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.
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.
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.
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.
The January thaw has melted the snow from lawns and fields to provide thousands of visiting robins with a chance to forage for earthworms.
A visit by this young Cooper’s Hawk to the susquehannnawildlife.net headquarters garden sent songbirds scrambling…
…but did nothing to unnerve our resident Eastern Gray Squirrels,…
…which promptly went into tail-waving mode to advertise their presence.
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…
…and this young Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon bird of prey most often found in wet woods and other lowlands.
To escape notice during visits by these larger raptors, our squirrels remained motionless and commenced performance of their best bump-on-a-log impressions.
Unimpressed, each of our visiting buteos remained for just a few minutes before moving on in search of more favorable hunting grounds and prey.
As snow melted and exposed bare ground in fields of early successional growth, we encountered…
…a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, most in first-winter plumage…
…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.
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…
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.
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.
Just as bare ground along a plowed road attracts birds in an otherwise snow-covered landscape, a receding river or large stream can provide the same benefit to hungry avians looking for food following a winter storm.
Here is a small sample of some of the species seen during a brief stop along the Susquehanna earlier this week.
Along vegetated edges of the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Song Sparrow is ubiquitous in its search for small seeds and other foods. As the river recedes from the effects of this month’s rains, the shoreline is left bare of more recently deposited snow cover. Song Sparrows and other birds are attracted to streamside corridors of frost-free ground to find sufficient consumables for supplying enough energy to survive the long cold nights of winter.
Thousands of American Robins have been widespread throughout the lower Susquehanna valley during the past week. Due to the mild weather during this late fall and early winter, some may still be in the process of working their way south. Currently, many robins are concentrated along the river shoreline where receding water has exposed unfrozen soils to provide these birds with opportunities for finding earthworms (Lumbricidae) and other annelids.
This Golden-crowned Kinglet was observed searching the trees and shrubs along the Susquehanna shoreline for tiny insects and spiders. Temperatures above the bare ground along the receding river can be a few degrees higher than in surrounding snow-covered areas, thus improving the chances of finding active prey among the trunks and limbs of the riparian forest.
Not far from the kinglet, a Brown Creeper is seen searching the bark of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) for wintering insects, as well as their eggs and larvae. Spiders in all their life stages are a favorite too.
American Pipits not only inhabit farm fields during the winter months, they are quite fond of bare ground along the Susquehanna. Seen quite easily along a strip of pebbly shoreline exposed by receding water, these birds will often escape notice when spending time on mid-river gravel and sand bars during periods of low flow.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.