Monarch an Endangered Species: What You Can Do Right Now

This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) added the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its “Red List of Threatened Species”, classifying it as endangered.  Perhaps there is no better time than the present to have a look at the virtues of replacing areas of mowed and manicured grass with a wildflower garden or meadow that provides essential breeding and feeding habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of other species of animals.

Monarch on Common Milkweed Flower Cluster
A recently arrived Monarch visits a cluster of fragrant Common Milkweed flowers in the garden at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Milkweeds included among a wide variety of plants in a garden or meadow habitat can help local populations of Monarchs increase their numbers before the autumn flights to wintering grounds commence in the fall.  Female Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, then, after hatching, the larvae (caterpillars) feed on them before pupating.

If you’re not quite sure about finally breaking the ties that bind you to the cult of lawn manicuring, then compare the attributes of a parcel maintained as mowed grass with those of a space planted as a wildflower garden or meadow.  In our example we’ve mixed native warm season grasses with the wildflowers and thrown in a couple of Eastern Red Cedars to create a more authentic early successional habitat.

Comparison of Mowed Grass to Wildflower Meadow
* Particularly when native warm-season grasses are included (root depth 6′-8′)

Still not ready to take the leap.  Think about this: once established, the wildflower planting can be maintained without the use of herbicides or insecticides.  There’ll be no pesticide residues leaching into the soil or running off during downpours.  Yes friends, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a private well or a community system, a wildflower meadow is an asset to your water supply.  Not only is it free of man-made chemicals, but it also provides stormwater retention to recharge the aquifer by holding precipitation on site and guiding it into the ground.  Mowed grass on the other hand, particularly when situated on steep slopes or when the ground is frozen or dry, does little to stop or slow the sheet runoff that floods and pollutes streams during heavy rains.

What if I told you that for less than fifty bucks, you could start a wildflower garden covering 1,000 square feet of space?  That’s a nice plot 25′ x 40′ or a strip 10′ wide and 100′ long along a driveway, field margin, roadside, property line, swale, or stream.  All you need to do is cast seed evenly across bare soil in a sunny location and you’ll soon have a spectacular wildflower garden.  Here at the susquehannawildllife.net headquarters we don’t have that much space, so we just cast the seed along the margins of the driveway and around established trees and shrubs.  Look what we get for pennies a plant…

Wildflower Garden
Some of the wildflowers and warm-season grasses grown from scattered seed in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.

Here’s a closer look…

Lance-leaved Coreopsis
Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), a perennial.
Black-eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Black-eyed Susan "Gloriosa Daisy"
“Gloriosa Daisy”, a variety of Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Purple Coneflower
Purple Coneflower, an excellent perennial for pollinators.  The ripe seeds provide food for American Goldfinches.
Common Sunflower
A short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual and a source of free bird seed.
Common Sunflower
Another short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual.

All this and best of all, we never need to mow.

Around the garden, we’ve used a northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  It’s a blend of annuals and perennials that’s easy to grow.  On their website, you’ll find seeds for individual species as well as mixes and instructions for planting and maintaining your wildflower garden.  They even have a mix specifically formulated for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Annuals in bloom
When planted in spring and early summer, annuals included in a wildflower mix will provide vibrant color during the first year.  Many varieties will self-seed to supplement the display provided by biennials and perennials in subsequent years.
Wildflower Seed Mix
A northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  There are no fillers.  One pound of pure live seed easily plants 1,000 square feet.

Nothing does more to promote the spread and abundance of non-native plants, including invasive species, than repetitive mowing.  One of the big advantages of planting a wildflower garden or meadow is the opportunity to promote the growth of a community of diverse native plants on your property.  A single mowing is done only during the dormant season to reseed annuals and to maintain the meadow in an early successional stage—preventing reversion to forest.

For wildflower mixes containing native species, including ecotypes from locations in and near the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, nobody beats Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania.  Their selection of grass and wildflower seed mixes could keep you planting new projects for a lifetime.  They craft blends for specific regions, states, physiographic provinces, habitats, soils, and uses.  Check out these examples of some of the scores of mixes offered at Ernst Conservation Seeds

      • Pipeline Mixes
      • Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
      • Cover Crops
      • Pondside Mixes
      • Warm-season Grass Mixes
      • Retention Basin Mixes
      • Wildlife Mixes
      • Pollinator Mixes
      • Wetland Mixes
      • Floodplain and Riparian Buffer Mixes
      • Rain Garden Mixes
      • Steep Slope Mixes
      • Solar Farm Mixes
      • Strip Mine Reclamation Mixes

We’ve used their “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” on streambank renewal projects with great success.  For Monarchs, we really recommend the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It includes many of the species pictured above plus “Fort Indiantown Gap” Little Bluestem, a warm-season grass native to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, and milkweeds (Asclepias), which are not included in their northeast native wildflower blends.  More than a dozen of the flowers and grasses currently included in this mix are derived from Pennsylvania ecotypes, so you can expect them to thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed, a perennial species, is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It is a favorite of female Monarchs seeking a location to deposit eggs.
Monarch Caterpillar feeding on Swamp Milkweed
A Monarch larva (caterpillar) feeding on Swamp Milkweed.
Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  This perennial is also known as Butterfly Milkweed.
Tiger Swallowtails visiting Butterfly Weed
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the dozens of species of pollinators that will visit Butterfly Weed.

In addition to the milkweeds, you’ll find these attractive plants included in Ernst Conservation Seed’s “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”, as well as in some of their other blends.

