Photo of the Day

Zabulon Skipper on Pickerelweed
A female Zabulon Skipper visits a cluster of Pickerelweed blossoms.  The Zabulon Skipper is a small butterfly of our streamsides, riversides, damp meadows, and other moist grassy spaces.  The Pickerelweed is an emergent plant of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.  Add it to your next project to improve water quality and help pollinators like the Zabulon Skipper.  You may even attract a hummingbird or two!   

Two Feeders Are Better Than One

Dish-type Hummingbird Feeder

Over the coming six weeks or more, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be feeding throughout the daylight hours to fuel their long migration to the tropics for winter.  With plenty of adult and juvenile birds around, it’s the best time of year to get a better look at them by putting up a feeder.

You may already know the basics—hang the feeder near flower beds if you have them, keep it filled with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water, and fill the little ant trap with fresh water.  And you may know too, that to provide for the birds’ safety you should avoid hanging your feeder near plate glass windows and you should keep it high enough to avoid ambushes by any predators which may be hiding below.

Now here’s a hummingbird feeding basic (a bird feeding basic really) that you may not have considered.  For every hummingbird feeder you intend to have filled and hanging in your garden, have a second one cleaned and air-drying to replace it when it’s time to refill.  Why?  Sugar water, like bird seed when it gets wet, is an excellent media for growing bacteria, molds, and other little beasties that can make birds (and people) sick.  In the summer heat, these microorganisms grow much faster than they would in the wintertime, so diligence is necessary.  Regularly, on a daily basis ideally, each feeder in your garden should be taken down and replaced with a clean, dry feeder filled with fresh sugar water mixture.  The cleaning process should include dumping of the feeder’s contents followed by a thorough scrubbing with soapy water to remove any food residues that, if left remaining, can provide nourishment for growing bacteria.  Next, the feeder should be rinsed with clean water to wash away soap and debris.  You can sanitize the feeder if you wish, but it is more important to allow it to air-dry until its next use.  Depriving mold, bacteria, and other microbes of moisture is a critical step in the process of eliminating them as a health hazard.

A Note of Caution: To avoid cross contaminating the utensils and space you use for preparing and serving meals, it’s important to have a separate work area with brushes, buckets, and other equipment dedicated only to bird feeder cleaning and drying.

Cleaning and air-drying a dish-type hummingbird feeder
Dish-type hummingbird feeders are easy to clean and fill.  They dry quickly to eliminate microbial reproduction.

So, let’s review.  If you’re going to have a hummingbird feeder filled with nectar hanging in your garden, you need a second one—clean, dry, and ready to replace it.

A hummingbird feeder in the garden and a clean dry and ready replacement
A hummingbird feeder hanging in the garden and a clean replacement air-drying.

If you’d like to attract more than one hummingbird at a time to your garden, you may want to place a second feeder where the territorial little bird claiming the first as its own can’t see it.  Then you’ll need four feeders—two hanging in the garden and two that are clean, dry, and ready to be filled with fresh sugar water to use as replacements.

Two hummingbird feeders in the garden and two clean dry and ready replacements
Two hummingbird feeders hanging in the garden and two replacements cleaned and air-drying.

If you’re in a rural area with good habitat, you may have four or more feeders around your refuge.  You’ll need a replacement feeder for each.

Four hummingbird feeders hanging in the garden
Four hummingbird feeders hanging and…
Four Hummingbird Feeders Cleaned and Air-drying
…four replacements cleaned and air-drying.

Remember, keep your feeders clean and filled with fresh nectar and you’ll be all set to enjoy the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds of late summer.  Then watch closely for the cold-hardy western species that visit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed beginning in October.  The occurrence of at least one of these rarities in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each autumn is now something of a regular event.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at feeders
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at feeders.

Photo of the Day

Eastern Bluebird Family at Mealworm Feeding Station
This morning, our pair of Eastern Bluebirds (female lower right, male’s feet just barely visible atop the petri dish inside the feeder enclosure) led their offspring back to the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters for a visit to the mealworm feeding station, which they promptly emptied.  Exactly fourteen days ago, these four young, plus one not visible in this image, fledged from the nest box located less than twenty feet away.  They’ve been under the constant care of their parents ever since.

