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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Great Horned Owl
This juvenile Great Horned Owl and its sibling have attained their first set of flight feathers and left the nest.  The duo is still being watched and fed by their parents, which remain hidden in a nearby woodlot.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: "Taiga Merlin"
A “Taiga Merlin” (Falco columbarius columbarius) with an Eastern Kingbird snatched from midair.  Both these species are accomplished fliers that rely upon aerial pursuit to catch their prey, the former preferring small birds and the latter flying insects.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-throated Vireo
A Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) in a Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) along the Conewago Creek east of Conewago Falls.  This Neotropical migrant nests sparingly along stream courses throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Common Yellowthroat
The Common Yellowthroat is one of our most frequently encountered warblers.  It can be found in almost any shrubby habitat, but is particularly numerous in streamside and wetland thickets.  Many remain through the summer to nest and raise young.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-throated Warbler
A Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica) searches for insects among the branches of a flowering Black Walnut (Juglans nigra).  In river bottomlands, they nest almost exclusively in the canopy of massive Eastern Sycamores trees.  In mature mountain forests, they also use pines.  The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed is located along the northern extreme of the Yellow-throated Warbler’s regular breeding range.  

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) are arriving now in forests throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  Those that don’t pass through will stay to nest in tree cavities including old woodpecker excavations, so let those snags standing!

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The Blue-winged Warbler is a Neotropical migrant that nests among successional growth near taller timber in scattered locations throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Its song, a ringing “beee-bzzz”, is one of the easiest in the warbler family repertoire to recognize and remember.  The Blue-winged Warbler has become less widespread as a breeding species as forests and woodlots have matured and utility right-of-ways are sprayed or cleared of shrubs and small trees with greater frequency.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Northern Parula
The Northern Parula is a Neotropical migrant that nests in mature forest trees along the lower Susquehanna.  It is a warbler most often located by listening for its buzzy song, “zzzzzzzup”, then searching the treetops in the area with hope of detecting its movements there.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Blackburnian Warbler
The Blackburnian Warbler, a Neotropical migrant, feeds high in the canopy of mature forests during stopovers in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, so you need to look up to find one.  This male was seen searching for insects along the branches of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).

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Mollusks of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Garden Slug
The Gray Garden Slug (Deroceras reticulatum) is an invasive inhabitant of places subjected to human disturbance, especially cultivated farmland and, as the common name suggests, gardens.  They are most active at night, hiding beneath plant litter, trash, and rocks during the daytime.  This inch-long specimen was photographed while out and about on a recent dreary and damp afternoon.  Natural enemies of terrestrial slugs include birds, toads, frogs, snakes, and some beetles in the family Caribidae.  In the field and vegetable patch, keeping leaf litter and other debris away from the base of young plants can reduce damage caused by these hungry mollusks.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Rusty Blackbird
In spring, the majority of migrating Rusty Blackbirds move north through the lower Susquehanna basin in late March and April.  Some, like this female seen yesterday along a forested tributary of Conewago Creek east of Conewago Falls, linger into May.  Because it is almost exclusively a denizen of wet bottomlands, the Rusty Blackbird is the least numerous of the regularly occurring blackbirds in our region.

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-rumped Warbler
The handsome Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the earliest and most numerous of the warblers to migrate through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each spring.  Look for them now in woodlots and forests throughout the area.

Early May Migration

National Weather Service radar showed a sizeable nocturnal flight of migrating birds early this morning.  Let’s go for a short stroll and see what’s around.

Radar returns from State College, Pennsylvania, display several bands of light rain and a massive flight of migrating birds.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Catbird
After coming in on an overnight flight, Gray Catbirds were numerous at dawn this morning.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Black-and-white Warbler
Masses of Neotropical migrants are just beginning to arrive.  This Black-and-white Warbler was found feeding on insects in a Green Ash tree that, so far, has survived Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) infestation.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Veery
The Veery is a Neotropical thrush that nests in understory vegetation on forested slopes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Orchard Oriole
Orchard Orioles are here.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Baltimore Oriole
And Baltimore Orioles are here too.  Vibrant colors like these are what many observers find so wonderful about many of the Neotropical species.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Double-crested Cormorants
Not all migrants move at night.  While you’re out and about, keep an eye on the sky for diurnal fliers like these migrating Double-crested Cormorants, seen this morning a full ten miles east of the river.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Carolina Wren
While many birds are still working their way north to their breeding grounds, resident species like this Carolina Wren are already feeding young.  This one has collected a spider for its nestlings.