Wild Bergamot
The perennial Wild Bergamot, also known as Bee Balm, is an excellent pollinator plant, and the tubular flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds.
Oxeye
Oxeye is adorned with showy clusters of sunflower-like blooms in mid-summer.  It is a perennial plant.
Plains Coreopsis
Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), also known as Plains Tickseed, is a versatile annual that can survive occasional flooding as well as drought.
Gray-headed Coneflower
Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), a tall perennial, is spectacular during its long flowering season.
Monarch on goldenrod.
Goldenrods are a favorite nectar plant for migrating Monarchs in autumn.  They seldom need to be sown into a wildflower garden; the seeds of local species usually arrive on the wind.  They are included in the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix” from Ernst Conservation Seeds in low dose, just in case the wind doesn’t bring anything your way.
Partridge Pea
Is something missing from your seed mix?  You can purchase individual species from the selections available at American Meadows and Ernst Conservation Seeds.  Partridge Pea is a good native annual to add.  It is a host plant for the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly and hummingbirds will often visit the flowers.  It does really well in sandy soils.
Indiangrass in flower.
Indiangrass is a warm-season species that makes a great addition to any wildflower meadow mix.  Its deep roots make it resistant to drought and ideal for preventing erosion.

Why not give the Monarchs and other wildlife living around you a little help?  Plant a wildflower garden or meadow.  It’s so easy, a child can do it.

Planting a riparian buffer with wildflowers and warm-season grasses
Volunteers sow a riparian buffer on a recontoured stream bank using wildflower and warm-season grass seed blended uniformly with sand.  By casting the sand/seed mixture evenly over the planting site, participants can visually assure that seed has been distributed according to the space calculations.
Riparian Buffer of wildflowers
The same seeded site less than four months later.
Monarch Pupa
A Monarch pupa from which the adult butterfly will emerge.

Blooming in Early July: Great Rhododendron

With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire?  Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), also known as Rosebay.

Great Rhododendron
The Great Rhododendron is an evergreen shrub found growing in the forest understory on slopes with consistently moist (mesic) soils.  The large, thick leaves make it easy to identify.  During really cold weather, they may droop and curl, but they still remain green and attached to the plant.

Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife.  The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Pinxter Flower in bloom
A close relative of the Great Rhododendron is the Pinxter Flower, also known as the Pink Azalea.

Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging.  Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants.  In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions.  Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth.  A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed.  In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site.  These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees.  In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) may be particularly sensitive to the loss of winter shelter and travel lanes provided by thickets of Great Rhododendron and other members of the heather/heath family.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens.   Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.

Great Rhododendron Flower Cluster
Great Rhododendrons sport an attractive blossom cluster.  The colors of the flower, especially the markings found only on the uppermost petal, guide pollinators to the stamens (male organs) and pistil (female organ).
Bumble Bee Pollinating a Great Rhododendron Flower
To this Bumble Bee (Bombus species), the yellowish spots on the uppermost petal of the Great Rhododendron may appear to be clumps of pollen and are thus an irresistible lure.  

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron.  One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves.  Go have a look.  You’ll be glad you did.

Great Rhododendron along Route 125 near Ravine
Great Rhododendron along Route 125 along the base of the north slope of Second Mountain north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Great Rhododendron along Swatara Creek
Great Rhododendrons beginning to bloom during the second week of July along Swatara Creek north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Note how acid mine drainage continues to stain the rocks (and pollute the water) in the upper reaches of this tributary of the lower Susquehanna.

Seawatch on the Susquehanna

Birds that one might expect to see wintering among the surf and in tidal waters along the Atlantic coast are currently making their way up the Susquehanna on a route that will ultimately lead most to nesting sites in Canada.  To see them as pass, one needs simply to find a good vantage point along the river from which to begin watching.  Here are some of today’s sightings from the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge (Route 462) at Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.

Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Mergansers
Red-breasted Mergansers spend the winter primarily on saltwater bays.  They are regular springtime migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.
Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Merganser
A male Red-breasted Merganser.
Double-crested Cormorants spend the winter in a variety of salt and brackish water habitats.  Some birds breed on the lower Susquehanna, but the vast majority nest to the north of the Great Lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gulls winter throughout the Atlantic Coastal Plain and nest as far south as the Great Lakes region.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls winter on the Atlantic from the surf zone to several miles offshore.  In the southern states, some pass the colder months on inland lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's and ring-billed Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few Ring-billed Gulls swarm over the lower Susquehanna River at the Route 30 bridge.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
While in flight, Bonaparte’s Gulls can resemble terns.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls.
Bonaparte’s Gulls headed upriver.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls are regular spring migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.

Photo of the Day

A hatch-year/juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on its first southbound migration glides on an updraft created as northwest winds strike the slope of a hillside in the Valley and Ridge Province.  It’s a free ride, and this bird could easily cover one hundred miles or more in just one day of flying.

Blooming Now in the Lower Susquehanna Region: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), designated as Pennsylvania’s state flower, is a native evergreen shrub of forests situated on dry rocky slopes with acidic soils.  As the common name implies, we think of it mostly as a plant of the mountainous regions—those areas of the Susquehanna watershed north of Harrisburg.  It is indeed symbolic of Appalachian forests.  But Mountain Laurel can also be found to the south of the capital city in forested highlands of the Piedmont.  There, currently, it happens to be in full bloom.  Let’s put on a pair of sturdy shoes and take a walk in the Hellam Hills of eastern York County at Rocky Ridge County Park to have a look.

