Berries and More on a Bitter Cold Morning

The annual arrival of hoards of American Robins to devour the fruits found on the various berry-producing shrubs and trees in the garden at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters happened to coincide with this morning’s bitter cold temperatures.  Here are photos of some of those hungry robins—plus shots of the handful of other songbirds that joined them for a frosty feeding frenzy.

American Robins consuming Common Winterberry fruits.
American Robins consuming Common Winterberry fruits.
American Robin
One of between one hundred and two hundred American Robins seen feeding on berries at susquehannawildife.net headquarters this morning.
Dark-eyed junco
A Dark-eyed Junco searching the ground for seeds.
American Robin in a "Hollywood Juniper".
An American Robin in the boughs of a “Hollywood Juniper”, a cultivar of the Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’, also known as J. c. ‘Kaizuka’).
A Carolina Wren on the peanut feeder.
A Carolina Wren on the peanut feeder.
American Robin
An American Robin searching for fallen berries beneath a holly.
A female Eastern Bluebird.
A female Eastern Bluebird.
American Robin
An American Robin takes a break from the buffet.
A Carolina Chickadee preparing to pluck a sunflower seed from a tube feeder.
A Carolina Chickadee preparing to pluck a sunflower seed from a tube feeder.
American Robins feeding on "Hollywood Juniper" berries.
American Robins feeding on “Hollywood Juniper” berries.
Red-breasted Nuthatch
One of two Red-breasted Nuthatches spending the week at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.
Eastern Bluebird. American Robin, and Tufted Titmouse.
A male Eastern Bluebird among the crowd in the garden’s trees.
American Robin and Common Winterberry, a native deciduous holly.
An American Robin and Common Winterberry, a native deciduous holly.
A Carolina Wren investigates a tree cavity, a potential nest site.
A Carolina Wren investigates a tree cavity, a potential nest site in coming weeks.

Photo of the Day

American Robin
We don’t have a resident groundhog at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, but the arrival of an American Robin to begin cleaning the abundance of berries from our holly trees and shrubs gives us the idea that spring is just around the corner.  We could hardly be happier.

Photo of the Day

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Snow days are often good days to keep an eye on the bird feeders for something unusual.  Today was no exception.  Two Red-breasted Nuthatches including this one were attracted to a tube full of peanuts and to the abundance of cones on the Eastern Hemlocks at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  During autumn migration, Red-breasted Nuthatches can be somewhat common in our region but they rarely stick around, preferring instead to spend the winter in southern pine forests.

Photo of the Day

Northern Mockingbird
From a lookout atop an Eastern Hemlock, a Northern Mockingbird maintains a vigil over a garden full of berry-producing plants. To assure their survival during cold weather, these bold birds will vigorously defend winter food supplies on hollies, viburnums, poison-ivy, bittersweet, and other fruit-producing trees, shrubs, and vines, often swooping in to startle and flush birds and other animals that approach its stores too closely.

Black-capped Chickadee Invasion

Our cute lovable chickadees are resident birds, remaining in the same general area throughout the year, often throughout their lives.  In the Mid-Atlantic States, there are two species.  The tiny Carolina Chickadee is at the northern limit of its geographic range in the Piedmont Province of southcentral Pennsylvania.  The slightly larger Black-capped Chickadee is a year-round resident mostly to the north of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Within the Susquehanna basin, an intergrade zone of the two species occurs in the mountains and bottomlands of the southern portion of the Ridge and Valley Province just to the north of the Pennsylvania cities of Carlisle, Harrisburg, and Lebanon.  The range of the Carolina Chickadee, as well as the hybrid zone, has gradually crept north during the last fifty years—as much as twenty or thirty miles—while the range of the pure-bred Black-capped Chickadee has simultaneously withdrawn almost entirely from the lower Susquehanna, particularly in the valleys.

Every few years, presumably when their numbers are too great for the sustenance available from the wild food crop in their home range, Black-capped Chickadees invade the more southerly range of both Carolina Chickadees and the hybrids in the intergrade zone.  This appears to be one of those years.  Black-capped Chickadees are working their way south and showing up at feeding stations stocked with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and/or peanuts—sometimes in flocks numbering five to ten birds or more.

