Visitors stopping by Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area this week found yet another post-breeding wanderer feeding in the shallows of the main lake and adjacent pond along Hopeland Road—a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
The juvenile Little Blue Heron is a white bird resembling an egret during its first year. At about one year of age, it begins molt into a deep blue adult plumage. Young birds are notorious for roaming inland and north from breeding areas along the Atlantic coast and throughout the south. They are a post-breeding wanderer nowhere near as rare as the Limpkin seen at Middle Creek a week ago; a few are found each summer in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
As oft times happens, birders attracted to see one unusual bird find another in the vicinity. So with fall shorebird migration ramping up, the discovery of something out of the ordinary isn’t a total surprise, particularly where habitat is good and people are watching.
The arrival of a Hudsonian Godwit is not an unheard of occurrence in the lower Susquehanna region, but locating one that sticks around and provides abundant viewing opportunities is a rarity. This adult presumably left the species’ breeding areas in Alaska or central/western Canada in recent weeks to begin its southbound movement. Hudsonian Godwits pass through the eastern United States only during the autumn migration, and the majority fly by without being noticed along a route that mostly takes them offshore of the Mid-Atlantic States.
Mid-summer can be a less than exciting time for those who like to observe wild birds. The songs of spring gradually grow silent as young birds leave the nest and preoccupy their parents with the chore of gathering enough food to satisfy their ballooning appetites. To avoid predators, roving families of many species remain hidden and as inconspicuous as possible while the young birds learn how to find food and handle the dangers of the world.
But all is not lost. There are two opportunities for seeing unique birds during the hot and humid days of July.
First, many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and godwits begin moving south from breeding grounds in Canada. That’s right, fall migration starts during the first days of summer, right where spring migration left off. The earliest arrivals are primarily birds that for one reason on another (age, weather, food availability) did not nest this year. These individuals will be followed by birds that completed their breeding cycles early or experienced nest failures. Finally, adults and juveniles from successful nests are on their way to the wintering grounds, extending the movement into the months we more traditionally start to associate with fall migration—late August into October.
For those of you who find identifying shorebirds more of a labor than a pleasure, I get it. For you, July can bring a special treat—post-breeding wanderers. Post-breeding wanderers are birds we find roaming in directions other than south during the summer months, after the nesting cycle is complete. This behavior is known as “post-breeding dispersal”. Even though we often have no way of telling for sure that a wandering bird did indeed begin its roving journey after either being a parent or a fledgling during the preceding nesting season, the term post-breeding wanderer still applies. It’s a title based more on a bird sighting and it’s time and place than upon the life cycle of the bird(s) being observed. Post-breeding wanderers are often southern species that show up hundreds of miles outside there usual range, sometimes traveling in groups and lingering in an adopted area until the cooler weather of fall finally prompts them to go back home. Many are birds associated with aquatic habitats such as shores, marshes, and rivers, so water levels and their impact on the birds’ food supplies within their home range may be the motivation for some of these movements. What makes post-breeding wanderers a favorite among many birders is their pop. They are often some of our largest, most colorful, or most sought-after species. Birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, stilts, avocets, terns, and raptors are showy and attract a crowd.
While it’s often impossible to predict exactly which species, if any, will disperse from their typical breeding range in a significant way during a given year, some seem to roam with regularity. Perhaps the most consistent and certainly the earliest post-breeding wanderer to visit our region is the “Florida Bald Eagle”. Bald Eagles nest in “The Sunshine State” beginning in the fall, so by early spring, many of their young are on their own. By mid-spring, many of these eagles begin cruising north, some passing into the lower Susquehanna valley and beyond. Gatherings of dozens of adult Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam during April and May, while our local adults are nesting and after the wintering birds have gone north, probably include numerous post-breeding wanderers from Florida and other Gulf Coast States.
So this week, what exactly was it that prompted hundreds of birders to travel to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from all over the Mid-Atlantic States and from as far away as Colorado?
Was it the majestic Great Blue Herons and playful Killdeer?
Was it the colorful Green Herons?
Was it the Great Egrets snapping small fish from the shallows?
Was it the small flocks of shorebirds like these Least Sandpipers beginning to trickle south from Canada?
All very nice, but not the inspiration for traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see a bird.
It was the appearance of this very rare post-breeding wanderer…
…Pennsylvania’s first record of a Limpkin, a tropical wading bird native to Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and South America. Many observers visiting Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area had never seen one before, so if they happen to be a “lister”, a birder who keeps a tally of the wild bird species they’ve seen, this Limpkin was a “lifer”.
The Limpkin is an inhabitant of vegetated marshlands where it feeds almost exclusively upon large snails of the family Ampullariidae, including the Florida Applesnail (Pomacea paludosa), the largest native freshwater snail in the United States.
Observations of the Limpkin lingering at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area have revealed a pair of interesting facts. First, in the absence of Florida Applesnails, this particular Limpkin has found a substitute food source, the non-native Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis). And second, Chinese Mystery Snails have recently become established in the lakes, pools, and ponds at the refuge, very likely arriving as stowaways on Spatterdock (Nupharadvena) and/or American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), native transplants brought in during recent years to improve wetland habitat and process the abundance of nutrients (including waterfowl waste) in the water.
The Middle Creek Limpkin’s affinity for Chinese Mystery Snails may help explain how it was able to find its way to Pennsylvania in apparent good health. Look again at the map showing the range of the Limpkin’s primary native food source, the Florida Applesnail. Note that there are established populations (shown in brown) where these snails were introduced along the northern coast of Georgia and southern coast of South Carolina…
…now look at the latest U.S.G.S. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map showing the ranges (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails…
…and now imagine that you’re a happy-go-lucky Limpkin working your way up the Atlantic Coastal Plain toward Pennsylvania and taking advantage of the abundance of food and sunshine that summer brings to the northern latitudes. It’s a new frontier. Introduced populations of Chinese Mystery Snails are like having a Waffle House serving escargot at every exit along the way!
Be sure to click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about the Chinese Mystery Snail and its arrival in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. Once there, you’ll find some additional commentary about the Limpkin and the likelihood of Everglade Snail Kites taking advantage of the presence of Chinese Mystery Snails to wander north. Be certain to check it out.
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 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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.