The showy flower clusters of blooming Mountain Laurel are conspicuous throughout Rocky Ridge County Park right now.
Mountain Laurel flowering in the utility right-of-way south of the main parking area at Rocky Ridge…
…and to the north of the parking area at the hawk-watch platform.
Strolling a forest trail, particularly west of the utility right-of-way, can take you on a path through a thicket of flowering Mountain Laurel.
The majority of Mountain Laurels one might encounter will sport white flowers.
Others vary, exhibiting shades of spectacular pink.
Look closely and you’ll see flowers with curled filaments on some of the stamens.  When a bee or other insect makes contact, they spring into an extended position to assure pollen transfer to the visiting pollinator.
Absolutely spectacular.

Rain or shine, do get out and have a look at the blooming Mountain Laurel.

Snow Goose Numbers Peaking

It’s that time—Snow Goose numbers are peaking at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties.

Today, migrating Snow Geese arriving from wintering areas on the Atlantic Coastal Plain blanketed the ice-free half of the lake at Middle Creek.  There are probably in excess of 100,000 birds at the refuge right now.
The density on the lake is relieved as geese filter out to a nearby field to graze.
Periodically throughout the day, observers are thrilled by the sight of Snow Geese rising into the air in unison as a thunderously loud cloud of birds.
Open water is at a premium right now, so these Ring-necked Ducks and a Tundra Swan have to squeeze in where they can.
If you’re going to Middle Creek to see the Snow Geese, be certain to bring your camera and viewing optics.  If you want to miss the largest crowds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recommends visiting during the morning or on a weekday.  For everyone’s safety, please remember to slow down and follow the posted parking directives.  And so that the wildlife isn’t disturbed by your visit, please heed the signs designating the no-entry and propagation zones.

Tundra Swan Migration

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.

Tundra Swans flying northwest, paralleling the Susquehanna five miles distant.
Tundra Swans winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain and often stage their northbound movements on the Piedmont along the lower Susquehanna River and at the nearby Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  The birds seen this evening are possibly coming directly from the coast or Chesapeake Bay.  With five hours of favorable wind helping them along, covering one hundred miles or more in an afternoon would be no problem.
High-flying Tundra Swans on their way to breeding grounds on, you guessed it, the arctic tundra in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Tundra Swans in the largest flocks, sometimes comprised of more than 200 birds, were often detected by their vocalizations as they approached.
Tundra Swan flights continued after sunset and nightfall.
All of the high-flying migratory Canada Geese seen this evening were on a more northerly course than the northwest-bound swans.  These geese probably spent the winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain near Chesapeake Bay and are now en route to breeding grounds in, you guessed it again, Canada.  They are not part of the resident Canada Goose population we see nesting throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.

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.

 

Spotted Lanternfly in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

Second Mountain Hawk Watch is located on a ridge top along the northern edge of the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation and the southern edge of State Game Lands 211 in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  The valley on the north side of the ridge, also known as St. Anthony’s Wilderness, is drained to the Susquehanna by Stony Creek.  The valley to the south is drained toward the river by Indiantown Run, a tributary of Swatara Creek.

The hawk watch is able to operate at this prime location for observing the autumn migration of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats through the courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Garrison Commander at Fort Indiantown Gap.  The Second Mountain Hawk Watch Association is a non-profit organization that staffs the count site daily throughout the season and reports data to the North American Hawk Watch Association (posted daily at hawkcount.org).

Today, Second Mountain Hawk Watch was populated by observers who enjoyed today’s break in the rainy weather with a visit to the lookout to see what birds might be on the move.  All were anxiously awaiting a big flight of Broad-winged Hawks, a forest-dwelling Neotropical species that often travels back to its wintering grounds in groups exceeding one hundred birds.  Each autumn, many inland hawk watches in the northeast experience at least one day in mid-September with a Broad-winged Hawk count exceeding 1,000 birds.  They are an early-season migrant and today’s southeast winds ahead of the remnants of Hurricane Florence (currently in the Carolinas) could push southwest-heading “Broad-wings” out of the Piedmont Province and into the Ridge and Valley Province for a pass by the Second Mountain lookout.

The flight turned out to be steady through the day with over three hundred Broad-winged Hawks sighted.  The largest group consisted of several dozen birds.  We would hope there are probably many more yet to come after the Florence rains pass through the northeast and out to sea by mid-week.  Also seen today were Bald Eagles, Ospreys, American Kestrels, and a migrating Red-headed Woodpecker.

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks circle on a thermal updraft above Second Mountain Hawk Watch to gain altitude before gliding away to the southwest.

Migrating insects included Monarch butterflies, and the three commonest species of migratory dragonflies: Wandering Glider, Black Saddlebags, and Common Green Darner.  The Common Green Darners swarmed the lookout by the dozens late in the afternoon and attracted a couple of American Kestrels, which had apparently set down from a day of migration.  American Kestrels and Broad-winged Hawks feed upon dragonflies and often migrate in tandem with them for at least a portion of their journey.

