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.
Early October is prime time for hawk watching, particularly if you want to have the chance to see the maximum variety of migratory species. In coming days, a few Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys will still be trickling through while numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, and falcons swell to reach their seasonal peak. Numbers of migrating Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are increasing during this time and late-season specialties including Golden Eagles can certainly make a surprise early visit.
If you enjoy the outdoors and live in the southernmost portion of the lower Susquehanna valley, Rocky Ridge County Park in the Hellam Hills just northwest of York, Pennsylvania, is a must see. The park consists of oak forest and is owned and managed by the York County Parks Department. It features an official hawk watch site staffed by volunteers and park naturalists. Have a look.
If you’re a nature photographer, you might be interested to know that there are still hundreds of active butterflies in Rocky Ridge’s utility right-of-way. Here are a few.
To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Rocky Ridge Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be certain to visit hawkcount.org
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.
Late this afternoon, despite a cold bone-chilling rain, news media and crowds of onlookers gathered along the Susquehanna shoreline upstream of Three Mile Island at the small town of Royalton to catch a glimpse of the removal of a downed aircraft from the river. Back on October 4, a single-engine Piper PA46 Malibu was on the final leg of an approach to runway 31 at Harrisburg International Airport when it lost power. The pilot and passenger were uninjured during the emergency “splashdown” in the shallow water just short of the runway.
Forty years ago, at just about 4:01 A.M. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on the Susquehanna River at Conewago Falls “scrammed”—the control rods automatically dropped into the reactor core to stop fission. This occurred in response to the automatic opening of the “Pilot-Operated Relief Valve” (P.O.R.V.) on the pressurizer, a tank designed to prevent the boiling of water in the primary cooling system loop that transfers heat energy from the reactor core to the steam generator. The P.O.R.V. activated when steam in the top of the pressurizer tank was compressed by water that was expanding as it increased in temperature while circulating within the primary cooling system loop.
During normal operating conditions, water in a non-nuclear “secondary loop” is pumped through tubes within the steam generator where it absorbs energy from the hot water in the primary cooling system loop. The heat converts the water in the “secondary loop” to steam for turning the steam turbine and making electricity. At about 36 seconds after 4:00 A.M., a set of pumps “tripped” and stopped feeding water through the “secondary loop” to the steam generator. Within seconds, Unit 2 ceased making electricity. Starting automatically as a failsafe were a set of three “emergency feedwater pumps”, designed to reestablish water flow to the steam generator. A reactor operator verified their start just fourteen seconds after the main pumps “tripped”. Unfortunately, the operator did not notice the panel lights indicating that valves were closed on each of the two lines supplying the steam generator from the emergency pumps. With the “secondary loop” shut down, heat from fission in the reactor core began accumulating within the steam generator and the primary cooling system loop, leading to the P.O.R.V. activation, and the reactor’s “scramming”. The “scram” triggered control rods to drop in 69 tubes among the 36,816 uranium oxide fuel rods to absorb neutrons and stop the chain reaction fission process in the core of Unit 2.
Following the reactor’s “scramming”, an equipment malfunction occurred when the P.O.R.V. failed to automatically close as designed after reducing pressure within the pressurizer vessel on the primary cooling system loop. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this equipment malfunction initiated a small “Loss Of Coolant Accident” (L.O.C.A.). Fortunately, the reactor’s High Pressure Injection system (H.P.I.) automatically began pumping water into the primary cooling system to compensate for the loss of coolant through the stuck valve. Even though fission was no longer generating heat, the decaying radioactive materials within the reactor still require continuous cooling until the reactor is brought to cold shutdown.
(Note that the dropping of control rods to effect an automatic scramming immediately reduced the heat output in the core to 160 megawatts, or about 6% of that generated while the fission reaction was occurring. Normally, the heat release rate after the first hour would drop to about 30 megawatts and, over next three hours, to 20 megawatts. This is still a lot of heat—enough to severely damage the fuel assemblies in the core. Twenty megawatts is equivalent to the heat release rate from a big wind-driven apartment fire. It is critical that an uninterrupted flow of cooling water circulates through the core to prevent damage. See the “Riverside Firemen’s Retreat” page on this site to learn how heat release rate applies to the work firefighters do.)
Enter human error, enhanced by insufficient training, missing protocols, and a poorly designed control panel (including, at one point, 100 alarms in simultaneous operation!), and soon the small L.O.C.A. was converted into a destructive meltdown event. An illuminated light on the reactor control panel indicated that a signal had been sent to close the stuck P.O.R.V.; it did not indicate the valve’s position—open or closed. It would be two hours before operators were aware of the stuck valve and would take corrective action to close the back-up “block valve” to stop the leak. Had the H.P.I. system continued operating autonomously throughout this two hour period, no damage to the reactor core would have resulted. However, operators began overriding the emergency H.P.I. system by throttling the flow of 1,000 gallons per minute back to less than 100, hoping to maintain a certain water level in the reactor. This action was inspired by an operator’s doctrine encouraging them not to let the primary cooling system ever “go solid” (fill completely with water). For “extended periods” during the first day of the event, the H.P.I. was throttled back or shut down. It was during these periods that much of the core of the reactor was exposed, resulting in its meltdown.
