Only fools mess around with bees, wasps, and hornets as they collect nectar and go about their business while visiting flowering plants. Relentlessly curious predators and other trouble makers quickly learn that patterns of white, yellow, or orange contrasting with black are a warning that the pain and anguish of being zapped with a venomous sting awaits those who throw caution to the wind. Through the process of natural selection, many venomous and poisonous animals have developed conspicuously bright or contrasting color schemes to deter would-be predators and molesters from making such a big mistake.
Visual warnings enhance the effectiveness of the defensive measures possessed by venomous, poisonous, and distasteful creatures. Aggressors learn to associate the presence of these color patterns with the experience of pain and discomfort. Thereafter, they keep their distance to avoid any trouble. In return, the potential victims of this unsolicited aggression escape injury and retain their defenses for use against yet-to-be-enlightened pursuers. Thanks to their threatening appearance, the chances of survival are increased for these would-be victims without the need to risk death or injury while deploying their venomous stingers, poisonous compounds, or other defensive measures.
One shouldn’t be surprised to learn that over time, as these aforementioned venomous, poisonous, and foul-tasting critters developed their patterns of warning colors, there were numerous harmless animals living within close association with these species that, through the process of natural selection, acquired nearly identical color patterns for their own protection from predators. This form of defensive impersonation is known as Batesian mimicry.
Let’s take a look at some examples of Batesian mimicry right here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Suppose for a moment that you were a fly. As you might expect, you would have plenty to fear while you spend your day visiting flowers in search of energy-rich nectar—hundreds of hungry birds and other animals want to eat you.
If you were a fly and you were headed out and about to call upon numerous nectar-producing flowers so you could round up some sweet treats, wouldn’t you feel a whole lot safer if you looked like those venomous bees, wasps, and hornets in your neighborhood? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun to look scary—so scary that would-be aggressors fear that you might sting them if they gave you any trouble?
Suppose Mother Nature and Father Time dressed you up to look like a bee or a wasp instead of a helpless fly? Then maybe you could go out and collect sweets without always worrying about the bullies and the brutes, just like these flies of the lower Susquehanna do…
FLOWER FLIES/HOVER FLIES
So let’s review. If you’re a poor defenseless fly and you want to get your fair share of sweets without being gobbled up by the beasts, then you’ve got to masquerade like a strongly armed member of a social colony—like a bee, wasp, or hornet. Now look scary and go get your treats. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
Last October 3rd, a late-season Ruby-throated Hummingbird stopped by the garden at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to take shelter from a rainy autumn storm. It was so raw and chilly that we felt compelled to do something we don’t normally do—put out the sugar water feeder to supplement the nectar produced by our fall-flowering plants. After several days of constant visits to the feeder and the flowers, our lingering hummer resumed its southbound journey on October 7th.
Fast forward to this afternoon and what do you know, at least two migrating hummingbirds have stopped by to visit the flowers in our garden. This year, we have an exceptional abundance of blooms on some of their favorite plants. In the ponds, aquatic Pickerelweed is topped with purple spikes and we still have bright orange tubular flowers on one of our Trumpet Vines—a full two to three months later than usual.
Remember, keep those feeders clean and the provisions fresh! You’ll be glad you did.
Grasshoppers are perhaps best known for the occasions throughout history when an enormous congregation of these insects—a “plague of locusts”—would assemble and rove a region to feed. These swarms, which sometimes covered tens of thousands of square miles or more, often decimated crops, darkened the sky, and, on occasion, resulted in catastrophic famine among human settlements in various parts of the world.
The largest “plague of locusts” in the United States occurred during the mid-1870s in the Great Plains. The Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus), a grasshopper of prairies in the American west, had a range that extended east into New England, possibly settling there on lands cleared for farming. Rocky Mountain Locusts, aside from their native habitat on grasslands, apparently thrived on fields planted with warm-season crops. Like most grasshoppers, they fed and developed most vigorously during periods of dry, hot weather. With plenty of vegetative matter to consume during periods of scorching temperatures, the stage was set for populations of these insects to explode in agricultural areas, then take wing in search of more forage. Plagues struck parts of northern New England as early as the mid-1700s and were numerous in various states in the Great Plains through the middle of the 1800s. The big ones hit between 1873 and 1877 when swarms numbering as many as trillions of grasshoppers did $200 million in crop damage and caused a famine so severe that many farmers abandoned the westward migration. To prevent recurrent outbreaks of locust plagues and famine, experts suggested planting more cool-season grains like winter wheat, a crop which could mature and be harvested before the grasshoppers had a chance to cause any significant damage. In the years that followed, and as prairies gave way to the expansive agricultural lands that presently cover most of the Rocky Mountain Locust’s former range, the grasshopper began to disappear. By the early years of the twentieth century, the species was extinct. No one was quite certain why, and the precise cause is still a topic of debate to this day. Conversion of nearly all of its native habitat to cropland and grazing acreage seems to be the most likely culprit.
