Fifty years ago this week, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes drifted north through the Susquehanna River basin as a tropical storm and saturated the entire watershed with wave after wave of torrential rains. The storm caused catastrophic flooding along the river’s main stem and along many major tributaries. The nuclear power station at Three Mile Island, then under construction, received its first major flood. Here are some photos taken during the climax of that flood on June 24, 1972. The river stage as measured just upstream of Three Mile Island at the Harrisburg gauge crested at 33.27 feet, more than 10 feet above flood stage and almost 30 feet higher than the stage at present. At Three Mile Island and Conewago Falls, the river was receiving additional flow from the raging Swatara Creek, which drains much of the anthracite coal region of eastern Schuylkill County—where rainfall from Agnes may have been the heaviest.
Pictures capture just a portion of the experience of witnessing a massive flood. Sometimes the sounds and smells of the muddy torrents tell us more than photographs can show.
Aside from the booming noise of the fuel tank banging along the rails of the south bridge, there was the persistent roar of floodwaters, at the rate of hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second, tumbling through Conewago Falls on the downstream side of the island. The sound of the rapids during a flood can at times carry for more than two miles. It’s a sound that has accompanied the thousands of floods that have shaped the falls and its unique diabase “pothole rocks” using abrasives that are suspended in silty waters after being eroded from rock formations in the hundreds of square miles of drainage basin upstream. This natural process, the weathering of rock and the deposition of the material closer to the coast, has been the prevailing geologic cycle in what we now call the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed since the end of the Triassic Period, more than two hundred million years ago.
More than the sights and sounds, it was the smell of the Agnes flood that warned witnesses of the dangers of the non-natural, man-made contamination—the pollution—in the waters then flowing down the Susquehanna.
Because they float, gasoline and other fuels leaked from flooded vehicles, storage tanks, and containers were most apparent. The odor of their vapors was widespread along not only along the main stem of the river, but along most of the tributaries that at any point along their course passed through human habitations.
Blended with the strong smell of petroleum was the stink of untreated excrement. Flooded treatment plants, collection systems overwhelmed by stormwater, and inundated septic systems all discharged raw sewage into the river and many of its tributaries. This untreated wastewater, combined with ammoniated manure and other farm runoff, gave a damaging nutrient shock to the river and Chesapeake Bay.
Adding to the repugnant aroma of the flood was a mix of chemicals, some percolated from storage sites along watercourses, and yet others leaking from steel drums seen floating in the river. During the decades following World War II, stacks and stacks of drums, some empty, some containing material that is very dangerous, were routinely stored in floodplains at businesses and industrial sites throughout the Susquehanna basin. Many were lifted up and washed away during the record-breaking Agnes flood. Still others were “allowed” to be carried away by the malicious pigs who see a flooding stream as an opportunity to “get rid of stuff”. Few of these drums were ever recovered, and hundreds were stranded along the shoreline and in the woods and wetlands of the floodplain below Conewago Falls. There, they rusted away during the next three decades, some leaking their contents into the surrounding soils and waters. Today, there is little visible trace of any.
During the summer of ’72, the waters surrounding Three Mile Island were probably viler and more polluted than at any other time during the existence of the nuclear generating station there. And little, if any of that pollution originated at the facility itself.
The Susquehanna’s floodplain and water quality issues that had been stashed in the corner, hidden out back, and swept under the rug for years were flushed out by Agnes, and she left them stuck in the stinking mud.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida are on their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. After making landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 storm, Ida is on track to bring heavy rain to the Mid-Atlantic States beginning tonight.
Rainfall totals are anticipated to be sufficient to cause flooding in the lower Susquehanna basin. As much as six to ten inches of precipitation could fall in parts of the area on Wednesday.
Now would be a good time to get all your valuables and junk out of the floodways and floodplains. Move your cars, trucks, S.U.V.s, trailers, and boats to higher ground. Clear out the trash cans, playground equipment, picnic tables, and lawn furniture too. Get it all to higher ground. Don’t be the slob who uses a flood as a chance to get rid of tires and other rubbish by letting it just wash away.
Flooding not only has economic and public safety impacts, it is a source of enormous amounts of pollution. Chemical spills from inundated homes, businesses, and vehicles combine with nutrient and sediment runoff from eroding fields to create a filthy brown torrent that rushes down stream courses and into the Susquehanna. Failed and flooded sewage facilities, both municipal and private, not only pollute the water, but give it that foul odor familiar to those who visit the shores of the river after a major storm. And of course there is the garbage. The tons and tons of waste that people discard carelessly that, during a flood event, finds its way ever closer to the Susquehanna, then the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic. It’s a disgraceful legacy.
Now is your chance to do something about it. Go out right now and pick up the trash along the curb, in the street, and on the sidewalk and lawn—before it gets swept into your nearby stormwater inlet or stream. It’s easy to do, just bend and stoop. While you’re at it, clean up the driveway and parking lot too.
We’ll be checking to see how you did.
And remember, flood plains are for flooding, so get out of the floodplain and stay out.
