See Food and an Oriole Doubleheader

The rain and clouds have at last departed.  With blue skies and sunshine to remind us just how wonderful a spring afternoon can be, we took a stroll at Memorial Lake State Park in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to look for some migratory birds.

Indigo Bunting
Though running just a few days later than usual, Indigo Buntings have arrived to begin nesting.
Common Loon
This Common Loon dropped by Memorial Lake during a storm several days ago and decided to stay awhile.  It’s a species that winters in oceanic waters along the Atlantic seaboard and nests on glacial lakes to our north.
Common Loon
Because of the low level of turbidity in Memorial Lake, visibility is good enough to allow this benthic feeder an opportunity to see food before expending energy to dive down and retrieve it.  Favorable foraging conditions might be part of the reason this bird is hanging around.
Shoreline Vegetation at Memorial Lake
Clear Water-  Memorial Lake is one of the few man-made lakes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to be appropriately vegetated with an abundance of submerged, floating, and emergent plants.  As a result, the water from Indiantown Run that passes through the impoundment is minimally impacted by nutrient loads and the algal blooms they can cause.  Buffers of woody and herbaceous growth along the lake’s shorelines provide additional nutrient sequestering and help prevent soil erosion and siltation.
Baltimore Oriole
The breeding season has begun for Neotropical migrants including this Baltimore Oriole, which we found defending a nesting territory in a stand of Black Walnut trees.
Orchard Oriole
Along the edge of the lake, this Orchard Oriole and its mate were in yet another stand of tall walnut trees.
Common Nighthawks
Early in the season and early in the day, we started seeing Common Nighthawks flying above wooded areas north of the lake at 4 o’clock this afternoon.  After all the raw and inclement weather they’ve experienced in recent days, the warm afternoon was probably their first opportunity to feed on flying insects in quite a while.
Common Nighthawks
Early birds, Common Nighthawks feeding at 4 P.M.

What?  You thought we were gonna drop in on Maryland’s largest city for a couple of ball games and some oysters, clams, and crab cakes—not likely.

Time to Order Trees and Shrubs for Spring

It’s that time of year.  Your local county conservation district is taking orders for their annual tree sale and it’s a deal that can’t be beat.  Order now for pickup in April.

The prices are a bargain and the selection includes the varieties you need to improve wildlife habitat and water quality on your property.  For species descriptions and more details, visit each tree sale web page (click the sale name highlighted in blue).  And don’t forget to order packs of evergreens for planting in mixed clumps and groves to provide winter shelter and summertime nesting sites for our local native birds.  They’re only $12.00 for a bundle of 10.

Mature Trees in a Suburban Neighborhood
It’s the most desirable block in town, not because the houses are any different from others built during the post-war years of the mid-twentieth century, but because the first owners of these domiciles had the good taste and foresight to plant long-lived trees on their lots, the majority of them native species.  Pin Oak, Northern Red Oak, Yellow Poplar, Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Norway Spruce, and American Holly dominate the landscape and create excellent habitat for birds and other wildlife.  These 75-year-old plantings provide an abundance of shade in summer and thermal stability in winter, making it a “cool” place to live or take a stroll at any time of the year.

Cumberland County Conservation District Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 22, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Winterberry
Cumberland County Conservation District is taking orders for Common Winterberry, the ideal small shrub for wet soil anywhere on your property.  To get berries, you’ll need both males and females, so buy a bunch and plant them in a clump or scattered group.
Pin Oak
To live for a century or more like this towering giant, a Pin Oak needs to grow in well-drained soils with adequate moisture.  These sturdy shade providers do well along streams and on low ground receiving clean runoff from hillsides, roofs, streets, and parking areas.  As they age, Pin Oaks can fail to thrive and may become vulnerable to disease in locations where rainfall is not adequately infiltrated into the soil.  Therefore, in drier areas such as raised ground or slopes, avoid the Pin Oak and select the more durable Northern Red Oak for planting.  This year, Pin Oaks are available from the Cumberland and Lancaster County Conservation Districts, while Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York Counties are taking orders for Northern Red Oaks.
Purple Coneflower
The Cumberland County Conservation District is again offering a “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” for seeding your own pollinator meadow or garden.  It consists of more than twenty species including this perennial favorite, Purple Coneflower.

Dauphin County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Monday, March 18, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 18, 2024 or Friday, April 19, 2024

Eastern Redbud
The Eastern Redbud is small tree native to our forest edges, particularly in areas of the Piedmont Province with Triassic geology (Furnace Hills, Conewago Hills, Gettysburg/Hammer Creek Formations, etc.)  Also known as the Judas Tree, the redbud’s brilliant flowers are followed by heart-shaped leaves.  As seen here, it is suitable for planting near houses and other buildings.  Eastern Redbud seedlings are being offered through tree sales in Dauphin, Cumberland, and Lancaster Counties.

Lancaster County Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 12, 2024

Yellow Poplar
The Yellow Poplar, often called Tuliptree or Tulip Poplar for its showy flowers, is a sturdy, fast-growing deciduous tree native to forests throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Its pole-straight growth habit in shady woodlands becomes more spreading and picturesque when the plant is grown as a specimen or shade tree in an urban or suburban setting.  The Yellow Poplar can live for hundreds of years and is a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available this year from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
The American Sweetgum, also known as Sweet Gum, is a large, long-lived tree adorned with a mix of vibrant colors in autumn.
American Goldfinches and Pine Siskin on Sweet Gum
Ever wonder where all the American Goldfinches and particularly the Pine Siskins go after passing through our region in fall?  Well, many are headed to the lowland forests of the Atlantic Coastal Plain where they feed on an abundance of seeds contained in spiky American Sweetgum fruits.  In the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley Provinces of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, American Sweetgum transplants can provide enough sustenance to sometimes lure our friendly finches into lingering through the winter.
Sweet Gum in a Beaver Pond
The American Sweetgum is a versatile tree.  It can be planted on upland sites as well as in wet ground along streams, lakes, and rivers.  In the beaver pond seen here it is the dominate tree species.  This year, you can buy the American Sweetgum from the Lancaster County Conservation District.
"Red-twig Dogwood"
“Red-twig Dogwood” is a group of similar native shrubs that, in our region, includes Silky Dogwood and the more northerly Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea).  Both have clusters of white flowers in spring and showy red twigs in winter.  They are an excellent choice for wet soils.  Landscapers often ruin these plants by shearing them off horizontally a foot or two from the ground each year.  To produce flowers and fruit, and to preserve winter attractiveness, trim them during dormancy by removing three-year-old and older canes at ground level, letting younger growth untouched.
Silky Dogwood Stream Buffer
“Red-twig Dogwoods” make ideal mass plantings for streamside buffers and remain showy through winter, even on a gloomy day.  They not only mitigate nutrient and sediment pollution, they provide excellent food and cover for birds and other wildlife.  Both Silky and Red-osier Dogwoods are available for sale through the Lancaster County Conservation District as part of their special multi-species offers, the former is included in its “Beauty Pack” and the latter in its “Wildlife Pack”.  The similar Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) is being offered for sale by the York County Conservation District.

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree and Plant Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 8, 2024

Pickup on: Friday, April 19, 2024

Common Pawpaw flower
The unique maroon flowers of the Common Pawpaw produce banana-like fruits in summer.  These small native trees grow best in damp, well-drained soils on slopes along waterways, where they often form clonal understory patches.  To get fruit, plant a small grove to increase the probability of pollination.  The Common Pawpaw is a host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.  It is available through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County sales.
Eastern Red Cedar
The Eastern Red Cedar provides excellent food, cover, and nesting sites for numerous songbirds.  Planted in clumps of dozens or groves of hundreds of trees, they can provide winter shelter for larger animals including deer and owls.  The Eastern Red Cedar is being offered for purchase through both the Lebanon and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.
Hybrid American Chestnut
Care to try your hand at raising some chestnuts?  Lebanon County Conservation District has hybrid American Chestnut seedlings for sale.
Common Winterberry
Lebanon County Conservation District is offering Common Winterberry and Eastern White Pine during their 2024 Tree and Plant Sale.  Plant them both for striking color during the colder months.  Eastern White Pine is also available from the Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and York County sales.

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—

Orders due by: Sunday, March 24, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Pollinator Garden
In addition to a selection of trees and shrubs, the Perry County Conservation District is again selling wildflower seed mixes for starting your own pollinator meadow or garden.  For 2024, they have both a “Northeast Perennials and Annuals Mix” and a “Butterfly and Hummingbird Seed Mix” available.  Give them a try so you can give up the mower!

Again this year, Perry County is offering bluebird nest boxes for sale.  The price?—just $12.00.

Eastern Bluebird
Wait, what?,…twelve bucks,…that’s cheaper than renting!

York County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 15, 2024

Pickup on: Thursday, April 11, 2024

Buttonbush flower
The Buttonbush, a shrub of wet soils, produces a cosmic-looking flower.  It grows well in wetlands, along streams, and in rain gardens.  Buttonbush seedlings are for sale from both the York and Lancaster County Conservation Districts.

To get your deciduous trees like gums, maples, oaks, birches, and poplars off to a safe start, conservation district tree sales in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and Perry Counties are offering protective tree shelters.  Consider purchasing these plastic tubes and supporting stakes for each of your hardwoods, especially if you have hungry deer in your neighborhood.