The Reportof the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island reveals how haphazard and unorganized the notifications of key persons and agencies were from the very start of the accident. The mayor of Harrisburg at the time, Paul Doutrich, first heard about the accident when he received a phone call from a radio station in Boston inquiring what he planned to do about the nuclear emergency. They had to fill him in first.
The public gained little if any confidence from clumsy and often contradictory public statements made by the plant operator, regulators, and various other government officials during the first days of the event. The oscillations between dire warnings on one hand, and assurances that there is no need to worry on the other, frightened and angered thousands of people in 1979. Memories of these awkward and inconsistent messages continue to be the dominant recollections for many residents of the lower Susquehanna region to this very day.
Here, for your entertainment pleasure, is how the media and general public first learned of the accident on the morning of March 28, 1979 (quoted from the Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island)…
“WKBO, a Harrisburg “Top 40” music station, broke the story of TMI-2 on its 8:25 a.m. newscast. The station’s traffic reporter, known as Captain Dave, uses an automobile equipped with a C.B. radio to gather his information. At about 8:00 a.m., he heard police and fire fighters were mobilizing in Middletown and relayed this to his station. Mike Pintek, WKBO’s news director, called Three Mile Island and asked for a public relations official. He was connected instead with the control room to a man who told him: “I can’t talk now, we’ve got a problem.” The man denied that “there are any fire engines,” and told Pintek to telephone Met Ed’s headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania.”
By late Wednesday afternoon, the reports from the plant indicated that everything was under control. Day one would end with the residents of the lower Susquehanna area presuming they would hear little more of this event. Then came Friday.
Forman, Paul, and Sherman, Roger. 2004. Three Mile Island: The Inside Story. Web presentation based upon Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit, as accessed March 28, 2019. https://americanhistory.si.edu/tmi/index.htm
Kemeny, John G., et al. 1979. Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island; The Need for Change: The Legacy of TMI. U. S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C.
There was a hint of what was to come. If you were out and about before dawn this morning, you may have been lucky enough to hear them passing by high overhead. It was 5:30 A.M. when I opened the door and was greeted by that distinctive nasal whistle. Stepping through the threshold and into the cold, I peered into the starry sky and saw them, their feathers glowing orange in the diffused light from the streets and parking lots below. Their size and snow-white plumage make Tundra Swans one of the few species of migrating birds you’ll ever get to visibly discern in a dark moonless nighttime sky.
The calm air at daybreak and through the morning transitioned to a steady breeze from the south in the afternoon. Could this be it? Would this be that one day in late February or the first half of March each year when waterfowl (and other birds too) seem to take advantage of the favorable wind to initiate an “exodus” and move in conspicuous numbers up the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to breeding grounds in the north? Well, indeed it would be. And with the wind speeding up the parade, an observer at a fixed point on the ground gets to see more birds fly by.
In the late afternoon, an observation location in the Gettysburg Basin about five miles east of Conewago Falls in Lancaster County seemed to be well-aligned with a northwesterly flight path for migrating Tundra Swans. At about 5:30 P.M., the clear sky began clouding over, possibly pushing high-flying birds more readily into view. During the next several hours, over three thousand Tundra Swans passed overhead, flocks continuing to pass for a short time after nightfall. There were more than one thousand Canada Geese, the most numerous species on similar days in previous years. Sometimes on such a day there are numerous ducks. Not today. The timing, location, and conditions put Tundra Swans in the spotlight for this year’s show.
Other migrants moving concurrently with the waterfowl included Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls (6+), American Robins (50+), Red-winged Blackbirds (500+), and Common Grackles (100+).
Though I’ve only seen such a spectacle only once during a season in recent years, there certainly could be another large flight of ducks, geese, or swans yet to come. The breeze is forecast to continue from southerly directions for at least another day. Keep you eyes skyward, no matter where you might happen to be in the lower Susquehanna valley. These or other migratory species may put on another show, a “big day”, just for you.
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.
One can get a stiff neck looking up at the flurry of bird activity in the treetops at this time of year. Many of the Neotropical migrants favor rich forests as daytime resting sites after flying through the night. For others, these forests are a destination where they will nest and raise their young.
For the birds that arrive earlier in spring than the Neotropical migrants, the breeding season is well underway. The wet weather may be impacting the success of the early nests.
So long for now, if you’ll excuse me please, I have a sore neck to tend to.
The warm weather late last week and the several inches of rain that followed have left the farm fields of the lower Susquehanna valley a soggy muddy mess…waterlogged. Runoff has made its way down the tributaries to raise the waters of the river and fill up its banks.
Migrating gulls find it difficult to locate food when the Susquehanna becomes a silty turbid torrent. It’s not at all unusual to find hundreds of them enjoying a feast of earthworms in the agricultural uplands when conditions such as these exist. As you may have guessed, the birds alluded to are the familiar Ring-billed Gulls, the same species seen mooching french fries and other snacks in fast-food restaurant parking lots. They are by far the most common inland gull in eastern North America.
Ring-billed Gulls are notorious for loafing and feeding in flocks which seldom include other species of gulls. They are frequently the smallest gull found in their inland habitats, so it is understandable that they may avoid the company of the larger and often more aggressive species.
