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.
It’s that time—Snow Goose numbers are peaking at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties.
There was a hint of what was to come. If you were out and about before dawn this morning, you may have been lucky enough to hear them passing by high overhead. It was 5:30 A.M. when I opened the door and was greeted by that distinctive nasal whistle. Stepping through the threshold and into the cold, I peered into the starry sky and saw them, their feathers glowing orange in the diffused light from the streets and parking lots below. Their size and snow-white plumage make Tundra Swans one of the few species of migrating birds you’ll ever get to visibly discern in a dark moonless nighttime sky.
The calm air at daybreak and through the morning transitioned to a steady breeze from the south in the afternoon. Could this be it? Would this be that one day in late February or the first half of March each year when waterfowl (and other birds too) seem to take advantage of the favorable wind to initiate an “exodus” and move in conspicuous numbers up the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to breeding grounds in the north? Well, indeed it would be. And with the wind speeding up the parade, an observer at a fixed point on the ground gets to see more birds fly by.
In the late afternoon, an observation location in the Gettysburg Basin about five miles east of Conewago Falls in Lancaster County seemed to be well-aligned with a northwesterly flight path for migrating Tundra Swans. At about 5:30 P.M., the clear sky began clouding over, possibly pushing high-flying birds more readily into view. During the next several hours, over three thousand Tundra Swans passed overhead, flocks continuing to pass for a short time after nightfall. There were more than one thousand Canada Geese, the most numerous species on similar days in previous years. Sometimes on such a day there are numerous ducks. Not today. The timing, location, and conditions put Tundra Swans in the spotlight for this year’s show.
Other migrants moving concurrently with the waterfowl included Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls (6+), American Robins (50+), Red-winged Blackbirds (500+), and Common Grackles (100+).
Though I’ve only seen such a spectacle only once during a season in recent years, there certainly could be another large flight of ducks, geese, or swans yet to come. The breeze is forecast to continue from southerly directions for at least another day. Keep you eyes skyward, no matter where you might happen to be in the lower Susquehanna valley. These or other migratory species may put on another show, a “big day”, just for you.
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.
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.
-Simon S. Rathvon
In the cellar of the North Museum on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is an assemblage of natural history specimens of great antiquity. The core of the collection has its origins in the endeavors of a group of mid-to-late nineteenth-century naturalists whose diligence provided a most thorough study of the plants and animals found within what was at the time America’s most productive farming county.
The members of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County shared a passion for collecting, identifying, classifying, and documenting the flora and fauna of the region. Some members were formally educated and earned a living in the field of science, but the majority were in the process of self-education and balanced their natural history occupation with an unrelated means to provide financially for their families. The latter benefited greatly from their associations with the former, gaining expertise and knowledge while participating in the functions of the group.
On February 24, 1866, Simon S. Rathvon, the society’s Treasurer, read an essay in commemoration of the group’s fourth anniversary. Rathvon earned a living as a tailor, first in Marietta, a thriving river town at the time, then in Lancaster City. In 1840, Rathvon was elected into the Marietta Natural History Lyceum where, as a collections curator, he became associated with principals Judge John J. Libhart, an amateur ornithologist, and Samuel S. Haldeman, a geologist and soon to be widely-known malacologist. Haldeman, in 1842, upon noticing the new member’s interest in beetles and other insects, provided books, guidance, and inspiration, thus intensifying Rathvon’s study of entomology. Rathvon’s steadfast dedication eventually led to his numerous achievements in the field which included the publication of over 30 papers, many on the topic of agricultural entomology. Rathvon’s scientific understanding of insect identification and taxonomy was a foundation for his practical entomology, which moved beyond mere insect collection to focus upon the study of the life histories of insects, particularly the good and bad things they do. He then applied that knowledge to help growers solve pest problems, often stressing the value of beneficial species for maintaining a balance in nature. From 1869 through 1884, Rathvon edited and published Lancaster Farmer, a monthly (quarterly from 1874) agricultural journal in which he educated patrons with his articles on “economic entomology”. Rathvon continued earning a living in the tailor business, seemingly frustrated that his financially prudent advice on insect control in Lancaster Farmer failed to entice more would-be readers to part with the one dollar annual subscription fee. For many years, Rathvon crafted articles for local newspapers and wrote reports for the United States Department of Agriculture. In recognition of his achievements, Simon Rathvon received an honorary Ph.D. from Franklin and Marshall College in 1878.
In Rathvon’s anniversary essay, he details the origins of the Linnaean Society as a natural science committee within the “Lancaster Historical, Mechanical, and Horticultural Society” founded in 1853. The members of the committee, not finding sufficient support within the parent organization for their desired mission, “the cultivation and investigation of the natural history of Lancaster County…”, sought to form an independent natural history society. In February of 1862, the “Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County” was founded to fulfill these ambitions.
