Along the lower Susquehanna, an unseasonably mild day in early spring can provide an observer with the opportunity to witness an annual spectacle seldom seen by the average visitor to the river—concentrations of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of turtles as they emerge from their winter slumber to bathe in the year’s first surge of warm air and sunshine.
Let’s take a quiet stroll through the forest to have a look around. The spring awakening is underway and it’s a marvelous thing to behold. You may think it a bit odd, but during this walk we’re not going to spend all of our time gazing up into the trees. Instead, we’re going to investigate the happenings at ground level—life on the forest floor.
There certainly is more to a forest than the living trees. If you’re hiking through a grove of timber getting snared in a maze of prickly Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and seeing little else but maybe a wild ungulate or two, then you’re in a has-been forest. Logging, firewood collection, fragmentation, and other man-made disturbances inside and near forests take a collective toll on their composition, eventually turning them to mere woodlots. Go enjoy the forests of the lower Susquehanna valley while you still can. And remember to do it gently; we’re losing quality as well as quantity right now—so tread softly.
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.
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.