In the Mid-Atlantic States, the mosaic of the landscape—farmland interspersed with a mix of forest and disturbed urban/suburban lots—prevents grasshoppers from reaching the densities from which swarms arise. In the years since the implementation of “Green Revolution” farming practices, numbers of grasshoppers in our region have declined. Systemic insecticides including neonicotinoids keep grasshoppers and other insects from munching on warm-season crops like corn and soybeans. And herbicides including 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) have, in effect, become the equivalent of insecticides, eliminating broadleaf food plants from the pasturelands and hayfields where grasshoppers once fed and reproduced in abundance. As a result, few of the approximately three dozen species of grasshoppers with ranges that include the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed are common here. Those that still thrive are largely adapted to roadsides, waste ground, and small clearings where native and some non-native plants make up their diet.
Here’s a look at four species of grasshoppers you’re likely to find in disturbed habitats throughout our region. Each remains common in relatively pesticide-free spaces with stands of dense grasses and broadleaf plants nearby.
Protein-rich grasshoppers are an important late-summer, early-fall food source for birds. The absence of these insects has forced many species of breeding birds to abandon farmland or, in some cases, disappear altogether.
To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis). They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago. Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established. Have a look.
Isn’t that amazing? North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems. Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed? Let the beavers do the job!
If you’re feeling the need to see summertime butterflies and their numbers just don’t seem to be what they used to be in your garden, then plan an afternoon visit to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve along Fishing Creek Valley Road (PA 443) just east of U.S. 22/322 and the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages the park’s 1,025 acres mostly as forested land with more than ten miles of trails. While located predominately on the north slope of Blue Mountain, a portion of the preserve straddles the crest of the ridge to include the upper reaches of the southern exposure.
Fortunately, one need not take a strenuous hike up Blue Mountain to observe butterflies. Open space along the park’s quarter-mile-long entrance road is maintained as a rolling meadow of wildflowers and cool-season grasses that provide nectar for adult butterflies and host plants for their larvae.
Do yourself a favor and take a trip to the Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area. Who knows? It might actually inspire you to convert that lawn or other mowed space into much-needed butterfly/pollinator habitat.
While you’re out, you can identify your sightings using our photographic guide—Butterflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed—by clicking the “Butterflies” tab at the top this page. And while you’re at it, you can brush up on your hawk identification skills ahead of the upcoming migration by clicking the “Hawkwatcher’s Helper: Identifying Bald Eagles and other Diurnal Raptors” tab. Therein you’ll find a listing and descriptions of hawk watch locations in and around the lower Susquehanna region. Plan to visit one or more this autumn!
Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp? Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points. Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States. So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.
Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money? Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.
As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes. Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.
No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.
We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon. And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.
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!
Watertight and working fine. Let’s flood the tanks and have a peek at the benthos. Dive, all dive!
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.
Well, it looks like the skipper’s tired and grumpy, so that’s all for now. Until next time, bon voyage!
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.
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.
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…
Here’s a closer look…
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.
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…
Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
Warm-season Grass Mixes
Retention Basin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s surprising how many millions of people travel the busy coastal routes of Delaware each year to leave the traffic congestion and hectic life of the northeast corridor behind to visit congested hectic shore towns like Rehobeth Beach, Bethany Beach, and Ocean City, Maryland. They call it a vacation, or a holiday, or a weekend, and it’s exhausting. What’s amazing is how many of them drive right by a breathtaking national treasure located along Delaware Bay just east of the city of Dover—and never know it. A short detour on your route will take you there. It’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a quiet but spectacular place that draws few crowds of tourists, but lots of birds and other wildlife.
Let’s join Uncle Tyler Dyer and have a look around Bombay Hook. He’s got his duck stamp and he’s ready to go.
Remember to go the Post Office and get your duck stamp. You’ll be supporting habitat acquisition and improvements for the wildlife we cherish. And if you get the chance, visit a National Wildlife Refuge. November can be a great time to go, it’s bug-free! Just take along your warmest clothing and plan to spend the day. You won’t regret it.