Still later, as the last of the Broad-winged Hawks descended from great heights and began passing by just above the trees looking for a place to settle down, a most unwelcome visitor arrived at the lookout.  It glided in from the St. Anthony’s Wilderness side of the ridge on showy crimson-red wings, then became nearly indiscernible from gray tree bark when it landed on a limb.  It was the dreaded and potentially invasive Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula).  This large leafhopper is native to Asia and was first discovered in North America in the Oley Valley of eastern Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014.  The larval stage is exceptionally damaging to cultivated grape and orchard crops.  It poses a threat to forest trees as well.  Despite efforts to contain the species through quarantine and other methods, it’s obviously spreading quickly.  Here on the Second Mountain lookout, we know that wind has a huge influence on the movement of birds and insects.  The east and southeast winds we’ve experienced for nearly a week may be carrying Spotted Lanternflies well out of their most recent range and into the forests of the Ridge and Valley Province.  We do know for certain that the Spotted Lanternfly has found its way into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

This adult Spotted Lanternfly landed in a birch tree behind the observers at the Second Mountain Hawk Watch late this afternoon.  It was first recognized by its bright red wings as it glided from treetops on the north side of the lookout.

It is the First Full Day of Spring…Isn’t It?

You remember the signs of an early spring, don’t you?  It was a mild, almost balmy, February.  The earliest of the spring migrants such as robins and blackbirds were moving north through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  The snow had melted and ice on the river had passed.  Everyone was outdoors once again.  At last, winter was over and only the warmer months lie ahead…beginning with March.

Common Grackles are often the first perching birds to begin moving north through the lower Susquehanna valley in spring.  They often winter in large roving flocks of mixed blackbird species on the nearby Atlantic Coastal Plain Province.  These flocks sometimes wander the farmlands of the lower Piedmont Province near the river, but rarely stray north of the 40th parallel before February.

Ah yes, March, the cold windy month of March.  We remember February fondly, but this March has startled us out of our vernal daydreams to wrestle with the reality of the season.  And if you’re anywhere near the Mid-Atlantic states on this first full day of spring, you know that a long winter’s nap and visions of sugar peas would be time better spent than a stroll outdoors.  Presently it’s dusk, and the snow from the 4th “Nor’easter” in a month is a foot deep and still falling.

In honor of “The Spring That Was”, here then is a sampling of some of the migratory waterfowl that have found their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during March.  Some are probably lingering and feeding for a while.  All will move along to their breeding grounds within a couple of weeks, regardless of the weather.

Tundra Swans will migrate in a northwest direction to reach breeding grounds west and north of Hudson Bay.
Migratory Canada Geese departing the Chesapeake Bay area typically pass over the lower Susquehanna valley at high altitudes.  A south wind can bring a sustained day-long flight of migrating geese and ducks over the region on a given day in late-February or March.
Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) historically wintered in the marshes of the Atlantic seaboard where the tide cycle kept vegetation primarily snow-free for feeding.  Removal of hedgerows and intensive farming since the 1980s has attracted these birds to inland agricultural lands during their preparation for the move north.  For nearly three decades, tens of thousands have annually begun their spring journey with a stopover at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Flocks range widely from Middle Creek to feed, commonly as far west as the fields of the Conewago Creek valley in the Gettysburg Basin to the east of Conewago Falls.  
American Black Ducks
A pair of Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).
Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are “diving ducks”.
A male Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis, (front center) and Ring-necked Ducks (rear and left) seen between feeding dives.
A male Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola).  These miniature diving ducks will sometimes winter on the Susquehanna in “rafts” of dozens of birds.
Tundra Swans journey toward the “Land of the Mid-Night Sun”.

 

A Century of Extinction

Many are wont to say that they have no capacity for scientific pursuits, and having no capacity, they consequently have no love for them.  I do not believe, that as a general thing, a love for science is necessarily innate in any man.  It is the subject of cultivation and is therefore acquired.  There are doubtless many, whose love for these and kindred pursuits is hereditary, through the mental biases and preoccupations of their progenitors, but in the masses of mankind it is quite otherwise.  In this consists its redeeming qualities, for I do not think the truly scientific mind can either be an idle, a disorderly, or a very wicked one.  There may be scientific men, who, forgetful of its teachings, are imperious and ambitious–who may have foregone their fealty to their country and their God, but as a general thing they are humble, social and law-abiding.  If, therefore, there is a human being who desires to break off from old and evil associations, and form new and more virtuous ones, I would advise him to turn his attention to some scientific specialty, for the cultivation of a new affection, if there are no other and higher influences more accessible.  In this pursuit he will, in time, be enabled to supplant the old and heartfelt affection.  The occupation of his mind in the pursuit of scientific lore will wean him from vicious, trivial, and unmanly pursuits, and point out to him a way that is pleasant and instructive to walk in, which will ultimately lead to moral and intellectual usefulness.  I wish I was accessible to them, and possessed the ability to impress this truth with sufficient emphasis upon the minds of the rising generation.  This fact, that in all moral reformations, a love for the opposite of any besetting evil must be cultivated, before that evil can be surely eradicated, has been too much overlooked and too little valued in moral ethics.  But true progress in this direction implies that, under all circumstances, men should “act in freedom according to reason.”

                                                                            -Simon S. Rathvon

 

In the cellar of the North Museum on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is an assemblage of natural history specimens of great antiquity.  The core of the collection has its origins in the endeavors of a group of mid-to-late nineteenth-century naturalists whose diligence provided a most thorough study of the plants and animals found within what was at the time America’s most productive farming county.

The members of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County shared a passion for collecting, identifying, classifying, and documenting the flora and fauna of the region.  Some members were formally educated and earned a living in the field of science, but the majority were in the process of self-education and balanced their natural history occupation with an unrelated means to provide financially for their families.  The latter benefited greatly from their associations with the former, gaining expertise and knowledge while participating in the functions of the group.