Above all else, the written works by the members of the Linnaean Society and their predecessors have provided us with detailed accounts of the plants and animals found in Lancaster County, and in the lower Susquehanna River valley, using scientific binomial nomenclature, a genus and species name, as opposed to the variable folk and common names which, when used exclusively, often confuse or mislead readers. Consider the number of common names a species could have if just one was assigned by each of the languages of the world. Binomial nomenclature assigns one designation, a genus name and species name, in Latin, to each life-form (such as Homo sapiens for Humans), and it is adopted universally.
Rathvon would say of the naming of the Linnaean Society:
“…the name which the Society has adopted is in honorable commemoration of LINNAEUS, the great Swedish naturalist—one who may be justly regarded as a father in Natural Science. To him belongs the honor of having first promulgated the “binomial system of nomenclature,” a system that has done more to simplify the study of natural science than any light that has been brought to the subject by any man in any age.”
Carl Linnaeus lived from 1707 to 1778, and published his first edition of Systema Naturae in 1735.
The names of a number of the members and corresponding members on the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County’s rolls remain familiar. John P. McCaskey (educator) served as Corresponding Secretary. Doctor Abram P. Garber was a prominent Lancaster botanist and society member. Professor Samuel S. Haldeman (naturalist, geologist, and philologist), Professor J. L. LeConte (entomologist), Judge John J. Libhart, Professor Asa Gray (botanist), and the foremost legal egalitarian in the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, were listed among the roster of corresponding members.
By the end of its fourth year, Rathvon enumerated the specimens in the collections of the society to exceed 32,000. These included all the species of mosses and plants known in the county, 200 bird specimens, an enormous insect collection with nearly 12,000 Coleoptera (Beetles), and more than 1,400 mollusk shells. The work of the society had already provided a thorough baseline of the flora and fauna of the lower Susquehanna River valley and Lancaster County.
Rathvon would continue as Treasurer and primary curator through the group’s first twenty-five years, their most active. By 1887, their library contained over 1,000 volumes, they possessed over 40,000 specimens, and more than 600 scientific papers had been read at their meetings.
Many of the society’s specimens were moved to the custody of Franklin and Marshall College following the group’s dissolution. In 1953, the collection found a home on the F&M campus at the newly constructed North Museum, named for benefactor Hugh M. North, where many of the specimens, particularly the birds, are on prominent display.
Among the mounted specimens in the North Museum collection is a Heath Hen, once a numerous coastal plain bird which was also of limited abundance in the Piedmont Province areas of southeast Pennsylvania prior to its rapid decline during the first half of the nineteenth century. In southern Lancaster County, the burned grasslands of the serpentine barrens in Fulton Township may have provided suitable Heath Hen habitat prior to the bird’s demise. Curiously, Judge John J. Libhart did not note the Heath Hen in his enumeration of the birds of Lancaster County in either 1844 or 1869, indicating it was seriously imperiled or may have already been extirpated.
The Heath Hen was extirpated from its entire Atlantic Coastal Plain mainland range by the mid-1860s. The last remaining population was restricted to Martha’s Vineyard where, for the first time, a conservation effort was initiated to try to save a species. After some promising rebounds, the Heath Hen’s recovery failed for a variety of reasons including: the population’s isolation on an island, severe winter storms, feral cat predation, and a flawed understanding of methods for conducting mosaic burns to maintain the bird’s scrub habitat and prevent large catastrophic fires. A large fire in 1906 reduced the island population to just 80 birds, then there was a strong rebound to an estimated 2,000 birds (800 counted) by April, 1916. One month later, a fire burned twenty percent of Martha’s Vineyard, striking while females were on the nest, and leaving mostly males as survivors. A downward spiral in numbers followed for another decade. Finally, from 1929 until his death in 1932, “Booming Ben”, the last Heath Hen, searched the island every spring for a mate that wasn’t there.
Based on life history and the morphology of specimens, the Heath Hen has long been considered to be a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), a bird of the tallgrass prairies. However, for more than a decade now, modern DNA analysis has kept taxonomists busy reclassifying and reworking the “tree of life”. For certain species, genetic discoveries often disqualify the long-trusted practice of determining a binomial name based on the visual appearance of specimens. Molecular study is making Linnaean classification more scientific, and is gradually untangling a web of names that man has been weaving for 200 years, often with scant evidence, in an effort to better understand the world around him. In the case of the Heath Hen, DNA research has thus far failed to conclusively determine its relationship to other species of prairie chickens. The lack of a sufficient pool of genetic material, particularly from mainland Heath Hens, reduces the ability of researchers to draw conclusions on this group of birds. There remains the possibility that the Heath Hen was genetically distinct from the Greater Prairie Chickens of the mid-western United States. This would be bad news for organizations studying the possibility of introducing the latter into the former’s historic range as a restoration program.