Photo of the Day

If you’ve ever worked in a plant nursery at this time of year, you’ve certainly heard this inquiry from customers looking for something unique, “What is that little tree with the pink-purple blooms that’s flowering right now along the edge of the woods?”  It’s the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), also known as the Judas Tree, a spectacular species for inclusion in garden landscapes, along forest edges, or as part of a vegetated riparian buffer.  In coming weeks, the showy blossoms, which pollinators adore, will give way to an abundance of handsome heart-shaped leaves.  The northern edge of the native range for this member of the legume (pea) family happens to include the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, so it does quite well here.  Because the Eastern Redbud only grows to a height of twenty to thirty feet, it can be planted near homes and other buildings.  It would make a great choice for your Arbor Day project this Friday, April 29.

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Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Fragile Forktail nymph
The aquatic larval stage of a damselfly is commonly known as a nymph.  It feeds on small underwater invertebrates, then, as an adult, transitions to grabbing flying insects in midair.  While many species inhabit streams, Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita) nymphs are found primarily in wetlands and small pools of water. This one was produced from eggs laid last summer among submerged vegetation in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  In just a few weeks, it will climb a stem or cluster of leaves and transform into a colorful adult-stage damselfly known as an imago.  To see a photo gallery featuring this and other species of odonates found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, click on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.

Times Are Tough

Rising prices, an exhausted workforce, political polarization, and pandemic fatigue—times are tough.  Product shortages have the consumer culture in a near panic.  Some say the future just isn’t what it used to be.

Well, Uncle Tyler Dyer reminds us that things could be worse.  He shares with us this observation, “Man, as long as people are spending money poisoning the weeds on their lawns instead of eating them, things aren’t that bad.”

Uncle Ty is particularly fond of the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), “Check it out.  Roasted dandelion roots can make a coffee substitute, the blossoms a wine, and the leaves used to create my favorites, nutrient-dense salads or green vegetable dishes.”

The Common Dandelion is despised by many as a “weed”.  To others it is a beautiful flowering plant that happens to be quite edible.  Native to Europe and Asia, North American varieties of Common Dandelion are an escape from cultivation, originally imported as a food crop.  Uncle Ty’s great-grandparents never would have dreamed of killing them with herbicides instead of harvesting them.
Uncle Ty Dyer’s lunch, fresh dandelion greens and hot bacon dressing.

So have a homegrown salad and remember, maybe things aren’t that bad after all.

Photo of the Day

Spiders of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: "Tiger" Wolf Spider
A “Tiger” Wolf Spider (Tigrosa species) lurks beneath the doorstep at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  These arachnids reach only about one inch in length but appear startlingly larger due to their husky build.  To feed, Wolf Spiders spin no web for snagging flying insects.  Instead, they keep watch with their eight eyes, then ambush or chase down suitable prey.  If handled roughly or pinched between an object such as a shoe and your skin, Wolf Spiders can inject a sore-producing venom.  We like having them around our entranceway, just to keep a few eyes on things.

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Invasive Trees and Plants of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Callery Pear including Bradford Pear
Presently in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, you’re sure to see a gorgeous nightmare, showy stands of flowering Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana).  Invasive groves like this one quickly dominate successional habitat and often create monocultures, often excluding native pioneer trees like Eastern Red Cedar and several species of deciduous hardwood.  The void beneath the pear trees in this photograph shows how deer browsing can intensify the damage, preventing other plant species from becoming established in the understory.  In autumn, crimson foliage again makes these non-native trees a standout in the landscape.  The red leaves attract birds including American Robins and Cedar Waxwings to the abundant berries, but European Starlings usually get to them first.  Planted specimens of ornamental Callery Pears began producing fertile seeds when multiple varieties became available in addition to the self-sterile “Bradford Pears” that were planted widely during the last decades of the twentieth century.  Cross-pollination between varieties produces the fertile seeds that are distributed by starlings and other birds as they digest the fruit.