On February 24, 1866, Simon S. Rathvon, the society’s Treasurer, read an essay in commemoration of the group’s fourth anniversary.  Rathvon earned a living as a tailor, first in Marietta, a thriving river town at the time, then in Lancaster City.  In 1840, Rathvon was elected into the Marietta Natural History Lyceum where, as a collections curator, he became associated with principals Judge John J. Libhart, an amateur ornithologist, and Samuel S. Haldeman, a geologist and soon to be widely-known malacologist.  Haldeman, in 1842, upon noticing the new member’s interest in beetles and other insects, provided books, guidance, and inspiration, thus intensifying Rathvon’s study of entomology.  Rathvon’s steadfast dedication eventually led to his numerous achievements in the field which included the publication of over 30 papers, many on the topic of agricultural entomology.  Rathvon’s scientific understanding of insect identification and taxonomy was a foundation for his practical entomology, which moved beyond mere insect collection to focus upon the study of the life histories of insects, particularly the good and bad things they do.  He then applied that knowledge to help growers solve pest problems, often stressing the value of beneficial species for maintaining a balance in nature.  From 1869 through 1884, Rathvon edited and published Lancaster Farmer, a monthly (quarterly from 1874) agricultural journal in which he educated patrons with his articles on “economic entomology”.  Rathvon continued earning a living in the tailor business, seemingly frustrated that his financially prudent advice on insect control in Lancaster Farmer failed to entice more would-be readers to part with the one dollar annual subscription fee.  For many years, Rathvon crafted articles for local newspapers and wrote reports for the United States Department of Agriculture.  In recognition of his achievements, Simon Rathvon received an honorary Ph.D. from Franklin and Marshall College in 1878.

In Rathvon’s anniversary essay, he details the origins of the Linnaean Society as a natural science committee within the “Lancaster Historical, Mechanical, and Horticultural Society” founded in 1853.  The members of the committee, not finding sufficient support within the parent organization for their desired mission, “the cultivation and investigation of the natural history of Lancaster County…”, sought to form an independent natural history society.  In February of 1862, the “Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County” was founded to fulfill these ambitions.

Above all else, the written works by the members of the Linnaean Society and their predecessors have provided us with detailed accounts of the plants and animals found in Lancaster County, and in the lower Susquehanna River valley, using scientific binomial nomenclature, a genus and species name, as opposed to the variable folk and common names which, when used exclusively, often confuse or mislead readers.  Consider the number of common names a species could have if just one was assigned by each of the languages of the world.  Binomial nomenclature assigns one designation, a genus name and species name, in Latin, to each life-form (such as Homo sapiens for Humans), and it is adopted universally.

Rathvon would say of the naming of the Linnaean Society:

“…the name which the Society has adopted is in honorable commemoration of LINNAEUS, the great Swedish naturalist—one who may be justly regarded as a father in Natural Science.  To him belongs the honor of having first promulgated the “binomial system of nomenclature,” a system that has done more to simplify the study of natural science than any light that has been brought to the subject by any man in any age.”

Carl Linnaeus lived from 1707 to 1778, and published his first edition of Systema Naturae in 1735.

The names of a number of the members and corresponding members on the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County’s rolls remain familiar.  John P. McCaskey (educator) served as Corresponding Secretary.  Doctor Abram P. Garber was a prominent Lancaster botanist and society member.  Professor Samuel S. Haldeman (naturalist, geologist, and philologist), Professor J. L. LeConte (entomologist), Judge John J. Libhart, Professor Asa Gray (botanist), and the foremost legal egalitarian in the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, were  listed among the roster of corresponding members.

By the end of its fourth year, Rathvon enumerated the specimens in the collections of the society to exceed 32,000.  These included all the species of mosses and plants known in the county, 200 bird specimens, an enormous insect collection with nearly 12,000 Coleoptera (Beetles), and more than 1,400 mollusk shells.  The work of the society had already provided a thorough baseline of the flora and fauna of the lower Susquehanna River valley and Lancaster County.

Rathvon would continue as Treasurer and primary curator through the group’s first twenty-five years, their most active.  By 1887, their library contained over 1,000 volumes, they possessed over 40,000 specimens, and more than 600 scientific papers had been read at their meetings.

Many of the society’s specimens were moved to the custody of Franklin and Marshall College following the group’s dissolution.  In 1953, the collection found a home on the F&M campus at the newly constructed North Museum, named for benefactor Hugh M. North, where many of the specimens, particularly the birds, are on prominent display.

Among the mounted specimens in the North Museum collection is a Heath Hen, once a numerous coastal plain bird which was also of limited abundance in the Piedmont Province areas of southeast Pennsylvania prior to its rapid decline during the first half of the nineteenth century.  In southern Lancaster County, the burned grasslands of the serpentine barrens in Fulton Township may have provided suitable Heath Hen habitat prior to the bird’s demise.  Curiously, Judge John J. Libhart did not note the Heath Hen in his enumeration of the birds of Lancaster County in either 1844 or 1869, indicating it was seriously imperiled or may have already been extirpated.

The Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) became extinct in 1932.  While the collection of this particular specimen had little significant impact on the population of this subspecies as a whole, prolonged hunting pressure was largely responsible for decimating the numbers of Heath Hens on the mainland of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.   According to the museum tag, this specimen was “probably taken in southern Lancaster County prior to 1850”, and was part of the collection belonging to the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County.  It is among hundreds of bird specimens on display in antique wood and glass cabinets in the North Museum.

