Schools of Juvenile Largemouth Bass Learning to Survive

Yesterday, while photographing damselflies on a rehabilitated segment of a warmwater lower Susquehanna valley stream, we noticed some oddly chunky small fish gathered on the surface of a pool along the shoreline.

Damselflies and Small Fish
Perched damselflies and some sort of robust little fish feeding nearby.

Upon further inspection, they appeared to be fingerlings of some type of sunfish or bass.  Time for a closer look.

Juvenile Largemouth Bass
At just one inch in length, these juvenile Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) are already showing signs of the dark lateral stripe that so easily identifies the adult fish.
Adult Largemouth Bass on Spawning Bed
Adult Largemouth Bass began spawning among nearby beds of Spatterdock and other emergent and submerged aquatic vegetation about one month ago, just as water temperatures stabilized to a minimum of the low sixties for several days and nights.  Each female can lay thousands of eggs.  Only those that are successfully fertilized by the attending male have a chance to hatch.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
Largemouth Bass eggs can hatch as soon as ten days after being deposited in the nest by the female and fertilized by the male.  The fry linger in the nest for another week consuming the nutrition contained in their attached yolk sac.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
The juvenile fish are then ready to leave the nest and begin feeding on zooplankton.
Juvenile Largemouth Bass
Young largemouths often gather in schools to feed in waters near their birthplace.  As they grow, they soon begin consuming small invertebrates and tiny fish.  But for young bass, the hazards are many.  These juveniles can become victims of a host of predatory insects, crayfish, piscivorous birds, and bigger fish.  Then too, Largemouth Bass, like most other species  of fishes, are cannibalistic and will consume others of their own kind.  Of the thousands of eggs produced by a mating pair, natural selection determines which, if any, of their progeny will survive to reproduce and sustain their genetic line.

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the Largemouth Bass is an introduced species.

A Limpkin’s Journey to Pennsylvania: A Waffle House Serving Escargot at Every Exit

Mid-summer can be a less than exciting time for those who like to observe wild birds.  The songs of spring gradually grow silent as young birds leave the nest and preoccupy their parents with the chore of gathering enough food to satisfy their ballooning appetites.  To avoid predators, roving families of many species remain hidden and as inconspicuous as possible while the young birds learn how to find food and handle the dangers of the world.

But all is not lost.  There are two opportunities for seeing unique birds during the hot and humid days of July.

First, many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and godwits begin moving south from breeding grounds in Canada.  That’s right, fall migration starts during the first days of summer, right where spring migration left off.  The earliest arrivals are primarily birds that for one reason on another (age, weather, food availability) did not nest this year.  These individuals will be followed by birds that completed their breeding cycles early or experienced nest failures.  Finally, adults and juveniles from successful nests are on their way to the wintering grounds, extending the movement into the months we more traditionally start to associate with fall migration—late August into October.

For those of you who find identifying shorebirds more of a labor than a pleasure, I get it.  For you, July can bring a special treat—post-breeding wanderers.  Post-breeding wanderers are birds we find roaming in directions other than south during the summer months, after the nesting cycle is complete.  This behavior is known as “post-breeding dispersal”.  Even though we often have no way of telling for sure that a wandering bird did indeed begin its roving journey after either being a parent or a fledgling during the preceding nesting season, the term post-breeding wanderer still applies.  It’s a title based more on a bird sighting and it’s time and place than upon the life cycle of the bird(s) being observed.  Post-breeding wanderers are often southern species that show up hundreds of miles outside there usual range, sometimes traveling in groups and lingering in an adopted area until the cooler weather of fall finally prompts them to go back home.  Many are birds associated with aquatic habitats such as shores, marshes, and rivers, so water levels and their impact on the birds’ food supplies within their home range may be the motivation for some of these movements.  What makes post-breeding wanderers a favorite among many birders is their pop.  They are often some of our largest, most colorful, or most sought-after species.  Birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, stilts, avocets, terns, and raptors are showy and attract a crowd.

While it’s often impossible to predict exactly which species, if any, will disperse from their typical breeding range in a significant way during a given year, some seem to roam with regularity.  Perhaps the most consistent and certainly the earliest post-breeding wanderer to visit our region is the “Florida Bald Eagle”.  Bald Eagles nest in “The Sunshine State” beginning in the fall, so by early spring, many of their young are on their own.   By mid-spring, many of these eagles begin cruising north, some passing into the lower Susquehanna valley and beyond.  Gatherings of dozens of adult Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam during April and May, while our local adults are nesting and after the wintering birds have gone north, probably include numerous post-breeding wanderers from Florida and other Gulf Coast States.

