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.
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.
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.
So you aren’t particularly interested in a stroll through the Pennsylvania woods during the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s second-biggest holiday of the year—the annual sacrifice-of-the-White-tailed-Deity ritual. I get it. Two weeks and nothing to do. Well, why not try a hike through the city instead? I’m not kidding. You might be surprised at what you see. Here are some photographs taken today during several strolls in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
First stop was City Island in the Susquehanna River—accessible from downtown Harrisburg or the river’s west shore by way of the Market Street Bridge.
Okay, City Island was worth the effort. Next stop is Wildwood Park, located along Industrial Road just north of the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex and the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) campus. There are six miles of trails surrounding mile-long Wildwood Lake within this marvelous Dauphin County Parks Department property.
And now, without further ado, it’s time for the waterfowl of Wildwood Lake—in order of their occurrence.
See, you don’t have to cloak yourself in bright orange ceremonial garments just to go for a hike. Go put on your walking shoes and a warm coat, grab your binoculars and/or camera, and have a look at wildlife in a city near you. You never know what you might find.
Taylor, Scott A., Thomas A. White, Wesley M. Hochachka, Valentina Ferretti, Robert L. Curry, and Irby Lovette. 2014. “Climate-Mediated Movement of an Avian Hybrid Zone”. Current Biology. 24:6 pp.671-676.
And now, a few words from the old watersnake who happens to live down along the creek where last spring’s Earth Day events were held.
Hey! You! Yeah You! I heard that there won’t be an Earth Day celebration down here this week. What a ssshame!
Remember how much fun we had last year. All those kids ssscrambling down along the creek bank throwing ssstones and ssscreaming and yelling like they’re gonna sssack a city. I ssshould have had the sssense to ssslither away. But no, I just curled up and played it cool. But sssure enough, one of the little brats found me and bellowed out loud enough for the whole countryside to hear, “SSSNAAAAKE!”
Ah nuts. That’s all it took. Here they come. Poking me with a ssstick. Taunting and ssstabbing. Don’t you know that hurts? What did I ever do to you, you rotten little apes? I’m telling ya, I get no respect.
Think that’s bad? It got worse. Don’t you remember? After a dozen of the runny-nosed monsters had me sssurrounded, one of the brain-dead adults yelled, “…it might be poisonous!”
That’s all it took. The ssstones got hurled my way and the poking with a ssstick became beatings. Those rats tried to kill me! On Earth Day! I ssslid into deep water and barely escaped with my life.
Now I want to tell you a few things—let’s get ’em ssstraight right now. I’m not, nor is any other watersnake in the SSSusquehanna valley, poisonous. Ssso don’t go villainizing me and those like me just because you have a monkey-like fear of us and need a sssocially acceptable reason to exercise your murderous instincts. Yeah, we know all about your manly tall tales of conquest that you ssshamelessly tell your friends and family after you kill a sssnake. Wanna be a hero? Then leave us alone! We and all of the native sssnakes of the SSSusquehanna valley, including the venomous copperheads and Timber Rattlesnakes, are minding our own business and just want to be left alone. Get it? Leave us alone! Don’t beat us with a ssshovel, mow over us, drive your car or truck over us, or ssshoot us. We have it bad enough as it is. You already buggered up most of our homes building your roads, houses, and lawns you know—so have a little respect. And one more thing, we don’t want be part of your pet menagerie. There’s no way we’ll “love you” or want anything to do with you, even if you do imprison us and make us sssubmissive to you for food, you sssick fascists. And that goes for you obsessive collector types too. We know you’re hoarding animals like us and calling your cruel little pet penitentiary a “rescue”. Yeah, we’re wise to that con too.
Ssso we’ve heard you won’t be coming down to the creek to terrorize us this year. No Earth Day event, huh. Well good, because I can’t take another Earth Day. Let the sssquirrels and the birds plant the trees, they do a better job than you anyway. Ssstay at home where you belong—watching television or twit-facing your B.F.F. on that magic box you carry around. And if you absolutely feel the urge to be upset by a sssnake in your midst, go visit that neighbor with the “reptile rescue”, I’m sssure he has a cobra or some other non-native sssnake in his collection that really ought to give you worry—especially when it finally escapes that prison.
The humid rainy remains of Hurricane Nate have long since passed by Pennsylvania, yet mild wet weather lingers to confuse one’s sense of the seasons. This gloomy misty day was less than spectacular for watching migrating birds and insects, but some did pass by. Many resident animals of the falls are availing themselves of the opportunity to continue active behavior before the cold winds of autumn and winter force a change of lifestyle.
Warm drizzle at daybreak prompted several Northern Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer) to begin calling from the wetlands in the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls. An enormous chorus of these calls normally begins with the first warm rains of early spring to usher in this tiny frog’s mating season. Today, it was just a few “peeps” among anxious friends.
Any additional river flow that resulted from the rains of the previous week is scarcely noticeable among the Pothole Rocks. The water level remains low, the water column is fairly clear, and the water temperatures are in the 60s Fahrenheit.
It’s no real surprise then to see aquatic turtles climbing onto the boulders in the falls to enjoy a little warmth, if not from the sun, then from the stored heat in the rocks. As usual, they’re quick to slide into the depths soon after sensing someone approaching or moving nearby. Seldom found anywhere but on the river, these skilled divers are Common Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica), also known as Northern Map Turtles. Their paddle-like feet are well adapted to swimming in strong current. They are benthic feeders, feasting upon a wide variety of invertebrates found among the stone and substrate of the river bottom.
Adult Common Map Turtles hibernate communally on the river bottom in a location protected from ice scour and turbulent flow, often using boulders, logs, or other structures as shelter from strong current. The oxygenation of waters tumbling through Conewago Falls may be critical to the survival of the turtles overwintering downstream. Dissolved oxygen in the water is absorbed by the nearly inactive turtles as they remain submerged at their hideout through the winter. Though Common Map Turtles, particularly males, may occasionally move about in their hibernation location, they are not seen coming to the surface to breathe.
The Common Map Turtles in the Susquehanna River basin are a population disconnected from that found in the main range of the species in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi basin. Another isolated population exists in the Delaware River.
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 2002. Status Report of the Northern Map Turtle. Canadian Wildlife Service. Ottawa, Ontario.
A moderate breeze from the south placed a headwind into the face of migrants trying to wing their way to winter quarters. The urge to reach their destination overwhelmed any inclination a bird or insect may have had to stay put and try again another day.
Blue Jays were joined by increasing numbers of American Robins crossing the river in small groups to continue their migratory voyages. Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and a handful of sandpipers headed down the river route. Other migrants today included a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), and a few Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser), House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula).
The afternoon belonged to the insects. The warm wind blew scores of Monarchs toward the north as they persistently flapped on a southwest heading. Many may have actually lost ground today. Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies were observed battling their way south as well. All three of the common migrating dragonflies were seen: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), and Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).
The warm weather and summer breeze are expected to continue as the rain and wind from Hurricane Nate, today striking coastal Alabama and Mississippi, progresses toward the Susquehanna River watershed during the coming forty-eight hours.