Have a look at these images of the smoke plume being generated by fires in forests and other wildlands in the western United States.
While viewing these amazing images, consider for a moment the plight of migrating birds. Each one struggles to survive the energy-depleting effects of wind, distance, storm, cold, drought, dust, and sometimes even smoke as it strives to reach its breeding grounds each spring and its wintering grounds each fall. Natural and man-made effects can cause migrating birds to become disoriented. Songbirds are known to become lost at sea. Others strike objects including buildings and radio towers, particularly when visibility is impaired. The dangers seem endless.
For migrating birds, places of refuge where they can stop to feed and rest during their long journeys are essential to their survival. For species attempting flights through conditions as extreme as those seen in these images, there is the potential for significant loss of life, particularly among the birds with less than optimal stores of energy.
After threading its way through waves of Saharan dust plumes, Tropical Storm Isaias, or the remnants thereof, is making a run up the eastern seaboard toward the lower Susquehanna watershed.
Heavy rain and flooding appears likely, particularly east of the Susquehanna. Now might be a good time to clean up the trash and garbage that could clog nearby storm drains or otherwise find its way into your local waterway. NOW is the time to get all your stuff out of the floodplain! The car, the camper, the picnic table, the lawn furniture, the kid’s toys, the soda bottles, the gas cans, the lawn chemicals, the Styrofoam, and all that other junk you’ve piled up. Get that stuff cleaned up and out of the floodway. And of course, get you and your pets out of the there too!
Dust continues to be carried aloft on dry updrafts over the Sahara Desert. The plume is presently stretching for thousands of miles due west across the tropical Atlantic into the Pacific, leaving the United States out of the loop—at least for now.
With no dry air to spoil the fun, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream off the coast of North Carolina are spawning some convective clouds in a low pressure system that could become tropical within the next day or so.
Now that the heat and humidity is upon us, why not get out and take a look at the damselflies and dragonflies that inhabit the ponds, wetlands, and waterways of the lower Susquehanna watershed? These flying insects thrive in sultry weather and some species will breed in a body of water as small as a garden pond—as long as it is free of large fish. Check out some of the species found locally by clicking on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page. We’ll be adding more photos and species soon.
The overcast of Saharan dust that was as close to the Susquehanna valley as the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia has, for now, dissipated. This week, the plume of particulates followed a hairpin route originating with the Saharan updrafts, then flowing across the Atlantic and Caribbean only to make a 180-degree turn along the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico to return to the Atlantic via Florida, where it then drifted northeast—loosely following the path of the Gulf Stream.
During the last several days, portions of the dust layer have been carried due west across Mexico into the Pacific.
For the Susquehanna region, a low pressure system is in place for Independence Day. In the image below, the cloud of hazy humid air seen blanketing the northeast coast consists of air pollution, pollen, mold spores, “domestic particulates”, condensing water vapor—and little if any red-brown Saharan dust. For the gasoline and gunpowder gang, it’ll be a sticky-hot summer weekend for the celebration of their favorite holiday. Kaboom!
The latest satellite image shows the Saharan dust cloud now covering much of the southern United States including most of West Virginia and the Appalachians of North Carolina and Virginia. Due to the density of the particulate matter, air quality warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service for South Carolina, western North Carolina, and the Atlanta metro area.
As the plume of dust drifts east from the southern United States into the Atlantic…
…yet more can be seen coming west from the African Sahara into the Caribbean Sea. It ain’t over til’ it’s over.
The Saharan dust cloud made its way across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to reach the skies above the shores of the United States by mid-day yesterday. There, as seen in the image below, the dusty air mass encountered a storm that caused heavy rains and flooding in Louisiana.
By this morning, the leading edge of the dust cloud encircled the gulf coastline and had spread east across northern Florida into the Atlantic. The latest satellite image (below) shows a dense dry core of the system covering the western Caribbean, the central gulf, and the Yucatan Peninsula.
For the eastern Caribbean, there is a break in the action. But a second wave is on the way.
Start watching the skies. Look for any increase in haze during the coming days. Then too, it might be interesting to compare the sunsets for one evening to the next. Over successive nights, take note of the stars and planets in the night sky. If the Saharan dust reaches the lower Susquehanna region with sufficient density, you may find that only the brightest celestial objects are discernible.
Dust carried aloft by hot dry air over the Sahara Desert continues to stream west into the Caribbean Sea. In this image, a dense band of the airborne particles can be seen passing over the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Leeward Islands. North of these islands, note the development of puffy white clouds outside the border of the dust storm. The Saharan air mass appears to be effectively limiting convective cloud development within much of its course. No hurricanes for now.
What is the impact of the Saharan dust cloud on the affected islands? In Puerto Rico, the National Weather Service is forecasting visibility of four to eight miles in widespread haze through at least the next twenty-four hours. For the coming several days, the forecast daily high temperatures are expected to be in the low eighties—several degrees cooler than the normal high eighties and low nineties.
Stay tuned, we’ll keep an eye on the plume as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico.
