Point Trail parking lot.  Those of you who are regular deer-watchers at Middle Creek are familiar with the location, and maybe this particular white-tail too.
Because it has brown eyes and a brown snout, we known this is not an albino deer.  A piebald deer possesses white pelage as the result of genetic inheritance of an uncommon recessive allele possessed by both parents.  Other anatomical mutations can accompany the receipt of the piebald variation, some of them crippling.  The pale young deer entering the picture from the right bears some resemblance to the piebald on the left.  We may be seeing ten-month-old twins foraging with their brown-coated mother.

If you go, you’ll need binoculars to pick out these uncommon deer.  And remember to be very careful when parking and observing along Kleinfeltersville Road.  The speeding cars and trucks there can be wickedly dangerous, so give them lots of room.

Forest vs. Woodlot

Let’s take a quiet stroll through the forest to have a look around.  The spring awakening is underway and it’s a marvelous thing to behold.  You may think it a bit odd, but during this walk we’re not going to spend all of our time gazing up into the trees.  Instead, we’re going to investigate the happenings at ground level—life on the forest floor.

Rotting logs and leaf litter create the moisture retaining detritus in which mesic forest plants grow and thrive.  Note the presence of mosses and a vernal pool in this damp section of forest.
The earliest green leaves in the forest are often those of the Skunk Cabbage (Simplocarpus foetidus).  This member of the arum family gets a head start by growing in the warm waters of a spring seep or in a stream-fed wetland.  Like many native wildflowers of the forest, Skunk Cabbage takes advantage of early-springtime sun to flower and grow prior to the time in late April when deciduous trees grow foliage and cast shade beneath their canopy.
Among the bark of dead and downed trees, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) hibernates for the winter.  It emerges to alight on sun-drenched surfaces in late winter and early spring.
Another hibernating forest butterfly that emerges on sunny early-spring days is the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), also known as the Hop Merchant.
In a small forest brook, a water strider (Gerridae) chases its shadow using the surface tension of the water to provide buoyancy.  Forests are essential for the protection of headwaters areas where our streams get their start.
Often flooded only in the springtime, fish-free pools of water known as vernal ponds are essential breeding habitat for many forest-dwelling amphibians.  Unfortunately, these ephemeral wetland sites often fall prey to collecting, dumping, filling, and vandalism by motorized and non-motorized off-roaders, sometimes resulting in the elimination of the populations of frogs, toads, and salamanders that use them.
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) emerge from hiding places among downed timber and leaf litter to journey to a nearby vernal pond where they begin calling still more Wood Frogs to the breeding site.
Wood Frog eggs must hatch and tadpoles must transform into terrestrial frogs before the pond dries up in the summertime.  It’s a risky means of reproduction, but it effectively evades the enormous appetites of fish.
When the egg laying is complete, adult Wood Frogs return to the forest and are seldom seen during the rest of the year.
In early spring, Painted Turtles emerge from hideouts in larger forest pools, particularly those in wooded swamps, to bask in sunny locations.
Dead standing trees, often called snags, are essential habitats for many species of forest wildlife.  There is an entire biological process, a micro-ecosystem, involved in the decay of a dead tree.  It includes fungi, bacteria, and various invertebrate animals that reduce wood into the detritus that nourishes and hydrates new forest growth.
Birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker feed on insects found in large snags and nest almost exclusively in them.  Many species of wildlife rely on dead trees, both standing and fallen, during all or part of their lives.

There certainly is more to a forest than the living trees.  If you’re hiking through a grove of timber getting snared in a maze of prickly Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and seeing little else but maybe a wild ungulate or two, then you’re in a has-been forest.  Logging, firewood collection, fragmentation, and other man-made disturbances inside and near forests take a collective toll on their composition, eventually turning them to mere woodlots.  Go enjoy the forests of the lower Susquehanna valley while you still can.  And remember to do it gently; we’re losing quality as well as quantity right now—so tread softly.

The White-tailed Deity in a woodlot infested by invasive tangles of Multiflora Rose.

Clean Slate for 2020

Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year.  If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year.  On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper.  On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby.  The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days.  The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.

A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.

Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent.  Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years.  Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.

It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation.  His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year.  The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there.  In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves.  Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that!   It was the most lackluster year in memory.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible.  There would be no cause for greater alarm.  It would be a matter of cause and effect.  But the problem is more widespread.

Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna.  And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes.  A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration.  In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous.  What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south?  The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?

Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere.  These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends.  They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.

There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone.  None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline.  Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds?  Did they die off?  Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction?  Is it global warming?  Is it Three Mile Island?  Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?

The answer might not be so cryptic.  It might be right before our eyes.  And we’ll explore it during 2020.

A clean slate for 2020.

In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.  You should go too.  They have lots of food there.

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.

Migrating North?

CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

A steady stream of birds was on the move this morning over Conewago Falls.  There were hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, scores of Herring Gulls, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls to dominate the flight.  Then too there were thirteen Mallards, Turkey Vultures and a Black Vulture, twenty or more American Robins, a half a dozen Bald Eagles (juvenile and immature birds), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, and, perhaps most unusual of all, a flock of a dozen Scoters (Melanitta species), a waterfowl typical of the Mid-Atlantic surf in winter.  All of these birds were diligently following the river, and into a headwind no less.

“Hold on just a minute there, buster,” you may say, “I’ve looked at the migration count by dutifully clicking on the logo above and there is nothing but zeroes on the count sheet for today.  The season totals have not changed since the previous count day!”

Ah-ha, my dedicated friend, correct you are.  It seems that today’s bird flight was solely in one direction.  And that direction was upriver, moving north into a north breeze, on a heading which conflicts with all logic for creatures that should still be headed south for winter.  As a result, none of the birds observed today were counted on the “Autumn Migration Count”.

You might say, “Don’t you know that Winter Solstice was three days ago, so autumn and autumn migration is over.”

Okay, point well taken.  I should therefore clarify that what we title as “Autumn Migration Count” is more accurately a census of birds, insects, and other creatures transiting from northerly latitudes to more favorable latitudes to the south for winter.  This transit can begin as early as late June and extend into the first weeks of winter.  While most of this movement is motivated by the reduced hours of daylight during the period, late season migrants are often responding to ice, bad weather, or lack of food to prompt a journey further south.  Migration south in late December and January occurs even while the amount of daylight is increasing slightly in the days following the Winter Solstice.

So what of the birds seen flying north today?  There was some snow cover that has melted away, and the ice that formed on the river a week ago is gone due to the milder than normal temperatures this week.

One may ask, “Were the birds seen today migrating north?”

Let’s look at the species seen moving upriver today a try to determine their motivation.

First, and perhaps most straight-forward, is the huge flight of gulls.  Wintering gulls on the Susquehanna River near Conewago Falls tend to spend their nights in flocks on the water or on treeless islands and rocky outcrops in the river.  Many hundreds, sometimes thousands, find such favorable sites along the fifteen mile stretch of river from Conewago Falls downstream to Lake Clarke and the Conejohela Flats at Washington Boro.  Each morning most of these gulls venture out to suburbia, farmland, landfill, hydroelectric dams, and other sections of river in search of food.  Gulls are very able fliers and easily cover dozens of miles outbound and inbound each day in search of food.  Many of the gulls seen this morning were probably on their way to the Harrisburg metropolitan area to eat trash.  Barring any extraordinary buildups of ice on this section of river, one would expect these gulls to remain and make these daily excursions to food sources through early spring.

Ring-billed Gulls fly upriver through the Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls.
Herring Gulls stream upriver through Conewago Falls on their way to fine dining.

Second, throughout the season Bald Eagles have been tallied on the migration count with caution.  Flight altitude, behavior, plumage, and the reaction of the “local” eagles to these transients was carefully considered before counting an eagle as a migrant.  They roam a lot, particularly when young, and range widely to feed.  The movement of eagles up the river today was probably food related.  A gathering of adult, juvenile, and immature Bald Eagles could be seen more than a half mile upstream from the migration count lookout.  Those moving up the river seemed to assemble with the “locals” there throughout the morning.  White-tailed Deities occasionally drown, particularly when there is thin or unstable ice on the river (as there was last week) and they attempt to tread upon it.  Then, their bodies are often stranded among rocks, in trees, or on the crown of the dam.  After such a mishap, their carcasses become meals for carrion-eaters in the falls.  Such an unfortunate deity, or another source of food, may have been attracting the eagles in numbers today.

A distant gathering of Bald Eagles at the south end of Three Mile Island in upper Conewago Falls.

Next, Black and Turkey Vultures often roam widely in search of food.  The small numbers seen headed up-river today would tend to mean very little when trying to determine if there is a trend or population shift.  Again, food may have been luring them upriver from nearby roosts.

And finally, the scoters, Mallards, American Robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds may have been wandering as well.  Toward mid-day, the wind speed picked up and the direction changed to the east.  This raises the possibility that these and others of the birds seen today may sense a change in weather, and may seek to take flight from the inclement conditions.  Prompted by the ocean breeze and in an attempt to avoid a storm, was there some movement away from the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the upper Piedmont today?  Many species may make these types of reactive movements.  Is it possible that some birds flee or avoid ever-changing storm tracks and alter there wintering locations based on jet streams, water currents, and other climatic conditions?  Probably.  These are interesting dynamics and something worthy of study outside the simpler methods of a migration count.

A Ring-billed Gull begins feeding as storm clouds approach Conewago Falls at mid-day.  This and other gull species travel widely in their winter range to find food and safe roosting sites.  For them, northward spring migration usually begins no earlier than late February.