After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned. Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region. Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.
A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States. It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.
Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings. The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted. Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded. Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source. For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence. So they wait.
Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it. The flights have resumed.
Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year. If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year. On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper. On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby. The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days. The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.
A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.
Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.
Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent. Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years. Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.
It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation. His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year. The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there. In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves. Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that! It was the most lackluster year in memory.
If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible. There would be no cause for greater alarm. It would be a matter of cause and effect. But the problem is more widespread.
Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna. And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes. A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration. In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous. What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south? The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?
Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere. These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends. They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.
There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone. None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline. Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds? Did they die off? Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction? Is it global warming? Is it Three Mile Island? Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?
The answer might not be so cryptic. It might be right before our eyes. And we’ll explore it during 2020.
In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. You should go too. They have lots of food there.
It’s sprayed with herbicides. It’s mowed and mangled. It’s ground to shreds with noisy weed-trimmers. It’s scorned and maligned. It’s been targeted for elimination by some governments because it’s undesirable and “noxious”. And it has that four letter word in its name which dooms the fate of any plant that possesses it. It’s the Common Milkweed, and it’s the center of activity in my garden at this time of year. Yep, I said milk-WEED.
Now, you need to understand that my garden is small—less than 2,500 square feet. There is no lawn, and there will be no lawn. I’ll have nothing to do with the lawn nonsense. Those of you who know me, know that the lawn, or anything that looks like lawn, and I are through.
Anyway, most of the plants in the garden are native species. There are trees, numerous shrubs, some water features with aquatic plants, and filling the sunny margins is a mix of native grassland plants including Common Milkweed. The unusually wet growing season in 2018 has been very kind to these plants. They are still very green and lush. And the animals that rely on them are having a banner year. Have a look…
I’ve planted a variety of native grassland species to help support the milkweed structurally and to provide a more complete habitat for Monarch butterflies and other native insects. This year, these plants are exceptionally colorful for late-August due to the abundance of rain. The warm season grasses shown below are the four primary species found in the American tall-grass prairies and elsewhere.
There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
At the moment there is a heavy snow falling, not an unusual occurrence for mid-February, nevertheless, it is a change in weather. Forty-eight hours ago we were in the midst of a steady rain and temperatures were in the sixties. The snow and ice had melted away and a touch of spring was in the air.
Anyone casually looking about while outdoors during these last several days may have noticed that birds are indeed beginning to migrate north in the lower Susquehanna valley. Killdeer, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles are easily seen or heard in most of the area now.
Just hours ago, between nine o’clock this morning and one o’clock this afternoon, there was a spectacular flight of birds following the river north, their spring migration well underway. In the blue skies above Conewago Falls, a steady parade of Ring-billed Gulls was utilizing thermals and riding a tailwind from the south-southeast to cruise high overhead on a course toward their breeding range.
The swirling hoards of Ring-billed Gulls attracted other migrants to take advantage of the thermals and glide paths on the breeze. Right among them were 44 Herring Gulls, 3 Great Black-backed Gulls, 12 Tundra Swans (Cygnuscolumbianus), 10 Canada Geese, 3 Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), 6 Common Mergansers, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, 6 Bald Eagles (non-adults), 8 Black Vultures, and 5 Turkey Vultures.
In the afternoon, the clouds closed in quickly, the flight ended, and by dusk more than an inch of snow was on the ground. Looks like spring to me.
They get a touch of it here, and a sparkle or two there. Maybe, for a couple of hours each day, the glorious life-giving glow of the sun finds an opening in the canopy to warm and nourish their leaves, then the rays of light creep away across the forest floor, and it’s shade for the remainder of the day.
The flowering plants which thrive in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands often escape much notice. They gather only a fraction of the daylight collected by species growing in full exposure to the sun. Yet, by season’s end, many produce showy flowers or nourishing fruits of great import to wildlife. While light may be sparingly rationed through the leaves of the tall trees overhead, moisture is nearly always assured in the damp soils of the riverside forest. For these plants, growth is slow, but continuous. And now, it’s show time.
So let’s take a late-summer stroll through the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls, minus the face full of cobwebs, and have a look at some of the strikingly beautiful plants found living in the shadows.
Long, David; Ballentine, Noel H.; and Marks, James G., Jr. 1997. Treatment of Poison Ivy/Oak Allergic Contact Dermatitis With an Extract of Jewelweed. American Journal of Contact Dermatitis. 8(3): pp. 150-153.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.