The Mexican Cigar

You’ve heard and read it before—native plants do the best job of providing sustenance for our indigenous wildlife.  Let’s say you have a desire to attract hummingbirds to your property and you want to do it without putting up feeders.  Well, you’ll need native plants that provide tubular flowers from which these hovering little birds can extract nectar.  Place enough of them in conspicuous locations and you’ll eventually see hummingbirds visiting during the summer months.  If you have a large trellis, pole, or fence, you might plant a Trumpet Vine, also known as Trumpet Creeper.  They become adorned with an abundance of big red-orange tubular flowers that our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds just can’t resist.  For consistently bringing hummingbirds to the garden, Trumpet Vine may be the best of the various plants native to the Mid-Atlantic States.

Trumpet Vine
The showy bloom clusters of Trumpet Vine are irresistible to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

There is a plant, not particularly native to our area but native to the continent, that even in the presence of Trumpet Vine, Pickerelweed, Partridge Pea, and other reliable hummingbird lures will outperform them all.  It’s called Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) or Firecracker Plant.  Its red and yellow tubular flowers look like a little cigar, often with a whitish ash at the tip.  Its native range includes some of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s migration routes and wintering grounds in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands, where they certainly are familiar with it.

This morning in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters garden, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird seen in the following set of images extracted nectar from the Mexican Cigar blossoms exclusively.  It ignored the masses of showy Trumpet Vine blooms and other flowers nearby—as the hummers that stop by usually do when Cuphea is offered.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) Some garden centers still have Mexican Cigar plants available.  You can grow them in pots or baskets, then bring them inside before frost to treat them as a house plant through the winter.  Give the plants a good trim sometime before placing them outside when the weather warms in May.  You’ll soon have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting again for the summer.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea)
  

Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

Photo of the Day

Right now, White-throated Sparrows are arriving for the winter throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  They are common inhabitants of brushy fields and woodlot edges.  “White-throats” are a bit fussy about spending time in suburban gardens, not liking things overly “tidy”.  They are often seen feeding upon weed seeds near or on the ground and can be attracted to white millet and cracked corn scattered atop a short stump or flat boulder.  Listen for the male’s song, typically heard beginning in the spring ahead of and during migration back to the breeding grounds, a whistled “old-sam-peabody-peabody-peabody” that they sometimes can’t resist practicing on a sunny winter day.

Photo of the Day

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a familiar woodpecker-like songbird of deciduous forests, parks, and wooded suburbs.  It frequently descends the trunks of trees head first while searching the bark for insects.  Nuthatches visit feeding stations stocked with cracked corn, sunflower seeds, suet, or peanuts.

Photo of the Day

A Pileated Woodpecker devours the dark blue berries of a Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica). The Black Gum, also known as the Black Tupelo, Sour Gum, and Pepperidge, sports crimson leaves in the fall to attract birds to its fruit, thus assuring distribution of its seeds.  In 2021, the fruit is so abundant that it has outlasted the foliage, much to the delight of resident and migrating birds.

Photo of the Day

Dark-eyed Juncos, the easiest to identify of our native sparrows, are arriving throughout the lower Susquehanna valley for winter.  Formerly known as Slate-colored Juncos, they are sometimes called “snowbirds”.  Juncos like brushy habitat with an abundance of small seeds for food.  This one is munching on white millet scattered atop a large boulder.  Pines and other evergreens provide roosting sites for stormy nights.

More than a Mint Dish

On a snowy winter day, it sure is nice to see some new visitors at a backyard feeding station.  Here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, American Robins have arrived to partake of the offerings.

American Robins feed on peanut hearts and chopped apples.

For this flock of robins, which numbered in excess of 150 individuals, the contents of this tray were a mere garnish to the meal that would sustain them through 72 hours of stormy weather.  The main course was the supply of ripe berries on shrubs and trees in the headquarters garden.

