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!   

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.

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.

Photo of the Day

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: American Bittern
The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is a member of the Ardeidae, the heron and egret family.  It is a stealthy migrant, making its flights under cover of darkness, then resting and feeding in dense stands of Common Cattails and other marsh plants during the day.  It avoids detection by raising its bill skyward to create a profile and color scheme that blends well with the contours of the vegetation.  In Pennsylvania, loss of wetland habitat used for nesting has led to the American Bittern being listed as an endangered species.

Photo of the Day

Swamp Sparrows can be found year-round in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. They seldom occur far from water, this one spending its time in a dense stand of Common Cattails (Typha latifolia).

A Visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Route 9, a lightly-traveled coastal road east of Dover, Delaware.  Note the Big Bluestem and other warm season grasses in the background.  Bombay Hook, like other refuges in the system, is managed for the benefit of the wildlife that relies upon it to survive.  Within recent years, most of the mowed grass and tilled ground that once occurred here has been replaced by prairie grasses or successional growth, much to the delight of Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and other species.

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.

Uncle Ty’s current United States Fish and Wildlife Service Duck Stamp displayed on his dashboard is free admission to the tour road at Bombay Hook and other National Wildlife Refuges.
The refuge at Bombay Hook includes woodlands, grasslands, and man-made freshwater impoundments, but it is largely comprised of thousands of acres of tidal salt marsh bordering and purifying the waters of Delaware Bay.  These marshes are renowned wintering areas for an Atlantic population of Snow Goose known as the “Greater Snow Goose” (Anser caerulescens atlanticus).  Thousands of these birds rising over the marsh into the glowing light of a setting sun is an unforgettable sight.
Trails at various stops along the auto tour route lead to observation towers and other features. This boardwalk meanders into the salt marsh grasses and includes a viewing area alongside a tidal creek.  Our visit coincided with a very high tide induced by east winds and a new moon.
During high tide, an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) seeks higher ground near the boardwalk and the wooded edge of the salt marsh.
As the tide rises, fast-flying shorebirds scramble from flooded mudflats in the salt marsh on the east side of the tour road.
When high tide arrives in the salt marshes, shorebirds and waterfowl often concentrate in the man-made freshwater pools on the west side of the tour road.  Glaring afternoon sun is not the best for viewing birds located west of the road.  For ideal light conditions, time your visit for a day when high tide occurs in the morning and recedes to low tide in the afternoon.
A view looking west into Shearness Pool, largest of the freshwater impoundments at Bombay Hook.
Bombay Hook has many secretive birds hiding in its wetlands, but they can often be located by the patient observer.  Here, two Pied-billed Grebes feed in an opening among the vegetation in a freshwater pool.
One of Bombay Hook’s resident Bald Eagles patrols the wetlands.
American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) gather by the hundreds at Bombay Hook during the fall.  A passing eagle will stir them into flight.
An American Avocet, a delicate wader with a peculiar upturned bill.
As soon as the tide begins receding, shorebirds and waterfowl like these Green-winged Teal begin dispersing into the salt marshes to feed on the exposed mudflats.
The woodlands and forested areas of the refuge host resident songbirds and can be attractive to migrating species like this Yellow-rumped Warbler.
For much of its course, the tour road at Bombay Hook is located atop the dike that creates the man-made freshwater pools on the western edge of the tidal salt marsh.  If you drive slowly and make frequent stops to look and listen, you’ll notice an abundance of birds and other wildlife living along this border between two habitats.  Here, a Swamp Sparrow has a look around.
Savannah Sparrows are common along the tour road where native grasses grow wild.
Bombay Hook is renowned for its rarities. One of the attractions during the late summer and autumn of 2021 was a group of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), vagrants from the southern states, seen here with Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula).
Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets at Bombay Hook.

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.

Bird Migration Highlights

The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway.  With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.

Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.