Let’s take a closer look at the two species…

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the Carolina Chickadee is the resident species from the Great Valley (Cumberland/Lebanon Valley) south into Maryland.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed from the Great Valley (Cumberland/Lebanon Valley) south into Maryland, the Carolina Chickadee is the resident species of “tit”.
The Black-capped Chickadee is slightly larger than the Carolina Chickadee.
The Black-capped Chickadee, usually a resident of highlands to the north of the lower Susquehanna valley, is slightly larger than the Carolina Chickadee. The most conspicuous difference is the extensive amount of white in the “black-cap’s” wings, both on the edges of the flight feathers and on the set of coverts at the “shoulder”.  Black-capped Chickadees often appear longer tailed and bigger headed than Carolina Chickadees and the edge of the black bib is often more ragged.  The buffy wash on the flanks is usually more noticeable on the Black-capped Chickadee than on a Carolina.  Hybrids from the intergrade zone, having a varying blend of characteristics, are more difficult to identify.

Not only is now a good time to carefully check the chickadees you see, but it’s an opportune time to watch for other invaders from the north, specifically the “winter fiches” including Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra), and White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera).  During recent weeks, each of these species has been reported by observers at hawk-counting stations on local ridgetops, an indication that they too are experiencing inadequate food resources in their home ranges.

So, as winter approaches, you’ll want to keep an eye on those feeders—and don’t forget to keep an ear on the pines and hemlocks.  The rewards could be many!

White-winged Crossbills during an invasion of the lower Susquehanna region in February 2009. 
White-winged Crossbills during an invasion of the lower Susquehanna region in February 2009.  Previously unnoticed in the shade, the sounds of their bills crunching the cones led to the discovery of this female (left) and male (right) among a small flock of six crossbills found feeding on Eastern Hemlock seeds at ground level.

Photo of the Day

Yellow-rumped Warbler
By November, as insects become more difficult to come by, migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are seldom found far from a supply of berries.  This one was in the vicinity of the white fruits of Poison Ivy vines.

Red Maples

Red Maple
Many cultivars of ornamental maples for the home garden are derived from this native species, and it’s easy to see why.  Despite the variation in the foliage of each, every tree in this view is a Red Maple (Acer rubrum).
Red Maple Leaves
The Red Maple is the most common and widespread tree in all of eastern North America.  It is easily recognized by its three-lobed leaves.  Not only do the fall foliage colors vary among a population of trees, but some individual specimens have a well-stocked palette of their own.  This collection came from a single Red Maple.  Visit a forested area today and check them out!

Photo of the Day

Northern Walkingstick
The harmless, herbivorous Northern Walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata), also known as the Common Walkingstick, is well camouflaged when among the twigs and stems of deciduous trees.  As foliage drops in autumn, these wingless insects often descend to ground level and sometimes venture into view.  This individual was found in the vicinity of ideal habitat: a portion of forest including Black Cherry and Black Oak (Quercus velutina) trees.  Juvenile Northern Walkingsticks feed on the leaves of the former, adults on those of the latter.

Select Your Berry-producing Plants Now

You probably know that fall is an excellent time for planting.  Roots continue to grow in the warm soil even after the air becomes cool and leaves change color, setting the stage for your new trees and shrubs to sport splendid foliage and flowers in spring.

But did you know that autumn can be the best time to visit your local nursery/garden center to select the native trees and shrubs that produce berries for attracting and feeding overwintering birds and other wildlife?  Here are three of our favorites.  Each is looking its best from now through at least the first half of winter.

American Holly
American Holly is a favorite small evergreen tree for winter beauty in the landscape.  The showy red berries are produced only on female plants, so you’ll need to select at least one of each gender to grow fruit.  They do best in acidic soils, responding well to a mulching of plenty of dead leaves each fall.
American Robins Feeding on American Holly
American Robins eating American Holly berries in February.
Common Winterberry
Common Winterberry is a slow-growing deciduous shrub and a member of the holly family; you’ll need both a male and a female plant to get a crop of berries.  It just so happens that fall is the best time to visit the nursery for selecting a female that’s a good fruit producer.  Winterberry is at its best under full sun in moist, acidic soils.  These plants are very happy to receive the water from your downspouts and a mulching from the leaves in your garden.
American Robin Feeding on Common Winterberry
An American Robin feeds on Common Winterberry on a snowy February evening.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a low-growing arching deciduous shrub of sunny locations in various well-drained soils.  It is a plant of the southern United States that, given current temperature trends, will thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, particularly on south-facing slopes.  And yes, it does well in mass plantings on embankments.
American Beautyberry
The fruits of American Beautyberry may be the most colorful of any native species.