Summer is nigh upon us. With the solstice just hours away, it might be fun to have a look at a satellite view of the earth while the south pole lies plunged into days of endless night, and the north pole suffers none.
In the image above, darkness can be seen engulfing the southern Atlantic Ocean and southernmost Chile. The latter is the longitudinal equivalent of the lower Susquehanna valley. Today, it experiences nightfall more than five hours earlier than we, heralding the first day of our summer, and of their winter.
Just to the north of the South American continent, note the enormous tan-colored cloud over the Atlantic. What is that? From whence doth that cloud come?
Closer inspection reveals an enormous plume of dust rising from the Sahara Desert in Africa and drifting west approaching the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. (In the image above, Africa can be seen outlined in the darkness along the east horizon) Look closely and you’ll notice that the dust is obscuring the white clouds below it, indicating that it has reached altitudes high in the atmosphere. Particle fallout from Saharan dust clouds is known to fertilize tropical forests—including the Amazon (bottom center of image). Because they are composed of wind blown particles and not water vapor, Saharan dust clouds carry aloft not only minerals and nutrients, but microscopic and macroscopic life too.
Is this particular Saharan dust cloud going to impact the Amazon? What might the meteorological and biological effects of this cloud be if it continues into the Caribbean and even into the United States? Might we be showered by little pieces of the Sahara this summer? Will we see spectacular sunrises and sunsets? Time will tell.
You need to get outside and go for a walk. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. It’s prime time to see wildlife in all its glory. The songs and colors of spring are upon us!
If you’re not up to a walk and you just want to go for a slow drive, why not take a trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and visit the managed grasslands on the north side of the refuge. To those of us over fifty, it’s a reminder of how Susquehanna valley farmlands were before the advent of high-intensity agriculture. Take a look at the birds found there right now.
And remember, if you happen to own land and aren’t growing crops on it, put it to good use. Mow less, live more. Mow less, more lives.
Severe thunderstorms with hail, torrential rain, and flooding passed through the lower Susquehanna valley this evening. The National Weather Service in State College issued a warning for a radar-indicated tornado shown crossing the Susquehanna River downstream of Conewago Falls at 6:55 P.M. E.D.T. The rascal revealed itself about ten minutes later.
The staff at a retirement community west of Elizabethtown was on the alert and had the fortitude to quickly sound a warning siren. It was howling away as this image was taken. What could have been a disaster was instead a spectacular close call.
If you were a regular visitor to this website during the autumn of 2017, you will recall the proliferation of posts detailing the bird migration at Conewago Falls during the season. The lookout site among the Pothole Rocks remained high and dry for most of the count’s duration.
In the fall of 2018, those lookout rocks were never to be seen. There was to be no safe perch for a would-be observer. There was no attempt to conduct a tally of passing migrants. If you live in the lower Susquehanna River drainage basin, you know why—rain—record setting rain.
It was a routine occurrence in many communities along tributaries of the lower Susquehanna River during the most recent two months. The rain falls like it’s never going to stop—inches an hour. Soon there is flash flooding along creeks and streams. Roads are quickly inundated. Inevitably, there are motorists caught in the rising waters and emergency crews are summoned to retrieve the victims. When the action settles, sets of saw horses are brought to the scene to barricade the road until waters recede. At certain flood-prone locations, these events are repeated time and again. The police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services crews seem to visit them during every torrential storm—rain, rescue, rinse, and repeat.
We treat our local streams and creeks like open sewers. Think about it. We don’t want rainwater accumulating on our properties. We pipe it away and grade the field, lawn, and pavement to roll it into the neighbor’s lot or into the street—or directly into the waterway. It drops upon us as pure water and we instantly pollute it. It’s a method of diluting all the junk we’ve spread out in its path since the last time it rained. A thunderstorm is the big flush. We don’t seem too concerned about the litter, fertilizer, pesticides, motor fluids, and other consumer waste it takes along with it. Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps our lack of respect for streams and creeks is the source of our complete ignorance of the function of floodplains.
Floodplains are formed over time as hydraulic forces erode bedrock and soils surrounding a stream to create adequate space to pass flood waters. As floodplains mature they become large enough to reduce flood water velocity and erosion energy. They then function to retain, infiltrate, and evaporate the surplus water from flood events. Microorganisms, plants, and other life forms found in floodplain wetlands, forests, and grasslands purify the water and break down naturally-occurring organic matter. Floodplains are the shock-absorber between us and our waterways. And they’re our largest water treatment facilities.
Why is it then, that whenever a floodplain floods, we seem motivated to do something to fix this error of nature? Man can’t help himself. He has a compulsion to fill the floodplain with any contrivance he can come up with. We dump, pile, fill, pave, pour, form, and build, then build some more. At some point, someone notices a stream in the midst of our new creation. Now it’s polluted and whenever it storms, the darn thing floods into our stuff—worse than ever before. So the project is crowned by another round of dumping, forming, pouring, and building to channelize the stream. Done! Now let’s move all our stuff into our new habitable space.