Their first choice—the bright red fruits of the Common Winterberry.

American Robins strip the fruits from a Common Winterberry.
Eat fast or lose your turn.
Irresistible crimson delights.
Cedar Waxwings get their share too.
Robins will linger until nightfall to feed on winterberries.

After cleaning off the winterberry shrubs, other fruits became part of the three-day-long feast.

Robins eating Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum species) fruits.
The blue-gray berries of junipers are attractive to robins, waxwings, and bluebirds.
The American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a favorite of berry-loving birds.  Its evergreen foliage provides cover and roosting sites for wintering birds.

Wouldn’t it be great to see these colorful birds in your garden each winter?  You can, you know.  Won’t you consider adding plantings of native trees and shrubs to your property this spring?  Here at the susquehannawildlife.com headquarters we mow no lawn; the lawn is gone.  Mixing evergreens and fruit-producing shrubs with native warm-season grasses and flowering plants has created a wildlife oasis absent of that dirty habit of mowing and blowing.

You can find many of the plants seen here at your local garden center.  Take a chunk out of your lawn by paying them a visit this spring.

Want a great deal?  Many of the County Conservation District offices in the lower Susquehanna region are having their annual spring tree sales right now.  Over the years, we obtained many of our evergreens and berry-producing shrubs from these sales for less than two dollars each.  At that price you can blanket that stream bank or wet spot in the yard with winterberries and mow it no more!  The deadlines for orders are quickly approaching, so act today—literally, act today.  Visit your County Conservation District’s website for details including selections, prices, order deadlines, and pickup dates and locations.

Evergreens like this Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are essential to the survival of many species of wintering birds.  Plant evergreens in clumps, the bigger the better, to provide birds with thermal protection against the cold winds of winter nights.
County Conservation District Tree Sales offer bare root evergreens like this Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) in packs of five or ten.  Buy a bunch.  Spend this year’s lawn treatment money on them.  Then, get them planted immediately after pickup in the spring and in a few years you’ll have a nice grove of evergreens for wildlife habitat, a wind break, or a privacy screen.
Groves of mixed evergreens among deciduous woods, grasslands, farmlands, or suburbs are ideal cover for wintering wildlife.  These stands attract many species of migrating and nesting birds as well.  Seen here, left to right, are Eastern White Pine, Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and Eastern Red Cedar.  Though not a native species, the Norway Spruce is frequently used for conservation and ornamental plantings in the northeastern United States due to its appealing attributes and lack of invasive characteristics.
Feeding wildlife is great fun.  But remember, if you’re running a hotel for animals, you’ve got to offer more than an after-dinner mint to your tired and hungry guests.  Let’s get planting!

County Conservation District Tree Sales

Consult each County Conservation District’s Tree Sale web page for ordering info, pickup locations, and changes to these dates and times.

Cumberland County Conservation District Tree Seedling Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Tuesday, March 30, 2021.  Pickup 1 P.M. to 5 P.M., Thursday, April 22, 2021, and 8 A.M. to 2 P.M., Friday, April 23, 2021.  https://www.ccpa.net/4636/Tree-Seedling-Sale

Lancaster County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders (hand-delivered to drop box) 5 P.M., Friday, March 5, 2021.  Pickup 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., Thursday, April 15, 2021.  https://www.lancasterconservation.org/tree-sale/

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders  Thursday, March 11, 2021.  Pickup 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., Friday, May 7, 2021.  https://www.lccd.org/2021-tree-sale/

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Wednesday, March 24, 2021.  Pickup 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Thursday, April 8, 2021.  www.perrycd.org/Documents/2021 Tree Sale Flyer LEGAL SIZE.pdf

York County Conservation District Seedling Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Monday, March 15, 2021.  Pickup 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Thursday, April 15, 2021.  https://www.yorkccd.org/events/2021-seedling-sale

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!