There’s still time to get the shovel dirty, so visit your local native plant dealer this week and invest in some fruit-producing trees and shrubs.  Fall is also a good time to plant pines, spruces, and hemlocks.  Who knows, you might just get a good end-of-season deal.

White Pines, Norway Spruces, and Eastern Red Cedar
When planted in mixed clumps, conifers like these White Pines, Norway Spruces, and Eastern Red Cedar provide excellent winter food and cover for birds and other wildlife.

Photo of the Day

Monarch
After somehow finding refuge from freezing temperatures during recent nights, Monarch butterflies were on the move in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this afternoon. This one was photographed taking a break to recharge on nectar from flowering Frost Aster, also known as Heath Aster.

Photo of the Day

Hermit Thrushes
Earlier today, these migrants were found feeding on berries along the edge of a forest clearing in northern Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  Can you find the three Hermit Thrushes among the early successional growth seen here?   For extra credit, identify the three species of berry-producing pioneer plants that are shown.  For additional credit, which one of these plants is a non-native invasive species?   Click the image to see how you did.

Photo of the Day

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar
During autumn, fuzzy caterpillars crossing roads and trails are a familiar sight throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  In oak-hickory forests you may encounter the stunningly beautiful Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) caterpillar, but don’t touch it; the spine-like bristles are mildly venomous.  Some people react with skin irritation and rashes after contact.  This native species rarely defoliates its host trees.  When it does, it’s usually just weeks before the deciduous leaves would fall, so the overall health of the plant is little affected.  To balance the population, there are numerous avian and terrestrial predators that feed upon both the larval and adult stages of the Hickory Tussock Moth.

Photo of the Day

Butterflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Horace's Duskywing
A small butterfly with flights extending into October, the Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) is an easily overlooked inhabitant of forest clearings in the vicinity of oaks, particularly Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), a favorite larval foodplant.

Photo of the Day

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Having arrived yesterday during a break in the storm, this Ruby-throated Hummingbird spent a rain soaked fourth of October feeding on nectar among the abundant blooms covering the Mexican Cigar plants at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  When the remains of Hurricane Ian finally depart the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, it’ll resume its flight to the tropics for the winter.  And yes, October is late for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in our region.  Throughout autumn, each passing day increases the likelihood of a hummingbird found here being one of the hardy species from western North America, so look carefully at any you see this fall.

Photo of the Day

Purple Finch feeding on Green Ash seeds.
It seems a bit early, but Purple Finches are indeed beginning to transit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed on their way south. This one is feeding on the abundance of seeds produced by a Green Ash that has, at least thus far, survived the Emerald Ash Borer invasion.

Photo of the Day

Scarlet Tanager in a Pin Oak
Following a heavy nocturnal flight, an observer can often see Neotropical migrants in unusual places.  For arboreal species looking to rest and feed after a long night of flying, large native trees in almost any location can be attractive.  This Scarlet Tanager was found not in its typical habitat, a deciduous forest, but in an enormous Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) surrounded by manicured lawn.  

Photo of the Day

Vallisneria "Pearling" as it Produces Oxygen
Submersed aquatic plants in streams, lakes, ponds, bays, and estuaries do more than take up nutrients and provide habitat for fish and other organisms, they produce oxygen during photosynthesis.  Here we see tapegrass (Vallisneria) in bright sunlight releasing a visible string of oxygen bubbles, an emission known as “pearling”.  British chemist, theologian, and philosopher Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), who spent his final decade residing along the Susquehanna in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, isolated oxygen during experiments in 1774 by exposing mercuric oxide to direct sunlight.  During the following year, Priestly published his findings in “An Account of Further Discoveries in Air”, describing what he called “dephlogisticated air”, the gas later named oxygen.  To observe and record the effects of pure oxygen in the absence of atmospheric air, Priestly first tested it on a mouse, then breathed it himself.

Photo of the Day

Zabulon Skipper on Pickerelweed
A female Zabulon Skipper visits a cluster of Pickerelweed blossoms.  The Zabulon Skipper is a small butterfly of our streamsides, riversides, damp meadows, and other moist grassy spaces.  The Pickerelweed is an emergent plant of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.  Add it to your next project to improve water quality and help pollinators like the Zabulon Skipper.  You may even attract a hummingbird or two!   