However, today I was reminded that one must be ever vigilant and check for other species among those flocks presumed to consist solely of Ring-billed Gulls, particularly during times when the river is so inhospitable to passing migrants.
Snow accumulations from yesterday’s storm amounted to approximately 12 inches in the vicinity of Conewago Falls, some areas of the lower Susquehanna valley receiving more.
American Robins were in the process of moving north through the region in abundance just prior to the arrival of our latest “nor’easter”. When the storm struck in the early morning hours yesterday, their flights were grounded. After sunrise this morning, hungry robins quickly seized the opportunity to feed using the only open ground available—the edges of cleared roadways, particularly where they pass through woodlots and agricultural lands. Other migrants use the same strategy, picking and probing the wet soils alongside quickly thawing pavement to search for morsels of sustenance.
At the moment there is a heavy snow falling, not an unusual occurrence for mid-February, nevertheless, it is a change in weather. Forty-eight hours ago we were in the midst of a steady rain and temperatures were in the sixties. The snow and ice had melted away and a touch of spring was in the air.
Anyone casually looking about while outdoors during these last several days may have noticed that birds are indeed beginning to migrate north in the lower Susquehanna valley. Killdeer, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles are easily seen or heard in most of the area now.
Just hours ago, between nine o’clock this morning and one o’clock this afternoon, there was a spectacular flight of birds following the river north, their spring migration well underway. In the blue skies above Conewago Falls, a steady parade of Ring-billed Gulls was utilizing thermals and riding a tailwind from the south-southeast to cruise high overhead on a course toward their breeding range.
The swirling hoards of Ring-billed Gulls attracted other migrants to take advantage of the thermals and glide paths on the breeze. Right among them were 44 Herring Gulls, 3 Great Black-backed Gulls, 12 Tundra Swans (Cygnuscolumbianus), 10 Canada Geese, 3 Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), 6 Common Mergansers, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, 6 Bald Eagles (non-adults), 8 Black Vultures, and 5 Turkey Vultures.
In the afternoon, the clouds closed in quickly, the flight ended, and by dusk more than an inch of snow was on the ground. Looks like spring to me.
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.
A steady stream of birds was on the move this morning over Conewago Falls. There were hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, scores of Herring Gulls, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls to dominate the flight. Then too there were thirteen Mallards, Turkey Vultures and a Black Vulture, twenty or more American Robins, a half a dozen Bald Eagles (juvenile and immature birds), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, and, perhaps most unusual of all, a flock of a dozen Scoters (Melanitta species), a waterfowl typical of the Mid-Atlantic surf in winter. All of these birds were diligently following the river, and into a headwind no less.
“Hold on just a minute there, buster,” you may say, “I’ve looked at the migration count by dutifully clicking on the logo above and there is nothing but zeroes on the count sheet for today. The season totals have not changed since the previous count day!”
Ah-ha, my dedicated friend, correct you are. It seems that today’s bird flight was solely in one direction. And that direction was upriver, moving north into a north breeze, on a heading which conflicts with all logic for creatures that should still be headed south for winter. As a result, none of the birds observed today were counted on the “Autumn Migration Count”.
You might say, “Don’t you know that Winter Solstice was three days ago, so autumn and autumn migration is over.”
Okay, point well taken. I should therefore clarify that what we title as “Autumn Migration Count” is more accurately a census of birds, insects, and other creatures transiting from northerly latitudes to more favorable latitudes to the south for winter. This transit can begin as early as late June and extend into the first weeks of winter. While most of this movement is motivated by the reduced hours of daylight during the period, late season migrants are often responding to ice, bad weather, or lack of food to prompt a journey further south. Migration south in late December and January occurs even while the amount of daylight is increasing slightly in the days following the Winter Solstice.
So what of the birds seen flying north today? There was some snow cover that has melted away, and the ice that formed on the river a week ago is gone due to the milder than normal temperatures this week.
One may ask, “Were the birds seen today migrating north?”
Let’s look at the species seen moving upriver today a try to determine their motivation.
First, and perhaps most straight-forward, is the huge flight of gulls. Wintering gulls on the Susquehanna River near Conewago Falls tend to spend their nights in flocks on the water or on treeless islands and rocky outcrops in the river. Many hundreds, sometimes thousands, find such favorable sites along the fifteen mile stretch of river from Conewago Falls downstream to Lake Clarke and the Conejohela Flats at Washington Boro. Each morning most of these gulls venture out to suburbia, farmland, landfill, hydroelectric dams, and other sections of river in search of food. Gulls are very able fliers and easily cover dozens of miles outbound and inbound each day in search of food. Many of the gulls seen this morning were probably on their way to the Harrisburg metropolitan area to eat trash. Barring any extraordinary buildups of ice on this section of river, one would expect these gulls to remain and make these daily excursions to food sources through early spring.