Pine Siskin Invasion

When wild food crops such as pine cones, acorns, berries, and other tree seeds fail in the forests of Canada, bird species which may have otherwise remained north of the eastern United States for winter pay us a visit.  There was a hint that such an event would occur this year when Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) became widespread throughout the Mid-Atlantic States beginning in August.  Then there were big flights of Blue Jays in recent weeks, an indication that the oaks of the northern wood are producing a less than optimal mast crop.

Reports of Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), songbirds very similar in shape and size to the familiar American Goldfinch, have been posted from hawk watch sites throughout the region for several weeks now.  During the last several days though, the numbers have increased to indicate that an invasion is underway.  Just yesterday, nearly two thousand were seen from the lookout in Cape May Point, New Jersey.  Just after sunrise this morning, between twenty and thirty Pine Siskins descended upon the hemlocks at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  There, they began feeding on the abundant cone crop—then they quickly discovered the accommodations offered by the bird bath and feeders.

Pine Siskins visiting the susquehannawildlife.net bird bath just after this morning’s water change.  Note the dark streaky plumage, deeply notched tail, and the yellow in their wings.  This yellow appears as a bar when the wings are extended and is brightest on adult male birds.
The tiny bill of the Pine Siskin is adapted to extracting seeds from birch catkins and the cones of various evergreen trees.
Like American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins are very fond of niger (thistle) seed offered in tube feeders.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down from feeders with perches positioned above the seed openings.  Note the yellow in the tail of this bird.
Flocks of Pine Siskins roam widely in search of food during invasion years.  Keeping your feeders clean and stocked with fresh seed will improve your chances of having them as visitors this winter.  And remember, if you’re feeding niger (thistle) seed, it’s very important to keep it dry.  Avoid using “sock feeders” and, after each storm, empty tube feeders for a cleaning and drying, discarding any clumps of wet seed.

Smoke from a Distant Fire

Have a look at these images of the smoke plume being generated by fires in forests and other wildlands in the western United States.

Smoke from enormous wildfires located primarily in California and Oregon obscures ground features across the Mid-Atlantic States this morning.  Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes of New York are the most readily identifiable landmarks in the center of the image.  The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed is indiscernible beneath the dense blanket of haze.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
This morning’s satellite image of the United States and the North Atlantic looks like an illustration one might find in a meteorology textbook showing examples of a variety of extreme atmospheric phenomena.  There’s something going on everywhere.  (CIRA/NOAA image)
Here we’ve labeled the major stuff.  There are two hurricanes (Sally and Teddy), a tropical storm (Vicky), and three tropical depressions, each labeled “T.D.”.  A strong cold front in central Canada is making its way toward the eastern United States.  Dust from the Sahara continues to stream into the Americas and the gray-brown plume of smoke from wildfires in the Pacific Coast States stretches thousands of miles east into the North Atlantic.  (CIRA/NOAA base image)

While viewing these amazing images, consider for a moment the plight of migrating birds.  Each one struggles to survive the energy-depleting effects of wind, distance, storm, cold, drought, dust, and sometimes even smoke as it strives to reach its breeding grounds each spring and its wintering grounds each fall.  Natural and man-made effects can cause migrating birds to become disoriented.  Songbirds are known to become lost at sea.  Others strike objects including buildings and radio towers, particularly when visibility is impaired.  The dangers seem endless.

Neotropical migrants must somehow navigate the maze of perils that lie between their breeding grounds in the north and their wintering habitats in tropical climates (designated here using blue stars).  (CIRA/NOAA base image)

For migrating birds, places of refuge where they can stop to feed and rest during their long journeys are essential to their survival.  For species attempting flights through conditions as extreme as those seen in these images, there is the potential for significant loss of life, particularly among the birds with less than optimal stores of energy.

During their southbound autumn migration to tropical wintering grounds in Central America, some Ruby-throated Hummngbirds will attempt a non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, a route requiring maximum stores of energy.  Keep those feeders clean and full of fresh provisions!