Photo of the Day

Gray Catbird and Black Chokeberry
The fruits of a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) prove irresistible to this Gray Catbird.  Chokeberry is a native clump-forming shrub that reaches a height of less than ten feet.  It is tolerant of wet soils and makes a good choice for inclusion in plantings alongside streams and ponds, as well as in rain gardens.  Springtime clusters of white flowers yield berries by this time each summer.  By turning red as the fruits ripen, the foliage helps attract not only catbirds, but robins, waxwings, and other species that, in exchange for a meal, will assure dispersal of the plant’s seeds in their droppings.  With considerable sweetening, tart chokeberries can be used for juicing and the creation of jams, jellies, and preserves.

Shakedown Cruise of the S. S. Haldeman

First there was the Nautilus.  Then there was the Seaview.  And who can forget the Yellow Submarine?  Well, now there’s the S. S. Haldeman, and today we celebrated her shakedown cruise and maiden voyage.  The Haldeman is powered by spent fuel that first saw light of day near Conewago Falls at a dismantled site that presently amounts to nothing more than an electrical substation.  Though antique in appearance, the vessel discharges few emissions, provided there aren’t any burps or hiccups while underway.  So, climb aboard as we take a cruise up the Susquehanna at periscope depth to have a quick look around!

Brunner Island as seen from the east channel.
Close-in approach to emergent Water Willow growing on an alluvial Island.
The approach to York Haven Dam and Conewago Falls from the west channel.
A pair of Powdered Dancers on a midriver log.

Watertight and working fine.  Let’s flood the tanks and have a peek at the benthos.  Dive, all dive!

American Eelgrass, also known as Tapegrass, looks to be growing well in the channels.  Historically, vast mats of this plant were the primary food source for the thousands of Canvasback ducks that once visited the lower Susquehanna each autumn.
As is Water Stargrass (Heteranthera dubia).  When mature, both of these native plants provide excellent cover for young fish.  Note the abundance of shells from deceased Asiatic Clams (Corbicula fluminea) covering the substrate.
Mayfly nymph
A three-tailed mayfly (Ephemeroptera) nymph and a several exoskeletons cling to the downstream side of a rock.
Comb-lipped Casemaker Caddisfly larva and case.
This hollowed-out stick may be a portable protective shelter belonging to a Comb-lipped Casemaker Caddisfly larva (Calamoceratidae).  The larva itself appears to be extending from the end of the “case” in the upper right of the image.  Heteroplectron americanum, a species known for such behavior, is a possibility. 
Rusty Crayfish
In the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) is an introduced invasive species.  It has little difficulty displacing native species due to its size and aggressiveness.
Rusty Crayfish
A Rusty Crayfish.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Summers with conditions that promote eelgrass and stargrass growth tend to be big years for Virginian River Horn Snails (Elimia virginica).  2022 appears to be one of those years.  They’re abundant and they’re everywhere on the rocks and gravel substrate in midriver.  Feeding almost incessantly on algae and detritus, these snails are an essential component of the riverine ecosystem, breaking down organic matter for final decomposition by bacteria and fungi.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Bits of debris suspended in the flowing water streak by this Virginian River Horn Snail.  The spire-shaped shell is a streamlining adaptation for maneuvering and holding fast in the strong current.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
A young Virginian River Horn Snail following a mature adult.  Note the green algae growing among the decaying plant and animal remains that blanket the river bottom.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: Virginian River Horn Snail
Two of a population that may presently include millions of Virginian River Horn Snails living downstream of Conewago Falls.
Susquehanna Snails: Virginian River Horn Snails and Lesser Mystery Snails
Virginian River Horn Snails with Lesser Mystery Snails (Campeloma decisum), another native species commonly encountered at Conewago Falls and in surrounding waters.
Freshwater Snails Susquehanna: River Snail and Virginian River Horn Snail
A River Snail (Leptoxis carinata), also known as a Crested Mudalia, hitching a ride on a Virginian River Horn Snail.  The two species are frequently found together.
Mollusks of the Susquehanna: Yellow Lampmussel and River Snail
A River Snail cleaning the shell of a native freshwater Unionidae mussel, Lampsilis cariosa, commonly called the Yellow Lampmussel or Carried Lampmussel.  Because of their general decline in abundance and range, all Unionidae mussels are protected in Pennsylvania.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Banded Darter
The Banded Darter (Etheostoma zonale) is a member of the perch family (Percidae).
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Smallmouth Bass
A Smallmouth Bass in strong current.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Spotfin or Satinfin Shiners
Along the edge of an alluvial island at midriver, Cyprinella (Spotfin or Satinfin) Shiners gather in the cover of an emergent stand of Water Willow.  The closely related Spotfin Shiner (Cyprinella spiloptera) and Satinfin Shiner (Cyprinella analostanus) are nearly impossible to differentiate in the field.
Fishes of the Susquehanna: Spotfin or Satinfin Shiner
A breeding condition male Cyprinella (Spotfin or Satinfin) Shiner.
Fishes of the Susquehanna; Juvenile Channel Catfish
A juvenile Channel Catfish.

