Photo of the Day

Freshwater Bryozoan Colony (Pectinatella magnifica) and an Eastern Amberwing
Those who happen to come upon it might think this football-sized gelatinous blob is a sure sign of pollution.  A freshwater bryozoan (Pectinatella magnifica) colony is composed of a single microscopic founder and its many clones.  Despite its bizarre appearance, the “moss animal” is an indicator of good water quality.  Pectinatella magnifica is found in clear lentic (still) waters of streams, lakes, and ponds where each individual in the colony feeds by extending a disk of sticky tentacles, called a lophophore, from within its protective sheath to capture single-celled algae (e.g., diatoms) and other plankton.  From now through autumn, these bryozoans are reproducing by means of cell-filled statoblasts, durable little seedlike pods which can survive the harsh conditions of both winter and drought and sometimes be transported by animals, wind, or water currents to new areas.  Spring weather and/or rehydration of a dried-up lentic pool stimulates a statoblast to open, the cells contained therein then develop into a zooid that attempts to start a new colony by cloning itself.

Emergence of the Turtles

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.

Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) spend the winter buried in mud along the river shoreline and in nearby Alluvial Terrace Wetlands.  We photographed this one just as it was digging its way out.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cold and stiff Snapping Turtle crawls away from the shade toward sun-drenched shallows where it will have a chance to limber up.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cruise in open water loosens up the muscles and gets rid of some of the accumulations of sticky mud and muck.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtles
Freshly emerged Painted Turtles clamber onto a log to bask in the cloud-filtered sun.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtle atop a Snapping Turtle
A Painted Turtle looking for a place to get out of the chilly water soon discovered the obvious solution.
It’s catching on, more Painted Turtles atop a Snapping Turtle in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Common Map Turtle
The Common Map Turtle (right) is the turtle most frequently observed basking on rocks and logs along the main stem of the Susquehanna.  To the left is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), an increasingly numerous invasive species.  The first Red-eared Sliders arrived in the river as, you guessed it, unwanted pets.  Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the local Beaver (Castor canadensis) for trimming the trees and providing a clear shot for this photograph!
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Painted Turtles
And now, a quick quiz.  Name the things that don’t belong in this picture?  Here’s a hint: a non-native Red-eared Slider (left) joins indigenous Painted Turtles atop a discarded tire in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

Forest vs. Woodlot

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.

Rotting logs and leaf litter create the moisture retaining detritus in which mesic forest plants grow and thrive.  Note the presence of mosses and a vernal pool in this damp section of forest.
The earliest green leaves in the forest are often those of the Skunk Cabbage (Simplocarpus foetidus).  This member of the arum family gets a head start by growing in the warm waters of a spring seep or in a stream-fed wetland.  Like many native wildflowers of the forest, Skunk Cabbage takes advantage of early-springtime sun to flower and grow prior to the time in late April when deciduous trees grow foliage and cast shade beneath their canopy.
Among the bark of dead and downed trees, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) hibernates for the winter.  It emerges to alight on sun-drenched surfaces in late winter and early spring.
Another hibernating forest butterfly that emerges on sunny early-spring days is the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), also known as the Hop Merchant.
In a small forest brook, a water strider (Gerridae) chases its shadow using the surface tension of the water to provide buoyancy.  Forests are essential for the protection of headwaters areas where our streams get their start.
Often flooded only in the springtime, fish-free pools of water known as vernal ponds are essential breeding habitat for many forest-dwelling amphibians.  Unfortunately, these ephemeral wetland sites often fall prey to collecting, dumping, filling, and vandalism by motorized and non-motorized off-roaders, sometimes resulting in the elimination of the populations of frogs, toads, and salamanders that use them.
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) emerge from hiding places among downed timber and leaf litter to journey to a nearby vernal pond where they begin calling still more Wood Frogs to the breeding site.
Wood Frog eggs must hatch and tadpoles must transform into terrestrial frogs before the pond dries up in the summertime.  It’s a risky means of reproduction, but it effectively evades the enormous appetites of fish.
When the egg laying is complete, adult Wood Frogs return to the forest and are seldom seen during the rest of the year.
In early spring, Painted Turtles emerge from hideouts in larger forest pools, particularly those in wooded swamps, to bask in sunny locations.
Dead standing trees, often called snags, are essential habitats for many species of forest wildlife.  There is an entire biological process, a micro-ecosystem, involved in the decay of a dead tree.  It includes fungi, bacteria, and various invertebrate animals that reduce wood into the detritus that nourishes and hydrates new forest growth.
Birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker feed on insects found in large snags and nest almost exclusively in them.  Many species of wildlife rely on dead trees, both standing and fallen, during all or part of their lives.

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.

The White-tailed Deity in a woodlot infested by invasive tangles of Multiflora Rose.

They Call Me the Wanderer

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 sometimes arrive in the lower Susquehanna River valley in large numbers after catching a ride on sustained winds from southerly directions and will often fly and migrate in storm systems.  Conditions for such movements have been optimal in our region since mid-July.  These dragonflies will often hover above motor vehicle hoods and, after mating, females will deposit eggs upon them, apparently mistaking their glossy surface for small pools of water.

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 male Wandering Glider aggressively patrols his territory in the Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat at Conewago Falls.  August 20, 2017.
A mating pair of Wandering Gliders continue flying non-stop above one of thousands of suitable breeding pools among the Diabase Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls.  September 23, 2017.
A female (bottom)Wandering Glider has deposited eggs in a pool while flying in tandem with a male (top).  They’ll do the same thing on your automobile hood!  Conewago Falls Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat.  September 23, 2017.
Wandering Glider larvae are at the top of the food chain in flooded potholes.  As they grew, these dragonfly larvae decimated the mosquito larvae which were abundant there earlier in the summer.  October 7, 2017.
A juvenile male Wandering Glider emerges from the pool where it fed and grew as a larva.  It remained at water’s edge on the surface of a sun-warmed diabase rock for several hours to dry its wings.  It soon flew away to parts unknown, possibly traveling hundreds or thousands of miles.  Look carefully at the wings for the beige dash marks on the forward edge near the terminal end.  Females lack this marking.  Conewago Falls Diabase Pothole Rocks Microhabitat.  October 14, 2017.
A Wandering Glider exuviae, the shed exoskeleton of a creature gone, but not forgotten.  October 14, 2017.

 

Piles of Green Tape

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.

Uprooted American Eelgrass floating into the Pothole Rocks under the power of a north wind.  Note the white thread-like pistillate flower stem to the left and the small rooted specimen to the upper right.  The latter is likely a plant from the creeping rootstock on the edge of a colony.  As a native aquatic species, American Eelgrass is a critical link in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay food chain.  Its decimation by pollution during the twentieth century led to migration pattern alterations and severe population losses for the Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) duck.
American Eelgrass, a very small specimen, found growing in a low-lying Pothole Rock alongside the accumulations of freshly arriving material from upstream.  Note that the creeping rootstock has leaves growing from at least three nodes on this plant.  Eelgrass dislocations are regular occurrences which sometimes begin new colonies, like the small one seen here in this Diabase Pothole Rock Microhabitat.

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.

A moderate flight of nocturnal migrants is indicated around NEXRAD sites in the northeastern states at 3:18 AM EDT.  The outer rain bands of Hurricane Irma can be seen approaching the Florida Keys as the storm closes in on the peninsula.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

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).

It looks like a big Blue Jay, but it’s not.  This Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) takes a break after flying around the falls trying to shake a marauding Ruby-throated Hummingbird off its tail.
CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

SOURCES

Klots, Elsie B.  1966.  The New Field Book of Freshwater Life.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons.  New York, NY.