The majority of the towns in the lower Susquehanna valley with streams passing through them have impaired floodplains. In many, the older sections of the town are built on filled floodplain. Some new subdivisions highlight streamside lawns as a sales feature—plenty of room for stockpiling your accoutrements of suburban life. And yes, some new homes are still being built in floodplains.
When high water comes, it drags tons of debris with it. The limbs, leaves, twigs, and trees are broken down by natural processes over time. Nature has mechanisms to quickly cope with these organics. Man’s consumer rubbish is another matter. As the plant material decays, the embedded man-made items, particularly metals, treated lumber, plastics, Styrofoam, and glass, become more evident as an ever-accumulating “garbage soil” in the natural floodplains downstream of these impaired areas. With each storm, some of this mess floats away again to move ever closer to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. Are you following me? That’s our junk from the curb, lawn, highway, or parking lot bobbing around in the world’s oceans.
Beginning in 1968, participating municipalities, in exchange for having coverage provided to their qualified residents under the National Flood Insurance Program, were required to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance. The program was intended to reduce flood damage and provide flood assistance funded with premiums paid by potential victims. The program now operates with a debt incurred during severe hurricanes. Occurrences of repetitive damage claims and accusations that the program provides an incentive for rebuilding in floodplains have made the National Flood Insurance Program controversial.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed there are municipalities that still permit new construction in floodplains. Others are quite proactive at eliminating new construction in flood-prone zones, and some are working to have buildings removed that are subjected to repeated flooding.
It’s been an atypical summer. The lower Susquehanna River valley has been in a cycle of heavy rains for over a month and stream flooding has been a recurring event. At Conewago Falls, the Pothole Rocks have been inundated for weeks. The location used as a lookout for the Autumn Migration Count last fall is at the moment submerged in ten feet of roaring water. Any attempt to tally the migrants which are passing thru in 2018 will thus be delayed indefinitely. Of greater import, the flooding at Conewago Falls is impacting many of the animals and plants there at a critical time in their annual life cycle. Having been displaced from its usual breeding sites on the river, one insect species in particular seems to be omnipresent in upland areas right now, and few people have ever heard of it.
So, you take a cruise in the motorcar to your favorite store and arrive at the sprawling parking lot. Not wishing to have your doors dented or paint chipped because you settled for a space tightly packed among other shopper’s conveyances, you park out there in the “boondocks”. You know the place, the lightly-used portion of the lot where sometimes brush grows from cracks in the asphalt and you must be on alert for impatient consumers who throttle-up to high speeds and dash diagonally across the carefully painted grids on the pavement to reach their favorite parking destination in the front row. Coming to a stop, you take the car out of gear, set the brake, disengage the safety belt, and gather your shopping list. You grasp the door handle and, not wanting to be flattened by one of the aforementioned motorists, you have a look around before exiting.
It was then that you saw the thing, hovering above your shiny bright hood. For a brief moment, it seemed to be peering right through the windshield at you with big reddish-brown eyes. In just a second or two, it turned its whole bronze body ninety degrees to the left and darted away on its cellophane wings. Maybe you didn’t really get a good look at it. It was so fast. But it certainly was odd. Oh well, time to walk inside a grab a few provisions. Away you go.
Upon completion of your shopping, you’re taking the long stroll back to your car and you notice more of these peculiar creatures. Two are coupled together and are hovering above someone’s automobile hood, then they drop down, and the lower of the two taps its abdomen on the paint. You ask yourself, “What are these bizarre things?”
Meet the Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), also known as the Globe Wanderer or Globe Skimmer, a wide-ranging dragonfly known to occur on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.
Wandering Gliders travel the globe, and as such are accomplished fliers. Adults spend most of the day on the wing, feeding upon a variety of flying insects. Days ago, I watched several intercepting a swarm of flying ants. As fast as ants left the ground they were grabbed and devoured by the gliders. Wandering Gliders are adept at taking day-flying mosquitos, often zipping stealthily past a person’s head or shoulders to grab one of the little pests—the would-be skeeter victim usually unaware of the whole affair.
Due to their nomadic life history, Wandering Gliders are opportunists when breeding and will lay eggs in most any body of freshwater. Their larvae do not overwinter prior to maturity; adults can be expected in a little more than one to two months. Repetitive flooding in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this summer may be reducing the availability of the best local breeding sites for this species—riverine, stream, and floodplain pools of standing water with prey. This may explain why thousands of Wandering Gliders are patrolling parking lots, farmlands, and urban areas this summer. And it’s the likely reason for their use of puddles on asphalt pavement, on rubber roofs, and in fields as places to try to deposit eggs. Unfortunately, they may be as likely to succeed there as they are on your motor vehicle hood.