We’re finding that a sonar “pinger” isn’t very useful while running in shallow water.  Instead, we should consider bringing along a set of Pings—for the more than a dozen golf balls seen on the river bottom.  It appears they’ve been here for a while, having rolled in from the links upstream during the floods.  Interestingly, several aquatic species were making use of them.

River Snail cleaning a golf ball.
River Snail cleaning a golf ball.
Net-spinning Caddisfly (Hydropsychidae)
A golf ball used as an anchor point for silk cases woven by Net-spinning Caddisfly (Hydropsychidae) larvae to snare food from the water column.
Freshwater Snails (Gastropods) of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species)
A Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species), a tiny gastropod also known as a Coolie Hat Snail, River Limpet, or Brook Freshwater Limpet, inhabits the dimple on a “Top Flight”.
Freshwater Snails (Gastropods) of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Creeping Ancylid (Ferrissia species)
A closeup view of the Creeping Ancylid.  The shell sits atop the snail’s body like a helmet.
We now know why your golf balls always end up in the drink, it’s where they go to have their young.

Well, it looks like the skipper’s tired and grumpy, so that’s all for now.  Until next time, bon voyage!

Photo(s) of the Day

A tallgrass prairie wildflower and warm-season grass planting: Big Bluestem
This tallgrass prairie wildflower planting on a health campus in Hershey, Pennsylvania, enhances stormwater management and benefits butterflies and other wildlife.  Reducing the acreage maintained as manicured lawn has helped disperse the large flocks of resident Canada Geese (a population of invasive native transplants) that frequented the property and posed a serious hazard to medevac helicopters flying in and out of the facility.
A tallgrass prairie wildflower and warm-season grass planting
Big Bluestem, a warm-season grass, dominates the site and is complemented by Indiangrass and tall wildflowers including Common Milkweed, Wild Bergamot, Oxeye, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Coneflower, and Purple Coneflower.

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.

Photo of the Day

Leafcutter Bee Visiting Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
A Leafcutter Bee (Megachile species) visits the blossoms of a Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), a native wildflower also known as Bee Balm or Horsemint.  Like Mason Bees (Osmia species), leafcutters will readily nest in the tubular cavities provided inside man-made bee houses.  As their names suggest, Mason Bees use mud to construct and seal the cells for their eggs while leafcutters harvest leaves for the task.  Female Leafcutter Bees, including this individual, can be recognized by the accumulation of pollen carried on the underside of their abdomen.  Within each nest cell, a female will lay an egg atop a supply of pollen and nectar.  These provisions will nourish the larva through development and transformation into an adult.

Photo of the Day

Buttonbush flower cluster
Is it the latest image from NASA’s new Webb Space Telescope?  Nope, it’s the globular flower cluster of the Buttonbush, a native shrub species found throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Buttonbush thrives in wet soil and seldom grows taller than 10 feet in height.  Try it along stream banks, in stormwater retention basins, and in rain gardens fed by surface runoff or the outflow from your downspouts.

The Mexican Cigar

You’ve heard and read it before—native plants do the best job of providing sustenance for our indigenous wildlife.  Let’s say you have a desire to attract hummingbirds to your property and you want to do it without putting up feeders.  Well, you’ll need native plants that provide tubular flowers from which these hovering little birds can extract nectar.  Place enough of them in conspicuous locations and you’ll eventually see hummingbirds visiting during the summer months.  If you have a large trellis, pole, or fence, you might plant a Trumpet Vine, also known as Trumpet Creeper.  They become adorned with an abundance of big red-orange tubular flowers that our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds just can’t resist.  For consistently bringing hummingbirds to the garden, Trumpet Vine may be the best of the various plants native to the Mid-Atlantic States.