Emergence of the Turtles

Along the lower Susquehanna, an unseasonably mild day in early spring can provide an observer with the opportunity to witness an annual spectacle seldom seen by the average visitor to the river—concentrations of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of turtles as they emerge from their winter slumber to bathe in the year’s first surge of warm air and sunshine.

Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) spend the winter buried in mud along the river shoreline and in nearby Alluvial Terrace Wetlands.  We photographed this one just as it was digging its way out.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cold and stiff Snapping Turtle crawls away from the shade toward sun-drenched shallows where it will have a chance to limber up.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Snapping Turtle
A cruise in open water loosens up the muscles and gets rid of some of the accumulations of sticky mud and muck.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtles
Freshly emerged Painted Turtles clamber onto a log to bask in the cloud-filtered sun.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Painted Turtle atop a Snapping Turtle
A Painted Turtle looking for a place to get out of the chilly water soon discovered the obvious solution.
It’s catching on, more Painted Turtles atop a Snapping Turtle in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland.
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Common Map Turtle
The Common Map Turtle (right) is the turtle most frequently observed basking on rocks and logs along the main stem of the Susquehanna.  To the left is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), an increasingly numerous invasive species.  The first Red-eared Sliders arrived in the river as, you guessed it, unwanted pets.  Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the local Beaver (Castor canadensis) for trimming the trees and providing a clear shot for this photograph!
Reptiles of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-eared Slider and Painted Turtles
And now, a quick quiz.  Name the things that don’t belong in this picture?  Here’s a hint: a non-native Red-eared Slider (left) joins indigenous Painted Turtles atop a discarded tire in an Alluvial Terrace Wetland in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

Photo of the Day

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Great Egret
During the late nineteenth century, Great Egrets were nearly exterminated by hunters who shot adult birds, often at their nest sites, to collect the ornate plumes that adorn their heads and backs during breeding season.  Parentless young were left to die in the nests while the showy feathers of the adults were sold to clothiers as decorations for expensive hats.  In Pennsylvania, the Great Egret nests at just a few locations and is listed as an endangered species.  

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Yellow-crowned Night Heron
In the urban landscape, massive old trees like this Eastern Sycamore not only provide shade and beauty, but they can also be essential nesting sites for birds like these Yellow-crowned Night Herons, a species listed as endangered in Pennsylvania.  This pair is part of a small colony located in the stylish midtown section of the state’s capital city, Harrisburg.

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

An Encore of the Susquehanna Seawatch

In late March and early April, a rainy night and fog at daybreak can lead to an ideal morning for spotting migratory waterfowl and seabirds during their layover on the lower Susquehanna.  Visibility was just good enough to spot these birds at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, most of them feeding at midriver.

Northern Shovelers are regular migrants, more often seen on ponds and in wetlands than on the river.
A pair of American Wigeons head upriver.
A Horned Grebe.
A small flock of northbound Buffleheads.
Ring-necked Ducks.
Lesser Scaup, eight of the more than 100 seen along Front Street in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Governor’s Residence.  Note how the white bar on the wing’s secondaries becomes diffused and dusky in the primaries.
Lesser Scaup spend the winter on bays and lakes to our south.
More Scaup, the lead bird with bright white extending through the secondaries into the primaries is possibly a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).
Long-tailed Ducks, formerly known as Oldsquaw, are a diving duck that winters on the Great Lakes and on bays along the Atlantic Coast.  They nest on freshwater ponds and lakes in the tundra of Canada and Alaska.
A male Common Merganser.
This pair of Hooded Mergansers may be nesting in a tree cavity nearby.
The local Peregrine Falcon grabbed a passing Common Grackle…
…prompting the more than 100 Bonaparte’s Gulls in the vicinity to quickly depart and fly upstream.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Northern Flicker
It pays to keep an eye on the trees along the shoreline too.  Migrants like this Northern Flicker are beginning to come through in numbers.