At this time a year ago, the airspace above the Diabase Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls was jammed with territorial male Wandering Gliders. Each male hovered at various locations around his breeding territory consisting of pools and water-filled potholes. Intruders would quickly be dispatched from the area, then the male would resume his patrols from a set of repetitively-used hovering positions about six feet above the rocks. Mating and egg-laying continued into late September. The larvae, also called nymphs or naiads, were readily observed in many pools and potholes in early October and the emergence of juveniles was noted in mid-October. The absence of flooding, the mild autumn weather, and the moderation of water temperatures in the pools and potholes courtesy of the sun-drenched diabase boulders helped to extend the 2017 breeding season for Wandering Gliders in Conewago Falls. They aren’t likely to experience the same favor this year, but their great ability to travel and adapt should overcome this momentary misfortune.
There are two Conewago Creek systems in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. One drains the Gettysburg Basin west of the river, mostly in Adams and York Counties, then flows into the Susquehanna at the base of Conewago Falls. The other drains the Gettysburg Basin east of the river, flowing through Triassic redbeds of the Gettysburg Formation and York Haven Diabase before entering Conewago Falls near the south tip of Three Mile Island. Both Conewago Creeks flow through suburbia, farm, and forest. Both have their capacity to support aquatic life impaired and diminished by nutrient and sediment pollution.
This week, some of the many partners engaged in a long-term collaboration to restore the east shore’s Conewago Creek met to have a look at one of the prime indicators of overall stream habitat health—the fishes. Kristen Kyler of the Lower Susquehanna Initiative organized the effort. Portable backpack-mounted electrofishing units and nets were used by crews to capture, identify, and count the native and non-native fishes at sampling locations which have remained constant since prior to the numerous stream improvement projects which began more than ten years ago. Some of the present-day sample sites were first used following Hurricane Agnes in 1972 by Stambaugh and Denoncourt and pre-date any implementation of sediment and nutrient mitigation practices like cover crops, no-till farming, field terracing, stormwater control, nutrient management, wetland restoration, streambank fencing, renewed forested stream buffers, or modernized wastewater treatment plants. By comparing more recent surveys with this baseline data, it may be possible to discern trends in fish populations resulting not only from conservation practices, but from many other variables which may impact the Conewago Creek Warmwater Stream ecosystem in Dauphin, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties.
So here they are. Enjoy these shocking fish photos.
Normandeau Associates, Inc. and Gomez and Sullivan. 2018. Muddy Run Pumped Storage Project Conowingo Eel Collection Facility FERC Project 2355. Prepared for Exelon.
Stambaugh, Jr., John W., and Robert P. Denoncourt. 1974. A Preliminary Report on the Conewago Creek Faunal Survey, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences. 48: 55-60.
Two days ago, widespread rain fell intermittently through the day and steadily into the night in the Susquehanna drainage basin. The temperature was sixty degrees, climbing out of a three-week-long spell of sub-freezing cold in a dramatic way. Above the ice-covered river, a very localized fog swirled in the southerly breezes.
By yesterday, the rain had ended as light snow and a stiff wind from the northwest brought sub-freezing air back to the region. Though less than an inch of rain fell during this event, much of it drained to waterways from frozen or saturated ground. Streams throughout the watershed are being pushed clear of ice as minor flooding lifts and breaks the solid sheets into floating chunks.
Today, as their high flows recede, the smaller creeks and runs are beginning to freeze once again. On larger streams, ice is still exiting with the cresting flows and entering the rising river.
The events of today provide a superb snapshot of how Conewago Falls, particularly the Diabase Pothole Rocks, became such a unique place, thousands of years in the making. Ice and flood events of varying intensity, duration, and composition have sculpted these geomorphologic features and contributed to the creation of the specialized plant and animal communities we find there. Their periodic occurrence is essential to maintaining the uncommon habitats in which these communities thrive.
Is this the same Conewago Falls I visited a week ago? Could it really be? Where are all the gulls, the herons, the tiny critters swimming in the potholes, and the leaping fish? Except for a Bald Eagle on a nearby perch, the falls seems inanimate.
Yes, a week of deep freeze has stifled the Susquehanna and much of Conewago Falls. A hike up into the area where the falls churns with great turbulence provided a view of some open water. And a flow of open water is found downstream of the York Haven Dam powerhouse discharge. All else is icing over and freezing solid. The flow of the river pinned beneath is already beginning to heave the flat sheets into piles of jagged ice which accumulate behind obstacles and shallows.
We all know that birds (and many other animals) migrate. It’s a survival phenomenon which, above all, allows them to utilize their mobility to translocate to a climate which provides an advantage for obtaining food, enduring seasonal weather, and raising offspring.
In the northern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly north in the spring to latitudes with progressively greater hours of daylight to breed, nest, and provide for their young. In the southern hemisphere there are similar movements, these to the south during their spring (our autumn). The goal is the same, procreation, though the landmass offering sustenance for species other than seabirds is limited “down under”. Interestingly, there are some seabirds that breed in the southern hemisphere during our winter and spend our summer (their winter) feeding on the abundant food sources of the northern oceans.
Each autumn, migratory breeding birds leave their nesting grounds as the hours of sunlight slowly recede with each passing day. They fly to lower latitudes where the nights aren’t so long and the climate is less brutal. There, they pass their winter season.