A Springtime Quiz

The mild winter has apparently minimized weather-related mortality for the local Green Frog population.  With temperatures in the seventies throughout the lower Susquehanna valley for this first full day of spring, many recently emerged adults could be seen and, on occasion, heard.  Yellow-throated males tested their mating calls—reminding the listener of the sound made by the plucking of a loose banjo string.

Here’s a gathering of Green Frogs seen this afternoon along the edge of a small pond.  How many can you find in this photograph?

If you venture out, keep alert for the migrating birds of late winter and early spring.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are moving through on their way north.  Look for them in mature trees in woodlands, suburbs, and city parks.
The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), our largest sparrow, is a thrush-like denizen of shrubby forest understories and field edges.  It is an early spring and late autumn transient in the lower Susquehanna valley.
While stopping to rest and feed during their northbound spring journey, Ring-necked Ducks and other diving duck species visit wetlands and flooded timber along the Susquehanna River as well as clear ponds and lakes elsewhere in the watershed.
Eastern Bluebirds are presently migrating through the area.  Some will stay to breed where nest boxes or natural cavities are available in suitable habitat.
Tree Swallows are now arriving.  In open grasslands, pastures, and adjacent to almost any body of water, they will nest in boxes like those placed for bluebirds.
Keep that bird bath clean and fill it with fresh water, the American Robin flights are peaking right now.  Breeding males like this one are starting to sing and defend nesting territories.
Red-winged Blackbirds, like other native blackbirds, are moving through in a fraction of the numbers that were seen in the lower Susquehanna valley during the latter decades of the twentieth century.  They remain a common breeding species in pastures and cattail wetlands.
And of course, keep an eye to the sky.  There are still thousands of Snow Geese in the area.

If you’re staying close to home, be sure to check out the changing appearance of the birds you see nearby.  Some species are losing their drab winter basic plumage and attaining a more colorful summer breeding alternate plumage.

European Starlings are losing their spotted winter (basic) plumage and beginning to display a glossy multicolored set of breeding feathers.
An American Goldfinch in transition from winter (basic) plumage to bright yellow, black, and white summer colors.

So just how many Green Frogs were there in that first photograph?  Here’s the answer.

If you counted seven, you did really well.  Numbers eight and nine are very difficult to discern.

Happy Spring.  For the benefit of everyone’s health, let’s hope that it’s a hot and humid one!

Really Bad Poetry

Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day like a really bad poem, so here it is…

 

FOR THE LOVE OF DUCKS

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

My neighbors are complainin’

I can hear them talk

The mallards eat their garden

Let surprises on their walk

 

Dung stains on the carpets

They tracked it in the house

It’s from those ducks and not the pets

Can’t blame it on the spouse

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

Tamed with bread and crackers

I gave them as a treat

I soon found maimed dead quackers

Lying in the street

 

A driver who intended

To miss the hens and drakes

Had their car rear-ended

When they hit the brakes

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

The flock is very wasteful

Each bird a pound a day

Web-foots in a cesspool

Pollute the waterway

 

There are some kids playing

In that filthy ditch

Soon they’ll be displaying

The rash of Swimmer’s Itch

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

These ducks they do not migrate

They’re here day in, day out

Aquatic life they decimate

No plants, no fish, no trout

 

Hurry! Hurry! Heed my call

Before it starts to rain

Ten more ducklings took a fall

And are stranded in a drain

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

Have you people lost your minds?

I see you by your fence

These ducks are cute and I am kind

It’s you who’ve lost your sense

 

Beggars from the handouts

My God what have I done?

Their senseless habits leave no doubt

Their instincts are all gone

 

I like to feed the duckies

Try it and you’ll see

Aren’t they really lucky?

Relying just on me

 

Now I know just what to do

Like one would teach a child

I’ll feed the ducks at the zoo

And let the rest live wild

 

So if you feed the duckies

Beware of the spell

Or you will do the same as me

Loving ducks to death as well

 

—Ducks Anonymous, LLC

 

They’re cute, but if you really love waterfowl, then please refrain from feeding them.  Hand-fed ducks soon lose their survival instincts.  These clueless birds do dumb things like loiter in traffic and, perhaps worst of all, omit migration from their yearly life cycle.  Daily plundering by year-round congregations of Canada Geese, Mute Swans, polygamous Mallards (seen here), and domestic waterfowl is decimating native plant and animal populations in waterways, wetlands, ponds, and lakes throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  For aquatic food chains and fisheries to recover, people must stop feeding (and releasing) these highly-impressionable birds.