The last Carolina Parakeet (the only parrot species native to the eastern United States) died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918, one hundred years ago this past week. It was a species inhabiting primarily the lowland forests of the southeastern United States
In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart wrote of the species in 1869, “…Carolina Parrot, Accidental; a flock seen near Manheim by Mr. G. W. Hensel.” Libhart did not mention the species in his earlier ornithological writings (1844). Therefore, the Hensel sighting probably occurred sometime between 1844 and 1869. The fate of a specimen reported to have been collected in the town of Willow Street sometime during the nineteenth century is unknown, the written details lack the date of its origin and other particulars that may clarify the authenticity of the sighting.
McKinley (1979) researched numerous historical sight records of Carolina Parakeets, but found no specimen from Lancaster County, or from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the District of Columbia, or Maryland to substantiate any of the reports in the Mid-Atlantic states. In the days prior to high-speed photography, verification and documentation of the presence of an animal species relied on what seems today to be a brutal and excessive method of nature study, killing. Lacking a specimen, the historical status of Carolina Parakeets in Pennsylvania, an area often considered to be within the bird’s former range, may be considered by many authorities to be hypothetical.
The Passenger Pigeon, too, has been extinct for more than a century. In Lancaster County, Judge John J. Libhart listed the Passenger Pigeon by the common name “Wild Pigeon” and wrote of the species in 1869, “Migratory; spring and autumn; feeds on grain, oak and beach, mostly on berries; stragglers sometimes remain and breed in the county.” There are numerous accounts of their precipitous decline both locally and throughout their former range, each illustrating the tragic loss of another portion of the North American natural legacy.
Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. Ironically, the last Carolina Parakeet would die in the same enclosure just three-and-one-half years later. In the wild, the final three records of Passenger Pigeons were all of birds that were shot for taxidermy mounts in 1900, 1901, and 1902—an embarrassing human legacy.
By the early twentieth century, concerned citizens were beginning to realize the danger posed to many species of flora and fauna by man’s activities. In the eastern United States, the vast forests had been logged, the wetlands drained, and the streams and rivers dammed. Nearly all of the landscape had been altered in some way. Animals were harvested with little concern for the sustenance of their populations. Nearly unnoticed, the seemingly endless abundance and diversity of wildlife found in the early days of European colonization had dwindled critically.
The movement to conserve and protect threatened species from relentless persecution owes its start to the Linnaean taxonomists, the specimen collectors who gave uniformly recognizable names to nearly all of North America’s plants and animals. Significant too were John James Audubon and many others who used specimens as models to create accurate artwork which allowed scientists and citizens alike to learn to identify and name the living things they were seeing and, as time went by, not seeing.
Binomial nomenclature enabled the new conservationists to communicate accurately, reducing misunderstandings resulting from the use of many different names for one species or a shared name for multiple species. Discussions on the status of Columba migratorius (the binomial name for Passenger Pigeon in the nineteenth century) could occur without using the confusing local names for the Passenger Pigeon such as Wood Pigeon or, here in Pennsylvania, Wild Pigeon, a term which could describe any number of free-ranging pigeon or dove species. A binomial name, genus and species, makes the identity of a particular plant or animal, for lack of a more fitting term, specific.
Appreciation for the work completed by taxonomists who killed thousands of animals so each could be classified and assigned a name particular to its lineage is what finally motivated some to seek a cessation of the unchecked catastrophic killing of living things. It’s the paradox of late nineteenth-century conservation. The combined realization that a species is unique among other life-forms and that continuing to kill it for specimens, “style”, “sport”, or just an adrenaline thrill could eliminate it forever became an intolerable revelation. The blood would be on the hands of an audacious mankind, and it was unthinkable. Something had to be done. Unfortunately for the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen, help came too late.
Greenburg, Joel. 2014. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury Publishing. New York.
Libhart, John J. 1844. “Birds of Lancaster County”. I. Daniel Rupp’s History of Lancaster County. Gilbert Hills. Lancaster, PA.
Libhart, John J. 1869. “Ornithology”. J. I. Mombert’s An Authentic History of Lancaster County. J. E. Barr and Company. Lancaster, PA.
McKinley, Daniel. 1979. “History of the Carolina Parakeet in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia”. Maryland Birdlife. 35(1):1-10.
Palkovacs, Eric P.; Oppenheimer, Adam J.; Gladyshev, Eugene; Toepfer, John E.; Amato, George; Chase, Thomas; Caccone, Adalgesia. 2004. “Genetic Evaluation of a Proposed Introduction: The Case of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Extinct Heath Hen”. Molecular Ecology. 13(7):1759-1769.