Deciduous Tree Planting Protected by Shelters
Tree shelters protect newly transplanted seedlings from browsing deer, klutzy hikers, visually impaired mower operators, and other hazards.

There you have it.  Be sure to check out each tree sale’s web page to find the selections you like, then get your order placed.  The deadlines will be here before you know it and you wouldn’t want to miss values like these!

Birds Along the River’s Edge

Just as bare ground along a plowed road attracts birds in an otherwise snow-covered landscape, a receding river or large stream can provide the same benefit to hungry avians looking for food following a winter storm.

Here is a small sample of some of the species seen during a brief stop along the Susquehanna earlier this week.

Song Sparrow
Along vegetated edges of the Susquehanna and its tributaries, the Song Sparrow is ubiquitous in its search for small seeds and other foods.  As the river recedes from the effects of this month’s rains, the shoreline is left bare of more recently deposited snow cover.  Song Sparrows and other birds are attracted to streamside corridors of frost-free ground to find sufficient consumables for supplying enough energy to survive the long cold nights of winter.
American Robin
Thousands of American Robins have been widespread throughout the lower Susquehanna valley during the past week.  Due to the mild weather during this late fall and early winter, some may still be in the process of working their way south.  Currently, many robins are concentrated along the river shoreline where receding water has exposed unfrozen soils to provide these birds with opportunities for finding earthworms (Lumbricidae) and other annelids.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
This Golden-crowned Kinglet was observed searching the trees and shrubs along the Susquehanna shoreline for tiny insects and spiders. Temperatures above the bare ground along the receding river can be a few degrees higher than in surrounding snow-covered areas, thus improving the chances of finding active prey among the trunks and limbs of the riparian forest.
Brown Creeper
Not far from the kinglet, a Brown Creeper is seen searching the bark of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) for wintering insects, as well as their eggs and larvae.  Spiders in all their life stages are a favorite too.
American Pipits
American Pipits not only inhabit farm fields during the winter months, they are quite fond of bare ground along the Susquehanna.  Seen quite easily along a strip of pebbly shoreline exposed by receding water, these birds will often escape notice when spending time on mid-river gravel and sand bars during periods of low flow.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.
An American Pipit on a bitterly cold afternoon along the Susquehanna.

Piscivorous Waterfowl Visiting Lakes and Ponds

Heavy rains and snow melt have turned the main stem of the Susquehanna and its larger tributaries into a muddy torrent.  For fish-eating (piscivorous) ducks, the poor visibility in fast-flowing turbid waters forces them to seek better places to dive for food.  With man-made lakes and ponds throughout most of the region still ice-free, waterfowl are taking to these sources of open water until the rivers and streams recede and clear.

Common Mergansers
The Common Merganser is a species of diving duck with a primary winter range that, along the Atlantic Coast, reaches its southern extreme in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds.  Recently, many have left the main stem of the muddy rivers to congregate on waters with better visibility at some of the area’s larger man-made lakes.
Common Mergansers Feeding
Common Mergansers dive to locate and capture prey, primarily small fish.  During this century, their numbers have declined along the southern edge of their winter range, possibly due to birds remaining to the north on open water, particularly on the Great Lakes.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, some of these cavity-nesting ducks can now be found year-round in areas where heavy timber again provides breeding sites in riparian forests.  After nesting, females lead their young to wander widely along our many miles of larger rivers and streams to feed.
Several Common Mergansers Intimidating a Male with a Freshly Caught Fish
The behavior of these mergansers demonstrates the stiff competition for food that can result when predators are forced away from ideal habitat and become compressed into less favorable space.  On the river, piscivores can feed on the widespread abundance of small fish including different species of minnows, shiners, darters, and more.  In man-made lakes stocked for recreational anglers with sunfish, bass, and other predators (many of them non-native), small forage species are usually nonexistent.  As a result, fish-eating birds can catch larger fish, but are successful far less often.  Seen here are several mergansers resorting to intimidation in an effort to steal a young bass away from the male bird that just surfaced with it.  While being charged by the aggressors, he must quickly swallow his oversize catch or risk losing it.

With a hard freeze on the way, the fight for life will get even more desperate in the coming weeks.  Lakes will ice over and the struggle for food will intensify.  Fortunately for mergansers and other piscivorous waterfowl, high water on the Susquehanna is expected to recede and clarify, allowing them to return to their traditional environs.  Those with the most suitable skills and adaptations to survive until spring will have a chance to breed and pass their vigor on to a new generation of these amazing birds.

Birds of Snow-covered Farmland

When the ground becomes snow covered, it’s hard to imagine anything lives in the vast wide-open expanses of cropland found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s fertile valleys.

Snow-covered Farm Field
A snow-covered field with no standing vegetation.  For nearly all wild birds, mammals, and other animals, modern agricultural practices offer no means of sustenance, particularly during the winter months.

Yet, there is one group of birds that can be found scrounging a living from what little exists after a season of high-intensity farming.  Meet the Horned Lark.

Horned Larks
Horned Larks occur year-round in the lower Susquehanna region.  Birds found wintering here are hardy individuals that breed in the arctic tundra, terrain reminiscent of our treeless farmlands.  Another population of larks seems to have adapted to no-till farming, nesting with some success in unplowed fields during the early part of the growing season.  The impact of herbicide application on survival of these broods could be a topic of research for an energetic student out there…hint, hint.
A Flock of Horned Larks
Nearly invisible on bare ground, Horned Larks are much more conspicuous after a fresh snowfall.  For protection from predators, they gather in flocks.  During the days of raw manure application, 300 to 500 larks could be found attracted to a freshly spread strip in a snow-covered field.  Modern liquid manure, which contains fewer undigested seeds and grains for larks, is not as attractive to these and other birds.
Horned Larks in Snow
During severe storms, we’ve seen Horned Larks remain active throughout the night.  We’ve even witnessed them taking shelter by burying themselves in the snow.
Horned Lark in Flight
To find food, Horned Larks are constantly on the move…
Horned Lark
…seeking out bare ground or the seed-bearing tops of plant stems that remain exposed above the snow.
Horned Larks Feeding at Roadside
Following storms, Horned Larks often gather along roadsides where snow removal has revealed “weed” seeds and other tiny morsels that, though they are almost imperceptible to us, are a meal for a Horned Lark.
A Horned Lark munching "weed" seeds.
A Horned Lark munching “weed” seeds.
Horned Larks and Lapland Longsrurs
Flocks of wintering Horned Larks will sometimes contain one or more of the several much less numerous species with a similar proclivity for tundra-like environs during the colder months.  We examined this gathering a little bit more closely…
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks
…and found these Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus).  In winter, Lapland Longspurs (the two streaked birds: one to the far left and the other high-stepping the white line) can be hard to discern from the earth tones of farmland habitat.  Breeding males, however, are a brilliant white with a chestnut-colored nape and a black bib, mask, and cap.  On rare occasions, these males in spectacular alternate plumage can be found in the lower Susquehanna valley prior to their departure to nesting areas near the treeline in northern Canada and Alaska.
Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs
A close-up image (through the windshield) of a roadside flock of Horned larks and three Lapland Longspurs (top, far right, and third from bottom).

If you decide to take a little post-storm trip to look for Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, be sure to drive carefully.  Do your searching on quiet rural roads with minimal traffic.  Stop and park only where line-of-sight and other conditions allow it to be done safely.  Use your flashers and check your mirrors often.  Think before you stop and park—don’t get stuck or make a muddy mess.  And most important of all, be aware that you’re on a roadway—get out of the way of traffic.

Eastern Meadowlarks
Flushed from roadside feeding areas by passing automobiles, these Eastern Meadowlarks were previously displaced from their grassland and pasture foraging areas by snow cover.

If you’re not going out to look for larks and longspurs, we do have a favor to ask of you.  Please remember to slow down while you’re driving.  Not only is this an accident-prone time of year for people in cars and trucks, it’s a dangerous time for birds and other wildlife too.  They’re at greatest peril of getting run over while concentrated along roadsides looking for food following snow storms.

American Pipit
The American Pipit is another barren-field specialist that can be found feeding at roadside following snowstorms, particularly when they coincide with the bird’s migration in late fall or early spring.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Snow Bunting
The Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), like the Lapland Longspur, occurs among flocks of Horned Larks in winter.  Other barren-ground birds you’ll see feeding along country roads following significant snowfalls include Savannah and Vesper Sparrows.
Killdeer
During mild winters, Killdeer may linger in farmlands where they are more easily heard than seen…until it snows.

Want Healthy Floodplains and Streams? Want Clean Water? Then Make Room for the Beaver

I’m worried about the beaver.  Here’s why.

Imagine a network of brooks and rivulets meandering through a mosaic of shrubby, sometimes boggy, marshland, purifying water and absorbing high volumes of flow during storm events.  This was a typical low-gradient stream in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in the days prior to the arrival of the trans-Atlantic human migrant.  Then, a frenzy of trapping, tree chopping, mill building, and stream channelization accompanied the east to west waves of settlement across the region.  The first casualty: the indispensable lowlands manager, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

Beaver Traps
Nineteenth-century beaver traps on display in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Soon after their arrival, Trans-Atlantic migrants (Europeans) established trade ties to the trans-Beringia migrants (“Indians”) already living in the lower Susquehanna valley and recruited them to cull the then-abundant North American Beavers.  By the early 1700s, beaver populations (as well as numbers of other “game” animals) were seriously depleted, prompting the Conoy, the last of the trans-Beringia migrants to reside on the lower Susquehanna, to disperse.  The traps pictured here are samples of the types which were subsequently used by the European settlers to eventually extirpate the North American Beaver from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during the 1800s.