Second, throughout the season Bald Eagles have been tallied on the migration count with caution. Flight altitude, behavior, plumage, and the reaction of the “local” eagles to these transients was carefully considered before counting an eagle as a migrant. They roam a lot, particularly when young, and range widely to feed. The movement of eagles up the river today was probably food related. A gathering of adult, juvenile, and immature Bald Eagles could be seen more than a half mile upstream from the migration count lookout. Those moving up the river seemed to assemble with the “locals” there throughout the morning. White-tailed Deities occasionally drown, particularly when there is thin or unstable ice on the river (as there was last week) and they attempt to tread upon it. Then, their bodies are often stranded among rocks, in trees, or on the crown of the dam. After such a mishap, their carcasses become meals for carrion-eaters in the falls. Such an unfortunate deity, or another source of food, may have been attracting the eagles in numbers today.
Next, Black and Turkey Vultures often roam widely in search of food. The small numbers seen headed up-river today would tend to mean very little when trying to determine if there is a trend or population shift. Again, food may have been luring them upriver from nearby roosts.
And finally, the scoters, Mallards, American Robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds may have been wandering as well. Toward mid-day, the wind speed picked up and the direction changed to the east. This raises the possibility that these and others of the birds seen today may sense a change in weather, and may seek to take flight from the inclement conditions. Prompted by the ocean breeze and in an attempt to avoid a storm, was there some movement away from the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the upper Piedmont today? Many species may make these types of reactive movements. Is it possible that some birds flee or avoid ever-changing storm tracks and alter there wintering locations based on jet streams, water currents, and other climatic conditions? Probably. These are interesting dynamics and something worthy of study outside the simpler methods of a migration count.
…And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain… –Jimmy Webb
The lower Susquehanna valley’s first snowfall of the season arrived yesterday. By this morning it measured just an inch in depth at Conewago Falls, more to the south and east, less to the west and north. By mid-morning a cold fresh to moderate breeze from the northwest was blowing through the falls and stirring up ripples on the river.
Gulls sailed high overhead on the wind, taking a speedy ride downriver toward Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic coast, and countless fast-food restaurant parking lots where surviving winter weather is more of a sure thing. Nearly a thousand Ring-billed Gulls soared past the migration count lookout today. Thirteen Herring Gulls and four Great Black-backed Gulls were among them.
Other migrants today included a Mallard, twenty-nine American Black Ducks, two Bald Eagles, eleven Black Vultures, fifteen Turkey Vultures, five American Goldfinches, and fifteen Red-winged Blackbirds. The wintery weather seems to be prompting these late-season travelers to be on their way.
You know, today was like many other days at the falls. As I arrive, I have the habit of checking all the power line towers on both river shorelines to see what may be there awaiting discovery. More often than not, something interesting is perched on one or more of the structures…
Yes friends, while the birds migrated through high above, down below a coordinated effort was underway to replace some of the electric transmission cable that stretches across the Susquehanna River at Conewago Falls. As you’ll see, this project requires precise planning, preparation, and skill. And it was fascinating to watch!
A very light fog lifted quickly at sunrise. Afterward, there was a minor movement of migrants: forty-nine Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring Gulls, a Red-shouldered Hawk following the river to the southeast, and small flocks totaling nine Cedar Waxwings and twenty-eight Red-winged Blackbirds.
In the Riparian Woodland, small mixed flocks of winter resident and year-round resident birds were actively feeding. They must build and maintain a layer of body fat to survive blustery cold nights and the possible lack of access to food during snowstorms. There’s no time to waste; nasty weather could bring fatal hardship to these birds soon.
It was a crisp clear morning with birdless blue skies. The migration has mostly drawn to a close; very little was seen despite a suitable northwest breeze to support a flight. There were no robins and no blackbirds. Not even a starling was seen today. The only highlights were a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and a couple of Swamp Sparrows.
And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s time for a Thanksgiving Day culinary reminder from the local Conewago Falls Turkey…
Temperatures plummeted to well below freezing during the past two nights, but there was little sign of it in Conewago Falls this morning. The fast current in the rapids and swirling waters in flooded Pothole Rocks did not freeze. Ice coated the standing water in potholes only in those rocks lacking a favorable orientation to the sun for collecting solar heat during the day to conduct into the water during the cold nights.
On the shoreline, the cold snap has left its mark. Ice covers the still waters of the wetlands. Frost on exposed vegetation lasted until nearly noontime in shady areas. Insect activity is now grounded and out of sight. The leaves of the trees tumble and fall to cover the evidence of a lively summer.
The nocturnal bird flight is narrowing down to just a few species. White-throated Sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), and Song Sparrows are still on the move. Though their numbers are not included in the migration count, hundreds of the latter are along the shoreline and in edge habitat around the falls right now. Song Sparrows are present year-round, migrate at night, and are not seen far from cover in daylight, so migratory movements are difficult to detect. It is certain that many, if not all of the Song Sparrows here today have migrated and arrived here recently. The breeding population from spring and summer has probably moved further south. And many of the birds here now may remain for the winter. Defining the moment of this dynamic, yet discrete, population change and logging it in a count would certainly require different methods.
Diurnal migration was foiled today by winds from southerly directions and moderating temperatures. The only highlight was an American Robin flight that extended into the morning for a couple of hours after daybreak and totaled over 800 birds. This flight was peppered with an occasional flock of blackbirds. Then too, there were the villains.