Food supply, weather, the start/finish of the nesting cycle, and other factors motivate some birds to begin their spring and autumn journeys. But overall, the hours of daylight and the angle of the sun prompt most species to get going.
But what happens after birds begin their trips to favorable habitats? Do they follow true north and south routes? Do they fly continuously, day and night? Do they ease their way from point to point, stopping to feed along the way? Do they all migrate in flocks? Well, the tactics of migration differ widely from bird species to species, from population to population, and sometimes from individual to individual. The variables encountered when examining the dynamics of bird migration are seemingly endless, but fascinatingly so. Bird migration is well-studied, but most of its intricacies and details remain a mystery.
Consider for a moment that just 10,000 years ago, an Ice Age was coming to an end, with the southernmost edge of the most recent glaciers already withdrawn into present-day Canada from points as near as the upper Susquehanna River watershed. Back then, the birds migrating to the lower portion of the drainage basin each spring probably weren’t forest-dwelling tropical warblers, orioles, and other songbirds. The migratory birds that nested in the lower Susquehanna River valley tens of millennia ago were probably those species found nesting today in taiga and tundra much closer to the Arctic Circle. And the ancestors of most of the tropical migrants that nest here now surely spent their entire lives much closer to the Equator, finding no advantage by journeying to the frigid Susquehanna valley to nest. It’s safe to say that since those times, and probably prior to them, migration patterns have been in a state of flux.
During the intervening years since the great ice sheets, birds have been able to adapt to the shifts in their environment on a gradual basis, often using their unmatched mobility to exploit new opportunities. Migration patterns change slowly, but continuously, resulting in differences that can be substantial over time. If the natural transformations of habitat and climate have kept bird migration evolving, then man’s impact on the planet shows great potential to expedite future changes, for better or worse.
Now, let’s look at two different bird migration strategies, that of day-fliers or diurnal migrants, and that of night-fliers, the nocturnal migrants.
Diurnal migrants are the most familiar to people who notice birds on the move. The majority of these species have one thing in common, some form of defense to lessen the threat of becoming the victim of a predator while flying in daylight. Of course the vultures, hawks, and eagles fly during the day. Swallows and swifts employ speed and agility on the wing to avoid becoming prey, as do hummingbirds. Finches have an undulating flight, never flying on a horizontal plane, which makes their capture more difficult. Other songbirds seen migrating by day, Red-winged Blackbirds for example, congregate into flocks soon after breeding season to avoid being alone. Defense flocks change shape constantly as birds position themselves toward the center and away from the vulnerable fringes of the swarm. The larger the flock, the safer the individual. For a lone bird, large size can be a form of protection against all but the biggest of predators. Among the more unusual defenses is that of birds like Indigo Buntings and other tropical migrants that fly across the Gulf of Mexico each autumn (often completing a portion of the flight during the day), risking exhaustion at sea to avoid the daylight hazards, including numerous predators, found in the coastal and arid lands of south Texas. Above all, diurnal migrants capture our attention and provide a spectacle which fascinates us. Perhaps diurnal migrants attract our favor because we can just stand or sit somewhere and watch them go by. We can see, identify, and even count them. It’s fantastic.
What about a bird like the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)? It is often seen migrating in flocks during the day (the truly migratory ones flying much higher than the local year-round resident “transplants”), but then, during the big peak movements of spring and fall, they can be heard overhead all through the night. Perhaps the Canada Goose and related waterfowl bridge the gap between day and night, introducing us to the secretive starlight and moonshine commuters, the nocturnal migrants.
The skies are sometimes filled with thousands of them, mostly small perching birds and waders. These strangers in the night fly inconspicuously in small groups or individually, and most can be detected when passing above us only when heard making short calls to remain in contact with their travel partners. They need not worry about predators, but instead must have a method of finding their way. Many, like the Indigo Bunting, can navigate by the stars, a capability which certainly required many generations to refine. The nocturnal migrants begin moving just after darkness falls and ascend without delay to establish a safe flight path void of obstacles (though lights and tall structures can create a deadly counter to this tactic). Often, the only clue we have that a big overnight flight has occurred is the sudden appearance of new bird species or individuals, on occasion in great numbers, in a place where we observe regularly. Just days ago, the arrival of various warbler species at Conewago Falls indicated that there was at least a small to moderate movement of these birds during previous nights.
In recent years, the availability of National Weather Service radar has brought the capability to observe nocturnal migrants into easy reach. Through the night, you can log on to your local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service radar page (State College for the Conewago Falls area) and watch on the map as the masses of migrating bird pass through the sweep of the radar beam. As they lift off just after nightfall, rising birds will create an echo as they enter the sweeping beam close to the radar site. Then, due to the incline of the transmitted signal and the curvature of the earth, migrants will be displayed as an expanding donut-like ring around the radar’s map location as returns from climbing birds are received from progressively higher altitudes at increasing distances from the center of the site’s coverage area. On a night with a local or regional flight, several radar locations may show signs of birds in the air. On nights with a widespread flight, an exodus of sorts, the entire eastern half of the United States may display birds around the sites. You’ll find the terrain in the east allows it to be well-covered while radars in the west are less effective due to the large mountains. At daybreak, the donut-shaped displays around each radar site location on the map contract as birds descend out of the transmitted beam and are no longer detected.