Without the widespread presence of beavers, stream ecology quickly collapsed.  Pristine waterways were all at once gone, as were many of their floral and faunal inhabitants.  It was a streams-to-sewers saga completed in just one generation.  So, if we really want to restore our creeks and rivers, maybe we need to give the North American Beaver some space and respect.  After all, we as a species have yet to build an environmentally friendly dam and have yet to fully restore a wetland to its natural state.  The beaver is nature’s irreplaceable silt deposition engineer and could be called the 007 of wetland construction—doomed upon discovery, it must do its work without being noticed, but nobody does it better.

North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Beavers were reintroduced to the Susquehanna watershed during the second half of the twentieth century.
A beaver dam on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
A beaver dam and pond on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Floodplain Wetlands Managed by North American Beavers
Beaver dams not only create ponds, they also maintain shallow water levels in adjacent areas of the floodplain creating highly-functional wetlands that grow the native plants used by the beaver for food.  These ecosystems absorb nutrients and sediments.  Prior to the arrival of humans, they created some of the only openings in the vast forests and maintained essential habitat for hundreds of species of plants as well as animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.  Without the beaver, many of these species could not, and in their absence did not, exist here.
The beaver lodge provides shelter from the elements and predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Their newly constructed lodge provides shelter from the elements and from predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes Visit a Beaver-managed Floodplain in the lower Susquehanna valley
Floodplains managed by North American Beavers can provide opportunities for the recovery of the uncommon, rare, and extirpated species that once inhabited the network of streamside wetlands that stretched for hundreds of miles along the waterways of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Great Blue Heron
A wintering Great Blue Heron is attracted to a beaver pond by the abundance of fish in the rivulets that meander through its attached wetlands.
Sora Rail in Beaver Pond
Beaver Ponds and their attached wetlands provide nesting habitat for uncommon birds like this Sora rail.
Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed in Beaver Pond
Lesser Duckweed grows in abundance in beaver ponds and Wood Ducks are particularly fond of it during their nesting cycle.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a Beaver Pond
Beaver dams maintain areas of wet soil along the margins of the pond where plants like Woolgrass sequester nutrients and contain runoff while providing habitat for animals ranging in size from tiny insects to these rare visitors, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis).
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.

Few landowners are receptive to the arrival of North American Beavers as guests or neighbors.  This is indeed unfortunate.  Upon discovery, beavers, like wolves, coyotes, sharks, spiders, snakes, and so many other animals, evoke an irrational negative response from the majority of people.  This too is quite unfortunate, and foolish.

North American Beavers spend their lives and construct their dams, ponds, and lodges exclusively within floodplains—lands that are going to flood.  Their existence should create no conflict with the day to day business of human beings.  But humans can’t resist encroachment into beaver territory.  Because they lack any basic understanding of floodplain function, people look at these indispensable lowlands as something that must be eliminated in the name of progress.  They’ll fill them with soil, stone, rock, asphalt, concrete, and all kinds of debris.  You name it, they’ll dump it.  It’s an ill-fated effort to eliminate these vital areas and the high waters that occasionally inundate them.  Having the audacity to believe that the threat of flooding has been mitigated, buildings and poorly engineered roads and bridges are constructed in these “reclaimed lands”.  Much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed has now been subjected to over three hundred years-worth of these “improvements” within spaces that are and will remain—floodplains.  Face it folks, they’re going to flood, no matter what we do to try to stop it.  And as a matter of fact, the more junk we put into them, the more we displace flood waters into areas that otherwise would not have been impacted!  It’s absolute madness.

By now we should know that floodplains are going to flood.  And by now we should know that the impacts of flooding are costly where poor municipal planning and negligent civil engineering have been the norm for decades and decades.  So aren’t we tired of hearing the endless squawking that goes on every time we get more than an inch of rain?  Imagine the difference it would make if we backed out and turned over just one quarter or, better yet, one half of the mileage along streams in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to North American Beavers.  No more mowing, plowing, grazing, dumping, paving, spraying, or building—just leave it to the beavers.  Think of the improvements they would make to floodplain function, water quality, and much-needed wildlife habitat.  Could you do it?  Could you overcome the typical emotional response to beavers arriving on your property and instead of issuing a death warrant, welcome them as the talented engineers they are?  I’ll bet you could.

Photo of the Day

Wildflower Meadow Project underway at East Donegal Riverfront Park
Here’s something to look forward to in the new year.  The good citizens of East Donegal Township in Lancaster County have partnered with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to establish an extensive wildflower meadow on what had been a mowed field of turf grass at Riverside Park in the Susquehanna floodplain near Marietta.  As the photo shows, the lawn plants have been eliminated in preparation for seeding with a diverse assortment of native grasses and wildflowers to provide habitat for birds and pollinators including butterflies, bees, and other insects.  Once established, the meadow’s extensive vegetative growth will help reduce stormwater runoff by better infiltrating rainfall to recharge the aquifer.  During flood events, the plantings will provide soil stabilization and increase the ability of the acreage to uptake nutrients, thus reducing the negative impact of major storms on the quality of water in the river and in Chesapeake Bay.  Check the project’s progress by stopping by from time to time in 2024!

One of Nature’s Finest: The Cardinal Flower

It may be one of the most treasured plants among native landscape gardeners.  The Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) blooms in August each year with a startling blaze of red color that, believe it or not, will sometimes be overlooked in the wild.

Cardinal Flower on a Stream
Cardinal Flower is most often found in wet soil along forested bodies of water.  The blooms of this shade-loving species may go unnoticed until rays of sunshine penetrate the canopy to strike their brilliant red petals.

The Cardinal Flower grows in wetlands as well as in a variety of moist soils along streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  Shady locations with short periods of bright sun each day seem to be favored for an abundance of color.

Cardinal Flower and Great Blue Lobelia
Cardinal Flower in bloom in a riparian forest along the Susquehanna.  To its right is its close relative, Great Lobelia, a plant sometimes known as Great Blue Lobelia or Blue Cardinal Flower.
Cardinal Flower in a wet bottomland woods.
Cardinal Flower in a wet bottomland woods.
The Cardinal Flower can find favorable growing conditions along stream, river and lake shores.
The Cardinal Flower can find favorable growing conditions along stream, river, and lake shores.  Even though they are perennial plants, their presence along such waters often seems temporary.  Changing conditions cause them to suddenly disappear from known locations, then sometimes reappear at the same place or elsewhere nearby.  Some of this phenomenon may be due to the fact that stressed plants can fail to bloom, so they easily escape notice.  When producing flowers during favorable years, the plants seem to mysteriously return.
Cardinal Flowers along a wave-swept shoreline light up the greenery of erosion-controlling riparian vegetation with glowing red color.
Cardinal Flowers along a wave-swept shoreline light up the greenery of erosion-controlling riparian vegetation with glowing red color.

The Cardinal Flower can be an ideal plant for attracting hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other late-summer pollinators.  It grows well in damp ground, especially in rain gardens and along the edges streams, garden ponds, and stormwater retention pools.  If you’re looking to add Cardinal Flower to your landscape, you need first to…

REMEMBER the CARDINAL RULE…

Cardinal Flower plants are available at many nurseries that carry native species of garden and/or pond plants.  Numerous online suppliers offer seed for growing your own Cardinal Flowers.  Some sell potted plants as well.  A new option is to grow Cardinal Flowers from tissue cultures.  Tissue-cultured plants are raised in laboratory media, so the pitfalls of disease and hitchhikers like invasive insects and snails are eliminated.  These plants are available through the aquarium trade from most chain pet stores.  Though meant to be planted as submerged aquatics in fish tank substrate, we’ve reared the tissue-cultured stock indoors as emergent plants in sandy soil and shallow water through the winter and early spring.  When it warms up, we transplant them into the edges of the outdoor ponds to naturalize.  As a habit, we always grow some Cardinal Flower plants in the fish tanks to take up the nitrates in the water and to provide a continuous supply of cuttings for starting more emergent stock for outdoor use.

Tissue culture Cardinal Flower being grown as a submerged aquatic in a fish aquarium.
A tissue-cultured Cardinal Flower rooted in sandy substrate and being grown as a submerged aquatic plant in a fish tank.  Cuttings from this plant will be used to grow emergent specimens in shallow water for transplanting outdoors around the garden pond.
Cardinal Flower from Tissue Culture
A Cardinal Flower grown from an aquarium store tissue culture blooms in the pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.
Cardinal Flower blooming in November.
Grown as an emergent, Cardinal Flower may bloom very late in the season.  This tissue-cultured specimen in the headquarters pond was photographed in early November, 2022.

Shorebirds and Stormwater Retention Ponds

Your best bet for finding migrating shorebirds in the lower Susquehanna region is certainly a visit to a sandbar or mudflat in the river.  The Conejohela Flats off Washington Boro just south of Columbia is a renowned location.  Some man-made lakes including the one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area are purposely drawn down during the weeks of fall migration to provide exposed mud and silt for feeding and resting sandpipers and plovers.  But with the Susquehanna running high due to recent rains and the cost of fuel trending high as well, maybe you want to stay closer to home to do your observing.