So this week, what exactly was it that prompted hundreds of birders to travel to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from all over the Mid-Atlantic States and from as far away as Colorado?

Birders observing something special at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on July 10, 2023.

Was it the majestic Great Blue Herons and playful Killdeer?

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron and a Killdeer.

Was it the colorful Green Herons?

Green Heron
Green Heron

Was it the Great Egrets snapping small fish from the shallows?

Great Egret
Great Egret

Was it the small flocks of shorebirds like these Least Sandpipers beginning to trickle south from Canada?

Least Sandpipers
Least Sandpipers

All very nice, but not the inspiration for traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see a bird.

It was the appearance of this very rare post-breeding wanderer…

Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
A Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County.  The Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is the only surviving member of the family Aramidae.

…Pennsylvania’s first record of a Limpkin, a tropical wading bird native to Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and South America.  Many observers visiting Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area had never seen one before, so if they happen to be a “lister”, a birder who keeps a tally of the wild bird species they’ve seen, this Limpkin was a “lifer”.

The Limpkin is an inhabitant of vegetated marshlands where it feeds almost exclusively upon large snails of the family Ampullariidae, including the Florida Applesnail (Pomacea paludosa), the largest native freshwater snail in the United States.

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
In the United States, the native range of the Limpkin lies within the native range of the Florida Applesnail, shown here in gold.  Introduced populations of the snail are shown in brown.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)
A spectacular nineteenth-century rendition of the Florida Applesnail, including an egg mass, illustrated by Helen E. Lawson in Samuel S. Haldeman’s “Monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United States”.

Observations of the Limpkin lingering at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area have revealed a pair of interesting facts.  First, in the absence of Florida Applesnails, this particular Limpkin has found a substitute food source, the non-native Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis).  And second, Chinese Mystery Snails have recently become established in the lakes, pools, and ponds at the refuge, very likely arriving as stowaways on Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) and/or American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), native transplants brought in during recent years to improve wetland habitat and process the abundance of nutrients (including waterfowl waste) in the water.

A Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Chinese Mystery Snail is the largest freshwater snail in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
By hitching a ride on aquatic transplants like this Spatterdock, non-native freshwater snails are easily vectored into new areas outside their previous range.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily, flowering in August.
American Lotus in flower at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Blooming American Lotus transplants in a pool at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area during August.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
Limpkin holding Chinese Mystery Snail
The Limpkin is seen here maneuvering the the snail in its bill, a set of mandibles specially adapted for extracting the bodies of large freshwater snails from their shells.
Limpkin Grasping Chinese Mystery Snail
The tweezers-like tip of the bill is used to grasp the shell by the rim of the opening or by the “trapdoor” (operculum) that protects the snail inside.
Chinese Mystery Snail
A posed Chinese Mystery Snail showing its “trapdoor”, the operculum protecting the soft body tissue when the animal withdraws inside.  The tips of the Limpkin’s bill close tightly like the end of a tweezers to grasp the operculum and remove it and the snail’s body from the shell.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Limpkin Removing Chinese Mystery Snail from Shell
The tweezers-tipped bill, which is curved slightly to the right in some Limpkins, is slid into the shell to grasp the snails body and remove it for consumption.  The entire extraction process takes 10 to 30 seconds.

The Middle Creek Limpkin’s affinity for Chinese Mystery Snails may help explain how it was able to find its way to Pennsylvania in apparent good health.  Look again at the map showing the range of the Limpkin’s primary native food source, the Florida Applesnail.  Note that there are established populations (shown in brown) where these snails were introduced along the northern coast of Georgia and southern coast of South Carolina…

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
Native (gold) and non-native (brown) ranges of the Florida Applesnail.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…now look at the latest U.S.G.S. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map showing the ranges (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails…

Range (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…and now imagine that you’re a happy-go-lucky Limpkin working your way up the Atlantic Coastal Plain toward Pennsylvania and taking advantage of the abundance of food and sunshine that summer brings to the northern latitudes.  It’s a new frontier.  Introduced populations of Chinese Mystery Snails are like having a Waffle House serving escargot at every exit along the way!

Be sure to click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about the Chinese Mystery Snail and its arrival in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Once there, you’ll find some additional commentary about the Limpkin and the likelihood of Everglade Snail Kites taking advantage of the presence of Chinese Mystery Snails to wander north.  Be certain to check it out.

Everglade Snail Kite
The endangered Everglade Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus), a Florida Applesnail specialist, has survived in part due to its ability to adapt to eating the non-native Pomacea maculata applesnails which have become widespread in Florida following releases from aquaria.  The adaptation?…a larger body and bill for eating larger snails.  (National Park Service image)