Weather systems sometimes seem to motivate some flights and stifle others. The first example seen below is a northbound spring exodus, the majority of which is probably migrants from the tropics, the Neotropical migrants, including our two dozen species of warblers. A cold front passing into the northeastern United States appears to have stifled any flight behind it, while favorable winds from the southwest are motivating a heavy concentration ahead of the front.
The second and third examples seen below are an autumn nocturnal migration movement, probably composed of many of the same tropics-bound species which were on the way north in the previous example. Note that during autumn, the cold front seems to motivate the flight following its passage. Ahead of the front, there is a reduced and, in places, undetectable volume of birds. The two images below are separated by about 42 hours.
You can easily learn much more about birds (and insects and bats) on radar, including both diurnal and nocturnal migrants, by visiting the Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website. There you’ll find information on using the various mode settings on NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) to differentiate between birds, other flying animals, and inanimate airborne or grounded objects. It’s superbly done and you’ll be glad you gave it a try.
Clemson University Radar Ornithology Laboratory (CUROL) website: http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/birdrad/ as accessed September 6, 2017.
The tall seed-topped stems swaying in a summer breeze are a pleasant scene. And the colorful autumn shades of blue, orange, purple, red, and, of course, green leaves on these clumping plants are nice. But of the multitude of flowering plants, Big Bluestem, Freshwater Cordgrass, and Switchgrass aren’t much of a draw. No self-respecting bloom addict is going out of their way to have a gander at any grass that hasn’t been subjugated and tamed by a hideous set of spinning steel blades. Grass flowers…are you kidding?
O.K., so you need something more. Here’s more.
Meet the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). It’s an annual plant growing in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls as a companion to Big Bluestem. It has a special niche growing in the sandy and, in summertime, dry soils left behind by earlier flooding and ice scour. The divided leaves close upon contact and also at nightfall. Bees and other pollinators are drawn to the abundance of butter-yellow blossoms. Like the familiar pea of the vegetable garden, the flowers are followed by flat seed pods.
But wait, here’s more.
In addition to its abundance in Conewago Falls, the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) is the ubiquitous water’s edge plant along the free-flowing Susquehanna River for miles downstream. It grows in large clumps, often defining the border between the emergent zone and shore-rooted plants. It is particularly successful in accumulations of alluvium interspersed with heavier pebbles and stone into which the roots will anchor to endure flooding and scour. Such substrate buildup around the falls, along mid-river islands, and along the shores of the low-lying Riparian Woodlands immediately below the falls are often quite hospitable to the species.
A second native wildflower species in the genus Hibiscus is found in the Conewago Falls floodplain, this one in wetlands. The Swamp Rose Mallow (H. moscheutos) is similar to Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, but sports more variable and colorful blooms. The leaves are toothed without the deep halberd-style lobes and, like the stems, are downy. As the common name implies, it requires swampy habitat with ample water and sunlight.
In summary, we find Partridge Pea in the Riverine Grasslands growing in sandy deposits left by flood and ice scour. We find Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow rooted at the border between shore and the emergent zone. We find Swamp Rose Mallow as an emergent in the wetlands of the floodplain. And finally, we find marshmallows in only one location in the area of Conewago Falls. Bon ap’.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.
It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River. Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages. The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would. The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway. There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species. Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.
Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring. A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches. Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river. The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.
While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants. It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.
The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses. The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession. Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting. In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls. These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root. Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.
The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants. We’ll look at more of them next time.
Brown, Lauren. 1979. Grasses, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else. Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you. She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box. It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know? You remember her, don’t you?
Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth. These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life. The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter. Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific. These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars. Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.
The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant. Here at Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species. Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.
Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment. A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction. Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…
The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day. Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.
By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.
Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
It was one of the very first of my memories. From the lawn of our home I could look across the road and down the hill through a gap in the woodlands. There I could see water, sometimes still with numerous boulders exposed, other times rushing, muddy, and roaring. Behind these waters was a great stone wall and beyond that a wooded hillside. I recall my dad asking me if I could see the dam down there. I couldn’t see a dam, just fascinating water and the gray wall behind it. I looked and searched but not a trace of a structure spanning the near to far shore was to be seen. Finally, at some point, I answered in the affirmative to his query; I could see the dam…but I couldn’t.
We lived in a small house in the village of Falmouth along the Susquehanna River in the northwest corner of Lancaster County over fifty years ago. A few years after we had left our riverside domicile and moved to a larger town, the little house was relocated to make way for an electric distribution sub-station and a second set of electric transmission wires in the gap in the woodlands. The Brunner Island coal-fired electric generating station was being upgraded downstream and, just upstream, a new nuclear-powered generating station was being constructed on Three Mile Island. To make way for the expanding energy grid, our former residence was trucked to a nearby boat landing where there were numerous other river shacks and cabins. Because it was placed in the floodplain, the building was raised onto a set of wooden stilts to escape high water. It didn’t help. The recording-breaking floods of Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972 swept the house away.