Fortunately for us, migratory shorebirds will drop in on almost any biologically active pool of shallow water and mud that they happen to find.  This includes flooded portions of fields, construction sites, and especially stormwater retention basins.  We stopped by a new basin just west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and found more than two dozen shorebirds feeding and loafing there.  We took each of these photographs from the sidewalk paralleling the south shore of the pool, thus never flushing or disturbing a single bird.

Stormwater retentrion basin.
Designed to prevent stream flooding and pollution, this recently installed stormwater retention basin along US 322 west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, has already attracted a variety of migrating plovers and sandpipers.
Killdeer
Killdeer stick close to exposed mud as they feed.
Least Sandpipers
Two of more than a dozen Least Sandpipers found busily feeding in the inch-deep water.
Lesser Yellowlegs
A Lesser Yellowlegs searching for small invertebrates.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Two Lesser Yellowlegs work out a disagreement.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are quick to colonize the waters held in well-engineered retention basins.  Proper construction and establishment of a functioning food chain/web in these man-made wetlands prevents them from becoming merely temporary cesspools for breeding mosquitos.

So don’t just drive by those big puddles, stop and have a look.  You never know what you might find.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.  They are most frequently seen on gravel and sand bars adjacent to the river’s grassy islands, but unusually high water for this time of year prevents them from using this favored habitat.  As a result, you might be lucky enough to discover Pectoral Sandpipers on almost any mudflat in the area.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller but very similar Least Sandpipers.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller, but otherwise very similar, Least Sandpipers.
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and a Least and Pectoral Sandpiper (left).
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and Least and Pectoral Sandpipers (left).

Blue Tuesday

We’ve got the summertime blues for you, right here at susquehannawildlife.net…

Big Bluestem
In warm-season grass meadows, Big Bluestem is now in flower.  This and other species of native prairie grasses provide excellent habitat for birds, mammals, and insects including butterflies.  To survive drought and fire, their roots run much deeper than cool season grasses, creeping down four to six feet or more.  This adaptation allowed warm season grasses to recover from heavy grazing by large Pre-Anthropocene mammals.  Today, it makes them ideal plants for soil stabilization.
A male Indigo Bunting has already found some ripe seeds among the heads of flowering Big Bluestem.
A male Indigo Bunting has already found ripe seeds among the heads of flowering Big Bluestem.
Molting Indigo Bunting
Look closely and you’ll see our Indigo Bunting is beginning a pre-migration molt out of its bright-blue breeding (alternate) plumage and into a gray-brown winter (basic) plumage.  The berries of the American Pokeweed upon which it is perched will soon ripen into a dark blue, almost black, color.  Though toxic to humans, these fruits find favor with many species of birds and mammals.
Silky Dogwood
Another great wildlife food is Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), a deciduous shrub that sports blue-colored berries in summer and showy, bright-red twigs in winter.  It grows well in wet ground along streams and ponds, as well as in rain gardens.
Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron searches the shallows for small fish.  This species is also a good mouser, at times seen hunting in grassy meadows.  Right now is prime time to see it and a variety of other herons and egrets throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

…so don’t let the summertime blues get you down.  Grab a pair of binoculars and/or a camera and go for a stroll!

Be on the Lookout: Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Those mid-summer post-breeding wanders continue to delight birders throughout the Mid-Atlantic States.  One colorful denizen of ponds and wetlands that has yet to put in an appearance in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this year is the Black-bellied Whistling Duck.  You might remember this species from earlier posts describing the fortieth anniversary of your editor’s journey to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Like many other birds, the Black-bellied Whistling Duck has been extending its range north from Texas, Florida, and other states along the Gulf Coastal Plain.  Populations of these waterfowl are chiefly resident birds with some short-distance movement to find suitable habitat for feeding and nesting.  They are not usually migratory, so summertime wandering may be the mechanism for their discovery of new habitats advantageous for nesting in areas north of their current home.

Presently, at least two dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are being seen regularly at a stormwater retention pond in a housing subdivision along Amalfi Drive west of Smyrna, Delaware.  This small population of avian tourists has spent at least two summers in the area.  Just yesterday, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were seen and photographed about ten miles to the east at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  Nine were counted there while 27 were being watched simultaneously at the Amalfi site.  Earlier this week, a single Black-bellied Whistling Duck visited the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, indicating that the influx of these vagrants has transited the entire Delmarva Peninsula and entered Pennsylvania.  So while you’re out watching for those first southbound migrants of the year, be on the lookout for wayward wanderers too—wanderers like Black-bellied Whistling Ducks!

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a stormwater retention pond west of Smyrna, Delaware.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a stormwater retention pond west of Smyrna, Delaware.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Summertime exploration of new areas outside their resident turf may enable Black-bellied Whistling Ducks to find favorable habitats for extending their breeding range north.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks favor vegetated ponds, pools, and wetlands for feeding and nesting.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Did you remember to go to the post office and buy a Federal Duck Stamp?   Your purchase helps provide habitat for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and so many other magnificent birds.  And don’t forget, it’s your ticket for admission to our National Wildlife Refuges for an entire year!

A Few Plants with Wildlife Impact in June

Here’s a look at some native plants you can grow in your garden to really help wildlife in late spring and early summer.

The Larger Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) in flower in mid-June.
The showy bloom of a Larger Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and the drooping inflorescence of Soft Rush (Juncus effusus).  These plants favor moist soils in wetlands and damp meadows where they form essential cover and feeding areas for insects, amphibians, and marsh birds.  Each is an excellent choice for helping to absorb nutrients in a rain garden or stream-side planting.  They do well in wet soil or shallow water along the edges of garden ponds too.
Smooth Shadbush
The fruits of Smooth Shadbush (Amelanchier laevis), also known as Allegheny Serviceberry, Smooth Serviceberry, or Smooth Juneberry, ripen in mid-June and are an irresistible treat for catbirds, robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and roving flocks of Cedar Waxwings.
Common Milkweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
Also in mid-June, the fragrant blooms of Common Milkweed attract pollinators like Eastern Carpenter Bees,…
Common Milkweed and Honey Bee
…Honey Bees,…
Common Milkweed and Banded Hairstreak
…and butterflies including the Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus).  In coming weeks, Monarch butterflies will find these Common Milkweed plants and begin laying their eggs on the leaves.  You can lend them a hand by planting milkweed species (Asclepias) in your garden.  Then watch the show as the eggs hatch and the caterpillars begin devouring the foliage.  Soon, they’ll pupate and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch an adult Monarch emerge from a chrysalis!

The Value of Water

Are you worried about your well running dry this summer?  Are you wondering if your public water supply is going to implement use restrictions in coming months?  If we do suddenly enter a wet spell again, are you concerned about losing valuable rainfall to flooding?  A sensible person should be curious about these issues, but here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, we tend to take for granted the water we use on a daily basis.

This Wednesday, June 7,  you can learn more about the numerous measures we can take, both individually and as a community, to recharge our aquifers while at the same time improving water quality and wildlife habitat in and around our streams and rivers.  From 5:30 to 8:00 P.M., the Chiques Creek Watershed Alliance will be hosting its annual Watershed Expo at the Manheim Farm Show grounds adjacent to the Manheim Central High School in Lancaster County.  According to the organization’s web page, more than twenty organizations will be there with displays featuring conservation, aquatic wildlife, stream restoration, Honey Bees, and much more.  There will be games and custom-made fish-print t-shirts for the youngsters, plus music to relax by for those a little older.  Look for rain barrel painting and a rain barrel giveaway.  And you’ll like this—admission and ice cream are free.  Vendors including food trucks will be onsite preparing fare for sale.

And there’s much more.

To help recharge groundwater supplies, you can learn how to infiltrate stormwater from your downspouts, parking area, or driveway…

Urban Runoff
Does your local stream flood every time there’s a downpour, then sometimes dry up during the heat of summer?  Has this problem gotten worse over the years?  If so, you may be in big trouble during a drought.  Loss of base flow in a stream or river is a sure sign of depleted groundwater levels in at least a portion of its drainage basin.  Landowners, both public and private, in such a watershed need to start infiltrating stormwater into the ground instead of allowing it to become surface runoff.
Rain Garden Model
You can direct the stormwater from your downspout, parking area, or driveway into a rain garden to help recharge the aquifer that supplies your private or public well and nearby natural springs.  Displays including this model provided by Rapho Township show you how.