Rathvon, S. S. 1866. An Essay on the Origin of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster City and County, Its Objects and Progress. Pearsol and Geist. Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Wheeler, Alfred G., Jr. and Miller, Gary L. 2006. “Simon Snyder Rathvon: Popularizer of Agricultural Entomology in Mid-19th Century America”. American Entomologist. 52(1):36-47.
Winpenny, Thomas R. 1990. “The Triumphs and Anguish of a Self-Made Man: 19th Century Naturalist S. S. Rathvon”. Pennsylvania History. 57(2):136-149.
A steady stream of birds was on the move this morning over Conewago Falls. There were hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, scores of Herring Gulls, and a few Great Black-backed Gulls to dominate the flight. Then too there were thirteen Mallards, Turkey Vultures and a Black Vulture, twenty or more American Robins, a half a dozen Bald Eagles (juvenile and immature birds), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, and, perhaps most unusual of all, a flock of a dozen Scoters (Melanitta species), a waterfowl typical of the Mid-Atlantic surf in winter. All of these birds were diligently following the river, and into a headwind no less.
“Hold on just a minute there, buster,” you may say, “I’ve looked at the migration count by dutifully clicking on the logo above and there is nothing but zeroes on the count sheet for today. The season totals have not changed since the previous count day!”
Ah-ha, my dedicated friend, correct you are. It seems that today’s bird flight was solely in one direction. And that direction was upriver, moving north into a north breeze, on a heading which conflicts with all logic for creatures that should still be headed south for winter. As a result, none of the birds observed today were counted on the “Autumn Migration Count”.
You might say, “Don’t you know that Winter Solstice was three days ago, so autumn and autumn migration is over.”
Okay, point well taken. I should therefore clarify that what we title as “Autumn Migration Count” is more accurately a census of birds, insects, and other creatures transiting from northerly latitudes to more favorable latitudes to the south for winter. This transit can begin as early as late June and extend into the first weeks of winter. While most of this movement is motivated by the reduced hours of daylight during the period, late season migrants are often responding to ice, bad weather, or lack of food to prompt a journey further south. Migration south in late December and January occurs even while the amount of daylight is increasing slightly in the days following the Winter Solstice.
So what of the birds seen flying north today? There was some snow cover that has melted away, and the ice that formed on the river a week ago is gone due to the milder than normal temperatures this week.
One may ask, “Were the birds seen today migrating north?”
Let’s look at the species seen moving upriver today a try to determine their motivation.
First, and perhaps most straight-forward, is the huge flight of gulls. Wintering gulls on the Susquehanna River near Conewago Falls tend to spend their nights in flocks on the water or on treeless islands and rocky outcrops in the river. Many hundreds, sometimes thousands, find such favorable sites along the fifteen mile stretch of river from Conewago Falls downstream to Lake Clarke and the Conejohela Flats at Washington Boro. Each morning most of these gulls venture out to suburbia, farmland, landfill, hydroelectric dams, and other sections of river in search of food. Gulls are very able fliers and easily cover dozens of miles outbound and inbound each day in search of food. Many of the gulls seen this morning were probably on their way to the Harrisburg metropolitan area to eat trash. Barring any extraordinary buildups of ice on this section of river, one would expect these gulls to remain and make these daily excursions to food sources through early spring.
Second, throughout the season Bald Eagles have been tallied on the migration count with caution. Flight altitude, behavior, plumage, and the reaction of the “local” eagles to these transients was carefully considered before counting an eagle as a migrant. They roam a lot, particularly when young, and range widely to feed. The movement of eagles up the river today was probably food related. A gathering of adult, juvenile, and immature Bald Eagles could be seen more than a half mile upstream from the migration count lookout. Those moving up the river seemed to assemble with the “locals” there throughout the morning. White-tailed Deities occasionally drown, particularly when there is thin or unstable ice on the river (as there was last week) and they attempt to tread upon it. Then, their bodies are often stranded among rocks, in trees, or on the crown of the dam. After such a mishap, their carcasses become meals for carrion-eaters in the falls. Such an unfortunate deity, or another source of food, may have been attracting the eagles in numbers today.
Next, Black and Turkey Vultures often roam widely in search of food. The small numbers seen headed up-river today would tend to mean very little when trying to determine if there is a trend or population shift. Again, food may have been luring them upriver from nearby roosts.
And finally, the scoters, Mallards, American Robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds may have been wandering as well. Toward mid-day, the wind speed picked up and the direction changed to the east. This raises the possibility that these and others of the birds seen today may sense a change in weather, and may seek to take flight from the inclement conditions. Prompted by the ocean breeze and in an attempt to avoid a storm, was there some movement away from the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the upper Piedmont today? Many species may make these types of reactive movements. Is it possible that some birds flee or avoid ever-changing storm tracks and alter there wintering locations based on jet streams, water currents, and other climatic conditions? Probably. These are interesting dynamics and something worthy of study outside the simpler methods of a migration count.