Blue-winged Teal are among the earliest of the waterfowl to begin southward migration.
Sandpipers and plovers have been on the move since July.  The bird in the foreground with these Killdeer is not one of their offspring, but rather a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), a regular late-summer migrant in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Hawk watch sites all over North America are counting birds right now.  The Osprey is an early-season delight as it glides past the lookouts.  Look for them moving down the Susquehanna as well.
Bald Eagles will be on the move through December.  To see these huge raptors in numbers, visit a hawk watch on a day following passage of a cold front when northwest winds are gusting.
Merlins were seen during this past week in areas with good concentrations of dragonflies.  This particular one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties…
…was soon visited by another.
Check the forest canopy for Yellow-billed Cuckoos.  Some local birds are still on breeding territories while others from farther north are beginning to move through.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are darting through the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to the tropics.  This one has no trouble keeping pace with a passing Tree Swallow.
Nocturnal flights can bring new songbirds to good habitat each morning.  It’s the best time of year to see numbers of Empidonax flycatchers.  But, because they’re often silent during fall migration, it’s not the best time of year to easily identify them.  This one lacking a prominent eye ring is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).
During the past two weeks, Red-eyed Vireos have been numerous in many Susquehanna valley woodlands.  Many are migrants while others are breeding pairs tending late-season broods.
During mornings that follow heavy overnight flights, Blackburnian Warblers have been common among waves of feeding songbirds.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are regular among flocks of nocturnal migrants seen foraging among foliage at sunrise.
Scarlet Tanagers, minus the brilliant red breeding plumage of the males, are on their way back to the tropics for winter.
While passing overhead on their way south, Bobolinks can be seen or heard from almost anywhere in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Their movements peak in late August and early September.
During recent evenings, Bobolinks have been gathering by the hundreds in fields of warm-season grasses at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
If you go to see the Bobolinks there, visit Stop 3 on the tour route late in the afternoon and listen for their call.  You’ll soon notice their wings glistening in the light of the setting sun as they take short flights from point to point while they feed.  Note the abundance of flying insects above the Big Bluestem and Indiangrass in this image.  Grasslands like these are essential habitats for many of our least common resident and migratory birds.

The Layover

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.

Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in flocks comprised of as many as fifty birds gathered in weedy meadows and alfalfa fields for the week.
A Bobolink sheltering in a field of Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) during the rain on Friday, May 8th.
Two of seven Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) in a wet field on Friday, May 8.  Not-so-solitary after all.
Grounded by inclement weather, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) made visits to suburban bird feeders in the lower Susquehanna valley.  (Charles A. Fox image)

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.

A freeze warning was issued for Saturday morning, May 9, in the counties colored dark blue on the map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 3:28 A.M. Saturday morning, May 9, indicates a minor movement of birds in the Great Plains, but there are no notable returns shown around weather radar sites in the freeze area, including the lower Susquehanna valley.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
To avoid the cold wind on Saturday, May 9, this Veery was staying low to the ground within a thicket of shrubs in the forest.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler avoided the treetops and spent time in the woodland understory.  He sang not a note.  With birds conserving energy for the cold night(s) ahead, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the second Saturday in May.
A secretive Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) remained in a wetland thicket.
A Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) tucks his bill beneath a wing and fluffs-up to fight off the cold during a brief May 9th snow flurry.
In open country, gusty winds kept Eastern Kingbirds, a species of flycatcher, near the ground in search of the insects they need to sustain them.
Horned Larks are one of the few birds that attempt to scratch out an existence in cultivated fields.  The application of herbicides and the use of systemic insecticides (including neonicotinoids) eliminates nearly all weed seeds and insects in land subjected to high-intensity farming.  For most birds, including Neotropical migrants, cropland in the lower Susquehanna valley has become a dead zone.  Birds and other animals might visit, but they really don’t “live” there anymore.
Unable to find flying insects over upland fields during the cold snap, swallows concentrated over bodies of water to feed.  Some Tree Swallows may have abandoned their nests to survive this week’s cold.  Fragmentation of habitats in the lower Susquehanna valley reduces the abundance and diversity of natural food sources for wildlife.  For birds like swallows, events like late-season freezes, heat waves, or droughts can easily disrupt their limited food supply and cause brood failure.
For this Barn Swallow, attempting to hunt insects above the warm pavement of a roadway had fatal consequences.
Another freeze warning was issued for Sunday morning, May 10, in the counties colored dark blue on this map.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
This radar image from 4:58 A.M. Sunday morning, May 10, again indicates the absence of a flight of migrating birds in the area subjected to freezing temperatures.  Unlike migrants earlier in the season, the Neotropical species that move north during the May exodus appear unwilling to resume their trek during freezing weather.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
On Sunday evening, May 10, a liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated around radar sites along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and, to a lesser degree, in central Pennsylvania.  The approaching rain and yet another cold front quickly grounded this flight.
After a one day respite, yet another freeze warning was issued for Tuesday morning, May 12.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And again, no flight in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze warning for Wednesday morning, May 13.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
And the nocturnal flight: heavy in the Mississippi valley and minimal in the freeze area.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The freeze on Thursday morning, May 14.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
At 3:08 A.M. on May 14th, a flight is indicated streaming north through central Texas and dispersing into the eastern half of the United States, but not progressing into New England.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
The flight at eight minutes after midnight this morning.  Note the stormy cold front diving southeast across the upper Mississippi valley.  As is often the case, the concentration of migrating birds is densest in the warm air ahead of the front.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