…there will be a tour of a comprehensive stream and floodplain rehabilitation project in Manheim Memorial Park adjacent to the fair grounds…

Legacy Sediments
Have you seen banks like these on your local stream?  On waterways throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, mill dams have trapped accumulations of sediments that eroded from farm fields prior to the implementation of soil conservation practices.  These legacy sediments channelize creeks and disconnect them from their now buried floodplains.  During storms, water that would have been absorbed by the floodplain is now displaced into areas of higher ground not historically inundated by a similar event.
Adjacent to the Manheim Farm Show grounds, the Chiques Creek Stream Restoration Project in Manheim Memorial Park has reconnected the waterway to its historic floodplain by removing a dam and the legacy sediments that accumulated behind it.
Legacy Sediments Removed
Chiques Creek in Manheim following removal of hundreds of truck loads of legacy sediments.  High water can again be absorbed by the wetlands and riparian forest of the floodplain surrounding this segment of stream.  There are no incised banks creating an unnatural channel or crumbling away to pollute downstream waters with nutrients and sediment.  Projects similar to this are critical to improving water quality in both the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.  Closer to home, they can help municipalities meet their stormwater management (MS4) requirements.
Bank-full Bench
Mark Metzler of Rettew Associates guides a tour of the Chiques Creek rehabilitation.  Here, cross vanes, stone structures that provide grade control along the stream’s course, were installed to gently steer the center of the channel away from existing structures.   Cross vanes manipulate the velocity of the creek’s flow across its breadth to dissipate potentially erosive energy and more precisely direct the deposition of gravel and sediment.

…and a highlight of the evening will be using an electrofishing apparatus to collect a sample of the fish now populating the rehabilitated segment of stream…

Electrofishing
Matt Kofroth, Lancaster County Conservation District Watershed Specialist, operates a backpack electrofishing apparatus while the netting crew prepares to capture the temporarily stunned specimens.  The catch is then brought to shore for identification and counting.

…so don’t miss it.  We can hardly wait to see you there!

The 2023 Watershed Expo is part of Lancaster Conservancy Water Week.

How Much Rainwater Runs Off Your Roof During a Storm?

During the spare time you have on a rainy day like today, you may have asked yourself, “Just how much water do people collect with those rain barrels they have attached to their downspouts?”  That’s a good question.  Let’s do a little math to figure it out.

First, we need to determine the area of the roof in square feet.  There’s no need to climb up there and measure angles, etc.  After all, we’re not ordering shingles—we’re trying to figure out the surface area upon which rain will fall vertically and be collected.  For our estimate, knowing the footprint of the building under roof will suffice.  We’ll use a very common footprint as an example—1,200 square feet.

40′ x 30′ = 1,200 sq. ft.

By dividing the area of the roof by 12, we can calculate the volume of water in cubic feet that is drained by the spouting for each inch of rainfall…

1,200 ÷ 12 = 100 cu. ft. per inch of rainfall

 

Next, we multiply the volume of water in cubic feet by 7.48 to convert it to gallons per inch of rainfall…

100 x 7.48 = 748 gallons per inch of rainfall

 

That’s a lot of water.  Just one inch of rain could easily fill more than a single rain barrel on a downspout.  Many homemade rain barrels are fabricated using recycled 55-gallon drums.  Commercially manufactured ones are usually smaller.  Therefore, we can safely say that in the case of a building with a footprint of 1,200 square feet, an array of at least 14 rain barrels is required to collect and save just one inch of rainfall.  Wow!

Why send that roof water down the street, down the drain, down the creek, or into the neighbors property?  Wouldn’t it be better to catch it for use around the garden?  At the very least, shouldn’t we be infiltrating all the water we can into the ground to recharge the aquifer?  Why contribute to flooding when you and I are gonna need that water some day?   Remember, the ocean doesn’t need the excess runoff—it’s already full.

Photo of the Day

Lancaster County Conservation District Tree Sale
Staff distribute trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers during today’s Lancaster County Conservation District Tree Seedling Sale.  Customers pre-ordered their selections back in March to receive great deals on the livestock they’ll need for planting an orchard, pollinator garden, forest buffer, or private wildlife refuge.

Photo of the Day

A Reforestation Project
Visible in the background of this image, an infestation of invasive Emerald Ash Borer larvae has killed the trees in a woodlot comprised exclusively of Green Ash.  Left standing, the dead snags provide excellent habitat for a number of animal species including cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers, known consumers of these destructive larvae.  To reforest the mowed field in the foreground, a variety of native deciduous trees have been planted.  In areas where a diversity of trees are not present to furnish a source of seeds for natural succession, manually planting an array of seedlings provides some insurance against the risk of allowing establishment of a single pioneer species such as the vulnerable Green Ash.  The white plastic tubes on the young trees offer protection from the ever-browsing White-tailed Deity.

Purple Haze Across the Fields

Have you noticed a purple haze across the fields right now?  If so, you may have wondered, “What kind of flowers are they?”

A purple haze of color stretches across fields not already green with cold-season crops like winter wheat.

Say hello to Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum), a non-native invasive species that has increased its prevalence in recent years by finding an improved niche in no-till cropland.  Purple Dead Nettle, also known as Red Dead Nettle, is native to Asia and Europe.  It has been a familiar early spring “weed” in gardens, along roadsides, and in other disturbed ground for decades.

Purple Dead Nettle owes its new-found success to the timing of its compressed growing season.  Its tiny seeds germinate during the fall and winter, after crops have been harvested and herbicide application has ended for the season.  The plants flower early in the spring and are thus particularly attractive to Honey Bees and other pollinators looking for a source of energy-rich nectar as they ramp up activity after winter lock down.  In many cases, Purple Dead Nettle has already completed its flowering cycle and produced seeds before there is any activity in the field to prepare for planting the summer crop.  The seeds spend the warmer months in dormancy, avoiding the hazards of modern cultivation that expel most other species of native and non-native plants from the agricultural landscape.

Purple Dead Nettle in Bloom
Flowering Purple Dead Nettle as a volunteer cover crop among last year’s corn stubble in a no-till field.
Purple Dead Nettle
Like the flowers of orchids, Purple Hedge Nettle blossoms are described as yoke shaped or bilateral (zygomorphic).  Psychedelic experiences are produced only through observation, not by ingestion.  A member of the mint family, its edible young leaves and tops have nutritional value, making a unique addition to salads and soups.
Purple Dead Nettle, Common Dandelion, and Shepherd's Purse
We call them “weeds”, but what do we know?  Purple Dead Nettle, Common Dandelion, and Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), three edible non-native invasive species with similar life cycles seen here flowering along a rural road among fields where intensive farming is practiced.  Shepard’s Purse, like many members of the mustard family, is already producing seeds at the bottom of the flower cluster by the time the uppermost buds open for business.
Spraying Herbicide
In preparation for seeding of a warm-season crop,  herbicide is applied on a no-till field to kill Shepherd’s Purse and other cool-season plants.  To help prevent sediment and nutrient discharge from lands where high-intensity agriculture is practiced, no-till methods are used to reduce runoff from the areas of bare soil that would otherwise be created by traditional plowing.

While modern farming has eliminated a majority of native plant and animal species from agricultural lands of the lower Susquehanna valley, its crop management practices have simultaneously invited vigorous invasion by a select few non-native species.   High-intensity farming devotes its acreage to providing food for a growing population of people—not to providing wildlife habitat.  That’s why it’s so important to minimize our impact on non-farm lands throughout the remainder of the watershed.  If we continue subdividing, paving, and mowing more and more space, we’ll eventually be living in a polluted semi-arid landscape populated by little else but non-native invasive plants and animals.  We can certainly do better than that.

Plantings for Wet Lowlands

This linear grove of mature trees, many of them nearly one hundred years old, is a planting of native White Oaks (Quercus alba) and Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor).

Imagine the benefit of trees like this along that section of stream you’re mowing or grazing right now.  The Swamp White Oak in particular thrives in wet soils and is available now for just a couple of bucks per tree from several of the lower Susquehanna’s County Conservation District Tree Sales.  These and other trees and shrubs planted along creeks and rivers to create a riparian buffer help reduce sediment and nutrient pollution.  In addition, these vegetated borders protect against soil erosion, they provide shade to otherwise sun-scorched waters, and they provide essential wildlife habitat.  What’s not to love?

Swamp White Oak
Autumn leaf of a Swamp White Oak

The following native species make great companions for Swamp White Oaks in a lowland setting and are available at bargain prices from one or more of the County Conservation District Tree Sales now underway…

Red Maple
The Red Maple is an ideal tree for a stream buffer project. They do so well that you should limit them to 10% or less of the plants in your project so that they don’t overwhelm slower-growing species.
River Birch
The River Birch (Betula nigra) is a multi-trunked tree of lowlands.  Large specimens with arching trunks help shade waterways and provide a source of falling insects for surface-feeding fish.  Its peeling bark is a distinctive feature.
Common Winterberry
The Common Winterberry with its showy red winter-time fruit is a slow-growing shrub of wet soils.  Only female specimens of this deciduous holly produce berries, so you need to plant a bunch to make sure you have both genders for successful pollination.
American Robins feeding on Common Winterberry.
An American Robin feeding on Common Winterberry.
Common Spicebush
Common Spicebush is a shrub of moist lowland soils.  It is the host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly and produces small red berries for birds and other wildlife.  Plant it widely among taller trees to provide native vegetation in the understory of your forest.
Common Spicebush foliage and berries.
Common Spicebush foliage and berries in the shade beneath a canopy of tall trees.
Common Pawpaw
The Common Pawpaw a small shade-loving tree of the forest understory.
Common Pawpaw
Common Pawpaw is a colony-forming small tree which produces a fleshy fruit.  It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail.
Buttonbush
The Buttonbush is a shrub of wet soils.  It produces a round flower cluster, followed by this globular seed cluster.
Eastern Sycamore
And don’t forget the Eastern Sycamore, the giant of the lowlands.  At maturity, the white-and-tan-colored bark on massive specimens makes them a spectacular sight along stream courses and river shores.  Birds ranging from owls, eagles, and herons to smaller species including the Yellow-throated Warbler rely upon them for nesting sites.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons Nesting in an Eastern Sycamore
Yellow-crowned Night Herons, an endangered species in Pennsylvania, nesting in an Eastern Sycamore.

