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.
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.
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.
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.
So don’t just drive by those big puddles, stop and have a look. You never know what you might find.
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!
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.
This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) added the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its “Red List of Threatened Species”, classifying it as endangered. Perhaps there is no better time than the present to have a look at the virtues of replacing areas of mowed and manicured grass with a wildflower garden or meadow that provides essential breeding and feeding habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of other species of animals.
If you’re not quite sure about finally breaking the ties that bind you to the cult of lawn manicuring, then compare the attributes of a parcel maintained as mowed grass with those of a space planted as a wildflower garden or meadow. In our example we’ve mixed native warm season grasses with the wildflowers and thrown in a couple of Eastern Red Cedars to create a more authentic early successional habitat.
Still not ready to take the leap. Think about this: once established, the wildflower planting can be maintained without the use of herbicides or insecticides. There’ll be no pesticide residues leaching into the soil or running off during downpours. Yes friends, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a private well or a community system, a wildflower meadow is an asset to your water supply. Not only is it free of man-made chemicals, but it also provides stormwater retention to recharge the aquifer by holding precipitation on site and guiding it into the ground. Mowed grass on the other hand, particularly when situated on steep slopes or when the ground is frozen or dry, does little to stop or slow the sheet runoff that floods and pollutes streams during heavy rains.
What if I told you that for less than fifty bucks, you could start a wildflower garden covering 1,000 square feet of space? That’s a nice plot 25′ x 40′ or a strip 10′ wide and 100′ long along a driveway, field margin, roadside, property line, swale, or stream. All you need to do is cast seed evenly across bare soil in a sunny location and you’ll soon have a spectacular wildflower garden. Here at the susquehannawildllife.net headquarters we don’t have that much space, so we just cast the seed along the margins of the driveway and around established trees and shrubs. Look what we get for pennies a plant…
Here’s a closer look…
All this and best of all, we never need to mow.
Around the garden, we’ve used a northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows. It’s a blend of annuals and perennials that’s easy to grow. On their website, you’ll find seeds for individual species as well as mixes and instructions for planting and maintaining your wildflower garden. They even have a mix specifically formulated for hummingbirds and butterflies.
Nothing does more to promote the spread and abundance of non-native plants, including invasive species, than repetitive mowing. One of the big advantages of planting a wildflower garden or meadow is the opportunity to promote the growth of a community of diverse native plants on your property. A single mowing is done only during the dormant season to reseed annuals and to maintain the meadow in an early successional stage—preventing reversion to forest.
For wildflower mixes containing native species, including ecotypes from locations in and near the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, nobody beats Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Their selection of grass and wildflower seed mixes could keep you planting new projects for a lifetime. They craft blends for specific regions, states, physiographic provinces, habitats, soils, and uses. Check out these examples of some of the scores of mixes offered at Ernst Conservation Seeds…
Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
Warm-season Grass Mixes
Retention Basin Mixes
Floodplain and Riparian Buffer Mixes
Rain Garden Mixes
Steep Slope Mixes
Solar Farm Mixes
Strip Mine Reclamation Mixes
We’ve used their “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” on streambank renewal projects with great success. For Monarchs, we really recommend the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”. It includes many of the species pictured above plus “Fort Indiantown Gap” Little Bluestem, a warm-season grass native to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, and milkweeds (Asclepias), which are not included in their northeast native wildflower blends. More than a dozen of the flowers and grasses currently included in this mix are derived from Pennsylvania ecotypes, so you can expect them to thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
In addition to the milkweeds, you’ll find these attractive plants included in Ernst Conservation Seed’s “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”, as well as in some of their other blends.
Why not give the Monarchs and other wildlife living around you a little help? Plant a wildflower garden or meadow. It’s so easy, a child can do it.
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.
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.
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.
It was a routine occurrence in many communities along tributaries of the lower Susquehanna River during the most recent two months. The rain falls like it’s never going to stop—inches an hour. Soon there is flash flooding along creeks and streams. Roads are quickly inundated. Inevitably, there are motorists caught in the rising waters and emergency crews are summoned to retrieve the victims. When the action settles, sets of saw horses are brought to the scene to barricade the road until waters recede. At certain flood-prone locations, these events are repeated time and again. The police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services crews seem to visit them during every torrential storm—rain, rescue, rinse, and repeat.
We treat our local streams and creeks like open sewers. Think about it. We don’t want rainwater accumulating on our properties. We pipe it away and grade the field, lawn, and pavement to roll it into the neighbor’s lot or into the street—or directly into the waterway. It drops upon us as pure water and we instantly pollute it. It’s a method of diluting all the junk we’ve spread out in its path since the last time it rained. A thunderstorm is the big flush. We don’t seem too concerned about the litter, fertilizer, pesticides, motor fluids, and other consumer waste it takes along with it. Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps our lack of respect for streams and creeks is the source of our complete ignorance of the function of floodplains.
Floodplains are formed over time as hydraulic forces erode bedrock and soils surrounding a stream to create adequate space to pass flood waters. As floodplains mature they become large enough to reduce flood water velocity and erosion energy. They then function to retain, infiltrate, and evaporate the surplus water from flood events. Microorganisms, plants, and other life forms found in floodplain wetlands, forests, and grasslands purify the water and break down naturally-occurring organic matter. Floodplains are the shock-absorber between us and our waterways. And they’re our largest water treatment facilities.
Why is it then, that whenever a floodplain floods, we seem motivated to do something to fix this error of nature? Man can’t help himself. He has a compulsion to fill the floodplain with any contrivance he can come up with. We dump, pile, fill, pave, pour, form, and build, then build some more. At some point, someone notices a stream in the midst of our new creation. Now it’s polluted and whenever it storms, the darn thing floods into our stuff—worse than ever before. So the project is crowned by another round of dumping, forming, pouring, and building to channelize the stream. Done! Now let’s move all our stuff into our new habitable space.
The majority of the towns in the lower Susquehanna valley with streams passing through them have impaired floodplains. In many, the older sections of the town are built on filled floodplain. Some new subdivisions highlight streamside lawns as a sales feature—plenty of room for stockpiling your accoutrements of suburban life. And yes, some new homes are still being built in floodplains.
When high water comes, it drags tons of debris with it. The limbs, leaves, twigs, and trees are broken down by natural processes over time. Nature has mechanisms to quickly cope with these organics. Man’s consumer rubbish is another matter. As the plant material decays, the embedded man-made items, particularly metals, treated lumber, plastics, Styrofoam, and glass, become more evident as an ever-accumulating “garbage soil” in the natural floodplains downstream of these impaired areas. With each storm, some of this mess floats away again to move ever closer to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. Are you following me? That’s our junk from the curb, lawn, highway, or parking lot bobbing around in the world’s oceans.
Beginning in 1968, participating municipalities, in exchange for having coverage provided to their qualified residents under the National Flood Insurance Program, were required to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance. The program was intended to reduce flood damage and provide flood assistance funded with premiums paid by potential victims. The program now operates with a debt incurred during severe hurricanes. Occurrences of repetitive damage claims and accusations that the program provides an incentive for rebuilding in floodplains have made the National Flood Insurance Program controversial.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed there are municipalities that still permit new construction in floodplains. Others are quite proactive at eliminating new construction in flood-prone zones, and some are working to have buildings removed that are subjected to repeated flooding.