The tall seed-topped stems swaying in a summer breeze are a pleasant scene. And the colorful autumn shades of blue, orange, purple, red, and, of course, green leaves on these clumping plants are nice. But of the multitude of flowering plants, Big Bluestem, Freshwater Cordgrass, and Switchgrass aren’t much of a draw. No self-respecting bloom addict is going out of their way to have a gander at any grass that hasn’t been subjugated and tamed by a hideous set of spinning steel blades. Grass flowers…are you kidding?
O.K., so you need something more. Here’s more.
Meet the Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). It’s an annual plant growing in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls as a companion to Big Bluestem. It has a special niche growing in the sandy and, in summertime, dry soils left behind by earlier flooding and ice scour. The divided leaves close upon contact and also at nightfall. Bees and other pollinators are drawn to the abundance of butter-yellow blossoms. Like the familiar pea of the vegetable garden, the flowers are followed by flat seed pods.
But wait, here’s more.
In addition to its abundance in Conewago Falls, the Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) is the ubiquitous water’s edge plant along the free-flowing Susquehanna River for miles downstream. It grows in large clumps, often defining the border between the emergent zone and shore-rooted plants. It is particularly successful in accumulations of alluvium interspersed with heavier pebbles and stone into which the roots will anchor to endure flooding and scour. Such substrate buildup around the falls, along mid-river islands, and along the shores of the low-lying Riparian Woodlands immediately below the falls are often quite hospitable to the species.
A second native wildflower species in the genus Hibiscus is found in the Conewago Falls floodplain, this one in wetlands. The Swamp Rose Mallow (H. moscheutos) is similar to Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, but sports more variable and colorful blooms. The leaves are toothed without the deep halberd-style lobes and, like the stems, are downy. As the common name implies, it requires swampy habitat with ample water and sunlight.
In summary, we find Partridge Pea in the Riverine Grasslands growing in sandy deposits left by flood and ice scour. We find Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow rooted at the border between shore and the emergent zone. We find Swamp Rose Mallow as an emergent in the wetlands of the floodplain. And finally, we find marshmallows in only one location in the area of Conewago Falls. Bon ap’.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.
It has not been a good summer if you happen to be a submerged plant species in the lower Susquehanna River. Regularly occurring showers and thunderstorms have produced torrents of rain and higher than usual river stages. The high water alone wouldn’t prevent you from growing, colonizing a wider area, and floating several small flowers on the surface, however, the turbidity, the suspended sediment, would. The muddy current casts a dirty shadow on the benthic zone preventing bottom-rooted plants from getting much headway. There will be smaller floating mats of the uppermost leaves of these species. Fish and invertebrates which rely upon this habitat for food and shelter will find sparse accommodation…better luck next year.
Due to the dirty water, fish-eating birds are having a challenging season as they try to catch sufficient quantities of prey to feed themselves and their offspring. A family of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at Conewago Falls, including recently fledged young, were observed throughout this morning and had no successful catches. Of the hundred or more individual piscivores of various species present, none were seen retrieving fish from the river. The visibility in the water column needs to improve before fishing is a viable enterprise again.
While the submerged plant communities may be stunted by 2017’s extraordinary water levels, there is a very unique habitat in Conewago Falls which endures summer flooding and, in addition, requires the scouring effects of river ice to maintain its mosaic of unique plants. It is known as a Riverine Grassland or scour grassland.
The predominant plants of the Riverine Grasslands are perennial warm-season grasses. The deep root systems of these hardy species have evolved to survive events which prevent the grassland from reverting to woodland through succession. Fire, intense grazing by wild herd animals, poor soils, drought, and other hardships, including flooding and ice scour, will eliminate intolerant plant species and prevent an area from reforesting. In winter and early spring, scraping and grinding by flood-driven chunk ice mechanically removes large woody and poorly rooted herbaceous growth from susceptible portions of the falls. These adverse conditions clear the way for populations of species more often associated with North America’s tall grass prairies to take root. Let’s have a look at some of the common species found in the “Conewago Falls Pothole Rocks Prairie”.
The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants. We’ll look at more of them next time.
Brown, Lauren. 1979. Grasses, An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else. Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you. She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box. It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know? You remember her, don’t you?
Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth. These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life. The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter. Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific. These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars. Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.
The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant. Here at Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species. Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.
Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment. A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction. Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…
The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day. Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.
By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.
Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.