So don’t mow, do something positive and plant a buffer!

Act now to order your plants because deadlines are approaching fast.  For links to the County Conservation District Tree Sales in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, see our February 18th post.

Time to Order Your Trees for Spring Planting

County Conservation District Tree Sales are underway throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Now is the time to order for pickup in April.  The prices are a bargain and the selection is fabulous.  For species descriptions and more details, visit each tree sale web page (click the sale name highlighted in blue).  And don’t forget to order bundles of evergreens for planting in mixed clumps and groves to provide winter shelter and summertime nesting sites for our local birds.  They’re only $12.00 for a bundle of 10—can’t beat that deal!

Cumberland County Conservation District Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 24, 2023

Pickup on: Thursday, April 20, 2023 or Friday, April 21, 2023

Showy Northeast Meadow Mix
Don’t mow it.  Plant a meadow or pollinator garden instead.
Showy Northeast Meadow Mix
Both Cumberland and Perry Counties are offering a native warm-season grass and wildflower seed mix for planting your own meadow or pollinator garden.  Perry County is also taking orders for a seed mix specifically formulated to grow plants for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.

Dauphin County Conservation District Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Monday, March 20, 2023

Pickup on: Thursday, April 20, 2023 or Friday, April 21, 2023

American Goldfinch atop an Eastern Hemlock
The Eastern Hemlock, Pennsylvania’s official state tree, is an excellent choice for addition to your landscape or reforestation project.  It tolerates rocky soils and its cones are an prime source of food for birds ranging from chickadees to finches.

Lancaster County Annual Tree Seedling Sale—

Orders due by: Friday, March 10, 2023

Pickup on: Thursday, April 13, 2023

Northern Red Oak
The handsome yet underused Northern Red Oak is a sturdy long-lived native tree that is ideal for street-side, lawn, and reforestation plantings.  In spring, it can be a magnet for migrating Neotropical birds when its flowers attract a wide variety of tiny insects to its upper reaches.  Unlike many other oaks, this species is a relatively fast grower.

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree and Plant Sale—

Orders due by: Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Pickup on: Friday, April 7, 2023

Pileated Woodpecker feeding on Black Gum berries.
In autumn, even after the bright red foliage is gone, the berries of mature Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) trees attract a wide variety of birds like this Pileated Woodpecker.  The Lebanon County Conservation District is offering Black Gum, also known as Black Tupelo, during their 2023 tree sale.  Why not order and plant a half dozen or more?

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—(click on 2023 Tree Sale Brochure tab when it scrolls across the page)

Orders due by: March 22, 2023

Pickup on: Thursday, April 13, 2023

Female Eastern Bluebird with Food for Young
The Perry County Conservation District is not only offering plants during this year’s sale, you can also purchase bluebird nest boxes for just $12.00 each!
Riparian Buffer at 15 Years
For less than the cost of one year of mowing, this stream corridor in Conewago Township, Dauphin County was reforested by the owner with hundreds of native trees, the majority purchased through County Conservation District Tree Sale events spanning a period of several years.  By replacing bare soil and mowed areas, the riparian buffer created by these plantings has significantly reduced the nutrient and sediment loads that were polluting the small stream therein known as Brill’s Run.  With determination and not a lot of money, you can do it too.
Maples, Pin Oaks, Eastern White Pines, and other trees in the Brill's Run riparian buffer.
But don’t forget the Eastern White Pines!

Photo of the Day

Legacy Sediment Removal and Floodplain Restoration
This stream restoration project is currently underway along a one-mile-long segment of Lancaster Conservancy lands along Conewago Creek.  The mountain of dirt is one of several stockpiles of legacy sediments removed to reestablish the floodplain’s historic geomorphology.  After eroding from cropland during the years prior to soil conservation, legacy sediments accumulated behind mill dams on waterways throughout the lower Susquehanna watershed.  After removal of the dams, creeks were left trapped within the sediment-choked bottomlands, incising steep muddy banks as they cut a new path through the former mill ponds.  Excavating legacy sediments from these sites eliminates creek banks and allows floodwaters to again spill directly into wetlands along the stream course.  With floodplain and wetland functions restored, nutrients are sequestered, high water is infiltrated to recharge aquifers, sediment loads from collapsing banks are eliminated, and much-needed habitat is created for native plants and animals.

To learn more about this project and others, you’ll want to check out the Landstudies website.

Take a Look at My Mussels

At this very moment, your editor is comfortably numb and is, if everything is going according to plans, again having a snake run through the plumbing in his body’s most important muscle.  It thus occurs to him how strange it is that with muscles as run down and faulty as his, people at one time asked him to come speak about and display his marvelous mussels.  And some, believe it or not, actually took interest in such a thing.  If the reader finds this odd, he or she would not be alone.  But the peculiarities don’t stop there.  The reader may find further bewilderment after being informed that the editor’s mussels are now in the collection of a regional museum where they are preserved for study by qualified persons with scientific proclivities.  All of this show and tell was for just one purpose—to raise appreciation and sentiment for our mussels, so that they might be protected.

Click on the “Freshwater Mussels and Clams” tab at the top of this page to see the editor’s mussels, and many others as well.  Then maybe you too will want to flex your muscles for our mussels.  They really do need, and deserve, our help.

We’ll be back soon.

Tree Identification

As deciduous trees lose their foliage in coming days, it’s an excellent time to pick up and examine some samples from the species you encounter during your autumn strolls.  Uncle Tyler Dyer is assembling the leaves he finds into a guide for identifying the most common wild and naturalized trees, shrubs, and woody vines of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  To use it, click on the “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines” tab at the top of this page and check out…

Click this image to visit “Ty Dyer’s Kaleidoscope of Color”.

…better known as Uncle Tyler’s leaf collection.

Thinking about doing some planting on your property during the fall or in the spring?  Before you do, peruse the gorgeous colors offered by the native species shown on Uncle Ty’s page.  You might never go back to those short-lived high maintenance cultivars of imported species ever again.  And by choosing a variety of native plants, you’ll be helping wildlife too.

Oh, by the way—thanks Uncle Ty.  Yes, it is far out!

Photo of the Day

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

Drought Watch Issued in Parts of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued a “drought watch” for much of the state’s Susquehanna basin including Dauphin, Lebanon, and Perry Counties—plus those counties to their north.  Residents are asked to conserve water in the affected areas.

Irrigation of a manure-covered field.
Water conservation measures are voluntary during a drought watch, and most consumers try to cut back on nonessential use.  For many though, threats to water supply and water quality generate little concern.  This evening, on this farm along a Dauphin County waterway undergoing restoration, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see lots of water being pumped from the creek to soak down liquid manure that was spread on the fields earlier in the week.  This happens to be the only property along a five-mile segment of stream that still allows cattle and draft horses to wade, defecate, and urinate in the water.  It is the only parcel for nearly seven miles that has eroding banks of legacy sediments that are maintained denuded of nearly all vegetation.  Despite some beneficial practices like the use of cover crops, it’s a polluter.  And now its operator appears to be engaged in something new: “stream dewatering”.  With three irrigation guns in operation, this farmer was easily pumping and removing up to one half or more of the creek’s flow, which at the time, according to a United States Geological Survey gauge less than a mile upstream, was only about 3 cubic feet per second or 1,100 gallons per minute (G.P.M.).  That doesn’t let much for the municipalities downstream that rely upon this waterway as a supplemental source of drinking water, does it?  Such a large reduction in base flow can threaten the survival of fish and other aquatic inhabitants in the creek, particular during hot summer weather when dissolved oxygen levels can be at their lowest of the year.  Water is like a lot of other necessities, no one really gives it a second thought until they don’t have it; and as long as I have mine, that’s all that really matters.

Photo of the Day

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

Photo(s) of the Day

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

Monarch an Endangered Species: What You Can Do Right Now

This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) added the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its “Red List of Threatened Species”, classifying it as endangered.  Perhaps there is no better time than the present to have a look at the virtues of replacing areas of mowed and manicured grass with a wildflower garden or meadow that provides essential breeding and feeding habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of other species of animals.

Monarch on Common Milkweed Flower Cluster
A recently arrived Monarch visits a cluster of fragrant Common Milkweed flowers in the garden at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Milkweeds included among a wide variety of plants in a garden or meadow habitat can help local populations of Monarchs increase their numbers before the autumn flights to wintering grounds commence in the fall.  Female Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, then, after hatching, the larvae (caterpillars) feed on them before pupating.

If you’re not quite sure about finally breaking the ties that bind you to the cult of lawn manicuring, then compare the attributes of a parcel maintained as mowed grass with those of a space planted as a wildflower garden or meadow.  In our example we’ve mixed native warm season grasses with the wildflowers and thrown in a couple of Eastern Red Cedars to create a more authentic early successional habitat.