Trumpet Vine
The showy bloom clusters of Trumpet Vine are irresistible to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

There is a plant, not particularly native to our area but native to the continent, that even in the presence of Trumpet Vine, Pickerelweed, Partridge Pea, and other reliable hummingbird lures will outperform them all.  It’s called Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) or Firecracker Plant.  Its red and yellow tubular flowers look like a little cigar, often with a whitish ash at the tip.  Its native range includes some of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s migration routes and wintering grounds in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands, where they certainly are familiar with it.

This morning in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird seen in the following set of images extracted nectar from the Mexican Cigar blossoms exclusively.  It ignored the masses of showy Trumpet Vine blooms and other flowers nearby—as the hummers that stop by usually do when Cuphea is offered.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) Some garden centers still have Mexican Cigar plants available.  You can grow them in pots or baskets, then bring them inside before frost to treat them as a house plant through the winter.  Give the plants a good trim sometime before placing them outside when the weather warms in May.  You’ll soon have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting again for the summer.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)
  

Photo of the Day

Pickerelweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
An Eastern Carpenter Bee visits the flowers of an emergent Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  Each Pickerelweed blossom has conspicuous yellow spots on its uppermost petal, an adaptation shared with the Great Rhododendrons featured in a post earlier this month (July 1).  For each of these species the purpose of these pollen look-a-likes is the same, to attract bees to the pistils and stamens of the flower.  Do these lures work?  Just take a look at the pollen accumulated on the rear leg of this bee.

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.

Photo of the Day

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-throated Vireo
A Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) in a Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) along the Conewago Creek east of Conewago Falls.  This Neotropical migrant nests sparingly along stream courses throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Photo of the Day

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-throated Warbler
A Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) searches for insects among the branches of a flowering Black Walnut (Juglans nigra).  In river bottomlands, they nest almost exclusively in the canopy of massive Eastern Sycamores trees.  In mature mountain forests, they also use pines.  The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed is located along the northern extreme of the Yellow-throated Warbler’s regular breeding range.  

Photo of the Day

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Blackburnian Warbler
The Blackburnian Warbler, a Neotropical migrant, feeds high in the canopy of mature forests during stopovers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, so you need to look up to find one.  This male was seen searching for insects along the branches of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Early May Migration

National Weather Service radar showed a sizeable nocturnal flight of migrating birds early this morning.  Let’s go for a short stroll and see what’s around.

Radar returns from State College, Pennsylvania, display several bands of light rain and a massive flight of migrating birds.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Catbird
After coming in on an overnight flight, Gray Catbirds were numerous at dawn this morning.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Black-and-white Warbler
Masses of Neotropical migrants are just beginning to arrive.  This Black-and-white Warbler was found feeding on insects in a Green Ash tree that, so far, has survived Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) infestation.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Veery
The Veery is a Neotropical thrush that nests in understory vegetation on forested slopes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Orchard Oriole
Orchard Orioles are here.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Baltimore Oriole
And Baltimore Orioles are here too.  Vibrant colors like these are what many observers find so wonderful about many of the Neotropical species.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Double-crested Cormorants
Not all migrants move at night.  While you’re out and about, keep an eye on the sky for diurnal fliers like these migrating Double-crested Cormorants, seen this morning a full ten miles east of the river.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Carolina Wren
While many birds are still working their way north to their breeding grounds, resident species like this Carolina Wren are already feeding young.  This one has collected a spider for its nestlings.

Photo of the Day

If you’ve ever worked in a plant nursery at this time of year, you’ve certainly heard this inquiry from customers looking for something unique, “What is that little tree with the pink-purple blooms that’s flowering right now along the edge of the woods?”  It’s the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), also known as the Judas Tree, a spectacular species for inclusion in garden landscapes, along forest edges, or as part of a vegetated riparian buffer.  In coming weeks, the showy blossoms, which pollinators adore, will give way to an abundance of handsome heart-shaped leaves.  The northern edge of the native range for this member of the legume (pea) family happens to include the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, so it does quite well here.  Because the Eastern Redbud only grows to a height of twenty to thirty feet, it can be planted near homes and other buildings.  It would make a great choice for your Arbor Day project this Friday, April 29.