They’re dastardly, devious, selfish, opportunistic, and abundant. Today, they were the most numerous diurnal migrant. Their numbers made this one of the biggest migration days of the season, but they are not recorded on the count sheet. It’s no landmark day. They excite no one. For the most part, they are not recognized as migrants because of their nearly complete occupation of North America south of the taiga. If people build on it or alter it, these birds will be there. They’re everywhere people are. If the rotten attributes of man were wrapped up into one bird, an “anthropoavian”, this would be it.
Meet the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Introduced into North America in 1890, the species has spread across the entire continent. It nests in cavities in buildings and in trees. Starlings are aggressive, particularly when nesting, and have had detrimental impacts on the populations of native cavity nesting birds, particularly Red-headed Woodpeckers, Purple Martins (Progne subis), and Eastern Bluebirds. They commonly terrorize these and other native species to evict them from their nest sites. European Starlings are one of the earlier of the scores of introduced plants and animals we have come to call invasive species.
Today, thousands of European Starlings were on the move, working their way down the river shoreline and raiding berries from the vines and trees of the Riparian Woodlands. My estimate is between three and five thousand migrated through during the morning. But don’t worry, thousands more will be around for the winter.
The NOAA National Weather Service radar images from last evening provided an indication that there may be a good fallout of birds at daybreak in the lower Susquehanna valley. The moon was bright, nearly full, and there was a gentle breeze from the north to move the nocturnal migrants along. The conditions were ideal.
The Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls were alive with migrants this morning. American Robins and White-throated Sparrows were joined by new arrivals for the season: Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). These are the perching birds one would expect to have comprised the overnight flight. While the individuals that will remain may not yet be among them, these are the species we will see wintering in the Mid-Atlantic states. No trip to the tropics for these hardy passerines.
It was a placid morning on Conewago Falls with blue skies dotted every now and then by a small flock of migrating robins or blackbirds. The jumbled notes of a singing Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in the Riparian Woodland softly mixed with the sounds of water spilling over the dam. The season’s first Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors), Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) were seen.
There was a small ruckus when one of the adult Bald Eagles from a local pair spotted an Osprey passing through carrying a fish. This eagle’s effort to steal the Osprey’s catch was soon interrupted when an adult eagle from a second pair that has been lingering in the area joined the pursuit. Two eagles are certainly better than one when it’s time to hustle a skinny little Osprey, don’t you think?
But you see, this just won’t do. It’s a breach of eagle etiquette, don’t you know? Soon both pairs of adult eagles were engaged in a noisy dogfight. It was fussing and cackling and the four eagles going in every direction overhead. Things calmed down after about five minutes, then a staring match commenced on the crest of the dam with the two pairs of eagles, the “home team” and the “visiting team”, perched about 100 feet from each other. Soon the pair which seems to be visiting gave up and moved out of the falls for the remainder of the day. The Osprey, in the meantime, was able to slip away.
In recent weeks, the “home team” pair of Bald Eagles, seen regularly defending territory at Conewago Falls, has been hanging sticks and branched tree limbs on the cross members of the power line tower where they often perch. They seem only to collect and display these would-be nest materials when the “visiting team” pair is perched in the nearby tower just several hundred yards away…an attempt to intimidate by homesteading. It appears that with winter and breeding time approaching, territorial behavior is on the increase.
In the afternoon, a fresh breeze from the south sent ripples across the waters among the Pothole Rocks. The updraft on the south face of the diabase ridge on the east shore was like a highway for some migrating hawks, falcons, and vultures. Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vultures streamed off to the south headlong into the wind after leaving the ridge and crossing the river. A male and female Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), ten Red-tailed Hawks, two Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), six Sharp-shinned Hawks, and two Merlins crossed the river and continued along the diabase ridge on the west shore, accessing a strong updraft along its slope to propel their journey further to the southwest. Four high-flying Bald Eagles migrated through, each following the east river shore downstream and making little use of the ridge except to gain a little altitude while passing by.
Late in the afternoon, the local Bald Eagles were again airborne and cackling up a storm. This time they intercepted an eagle coming down the ridge toward the river and immediately forced the bird to climb if it intended to pass. It turned out to be the best sighting of the day, and these “home team” eagles found it first. It was a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in crisp juvenile plumage. On its first southward voyage, it seemed to linger after climbing high enough for the Bald Eagles to loose concern, then finally selected the ridge route and crossed the river to head off to the southwest.
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.
A fresh breeze from the north brought cooler air and a reminder that summer is gone and autumn has arrived.
Fast-moving dark clouds provided a perfect backdrop for viewing passing diurnal migrants. Bald Eagles utilized the tail wind to cruise down the Susquehanna toward Chesapeake Bay and points further south. A migrating Merlin began a chase from which a Northern Flicker narrowly escaped by finding shelter among Pothole Rocks and a few small trees. The season’s first American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varia), and American Pipits (Anthus rubescens) moved through.
Blue Jays continued their hesitant crossings of the river at Conewago Falls. The majority completed the journey by forming groups of a dozen or more birds and following the lead of a lone American Robin, a Northern Flicker, or, odd as it appeared, a small warbler.
By far the most numerous migrants today were swallows. Thousands of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and hundreds of Tree Swallows were on the wing in search of what was suddenly a sparse flying insect supply. To get out of the brisk wind, some of the more resourceful birds landed on the warm rocks. To satisfy their appetite, many were able to pick crawling arthropods from the surface of the boulders. They swallow them whole.