Comparison of Mowed Grass to Wildflower Meadow
* Particularly when native warm-season grasses are included (root depth 6′-8′)

Still not ready to take the leap.  Think about this: once established, the wildflower planting can be maintained without the use of herbicides or insecticides.  There’ll be no pesticide residues leaching into the soil or running off during downpours.  Yes friends, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a private well or a community system, a wildflower meadow is an asset to your water supply.  Not only is it free of man-made chemicals, but it also provides stormwater retention to recharge the aquifer by holding precipitation on site and guiding it into the ground.  Mowed grass on the other hand, particularly when situated on steep slopes or when the ground is frozen or dry, does little to stop or slow the sheet runoff that floods and pollutes streams during heavy rains.

What if I told you that for less than fifty bucks, you could start a wildflower garden covering 1,000 square feet of space?  That’s a nice plot 25′ x 40′ or a strip 10′ wide and 100′ long along a driveway, field margin, roadside, property line, swale, or stream.  All you need to do is cast seed evenly across bare soil in a sunny location and you’ll soon have a spectacular wildflower garden.  Here at the susquehannawildllife.net headquarters we don’t have that much space, so we just cast the seed along the margins of the driveway and around established trees and shrubs.  Look what we get for pennies a plant…

Wildflower Garden
Some of the wildflowers and warm-season grasses grown from scattered seed in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden.

Here’s a closer look…

Lance-leaved Coreopsis
Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), a perennial.
Black-eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Black-eyed Susan "Gloriosa Daisy"
“Gloriosa Daisy”, a variety of Black-eyed Susan, a biennial or short-lived perennial.
Purple Coneflower
Purple Coneflower, an excellent perennial for pollinators.  The ripe seeds provide food for American Goldfinches.
Common Sunflower
A short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual and a source of free bird seed.
Common Sunflower
Another short variety of Common Sunflower, an annual.

All this and best of all, we never need to mow.

Around the garden, we’ve used a northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  It’s a blend of annuals and perennials that’s easy to grow.  On their website, you’ll find seeds for individual species as well as mixes and instructions for planting and maintaining your wildflower garden.  They even have a mix specifically formulated for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Annuals in bloom
When planted in spring and early summer, annuals included in a wildflower mix will provide vibrant color during the first year.  Many varieties will self-seed to supplement the display provided by biennials and perennials in subsequent years.
Wildflower Seed Mix
A northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows.  There are no fillers.  One pound of pure live seed easily plants 1,000 square feet.

Nothing does more to promote the spread and abundance of non-native plants, including invasive species, than repetitive mowing.  One of the big advantages of planting a wildflower garden or meadow is the opportunity to promote the growth of a community of diverse native plants on your property.  A single mowing is done only during the dormant season to reseed annuals and to maintain the meadow in an early successional stage—preventing reversion to forest.

For wildflower mixes containing native species, including ecotypes from locations in and near the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, nobody beats Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania.  Their selection of grass and wildflower seed mixes could keep you planting new projects for a lifetime.  They craft blends for specific regions, states, physiographic provinces, habitats, soils, and uses.  Check out these examples of some of the scores of mixes offered at Ernst Conservation Seeds

      • Pipeline Mixes
      • Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
      • Cover Crops
      • Pondside Mixes
      • Warm-season Grass Mixes
      • Retention Basin Mixes
      • Wildlife Mixes
      • Pollinator Mixes
      • Wetland Mixes
      • Floodplain and Riparian Buffer Mixes
      • Rain Garden Mixes
      • Steep Slope Mixes
      • Solar Farm Mixes
      • Strip Mine Reclamation Mixes

We’ve used their “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” on streambank renewal projects with great success.  For Monarchs, we really recommend the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It includes many of the species pictured above plus “Fort Indiantown Gap” Little Bluestem, a warm-season grass native to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, and milkweeds (Asclepias), which are not included in their northeast native wildflower blends.  More than a dozen of the flowers and grasses currently included in this mix are derived from Pennsylvania ecotypes, so you can expect them to thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed, a perennial species, is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  It is a favorite of female Monarchs seeking a location to deposit eggs.
Monarch Caterpillar feeding on Swamp Milkweed
A Monarch larva (caterpillar) feeding on Swamp Milkweed.
Butterfly Weed
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is included in the Ernst Seed “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”.  This perennial is also known as Butterfly Milkweed.
Tiger Swallowtails visiting Butterfly Weed
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the dozens of species of pollinators that will visit Butterfly Weed.

In addition to the milkweeds, you’ll find these attractive plants included in Ernst Conservation Seed’s “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”, as well as in some of their other blends.

Wild Bergamot
The perennial Wild Bergamot, also known as Bee Balm, is an excellent pollinator plant, and the tubular flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds.
Oxeye
Oxeye is adorned with showy clusters of sunflower-like blooms in mid-summer.  It is a perennial plant.
Plains Coreopsis
Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), also known as Plains Tickseed, is a versatile annual that can survive occasional flooding as well as drought.
Gray-headed Coneflower
Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), a tall perennial, is spectacular during its long flowering season.
Monarch on goldenrod.
Goldenrods are a favorite nectar plant for migrating Monarchs in autumn.  They seldom need to be sown into a wildflower garden; the seeds of local species usually arrive on the wind.  They are included in the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix” from Ernst Conservation Seeds in low dose, just in case the wind doesn’t bring anything your way.
Partridge Pea
Is something missing from your seed mix?  You can purchase individual species from the selections available at American Meadows and Ernst Conservation Seeds.  Partridge Pea is a good native annual to add.  It is a host plant for the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly and hummingbirds will often visit the flowers.  It does really well in sandy soils.
Indiangrass in flower.
Indiangrass is a warm-season species that makes a great addition to any wildflower meadow mix.  Its deep roots make it resistant to drought and ideal for preventing erosion.

Why not give the Monarchs and other wildlife living around you a little help?  Plant a wildflower garden or meadow.  It’s so easy, a child can do it.

Planting a riparian buffer with wildflowers and warm-season grasses
Volunteers sow a riparian buffer on a recontoured stream bank using wildflower and warm-season grass seed blended uniformly with sand.  By casting the sand/seed mixture evenly over the planting site, participants can visually assure that seed has been distributed according to the space calculations.
Riparian Buffer of wildflowers
The same seeded site less than four months later.
Monarch Pupa
A Monarch pupa from which the adult butterfly will emerge.

Photo of the Day

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

Pick Up and Get Out of the Floodplain

The remnants of Hurricane Ida are on their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  After making landfall in Louisiana as a category 4 storm, Ida is on track to bring heavy rain to the Mid-Atlantic States beginning tonight.

Tropical Depression Ida moving slowly toward the northeast.   (NOAA/GOES image)

Rainfall totals are anticipated to be sufficient to cause flooding in the lower Susquehanna basin.  As much as six to ten inches of precipitation could fall in parts of the area on Wednesday.

Rainfall forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.  (NOAA/National Hurricane Center image)

Now would be a good time to get all your valuables and junk out of the floodways and floodplains.  Move your cars, trucks, S.U.V.s, trailers, and boats to higher ground.  Clear out the trash cans, playground equipment, picnic tables, and lawn furniture too.  Get it all to higher ground.  Don’t be the slob who uses a flood as a chance to get rid of tires and other rubbish by letting it just wash away.

Vehicles parked atop fill that has been dumped into a stream’s floodplain are in double trouble.  Fill displaces water and exasperates flooding instead of providing refuge from it.  Better move these cars, trucks, and trailers to higher ground, posthaste.

Flooding not only has economic and public safety impacts, it is a source of enormous amounts of pollution.  Chemical spills from inundated homes, businesses, and vehicles combine with nutrient and sediment runoff from eroding fields to create a filthy brown torrent that rushes down stream courses and into the Susquehanna.  Failed and flooded sewage facilities, both municipal and private, not only pollute the water, but give it that foul odor familiar to those who visit the shores of the river after a major storm.  And of course there is the garbage.  The tons and tons of waste that people discard carelessly that, during a flood event, finds its way ever closer to the Susquehanna, then the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic.  It’s a disgraceful legacy.

Now is your chance to do something about it.  Go out right now and pick up the trash along the curb, in the street, and on the sidewalk and lawn—before it gets swept into your nearby stormwater inlet or stream.  It’s easy to do, just bend and stoop.  While you’re at it, clean up the driveway and parking lot too.

Secure your trash and pick up litter before it finds its way into the storm sewer system and eventually your local stream.  It’ll take just a minute.
This is how straws and other plastics find their way to the ocean and the marine animals living there, so pick that stuff up!  Did you know that keeping stormwater inlets clean can prevent street flooding and its destructive extension into the cellars of nearby homes and businesses?
There’s another straw.  Pick it and the rest of that junk up now, before the storm.  Don’t wait for your local municipality or the Boy Scouts to do it.  You do it, even if it’s not your trash.

We’ll be checking to see how you did.

And remember, flood plains are for flooding, so get out of the floodplain and stay out.

October Transition

Thoughts of October in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed bring to mind scenes of brilliant fall foliage adorning wooded hillsides and stream courses, frosty mornings bringing an end to the growing season, and geese and other birds flying south for the winter.

The autumn migration of birds spans a period equaling nearly half the calendar year.  Shorebirds and Neotropical perching birds begin moving through as early as late July, just as daylight hours begin decreasing during the weeks following their peak at summer solstice in late June.  During the darkest days of the year, those surrounding winter solstice in late December, the last of the southbound migrants, including some hawks, eagles, waterfowl, and gulls, may still be on the move.

