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.

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.

Coming Soon, Very Soon: Brood X Periodical Cicadas

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

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

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

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

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

Did you say Periodical Cicadas?  We can hardly wait!

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.

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.

Digging In

If you visit the shores of the Susquehanna River during the warmer months of the year, there’s a pretty good probability that you’ll be taking a visitor along home with you.  Not to worry, it won’t raid the icebox or change the television channels when you leave the room to get a snack.  It won’t put you in the doghouse with the landlord for having a forbidden pet.  As a matter of fact, you may not even notice your new companion.  Sure enough though, it’s there, crawling through the luxurious warm fabric of your clothing and seeking out a good place to dig in and chow down.  O.K., so now you’re worried.

Ticks, particularly the American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis), are widespread in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Like spiders, they are arachnids.  They have a four-stage life cycle (egg-larva-nymph-adult) which, in the case of D. variabilis, requires a minimum of two months to complete.  Females lay up to 6,500 eggs on the ground.  Then the fun begins as the larvae with any hope of survival must attach to a small mammal to feed.  They can survive for almost a year before finding a host.  After a successful hookup and subsequent blood feast of up to two weeks duration, the larva drops to the ground, molts into a nymph, and finds another small mammal, usually a bit bigger this time, to feed upon.  A nymph can survive for up to six months before needing to feed.  Finding the second host, the nymph feeds for 3 to 10 days, then drops to the ground to molt into an adult.  Adult American Dog Ticks can endure up to two years without feeding on a host.  The adults mate and feed on larger mammals such as deer and domestic animals including, of course, dogs.  After a blood meal of five days to two weeks duration, the adult female tick drops to the ground to lay eggs and initiate a new generation.

The adult American Dog Tick attaches to a potential host by hanging from vegetation and grabbing the passing victim with its forward legs to hitch a ride.  If undetected, a female will find a nice warm spot and “dig in” to begin feeding.  This male is looking for love, and in all the wrong places.

The American Dog Tick is renowned as a carrier of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever bacteria (Rickettsia rickettsii).  The bacteria is vectored by the ticks from rodents to dogs and humans.  The adult tick must be attached to the victim for a minimum of six to eight hours to transmit the pathogen.  A rash spreading from the wrists and the ankles to other portions of the body begins two to fourteen days after infection.

Tularemia, caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis, can be passed by the American Dog Tick.  Symptoms can appear in three to twenty-one days and include chills, fever, and inflammation of the lymph nodes.

American Dog Ticks which attach to dogs, particularly near the neck, and are left in place to feed and engorge themselves for longer than five days can cause Canine Tick Paralysis.  Symptoms usually begin to subside only after a recovery period following removal of the arachnid.

The American Dog Tick is exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria responsible for Lyme Disease, however, transmittal of this pathogen is by the smaller Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis), also known as the Black-legged Tick.  The Deer Tick is not presently common at Conewago Falls.  In the adjacent uplands, it is widespread and is carrying Lyme Disease where the White-tailed Deity (Odocoileus virginianus), the preferred host for the ticks, is found along with mice and other small rodents, the source of B. burgdorferi bacteria.  The Deer Tick easily escapes notice and cases of Lyme Disease are frequent, so vigilance is necessary.

SOURCES

Chan, Wai-Han, and Kaufman, Phillip.  2008.  American Dog Tick.  University of Florida Featured Creatures website  entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/urban/medical/american_dog_tick.htm  as accessed July 30, 2017.