The Neotropical birds that raised their young in Canada and in the northern United States have now logged many miles on their journey to warmer climates for the coming winter. As their density decreases among the masses of migrating birds, a shift to species with a tolerance for the cooler winter weather of the temperate regions will be evident.
Though it is unusually warm for this late in September, the movement of diurnal migrants continues. This morning at Conewago Falls, five Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) lifted from the forested hills to the east, then crossed the river to continue a excursion to the southwest which will eventually lead them and thousands of others that passed through Pennsylvania this week to wintering habitat in South America. Broad-winged Hawks often gather in large migrating groups which swarm in the rising air of thermal updrafts, then, after gaining substantial altitude, glide away to continue their trip. These ever-growing assemblages from all over eastern North America funnel into coastal Texas where they make a turn to south around the Gulf of Mexico, then continue on toward the tropics. In the coming weeks, a migration count at Corpus Christi in Texas could tally 100,000 or more Broad-winged Hawks in a single day as a large portion of the continental population passes by. You can track their movement and that of other diurnal raptors as recorded at sites located all over North America by visiting hawkcount.org on the internet. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
Nearly all of the other migrants seen today have a much shorter flight ahead of them. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were on the move. Migrating American Robins (Turdus migratorius) crossed the river early in the day, possibly leftovers from an overnight flight of this primarily nocturnal migrant. The season’s first Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) arrived. American Goldfinches are easily detected by their calls as they pass overhead. Look carefully at the goldfinches visiting your feeder, the birds of summer are probably gone and are being replaced by migrants currently passing through.
By far, the most conspicuous migrant today was the Blue Jay. Hundreds were seen as they filtered out of the hardwood forests of the diabase ridge to cautiously cross the river and continue to the southwest. Groups of five to fifty birds would noisily congregate in trees along the river’s edge, then begin flying across the falls. Many wary jays abandoned their small crossing parties and turned back. Soon, they would try the trip again in a larger flock.
A look at this morning’s count reveals few Neotropical migrants. With the exception of the Broad-winged Hawks and warblers, the migratory species seen today will winter in a sub-tropical temperate climate, primarily in the southern United States, but often as far north as the lower Susquehanna River valley. The individual birds observed today will mostly continue to a winter home a bit further south. Those that will winter in the area of Conewago Falls will arrive in October and later.
The long-distance migrating insect so beloved among butterfly enthusiasts shows signs of improving numbers. Today, more than two dozen Monarchs were seen crossing the falls and slowly flapping and gliding their way to Mexico.
They get a touch of it here, and a sparkle or two there. Maybe, for a couple of hours each day, the glorious life-giving glow of the sun finds an opening in the canopy to warm and nourish their leaves, then the rays of light creep away across the forest floor, and it’s shade for the remainder of the day.
The flowering plants which thrive in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands often escape much notice. They gather only a fraction of the daylight collected by species growing in full exposure to the sun. Yet, by season’s end, many produce showy flowers or nourishing fruits of great import to wildlife. While light may be sparingly rationed through the leaves of the tall trees overhead, moisture is nearly always assured in the damp soils of the riverside forest. For these plants, growth is slow, but continuous. And now, it’s show time.
So let’s take a late-summer stroll through the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls, minus the face full of cobwebs, and have a look at some of the strikingly beautiful plants found living in the shadows.
Long, David; Ballentine, Noel H.; and Marks, James G., Jr. 1997. Treatment of Poison Ivy/Oak Allergic Contact Dermatitis With an Extract of Jewelweed. American Journal of Contact Dermatitis. 8(3): pp. 150-153.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.
A couple of inches of rain this week caused a small increase in the flow of the river, just a burp, nothing major. This higher water coincided with some breezy days that kicked up some chop on the open waters of the Susquehanna upstream of Conewago Falls. Apparently it was just enough turbulence to uproot some aquatic plants and send them floating into the falls.
Piled against and upon the upstream side of many of the Pothole Rocks were thousands of two to three feet-long flat ribbon-like opaque green leaves of Tapegrass, also called Wild Celery, but better known as American Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana). Some leaves were still attached to a short set of clustered roots. It appears that most of the plants broke free from creeping rootstock along the edge of one of this species’ spreading masses which happened to thrive during the second half of the summer. You’ll recall that persistent high water through much of the growing season kept aquatic plants beneath a blanket of muddy current. The American Eelgrass colonies from which these specimens originated must have grown vigorously during the favorable conditions in the month of August. A few plants bore the long thread-like pistillate flower stems with a fruit cluster still intact. During the recent few weeks, there have been mats of American Eelgrass visible, the tops of their leaves floating on the shallow river surface, near the east and west shorelines of the Susquehanna where it begins its pass through the Gettysburg Basin near the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge at Highspire. This location is a probable source of the plants found in the falls today.
The cool breeze from the north was a perfect fit for today’s migration count. Nocturnal migrants settling down for the day in the Riparian Woodlands at sunrise included more than a dozen warblers and some Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis). Diurnal migration was underway shortly thereafter.