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.

Indigo Bunting numbers are increasing as breeding populations arrive and migrants continue through.  Look for them in thickets along utility and railroad right-of-ways.
Common Yellowthroats and other colorful warblers are among the May migrants currently resuming their northward flights.
The echoes of the songs of tropical birds are beginning to fill the forests of the lower Susquehanna watershed.  The flute-like harmonies of the Wood Thrush are among the most impressive.
Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers with a surprisingly explosive song for their size.  Many arrived within the last two days to stake out a territory for breeding.  Listen for “teacher-teacher-teacher” emanating from a woodland near you.

Clean Slate for 2020

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.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

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.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

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.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

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.

A clean slate for 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.

Some Autumn Insects

With autumn coming to a close, let’s have a look at some of the fascinating insects (and a spider) that put on a show during some mild afternoons in the late months of 2019.

Bush Katydids (Scudderia species) are found in brushy habitats and along rural roadsides.  Their green summer color fades to brown, maroon, and gold to match the autumn foliage where they hide.  Bush katydids often remain active until a hard freeze finally does them in.
The Eastern Buck Moth (Hemileuca maia) is fuzzy, appearing to wear a warm coat for its autumn expeditions.  Adults emerge in October and may fly as late as December.  Females deposit their eggs on the twigs of Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica), or Chestnut Oak (Q. montana), trees that, in our region, seem most favorable for the moth’s use when growing on burned barrens and mountain slopes.  The spiny caterpillars are known to feed only on the foliage of these few trees.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, the Eastern Buck Moth is rare because its specialized habitat is in short supply, and it’s all Smokey The Bear’s fault.
The Sachem (Atalopedes campestris) wanders north from the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the Susquehanna valley each summer.  In some years they become the most numerous small orange butterfly of all, particularly around home gardens.  The larvae will feed on Crabgrass (Digitaria species), but have not found success overwintering this far north.  By November, adults begin to look pretty drab.
From 1978 through 1982, the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) was introduced into the eastern states by the United States Department of Agriculture.  It has become a nuisance in many areas where it swarms, sometimes bites, and often overwinters in large smelly masses within homes and other warm buildings.  As you may have guessed, it’s possibly displacing some of the less aggressive native lady beetle species.
On a chilly afternoon, a sun-warmed Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) pounced and dispatched this sluggish worker Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) that was trying to gather pollen from a late-season Purple Coneflower bloom.  This spider is bold indeed.
Under bridges, inside bird nest boxes, and sometimes beneath porches, the female Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (Trypoxylon politum), a predatory wasp, builds these elaborate nests composed of long rows (pipes) of nursery cells.  Into each cell one or more paralyzed spiders is deposited along with one of the female’s eggs.  When hatched, each larva will feed upon the paralyzed spider(s) inside its cell, then pupate.  The pupae overwinter, then emerge from their cells as adults during the following spring.  In the autumn, males often stand guard at an entrance to the nest (look at the fifth pipe from the right) to prevent parasitic species, including some flies, from laying eggs on the pupae.  These wasps are not aggressive toward humans.
A Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (right) observes a neighboring nest of Paper Wasps (Polistes exclamans).  This latter species, a native of the southern United States, is currently expanding its range into the lower Susquehanna valley from the Atlantic Coastal Plain. These two wasps are known to regularly coexist.  Both will take advantage of man-made structures for their nest sites.  People using the picnic tables beneath this pavilion roof never noticed the hundreds of docile wasps above.
Those moody Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) can get very temperamental during warm autumn days.  These wasps may appear to have no enemies, but away from areas impacted by man’s everyday activities, they do.  The Robber Fly (Promachus species) hunts like a flycatcher or other woodland bird, waiting on a perch along the forest’s edge for prey to pass by, then ambushing it, yellowjackets included.
The invasive Spotted Lanternfly, a native of eastern Asia, continues to spread destruction.  It established itself throughout much of the east side of the lower Susquehanna River during the summer and fall of 2019.  Their route of travel across the farmlands of the region intersects with plenty of vineyards to obliterate and few, if any, natural enemies.  Expect them to begin colonizing the west shore en masse during 2020.
In 2020, plan to roll a few Spotted Lanternflies over, enjoy the view, and wait for the crimson tide to pass.  With any luck, they’ll peak in a year or two.

SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Noxious Benefactor

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…

The flowers of the Common Milkweed were exceptionally fragrant this year.  At their peak in early June, their hyacinth-or lilac-like aroma was so prevalent, it drifted into the house and overwhelmed the stink of the neighbor’s filthy dumpster that he had placed 12 feet away from my walls (100 feet from his).
Common Milkweed attracts a pollinating Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia species).  The dumpster attracts the invasive House Fly (Musca domestica), carrier of dysentery, typhoid, and other wonderful diseases.  Are you following this?  Remember as we proceed, milkweed is noxious.
Busy Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) load up with pollen from the flowers of the Common Milkweed.
A Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) munches on a tender fresh Common Milkweed leaf in mid-June.
Following the pollination of the flowers, seed pods will begin to grow.  I trim these off the plants.  The removal of the extra weight allows most of the stems to remain erect through stormy weather.  You’ll still get new plants from underground runners.  As you may have guessed, I’m trying to keep these plants upright and strong to host Monarch butterfly larvae.

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.

Big Bluestem, a native warm-season grass in flower.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium “Fort Indiantown Gap”) in flower.  This variety grows on the tank range at the military base where the armored vehicles and prescribed burns substitute for the  herd animals and fires of the prairie to prevent succession and allow it to thrive.
Partridge Pea can tolerate sandy soil and is a host plant for vagrant Cloudless Sulphur butterflies.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a popular native grassland wildflower.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) in flower.  This and the other native plants shown here are available as seed from Ernst Seed Company in Meadville (PA).  They have an unbelievably large selection of indigenous species.  You can plant a small plot or acres and acres using really good mixes blended for purposes ranging from reclaiming pipeline right-of-ways and strip mines to naturalizing backyard gardens.
A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly, a migratory species like the Monarch, on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Yes, it is that Echinacea.

There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.

A female Monarch laying eggs on a Common Milkweed leaf.
A third instar Monarch caterpillar with Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii) on a Common Milkweed leaf.  Both of these insect species absorb toxins from the milkweed which makes them distasteful to predators.
Fifth instar (left and center) and fourth instar (right) monarch caterpillars devour a Common Milkweed leaf.  There were over thirty of these caterpillars in just a ten by ten feet area this morning.  I hope if you’re keeping a habitat for Monarchs, you’re enjoying the same fortune right now!
A slow-moving Monarch stopped for a break after making the circuit to deposit eggs on milkweed throughout the garden.
Third instar (top), fourth instar (right), and fifth instar (left) Monarch caterpillars quickly consume the leaf of a Common Milkweed plant.  Caterpillars emerging from eggs deposited today may not have sufficient late-season food to complete the larval segment of their life cycle.  Need more milkweed!
After benefitting from the nourishment of the Common Milkweed plant, a fifth instar Monarch caterpillar begins pupation on Big Bluestem grass.
Two hours later, the chrysalis is complete.
Another chrysalis, this one on flowering Switchgrass just two feet away from the previous one.  An adult Monarch will emerge from this pupa to become part of what we hope will be the most populated southbound exodus for the species in over five years.
There it is, soon ready to fly away.  And all courtesy of the noxious milkweed.
A chrysalis can often be found on man-made objects too.  This one is on the rim of a flower pot.
Ornamental flowers can attract adult Monarch butterflies seeking nectar.  I am now more careful to select seeds and plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.  There’s growing concern over the impact these compounds may be having on pollinating species of animals.  Oh…and I don’t mow, whack, cut, mutilate, or spray herbicides on my milkweed  But you probably figured that out already.

 SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.

A Flock of Seagulls?

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.

Big Bluestem in the Riverine Grasslands is inundated by the rising waters of the Susquehanna at Conewago Falls.   The river ice has been dispersed by the recent mild temperatures and rains.

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.

Ring-billed Gulls swarm in a thermal updraft above Conewago Falls to gain altitude prior to streaming off to the north and continuing their journey.
Ring-billed Gulls climbing to heights sometimes exceeding 1,000 feet before breaking off and gliding away to the north.

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 (Cygnus columbianus), 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.

A first-year Herring Gull (top center) is a standout in a “kettle” of Ring-billed Gulls.
How many Ring-billed Gulls passed by today?  More than 18,000…with emphasis on MORE THAN.  You see, early this afternoon, the handy-dandy clicker-counter used to tick off and tally the big flights of birds as they pass by quit clicking and counting.  Therefore, 18,000 is the absolute minimum number of Ring-billed Gulls seen migrating north today.  Hopefully the trusty old oil can will get the clicker working again soon.

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.

Living in the Shadows

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.

Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) is common on the interior and along the edges of Riparian Woodland.  Specimens in deep shade flower less profusely and average less than half the height of the five feet tall inhabitants of edge environs.
Pale Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens pallida) is one of two species of native Impatiens found in the river floodplain.  Both are known as Jewelweed.  The stems and leaves of the indigenous Impatiens retain a great quantity of water, so life in filtered sunlight is essential to prevent desiccation.  Contrary to popular folklore, extracts of Jewelweed plants are not effective treatments of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) contact dermatitis.
Spotted Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) is typically found in wetter soil than I. pallida.  Both Jewelweeds develop popping capsules which help to distribute the seeds of these annual wildflowers.  “Touch Me Not”, or you’ll be wearing tiny seeds.
Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) grows to heights of eight feet in full sun, hence its alternate common name, Tall Coneflower.  In deep shade, it may not exceed two feet in height.  Floodplains are the prime domain of this perennial.
Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) normally flowers no earlier than late August.  The bases of the leaves are continued onto the stem of the plant to form wings which extend downward along its length.  This wildflower tolerates shade, but flowers more profusely along the woodland edge.
Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), or Great Blue Lobelia, is a magnificent wetland and moist woodland wildflower, usually attaining three feet in height and adorned with a plant-topping spike of blossoms.  Invasive Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) can be seen here competing with this plant, resulting in a shorter, less productive Lobelia.  Stiltgrass was not found in the Susquehanna River floodplain at Conewago Falls until sometime after 1997.  It has spread to all areas of woodland shade, its tiny seeds being blown and translocated along roads, mowed lots, trails, and streams to quickly colonize and overtake new ground.
American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), a shrub of shaded woods, develops inflated capsules which easily float away during high water to distribute the seeds contained inside.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a shrub of wet soils which produces a strange spherical flower, followed by this globular seed cluster.
Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a colony-forming small tree which produces a fleshy fruit.  It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail.  The plant and the butterfly approach the northern limit of their geographic range at Conewago Falls.
Common Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a widespread understory shrub in wet floodplain soils.  It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus).
Sweet Autumn Virgin’s Bower (Clematis terniflora) is an escape from cultivation which has recently naturalized in the edge areas of the Conewago Falls Riparian Woodlands.  This vine is very showy when flowering and producing seed, but can be detrimental to some of the understory shrubs upon which it tends to climb.

SOURCES

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.

S’more

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?

Big Bluestem in flower in the Riverine Grasslands at Conewago Falls.

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.

The Partridge Pea can tolerate dry sandy soils.

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.

Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow is a durable inhabitant of the falls.  Regular flooding keeps competing species at bay.  A taproot helps to safeguard against dislocation, allowing plants to grow in places subjected to turbulent currents.
Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow in bloom.  The similarity to cultivated members of the Hibiscus genus can readily be seen.  It is one of the showiest of perennial wildflowers in the floodplain.  Note the lobed, halberd-shaped leaves, source of its former species name militaris.
The seeds of Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow are contained in bladders which can float to assist in their distribution.  Some of these bladders cling to the dead leafless stems in winter, making it an easy plant to identify in nearly any season.

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.