Seawatch on the Susquehanna

Birds that one might expect to see wintering among the surf and in tidal waters along the Atlantic coast are currently making their way up the Susquehanna on a route that will ultimately lead most to nesting sites in Canada.  To see them as pass, one needs simply to find a good vantage point along the river from which to begin watching.  Here are some of today’s sightings from the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge (Route 462) at Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania.

Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Mergansers
Red-breasted Mergansers spend the winter primarily on saltwater bays.  They are regular springtime migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.
Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Red-breasted Merganser
A male Red-breasted Merganser.
Double-crested Cormorants spend the winter in a variety of salt and brackish water habitats.  Some birds breed on the lower Susquehanna, but the vast majority nest to the north of the Great Lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gulls winter throughout the Atlantic Coastal Plain and nest as far south as the Great Lakes region.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls winter on the Atlantic from the surf zone to several miles offshore.  In the southern states, some pass the colder months on inland lakes.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's and ring-billed Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few Ring-billed Gulls swarm over the lower Susquehanna River at the Route 30 bridge.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
While in flight, Bonaparte’s Gulls can resemble terns.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls.
Bonaparte’s Gulls headed upriver.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Bonaparte's Gulls
Bonaparte’s Gulls are regular spring migrants on the lower Susquehanna in late March and early April each year.

Photo of the Day

Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: American Wigeons
American Wigeons, sometimes called Baldpates because of the white foreheads and caps on the drake birds, are migrating through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed right now.  These dabbling ducks feed mostly upon vegetative matter in the shallow waters of wetlands and ponds.  They’ll cross the border into Canada to nest. 

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Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Winter Wren
Winter Wrens will soon be gone for the year.  For now, they can still be found creeping around like a tiny mouse among fallen timber in moist forests and in dense thickets of brush.  To sustain themselves through the coldest months of the year, they pick invertebrates from among the wood and bark along the undersides of decaying logs, where the process of decomposition creates enough warmth to keep their prey alive in all but the most severe of weather conditions.  Along the Susquehanna near Conewago Falls, look for them among the stonework of the abandoned Pennsylvania Canal.  Listen too for their uniquely mystic song, a long jumble of fluted and chattering notes that softly floats through quiet woodlands, sometimes raising the question: Is that a bird?

A Tufted Duck at Middle Creek

With large crowds of observers stopping by at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to view the thousands of migrating Snow Geese and Tundra Swans there, you may not notice the smaller but just as enthusiastic crowd gathering at the refuge to see a single, rather inconspicuous waterfowl, a male Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula).  This extraordinarily rare visitor has been on the refuge for at least two weeks now.  The Tufted Duck, a diving benthic feeder, is native to Europe and Asia, but this vagrant individual seems to be comfortable in the company of its North American counterparts, a flock of Ring-necked Ducks.  Birders known as “listers” relish the chance to see such an unusual find.  Many are traveling from bordering states for a chance to add it to their list of species observed during their lifetime—their “life list”.

Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Tufted Duck
The male Tufted Duck (right) with a male Ring-necked Duck (left).
Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Tufted Duck
This male Tufted Duck has been seen in the company of Ring-necked Ducks and other waterfowl on this pond located opposite the small white shed along Hopeland Road in the Lebanon County section of the Middle Creek W.M.A.  It has also been seen on other nearby ponds and, when the Hopeland Road pond is frozen, on the main lake near Willow Point.
Birds/Waterfowl of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Tufted Duck
A Canada Goose, an American Wigeon, and the rare Tufted Duck.  If you want to see the Tufted Duck’s “tuft”, you’ll need to remember your binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope.

Want to start a “life list” of bird sightings?  Just get out a piece of paper or start a document on your computer and jot down the name of the bird and the date and location where you saw it for the first time.  That’s all there is to it.  Beginning a “life list” can be the start of a lifelong passion.  And a Tufted Duck wouldn’t be too shabby as the first “lifer” on your list.