The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), a rodent-eating raptor of tundra, grassland, and marsh, is rare as a migrant and winter resident in the lower Susquehanna valley.  It may arrive as late as January, if at all.

During October, there is a distinct change in the list of species an observer might find migrating through the lower Susquehanna valley.  Reduced hours of daylight and plunges in temperatures—particularly frost and freeze events—impact the food sources available to birds.  It is during October that we say goodbye to the Neotropical migrants and hello to those more hardy species that spend their winters in temperate climates like ours.

During several of the first days of October, two hundred Chimney Swifts remained in this roost until temperatures warmed from the low forties at daybreak to the upper fifties at mid-morning; then, at last, the flock ventured out in search of flying insects.  When a population of birds loses its food supply or is unable to access it, that population must relocate or perish.  Like other insectivorous birds, these swifts must move to warmer climes to be assured a sustained supply of the flying bugs they need to survive.  Due to their specialized food source, they can be considered “specialist” feeders in comparison to species with more varied diets, the “generalists”.  After returning to this chimney every evening for nearly two months, the swifts departed this roost on October 5 and did not return.
A Northern Parula lingers as an October migrant along the Susquehanna.  This and other specialist feeders that survive almost entirely on insects found in the forest canopy are largely south of the Susquehanna watershed by the second week of October.
The Blackpoll Warbler is among the last of the insectivorous Neotropical warblers to pass through the riparian forests of the lower Susquehanna valley each fall.  Through at least mid-October, it is regularly seen searching for crawling insects and larvae among the foliage and bark of Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) trees near Conewago Falls.  Most other warblers, particularly those that feed largely upon flying insects, are, by then, already gone.
The Blue-headed Vireo, another insectivore, is the last of the vireo species to pass through the valley.  They linger only as long as there are leaves on the trees in which they feed.
Brown Creepers begin arriving in early October.  They are specialist feeders, well-adapted to finding insect larvae and other invertebrates among the ridges and peeling bark of trees like this hackberry, even through the winter months.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be abundant migrants in October.  They will often behave like cute little flycatchers, but quickly transition to picking insects and other invertebrates from foliage and bark as the weather turns frosty.  Some may spend the winter here, particularly in the vicinity of stands of pines, which provide cover and some thermal protection during storms and bitter cold.
Beginning in early October, Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen searching the forest wood for tiny invertebrates.  They are the most commonly encountered kinglet in winter.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker, is an October migrant that specializes in attracting small insects to tiny seeps of sap it creates by punching horizontal rows of shallow holes through the tree bark.  Some remain for winter.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler arrives in force during October.  It is the most likely of the warblers to be found here in winter.  Yellow-rumped Warblers are generalists, feeding upon insects during the warmer months, but able to survive on berries and other foods in late fall and winter.  Wild foods like these Poison Ivy berries are crucial for the survival of this and many other generalists.
American Robins are most familiar as hunters of earthworms on the suburban lawn, but they are generalist feeders that rely upon fruits like these Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) berries during their southbound migration in late October and early November each year.  Robins remain for the winter in areas of the lower Susquehanna valley with ample berries for food and groves of mature pines for roosting.
Like other brown woodland thrushes, the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is commonly seen scratching through organic matter on the moist forest floor in search of invertebrates.  Unlike the other species, it is a cold-hardy generalist feeder, often seen eating berries during the southbound October migration.  Small numbers of Hermit Thrushes spend the winter in the lower Susquehanna valley, particularly in habitats with a mix of wild foods.
Due to their feeding behavior, Cedar Waxwings can easily be mistaken for flycatchers during the nesting season, but by October they’ve transitioned to voracious consumers of small wild fruits.  During the remainder of the year, flocks of waxwings wander widely in search of foods like this Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca).  An abundance of cedar, holly, Poison Ivy, hackberry, bittersweet , hawthorn, wild grape, and other berries is essential to their survival during the colder months.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have moved south in large numbers during the fall of 2020.  They were particularly common in the lower Susquehanna region during  mid-October.  Red-breasted Nuthatches can feed on invertebrates during warm weather, but get forced south from Canada in droves when the cone crops on coniferous trees fail to provide an adequate supply of seeds for the colder fall and winter seasons.  In the absence of wild foods, these generalists will visit feeding stations stocked with suet and other provisions.
Purple Finches (Haemorhous purpureus) were unusually common as October migrants in 2020.  They are often considered seed eaters during cold weather, but will readily consume small fruits like these berries on an invasive Mile-a-minute Weed (Persicaria perfoliata) vine.  Purple Finches are quite fond of sunflower seeds at feeding stations, but often shy away if aggressive House Sparrows or House Finches are present.

The need for food and cover is critical for the survival of wildlife during the colder months.  If you are a property steward, think about providing places for wildlife in the landscape.  Mow less.  Plant trees, particularly evergreens.  Thickets are good—plant or protect fruit-bearing vines and shrubs, and allow herbaceous native plants to flower and produce seed.  And if you’re putting out provisions for songbirds, keep the feeders clean.  Remember, even small yards and gardens can provide a life-saving oasis for migrating and wintering birds.  With a larger parcel of land, you can do even more.

GOT BERRIES?  Common Winterbery (Ilex verticillata) is a native deciduous holly that looks its best in the winter, especially with snow on the ground.  It’s slow-growing, and never needs pruning.  Birds including bluebirds love the berries and you can plant it in wet ground, even along a stream, in a stormwater basin, or in a rain garden where your downspouts discharge.  Because it’s a holly, you’ll need to plant a male and a female to get the berries.  Full sun produces the best crop.  Fall is a great time to plant, and many garden centers that sell holiday greenery still have winterberry shrubs for sale in November and December.  Put a clump of these beauties in your landscape.  Gorgeous!

Big Flight Last Night

Birds on radar last evening.  A dense liftoff of nocturnal migrants is indicated at radar sites across the northeastern United States.  Rain showers can be seen in Virginia.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)

Today’s arrivals—Neotropical migrants found in a streamside thicket in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this morning…

Red-eyed Vireos nest in forests throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.
The Northern Waterthrush is a regularly occurring migrant that can be found in vegetated wetlands and along the backwaters of streams and rivers.  Despite its drab appearance, it is classified as one of our Neotropical warbler species.
The adult male American Redstart is unlike any other eastern warbler.  It is easily recognized.  Along the lower Susquehanna, redstarts nest in the dense understory of damp forests.
The first-spring male American Redstart is similar to the female, but usually shows black markings beginning to develop on the breast and face.  It is an energetic singer.
In its strikingly colorful plumage, the Magnolia Warbler is a classic Neotropical bird.  Locally, it is a regular migrant.
The Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla) forages in lowland thickets during its migratory stopovers.  Riparian buffers along streams can provide critical habitat for this and other transient species.
Baltimore Orioles continue to trickle in, creating squabbles when they enter nesting territories established by birds that arrived earlier in the month.

The Colorful Birds Are Here

You need to get outside and go for a walk.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t.  It’s prime time to see wildlife in all its glory.  The songs and colors of spring are upon us!

Flooding that resulted from mid-week rains is subsiding.  The muddy torrents of Conewago Falls are seen here racing by the powerhouse at the York Haven Dam.
Receding waters will soon leave the parking area at Falmouth and other access points along the river high and dry.
Migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers are currently very common in the riparian woodlands near Conewago Falls.  They and all the Neotropical warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers are moving through the Susquehanna watershed right now.
A Baltimore Oriole feeds in a riverside maple tree.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are migrating through the Susquehanna valley.  These tiny birds may be encountered among the foliage of trees and shrubs as they feed upon insects .
Gray Catbirds are arriving.  Many will stay to nest in shrubby thickets and in suburban gardens.
American Robins and other birds take advantage of rising flood waters to feed upon earthworms and other invertebrates that are forced to the soil’s surface along the inundated river shoreline.
Spotted Sandpipers are a familiar sight as they feed along water’s edge.
The Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a Neotropical migrant that nests locally in wet shrubby thickets.  Let your streamside vegetation grow and in a few years you just might have these “wild canaries” singing their chorus of “sweet-sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet” on your property.

If you’re not up to a walk and you just want to go for a slow drive, why not take a trip to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and visit the managed grasslands on the north side of the refuge.  To those of us over fifty, it’s a reminder of how Susquehanna valley farmlands were before the advent of high-intensity agriculture.  Take a look at the birds found there right now.

Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nest in cattail marshes, but are very fond of untreated hayfields, lightly-grazed pastures, and fallow ground too.  These habitats are becoming increasingly rare in the lower Susquehanna region.  Farmers have little choice, they either engage in intensive agriculture or go broke.
Nest boxes are provided for Tree Swallows at the refuge.
Numbers of American Kestrels have tumbled with the loss of grassy agricultural habitats that provide large insects and small rodents for them to feed upon.
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are a migrant and winter resident species that favors small clumps of shrubby cover in pastures and fallow land.
When was the last time you saw an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) singing “spring-of-the-year” in a pasture near your home?
And yes, the grasslands at Middle Creek do support nesting Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colcichus).  If you stop for a while and listen, you’ll hear the calls of “kowk-kuk” and a whir of wings.  Go check it out.

And remember, if you happen to own land and aren’t growing crops on it, put it to good use.  Mow less, live more.  Mow less, more lives.