Four Bald Eagles were counted as migrants this morning. Based on plumage, two were first-year eagles (Juvenile) seen up high and flying the river downstream, one was a second-year bird (Basic I) with a jagged-looking wing molt, and a third was probably a fourth year (Basic III) eagle looking much like an adult with the exception of a black terminal band on the tail. These birds were the only ones which could safely be differentiated from the seven or more Bald Eagles of varying ages found within the past few weeks to be lingering at Conewago Falls. There were as many as a dozen eagles which appeared to be moving through the falls area that may have been migrating, but the four counted were the only ones readily separable from the locals.
Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) were observed riding the wind to journey not on a course following the river, but flying across it and riding the updraft on the York Haven Diabase ridge from northeast to southwest.
Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia) seem to have moved on. None were discovered among the swarms of other species today.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Caspian Terns, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) were migrating today, as were Monarch butterflies.
Not migrating, but always fun to have around, all four wise guys were here today. I’m referring to the four members of the Corvid family regularly found in the Mid-Atlantic states: Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), and Common Raven (Corvus corax).
Klots, Elsie B. 1966. The New Field Book of Freshwater Life. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. New York, NY.
A Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) glowed in the first sunlight of the day as it began illuminating the treetops. I’m not certain of the cause, but I often have the urge to dig into a bowl of orange sherbet after seeing one these magnificent blackbirds. That’s right, in the Americas, orioles and blackbirds are members of the same family, Icteridae. Look at blackbirds more carefully, you might see the resemblance.
Sunshine at dawn and migrating warblers were again active in the foliage. Eight species were identified today. Off to the tropics they go. To the land of palm and citrus, yes citrus…limes, lemons, grapefruits, and oranges.
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are on the way toward the gulf states, then on to Central and South America. Five dashed by the rocky lookout in the falls this morning. Remember, keep your feeders clean, wash and rinse all the parts, and refill them with a fresh batch of “nectar”, four or five parts water to one part sugar. Repeating this process daily during hot weather should keep contamination from overtaking your feeder. It’s not a bad idea to rotate two feeders. Have one cleaned, rinsed, and air drying while the second is filled and in use at your feeding station, then just swap them around. Your equipment will be just as clean as it is at the sanitary dairy…you know, where they make sherbet.
The first of the season Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia), giant freshwater versions of the terns you see at the seashore, passed through the falls late this morning. Their bills are blood-red, not orange like the more familiar terns on the coast. They’re stunning.
Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) have been at the falls for several weeks. Total numbers and the composition of the age groups in the flock change over the days, so birds appear to be trickling through and are then replaced by others coming south. The big push of southbound migrants for this and many other species that winter locally in the Mid-Atlantic region and in the southern United States is still more than a month away. There are still plenty more birds to come after the hours of daylight are reduced and the temperatures take a dip.
Some migrating butterflies were counted today. Cloudless Sulphurs, more of a vagrant than a migrant, and, of course, Monarchs. I’ll bet you know the Monarch, it’s black and orange. How can you miss them, colored orange.
That’s it, that’s all for now, I bid you adieu…I’m going to have a dip of orange sherbet, or two.
Rain from the remnants of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey ended just after daybreak this morning. Locally, the precipitation was mostly absorbed into the soil. There was little runoff and no flooding. The river level at Conewago Falls is presently as low as it has been all summer. Among the pools and rapids of the Pothole Rocks, numbers of migrating birds are building.
Mist and a low cloud ceiling created poor visibility while trying to see early morning birds, but they’re here. The warblers are moving south and a small wave of them was filtering through the foliage on the edge of the Riparian Woodlands. One must bend backwards to have a look, and most could not be identified due to the poor lighting in the crowns of the trees where they were zipping about. Five species of warblers and two species of vireos were discerned.
There are increasing concentrations of swallows feeding on insects over the falls. Hundreds were here today, mostly Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Bank Swallows (Stelgidopteryx riparia) numbered in the hundreds, far below the thousands, often 10,000, which staged here for migration and peaked during the first week of September annually during the 1980s and 1990s. Their numbers have been falling steadily. Loss of nesting locations in embankments near water may be impacting the entire population. A reduction in the abundance of late-summer flying insects here on the lower Susquehanna River may be cause for them to abandon this area as a migration staging point.
Clear weather in the coming nights and days may get the migrants up and flying in large numbers. For those species headed to the tropics for winter, the time to get moving has arrived.
When we look at birds, we are fascinated by the unique structure and appearance of their feathers. They set birds apart from all other life forms on the planet. Feathers enable most birds to achieve a feat long envied by humans…flight. Birds on the wing awaken a curiosity in man. They are generally the largest animals one will see in the air. People want to know the name of a bird they see flying by, and want to know more about it. The method and style of bird flight can aid an observer who attempts to determine which of the world’s 10,000 bird species he or she is studying. Body shape and bird sounds often tell us a lot about the birds we encounter. But most often, we rely on the unique colors, patterns, and shapes of the feathers, the plumage, to identify the bird we are seeing.
To birds, feathers are survival. They are lightweight and strong to support the mechanics of flight. Feathers are superb insulators against the elements, and provide additional buoyancy for birds spending time on the water. For most birds, feathers provide a coloration and a texture similar to their surroundings, enabling them to hide from predators or to stalk prey. In the case of some species, extravagant showy plumage is acquired, at least during the breeding season, and often only by males, as a way to attract a mate, intimidate rivals, defend a territory, or lure an intruder away from a nest site. Because they become worn and damaged, all feathers are periodically molted and replaced by fresh plumage.