The Heath Hen was extirpated from its entire Atlantic Coastal Plain mainland range by the mid-1860s.  The last remaining population was restricted to Martha’s Vineyard where, for the first time, a conservation effort was initiated to try to save a species.  After some promising rebounds, the Heath Hen’s recovery failed for a variety of reasons including: the population’s isolation on an island, severe winter storms, feral cat predation, and a flawed understanding of methods for conducting mosaic burns to maintain the bird’s scrub habitat and prevent large catastrophic fires.  A large fire in 1906 reduced the island population to just 80 birds, then there was a strong rebound to an estimated 2,000 birds (800 counted) by April, 1916.  One month later, a fire burned twenty percent of Martha’s Vineyard, striking while females were on the nest, and leaving mostly males as survivors.  A downward spiral in numbers followed for another decade.  Finally, from 1929 until his death in 1932, “Booming Ben”, the last Heath Hen, searched the island every spring for a mate that wasn’t there.

Based on life history and the morphology of specimens, the Heath Hen has long been considered to be a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), a bird of the tallgrass prairies.  However, for more than a decade now, modern DNA analysis has kept taxonomists busy reclassifying and reworking the “tree of life”.  For certain species, genetic discoveries often disqualify the long-trusted practice of determining a binomial name based on the visual appearance of specimens.  Molecular study is making Linnaean classification more scientific, and is gradually untangling a web of names that man has been weaving for 200 years, often with scant evidence, in an effort to better understand the world around him.  In the case of the Heath Hen, DNA research has thus far failed to conclusively determine its relationship to other species of prairie chickens.  The lack of a sufficient pool of genetic material, particularly from mainland Heath Hens, reduces the ability of researchers to draw conclusions on this group of birds.  There remains the possibility that the Heath Hen was genetically distinct from the Greater Prairie Chickens of the mid-western United States.  This would be bad news for organizations studying the possibility of introducing the latter into the former’s historic range as a restoration program.

The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) specimen on display at the North Museum was collected by John C. Jenkins in Nanchez, Mississippi in 1835.  The specimen was remounted by conservator H. Justin Roddy.

The last Carolina Parakeet (the only parrot species native to the eastern United States) died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918, one hundred years ago this past week.  It was a species inhabiting primarily the lowland forests of the southeastern United States

In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart wrote of the species in 1869, “…Carolina Parrot, Accidental; a flock seen near Manheim by Mr. G. W. Hensel.”  Libhart did not mention the species in his earlier ornithological writings (1844).  Therefore, the Hensel sighting probably occurred sometime between 1844 and 1869.  The fate of a specimen reported to have been collected in the town of Willow Street sometime during the nineteenth century is unknown, the written details lack the date of its origin and other particulars that may clarify the authenticity of the sighting.

McKinley (1979) researched numerous historical sight records of Carolina Parakeets, but found no specimen from Lancaster County, or from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the District of Columbia, or Maryland to substantiate any of the reports in the Mid-Atlantic states.  In the days prior to high-speed photography, verification and documentation of the presence of an animal species relied on what seems today to be a brutal and excessive method of nature study, killing.  Lacking a specimen, the historical status of Carolina Parakeets in Pennsylvania, an area often considered to be within the bird’s former range, may be considered by many authorities to be hypothetical.

The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was abundant in the lower Susquehanna River valley through the early nineteenth century.  Specimens in the North Museum collection include colorful males in breeding plumage.  Several are from the original Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County collection.

The Passenger Pigeon, too, has been extinct for more than a century.  In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart listed the Passenger Pigeon by the common name “Wild Pigeon” and wrote of the species in 1869, “Migratory; spring and autumn; feeds on grain, oak and beach, mostly on berries; stragglers sometimes remain and breed in the county.”   There are numerous accounts of their precipitous decline both locally and throughout their former range, each illustrating the tragic loss of another portion of the North American natural legacy.

The North Museum specimen label describes the precipitous decline of the Passenger Pigeon in the lower Susquehanna River valley.

Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Ironically, the last Carolina Parakeet would die in the same enclosure just three-and-one-half years later.  In the wild, the final three records of Passenger Pigeons were all of birds that were shot for taxidermy mounts in 1900, 1901, and 1902—an embarrassing human legacy.

By the early twentieth century, concerned citizens were beginning to realize the danger posed to many species of flora and fauna by man’s activities.  In the eastern United States, the vast forests had been logged, the wetlands drained, and the streams and rivers dammed.  Nearly all of the landscape had been altered in some way.  Animals were harvested with little concern for the sustenance of their populations.  Nearly unnoticed, the seemingly endless abundance and diversity of wildlife found in the early days of European colonization had dwindled critically.

In 1844, Judge John J. Libhart noted the “Log-Cock” among the birds found in Lancaster County.  Fortunately, he included the scientific name “Picus pileatus”, the binomial nomenclature then recognized for the Pileated Woodpecker (specimens to right) among taxonomists.  A record of “Log-Cock” could confuse researchers, leaving them to guess whether Libhart was referring to a woodpecker, a woodcock, a grouse, or any number of other birds including the long-extinct(?) Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).  Of the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus today), Libhart wrote in 1869, “…now become rare and is only met with in old and extensive woods; breeds in the county.”  The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (specimen to left), a species of vast forests of large timber, living and dead, was restricted to the southeastern United States and Cuba.  Logging following the American Civil War and, to a lesser degree, shooting impacted both species detrimentally.  The Pileated Woodpecker recovered, the larger Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which has never been documented in the northeastern United States, has not.  These specimens are in the North Museum collection.