During the time we lived along the Susquehanna, the river experienced record-low flow rates, particularly in the autumn of 1963 and again in 1964. My dad was a dedicated 8mm home-movie photographer. Among his reels was film of buses parked haphazardly along the road (PA Route 441 today) near our home. Sightseers were coming to explore the widely publicized dry riverbed and a curious moon-like landscape of cratered rocks and boulders. It’s hard to fathom, but people did things like that during their weekends before football was invented. Scores of visitors climbed through the rocks and truck-size boulders inspecting this peculiar scene. My dad, his friends, and so many others with camera in hand were experiencing the amazing geological feature known as the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls.
The river here meets serious resistance as it pushes its way through the complex geology of south-central Pennsylvania. These hard dark-gray rocks, York Haven Diabase, are igneous in origin. Diabase sheets and sills intruded the Triassic sediments of the Gettysburg Formation here over 190 million years ago. It may be difficult to visualize, but these sediments were eroded from surrounding mountains into the opening rift valley we call the Gettysburg Basin. This rift and others in a line from Nova Scotia to Georgia formed as the supercontinent Pangaea began dividing into the continents we know today. Eventually the Atlantic Ocean rift would dominate as the active dynamic force and open to separate Africa from North America. The inactive Gettysburg Basin, filled with sediments and intruded by igneous diabase, would henceforth, like the mountainous highlands surrounding it, be subjected to millions of years of erosion. Of the regional rocks, the formations of Triassic redbeds, sandstones, and particularly diabase in the Gettysburg Basin are among the more resistant to the forces of erosion. Many less resistant older rocks, particularly those of surrounding mountains, are gone. Today, the remains of the Gettysburg Basin’s rock formations stand as rolling highlands in the Piedmont Province.
The weekend visitors in 1963 and 1964 marveled at evidence of the river’s fight to break down the hard York Haven Diabase. Scoured bedrock traced the water’s turbulent flow patterns through the topography of the falls. Meltwater from the receding glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Ages thousands to tens of thousands of years ago raged in high volume abrasive-loaded torrents to sculpt the Pothole Rocks into the forms we see today. Our modern floodwaters with ice and fine suspended sediments continue to wear at the smooth rocks and boulders, yet few are broken or crumbled to be swept away. It’s a very slow process. The river elevation here drops approximately 19 feet in a quarter of a mile, a testament to the bedrock’s persisting resistance to erosion. Conewago Falls stands as a natural anomaly on a predominantly uniform gradient along the lower Susquehanna’s downhill path from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.
The scene of dangerous tumbling rapids during high flows, the drought and low water of 1963 and 1964 had left the falls to resemble a placid scene; a moonscape during a time when people were obsessed with mankind’s effort to visit earth’s satellite. Visitors saw the falls as few others had during the twentieth century. Much of it was due to the presence of the wall. I had to be a bit older than four years old to grasp it. You see the wall and the dam are one and the same. The wall is the York Haven Dam.
The initial segment, a crib dam constructed in 1885 by the York Haven Paper Company to supply water power to their mill, took advantage of the geomorphic features of the diabase bedrock of Conewago Falls to divert additional river flow into the abandoned Conewago Canal. The former canal, opened in 1797 to allow passage around the rapids along the west shore, was being used as a headrace to channel water into the grinding mill’s turbines. Strategic placement of this first wall directed as much water as possible toward the mill with the smallest dam practicable. The York Haven Power Company incorporated the paper mill’s crib dam into the “run-of-the-river” dam built through the falls from the electric turbine powerhouse they constructed on the west shore to the southern portion of Three Mile Island more than a mile away. The facility began electric generation in 1904. The construction of the “Red Hill Dam” from the east shore of Three Mile Island to the river’s east shore made York Haven Dam a complete impoundment on the Susquehanna. The pool, “Lake Frederic”, thus floods that portion of the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls located behind the dam. On the downstream side, water spilling over or through the dam often inundates the rocks or renders them inaccessible.
During the droughts of the early 1960s, diversion of nearly all river flow to the York Haven Dam powerhouse cleared the way for weekend explorers to see the Pothole Rocks in detail. Void of water, the intriguing bedrock of Conewago Falls below the dam greeted the curious with its ripples, cavities, and oddity. It was an opportunity nature alone would not provide. It was all because of the wall.
Smith, Stephen H. 2015. #6 York Haven Paper Company; on the Site of One of the Earliest Canals in America. York Past website www.yorkblog.com/yorkpast/2015/02/17/6-york-haven-paper-company-on-the-site-of-one-of-the-earliest-canals-in-america/ as accessed July 17, 2017.
Stranahan, Susan Q. 1993. Susquehanna, River of Dreams. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland.
Van Diver, Bradford B. 1990. Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula, Montana.