The feathers worn by a young bird leaving the nest are called the juvenile plumage. Typically, this is followed by a molt into a basic (non-breeding) plumage. The oft times extravagant breeding feathers are the result of a molt into an alternate (breeding) plumage.
While making field observations, the species, subspecies, gender, age, and other vital statistics of a bird can often by discerned easily by noting the plumage. In the case of some other birds, diligence, experience, research, and an exceptionally good look and/or a photograph may be required to interpret these particulars. In still other instances, a trained expert with a specimen in the hand is the only method of learning the bird’s identity and background.
The age at which birds acquire adult breeding and non-breeding plumages varies by species. Many juvenile birds resemble adults in basic (non-breeding) plumage as soon as they leave the nest. For these birds, there is little difference between their juvenile plumage and the appearance of the feathers which follow the molt into their first basic (non-breeding) plumage. Bird species which sexually mature within their first year may acquire their first basic (non-breeding) plumage before arrival of their first winter, followed by an alternate (breeding) plumage by their first spring. This is particularly true for smaller short-lived birds. Other species, normally larger long-lived ones, may experience a sequence of molts through multiple basic (non-breeding) plumages over a period of years prior to resembling an adult. Some of these species, such as eagles, retain their juvenile plumage for as long as a year before extensive molting into a first basic (non-breeding) plumage begins. Still others, including many gulls, attain a first-winter (formative) plumage prior to molting into their first basic (non-breeding) set of feathers. Sexual maturity and initiation of an annual molt to alternate (breeding) plumage, if there is one, may take as long as three to five years for these bigger birds.
For nearly all species of birds, the molts which produce basic (non-breeding) plumage occur on at least an annual basis and include a total replacement of feathers. This process renews worn and missing plumes including the flight feathers of the wings and tail. Any molt to alternate (breeding) plumage often excludes the replacement of the feathers of the wings and tail. There are many exceptions to these generalities.
The Juvenile and non-breeding (basic) plumages of late-summer may seem drab and confusing, but learning them is a worthwhile endeavor. Consider that most of the birds coming south during the migration will be adorned in this fashion. The birds of North America are in their greatest numerical mass of the year right now, and nearly all are females, juveniles, other non-adults, or molting males. There are few males in breeding plumage among the autumn waves of migrants. In the coming months, there will be an abundance of opportunities to enjoy these marvels on wings, so getting to know the birds in non-breeding feathers is time well spent. Make haste and get ready. For our feathered friends, it’s autumn and they’re on their way south.
Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Hayman, Peter; John Marchant, and Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds, An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Kauman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
McCullough, Mark A. 1989. Molting Sequence and Aging Of Bald Eagles. The Wilson Bulletin. 101:1-10.
Let’s imagine that you spend your summer as a singer and you have to strut your stuff in a blue suit all day long just so the other guys know that you’re not going to tolerate any nonsense with either of your two gals. And…you’re responsible for feeding the adolescent kids while each of the girls begins a second family. Wouldn’t you be ready for a break by late August?
The boys must think so. They’re quiet now. This week was the end. They’ve done their duty. They protected their homes and got the youngsters out on their own. It’s time to eat, get out of the dress blues, and prepare to take a flight to warmer climates, maybe even the tropics…for a holiday of sorts.
The male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) has a busy schedule. Before arriving at Conewago Falls in early May, he has molted from the plainest of plain brown plumage and donned an iridescent set of feathers that glow a brilliant blue and purple in sunlight. He chooses a territory with plenty of shrubby and weedy growth along the edge of a woodland, and begins to sing and defend his parcel, often from a dead tree or other perch.
At Conewago Falls, the Indigo Bunting is a common breeding bird, finding the mosaic of electric transmission wire right-of-ways, railroads, and the Riverine Grasslands to be absolutely perfect habitat. The female, inconspicuous in her uniformly brown plumage, builds the nest, incubates the 3 to 4 eggs (11 to 14 days), and feeds the young in the nest (9 to 12 days). Being quite the showboats, some males will have more than one mate nesting in their territory. In addition to defending the nest(s), the male Indigo Bunting will sometimes feed the fledged young so that the female(s) can begin incubating a second brood. The summertime diet is mostly invertebrates, but seeds are also consumed.
By late August, the young of the year are mostly on their own. The male’s territorial urges, including the nearly non-stop singing, come to an end. Soon, his blue feathers are beginning to drop and a molt is underway into a brown plumage resembling that of the females and juveniles.
Indigo Buntings evacuate their breeding range in eastern North America to winter mostly south of the United States. These nocturnal travelers have been the subject of migration behavior studies. They are among a number of small bird species known to cross the Gulf of Mexico on their way south. Also, Indigo Buntings can navigate by the stars.
On the wintering grounds, Indigo Buntings are flocking birds. At this time of year, they consume more seeds as a component of their diet and are known to visit bird feeders.
By April, the blue suit is back, and the males and females are on the way north. Hope to see you then pal.
Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.