The movement to conserve and protect threatened species from relentless persecution owes its start to the Linnaean taxonomists, the specimen collectors who gave uniformly recognizable names to nearly all of North America’s plants and animals.  Significant too were John James Audubon and many others who used specimens as models to create accurate artwork which allowed scientists and citizens alike to learn to identify and name the living things they were seeing and, as time went by, not seeing.

Binomial nomenclature enabled the new conservationists to communicate accurately, reducing misunderstandings resulting from the use of many different names for one species or a shared name for multiple species.  Discussions on the status of Columba migratorius (the binomial name for Passenger Pigeon in the nineteenth century) could occur without using the confusing local names for the Passenger Pigeon such as Wood Pigeon or, here in Pennsylvania, Wild Pigeon, a term which could describe any number of free-ranging pigeon or dove species.  A binomial name, genus and species, makes the identity of a particular plant or animal, for lack of a more fitting term, specific.

Appreciation for the work completed by taxonomists who killed thousands of animals so each could be classified and assigned a name particular to its lineage is what finally motivated some to seek a cessation of the unchecked catastrophic killing of living things.  It’s the paradox of late nineteenth-century conservation.  The combined realization that a species is unique among other life-forms and that continuing to kill it for specimens, “style”, “sport”, or just an adrenaline thrill could eliminate it forever became an intolerable revelation.  The blood would be on the hands of an audacious mankind, and it was unthinkable.  Something had to be done.  Unfortunately for the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen, help came too late.

SOURCES

Greenburg, Joel.  2014.  A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.  Bloomsbury Publishing.  New York. 

Libhart, John J.  1844.  “Birds of Lancaster County”.  I. Daniel Rupp’s History of Lancaster County.  Gilbert Hills.  Lancaster, PA.

Libhart, John J.  1869.  “Ornithology”.  J. I. Mombert’s An Authentic History of Lancaster County.  J. E. Barr and Company.  Lancaster, PA.

McKinley, Daniel.  1979.  “History of the Carolina Parakeet in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia”.  Maryland Birdlife.  35(1):1-10.

Palkovacs, Eric P.; Oppenheimer, Adam J.; Gladyshev, Eugene; Toepfer, John E.; Amato, George; Chase, Thomas; Caccone, Adalgesia.  2004.  “Genetic Evaluation of a Proposed Introduction: The Case of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Extinct Heath Hen”.  Molecular Ecology.  13(7):1759-1769.

Rathvon, S. S.  1866.  An Essay on the Origin of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County, Its Objects and Progress.  Pearsol and Geist.  Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Wheeler, Alfred G., Jr. and Miller, Gary L.  2006.  “Simon Snyder Rathvon: Popularizer of Agricultural Entomology in Mid-19th Century America”.  American Entomologist.  52(1):36-47.

Winpenny, Thomas R.  1990.  “The Triumphs and Anguish of a Self-Made Man: 19th Century Naturalist S. S. Rathvon”.  Pennsylvania History.  57(2):136-149.

Migrating North?

CLICK ON THE LOGO FOR TODAY’S MIGRATION COUNT TOTALS

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.

Ring-billed Gulls fly upriver through the Pothole Rocks at Conewago Falls.
Herring Gulls stream upriver through Conewago Falls on their way to fine dining.

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.

A distant gathering of Bald Eagles at the south end of Three Mile Island in upper Conewago Falls.

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.

A Ring-billed Gull begins feeding as storm clouds approach Conewago Falls at mid-day.  This and other gull species travel widely in their winter range to find food and safe roosting sites.  For them, northward spring migration usually begins no earlier than late February.

The Wall

It was one of the very first of my memories.  From the lawn of our home I could look across the road and down the hill through a gap in the woodlands.  There I could see water, sometimes still with numerous boulders exposed, other times rushing, muddy, and roaring.  Behind these waters was a great stone wall and beyond that a wooded hillside.  I recall my dad asking me if I could see the dam down there.  I couldn’t see a dam, just fascinating water and the gray wall behind it.  I looked and searched but not a trace of a structure spanning the near to far shore was to be seen.  Finally, at some point, I answered in the affirmative to his query; I could see the dam…but I couldn’t.

We lived in a small house in the village of Falmouth along the Susquehanna River in the northwest corner of Lancaster County over fifty years ago.  A few years after we had left our riverside domicile and moved to a larger town, the little house was relocated to make way for an electric distribution sub-station and a second set of electric transmission wires in the gap in the woodlands.  The Brunner Island coal-fired electric generating station was being upgraded downstream and, just upstream, a new nuclear-powered generating station was being constructed on Three Mile Island.  To make way for the expanding energy grid, our former residence was trucked to a nearby boat landing where there were numerous other river shacks and cabins.  Because it was placed in the floodplain, the building was raised onto a set of wooden stilts to escape high water.  It didn’t help.  The recording-breaking floods of Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972 swept the house away.

The view through the cut in the woodland, a little wider than in the early 1960s with the addition of the newer electric transmission wire towers. The “Wall” is the same.