Swamp Rose Mallow in a sunny wetland.  This variety with solid-colored flowers (without dark centers) and pale green leaves and stems was formerly known as a separate species of  Swamp Rose Mallow, H. palustris.  Note that the flowers are terminal on the stems.
A few scattered specimens of a more typical variety of Swamp Rose Mallow are found on the shoreline and in the Riverine Grasslands of Conewago Falls.  The blooms are bright pink with darker centers and the leaf stems are robust and reddish.  This one is seen growing among Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow, with which it shares the characteristic of having flower stems growing from some of the upper leaf axils.  A variety with red-centered white flowers is often found throughout the plant’s range.

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’.

Here’s S’more

SOURCES

Newcomb, Lawrence.  1977.  Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.  Little, Brown and Company.  Boston, Massachusetts.

Summer Grasses

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.

Ospreys competing for a suitable fishing perch.  Improving water conditions in the coming week should increase their success as predators.
Versatile at finding food, adult Bald Eagles are experienced and know to be on the lookout for Ospreys with fish, a meal they can steal through intimidation.

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”.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), seen here growing in the cracks of a pothole rock. High water nourishes the plant by filling the crevices with nutrient-loaded sediment. This species evolved with roots over three feet deep to survive fires, trampling by bison, and drought.
Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) does well with its roots in water.  It creates exceptional bird habitat and grows in the falls and on ice-scoured small islands in free-flowing segments of the Susquehanna River downstream.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), like Big Bluestem, is one of the tall grass prairie species and, like Freshwater Cordgrass, grows in near pure stands on ice-scoured islands.  It takes flooding well and its extensive root system prevents erosion.
Though not a grass, Water Willow (Justicia americana) is familiar as a flood-enduring emergent plant of river islands, gravel bars, and shorelines where its creeping rhizome root system spreads the plant into large masses.  These stands are often known locally as “grass beds”.  This member of the acanthus family provides habitat for fish and invertebrates among its flooded leaves and stems.  Its presence is critical to aquatic life in a year such as this.

The Conewago Falls Riverine Grassland is home to numerous other very interesting plants.  We’ll look at more of them next time.

SOURCES

Brown, Lauren.  1979.  Grasses, An Identification Guide.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Fussy Eaters

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.

Monarch caterpillar after a fourth molt.  The fifth instar feeding on Swamp Milkweed.
A fifth molt begets the Monarch pupa, the chrysalis, from which the showy adult butterfly will emerge.
Adult Monarch feeding on Goldenrod (Solidago) nectar.

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…

An adult Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) visiting a nectar plant, Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a plant of the Riparian Woodlands, is among the probable hosts for the caterpillars.
A Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) visits Crown Vetch, a possible host plant.  Other potential larval food in the area includes Partridge Pea, Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis) of the river shoreline, and Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a plant of wetlands.
The Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas) may use Partridge Pea , a native wildflower species, and the introduced Crown Vetch (Securigera/Coronilla varia) as host and nectar plants at Conewago Falls.
The Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) is at home among tall grasses in woodland openings, at riverside, and in the scoured grassland habitat of the Pothole Rocks in the falls.  Host plants available include Switchgrass (Panicum vigatum), Freshwater Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and Foxtails (Setaria).
The Zabulon Skipper (Poanes zabulon) is an inhabitant of moist clearings where the caterpillars may feed upon Lovegrasses (Eragrostis) and Purpletop (Tridens flavus).
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), a female seen here gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium), relies upon several forest trees as hosts. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Willow (Salix), Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Tuliptree, and Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are among the local species known to be used.  The future of the latter food species at Conewago Falls is doubtful.  Fortunately for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the “generalist” feeding requirements of this butterfly’s larvae enable the species to survive the loss of a host plant.
A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, black morph, gathering nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.
The Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus), seen here on Joe-Pye Weed, feeds exclusively upon Pawpaw (Asimina) trees as a caterpillar.  This butterfly species may wander, but its breeding range is limited to the moist Riparian Woodlands where colonial groves of Pawpaw may be found.  The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), our native species in Pennsylvania, and the Zebra Swallowtail occur at the northern edge of their geographic ranges in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Planting Pawpaw trees as an element of streamside reforestation projects certainly benefits this marvelous butterfly.

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.

SOURCES

Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn.  2003.  Butterflies of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.