As week-old snow and ice slowly disappears from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed landscape, we ventured out to see what might be lurking in the dense clouds of fog that for more than two days now have accompanied a mid-winter warm spell.
After freezing to a slushy consistency earlier this week, the Susquehanna is already beginning to thaw. Below the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls, the water is open and ice-free.
On frozen man-made lakes and ponds, geese and ducks like these Mallards and American Wigeon are presently concentrated around small pockets of open water.
During the past ten days, American Robin numbers have exploded throughout the lower Susquehanna valley. The majority of these birds may be a mix of both those coming south to escape the late onset of wintry conditions to our north and those inching north into our region as early spring migrants.
The January thaw has melted the snow from lawns and fields to provide thousands of visiting robins with a chance to forage for earthworms.
A visit by this young Cooper’s Hawk to the susquehannnawildlife.net headquarters garden sent songbirds scrambling…
…but did nothing to unnerve our resident Eastern Gray Squirrels,…
…which promptly went into tail-waving mode to advertise their presence.
But earlier in the week, when heavy snow cover in the rural areas surrounding our urbanized neighborhood made it difficult for rodent-eating raptors to find food, we received brief visits from both a Red-tailed Hawk…
…and this young Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon bird of prey most often found in wet woods and other lowlands.
To escape notice during visits by these larger raptors, our squirrels remained motionless and commenced performance of their best bump-on-a-log impressions.
Unimpressed, each of our visiting buteos remained for just a few minutes before moving on in search of more favorable hunting grounds and prey.
As snow melted and exposed bare ground in fields of early successional growth, we encountered…
…a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, most in first-winter plumage…
…and at least a dozen American Tree Sparrows. During the twentieth century, these handsome songbirds were regular winter visitors to the lower Susquehanna region. During recent decades, they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find. Currently, moderate numbers appear to be arriving to escape harsher weather to our north.
What could be more appropriate on a foggy, gray evening than finding a “gray ghost” (adult male Northern Harrier) patrolling the fields in search of mice and voles.
If scenes of a January thaw begin to awaken your hopes and aspirations for all things spring, then you’ll appreciate this pair of closing photographs…
The maroon-red flower buds of Silver Maples are beginning to swell. And woodpeckers including Pileated Woodpeckers are beginning to drum, a timber-pounding behavior they use to establish breeding territories in habitats with suitable sites for cavity nesting.
In wet soil surrounding spring seeps and streams, Skunk Cabbage is rising through the leaf litter to herald the coming of a new season. Spring must surely be just around the corner.
Let’s take a quiet stroll through the forest to have a look around. The spring awakening is underway and it’s a marvelous thing to behold. You may think it a bit odd, but during this walk we’re not going to spend all of our time gazing up into the trees. Instead, we’re going to investigate the happenings at ground level—life on the forest floor.
Rotting logs and leaf litter create the moisture retaining detritus in which mesic forest plants grow and thrive. Note the presence of mosses and a vernal pool in this damp section of forest.
The earliest green leaves in the forest are often those of the Skunk Cabbage (Simplocarpus foetidus). This member of the arum family gets a head start by growing in the warm waters of a spring seep or in a stream-fed wetland. Like many native wildflowers of the forest, Skunk Cabbage takes advantage of early-springtime sun to flower and grow prior to the time in late April when deciduous trees grow foliage and cast shade beneath their canopy.
Among the bark of dead and downed trees, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) hibernates for the winter. It emerges to alight on sun-drenched surfaces in late winter and early spring.
Another hibernating forest butterfly that emerges on sunny early-spring days is the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), also known as the Hop Merchant.
In a small forest brook, a water strider (Gerridae) chases its shadow using the surface tension of the water to provide buoyancy. Forests are essential for the protection of headwaters areas where our streams get their start.
Often flooded only in the springtime, fish-free pools of water known as vernal ponds are essential breeding habitat for many forest-dwelling amphibians. Unfortunately, these ephemeral wetland sites often fall prey to collecting, dumping, filling, and vandalism by motorized and non-motorized off-roaders, sometimes resulting in the elimination of the populations of frogs, toads, and salamanders that use them.
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) emerge from hiding places among downed timber and leaf litter to journey to a nearby vernal pond where they begin calling still more Wood Frogs to the breeding site.
Wood Frog eggs must hatch and tadpoles must transform into terrestrial frogs before the pond dries up in the summertime. It’s a risky means of reproduction, but it effectively evades the enormous appetites of fish.
When the egg laying is complete, adult Wood Frogs return to the forest and are seldom seen during the rest of the year.
In early spring, Painted Turtles emerge from hideouts in larger forest pools, particularly those in wooded swamps, to bask in sunny locations.
Dead standing trees, often called snags, are essential habitats for many species of forest wildlife. There is an entire biological process, a micro-ecosystem, involved in the decay of a dead tree. It includes fungi, bacteria, and various invertebrate animals that reduce wood into the detritus that nourishes and hydrates new forest growth.
Birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker feed on insects found in large snags and nest almost exclusively in them. Many species of wildlife rely on dead trees, both standing and fallen, during all or part of their lives.
There certainly is more to a forest than the living trees. If you’re hiking through a grove of timber getting snared in a maze of prickly Multiflora Rose (
Rosa multiflora) and seeing little else but maybe a wild ungulate or two, then you’re in a has-been forest. Logging, firewood collection, fragmentation, and other man-made disturbances inside and near forests take a collective toll on their composition, eventually turning them to mere woodlots. Go enjoy the forests of the lower Susquehanna valley while you still can. And remember to do it gently; we’re losing quality as well as quantity right now—so tread softly.
The White-tailed Deity in a woodlot infested by invasive tangles of Multiflora Rose.