During the time we lived along the Susquehanna, the river experienced record-low flow rates, particularly in the autumn of 1963 and again in 1964.  My dad was a dedicated 8mm home-movie photographer.  Among his reels was film of buses parked haphazardly along the road (PA Route 441 today) near our home.  Sightseers were coming to explore the widely publicized dry riverbed and a curious moon-like landscape of cratered rocks and boulders.  It’s hard to fathom, but people did things like that during their weekends before football was invented.  Scores of visitors climbed through the rocks and truck-size boulders inspecting this peculiar scene.  My dad, his friends, and so many others with camera in hand were experiencing the amazing geological feature known as the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls.

Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River and several exposed York Haven Diabase Pothole Rocks.  Lancaster (foreground) and Dauphin (center) Counties meet along a southwest to northeast borderline through the rapids.  Lands on the west shoreline in the background are in York County.  Three Mile Island is seen in the upper right.

The river here meets serious resistance as it pushes its way through the complex geology of south-central Pennsylvania.  These hard dark-gray rocks, York Haven Diabase, are igneous in origin.  Diabase sheets and sills intruded the Triassic sediments of the Gettysburg Formation here over 190 million years ago.  It may be difficult to visualize, but these sediments were eroded from surrounding mountains into the opening rift valley we call the Gettysburg Basin.  This rift and others in a line from Nova Scotia to Georgia formed as the supercontinent Pangaea began dividing into the continents we know today.  Eventually the Atlantic Ocean rift would dominate as the active dynamic force and open to separate Africa from North America.  The inactive Gettysburg Basin, filled with sediments and intruded by igneous diabase, would henceforth, like the mountainous highlands surrounding it, be subjected to millions of years of erosion.  Of the regional rocks, the formations of Triassic redbeds, sandstones, and particularly diabase in the Gettysburg Basin are among the more resistant to the forces of erosion.  Many less resistant older rocks, particularly those of surrounding mountains, are gone.  Today, the remains of the Gettysburg Basin’s rock formations stand as rolling highlands in the Piedmont Province.

Flooded from the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Lee, the sediment-laden Susquehanna River flows through the Gettysburg Basin just south of Harrisburg, PA, September 10, 2011.  The “Wall” as seen from space.  (NASA Earth Observatory Image)

The weekend visitors in 1963 and 1964 marveled at evidence of the river’s fight to break down the hard York Haven Diabase.   Scoured bedrock traced the water’s turbulent flow patterns through the topography of the falls.  Meltwater from the receding glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Ages thousands to tens of thousands of years ago raged in high volume abrasive-loaded torrents to sculpt the Pothole Rocks into the forms we see today.  Our modern floodwaters with ice and fine suspended sediments continue to wear at the smooth rocks and boulders, yet few are broken or crumbled to be swept away.  It’s a very slow process.  The river elevation here drops approximately 19 feet in a quarter of a mile, a testament to the bedrock’s persisting resistance to erosion.  Conewago Falls stands as a natural anomaly on a predominantly uniform gradient along the lower Susquehanna’s downhill path from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.

The scene of dangerous tumbling rapids during high flows, the drought and low water of 1963 and 1964 had left the falls to resemble a placid scene; a moonscape during a time when people were obsessed with mankind’s effort to visit earth’s satellite.  Visitors saw the falls as few others had during the twentieth century.  Much of it was due to the presence of the wall.  I had to be a bit older than four years old to grasp it.  You see the wall and the dam are one and the same.  The wall is the York Haven Dam.

The initial segment, a crib dam constructed in 1885 by the York Haven Paper Company to supply water power to their mill, took advantage of the geomorphic features of the diabase bedrock of Conewago Falls to divert additional river flow into the abandoned Conewago Canal.  The former canal, opened in 1797 to allow passage around the rapids along the west shore, was being used as a headrace to channel water into the grinding mill’s turbines.  Strategic placement of this first wall directed as much water as possible toward the mill with the smallest dam practicable.  The York Haven Power Company incorporated the paper mill’s crib dam into the “run-of-the-river” dam built through the falls from the electric turbine powerhouse they constructed on the west shore to the southern portion of Three Mile Island more than a mile away.   The facility began electric generation in 1904.  The construction of the “Red Hill Dam” from the east shore of Three Mile Island to the river’s east shore made York Haven Dam a complete impoundment on the Susquehanna.  The pool, “Lake Frederic”, thus floods that portion of the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls located behind the dam.   On the downstream side, water spilling over or through the dam often inundates the rocks or renders them inaccessible.

During the droughts of the early 1960s, diversion of nearly all river flow to the York Haven Dam powerhouse cleared the way for weekend explorers to see the Pothole Rocks in detail.  Void of water, the intriguing bedrock of Conewago Falls below the dam greeted the curious with its ripples, cavities, and oddity.  It was an opportunity nature alone would not provide.  It was all because of the wall.

York Haven Dam and powerhouse. The “Wall” traverses Conewago Falls upstream to Three Mile Island to direct water to the powerhouse on the west shore of the Susquehanna River.

SOURCES

Smith, Stephen H.  2015.  #6 York Haven Paper Company; on the Site of One of the Earliest Canals in America.  York Past website www.yorkblog.com/yorkpast/2015/02/17/6-york-haven-paper-company-on-the-site-of-one-of-the-earliest-canals-in-america/  as accessed July 17, 2017.

Stranahan, Susan Q.  1993.  Susquehanna, River of Dreams.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.

Van Diver, Bradford B.  1990.  Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania.  Mountain Press Publishing Company.  Missoula, Montana.