Clean Slate for 2020

Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year.  If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year.  On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper.  On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby.  The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days.  The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.

A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.

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

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

Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.

Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent.  Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years.  Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.

It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation.  His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year.  The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there.  In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves.  Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that!   It was the most lackluster year in memory.

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

If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible.  There would be no cause for greater alarm.  It would be a matter of cause and effect.  But the problem is more widespread.

Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna.  And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes.  A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.

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

In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration.  In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous.  What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south?  The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?

Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere.  These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends.  They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.

There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone.  None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline.  Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds?  Did they die off?  Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction?  Is it global warming?  Is it Three Mile Island?  Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?

The answer might not be so cryptic.  It might be right before our eyes.  And we’ll explore it during 2020.

A clean slate for 2020.

In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.  You should go too.  They have lots of food there.

Winter Won’t Let Go…the Birds Don’t Care

It seems as though the birds have grown impatient for typical spring weather to arrive.  The increase in hours of daylight has signaled them that breeding time is here.  No further delays can be entertained.  They’ve got a schedule to keep.

Thursday, March 29:  Winds began blowing from the southwest, breaking a cold spell which had persisted since last week’s snowfall.  Birds were on the move ahead of an approaching rainy cold front.

Friday, March 30:  Temperatures reached 60 degrees at last.  Birds were again moving north through the day, despite rain showers and a change in wind direction—from the northwest and cooler following the passage of the front in the late morning.

Flocks of Double-crested Cormorants followed the Susquehanna River north in numerous V-shaped flocks during the recent several days.
There were Turkey Vultures by the hundreds on the way north.
And nearly as many Black Vultures too.

Saturday, March 31:  It was cooler, but birds were still on the wing headed north.

At sunrise, a migrating Northern Flicker stopped by at a suet feeder to refuel.

Osprey pairs have arrived at nest sites on the lower Susquehanna.

Sunday, April 1:  The morning was pleasant, but conditions became cooler and breezy in the afternoon.  Migratory and resident birds began feeding ahead of another storm.

A distant flock of fast-flying Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) moves expeditiously up the Susquehanna at Conewago Falls as winds begin to pick up during the late morning.  Are they hurrying to get north of the path of the forthcoming weather system?
A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) feeds in anticipation of a snowy night ahead.
A male Downy Woodpecker devours a late-afternoon meal.
This Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a cavity-nesting species, is distracted by a potential new home.
Dark-eyed Juncos winter in the lower Susquehanna valley.  During the month of April, they will begin departing for their breeding grounds, some nesting in the mountains just to our north.
Tufted Titmouse…still house hunting.
A male American Goldfinch is progressing through molt into a showy breeding (alternate) plumage.
A male House Finch takes a break from its melodious song to feed before the arrival of our next spring snow.  His mate is already incubating eggs in a nest not far away.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) feed through the late afternoon, often as the last birds out-and-about before darkness.  This male remains close to his mate as she forages beneath nearby shrubs.

Monday, April 2: Snow fell again, overnight and through the morning—a couple of inches.  Most of the snow had melted away by late afternoon.

Horned Larks are plentiful in large open bare-soil (tilled) farmlands in winter, particularly near fresh manure.  Their sandy-tan coloration hides them well, and they are seldom noticed unless spotted at roadside following snow storms.  Horned Larks are migratory ground-nesting birds found in many sparsely vegetated habitats including tundra, parched fields and prairies, beaches, and even airports.  There is a breeding population in the lower Susquehanna valley which may be increasingly attracted to favorable nesting habitat created in some no-till fields, possibly using a window of opportunity between the demise of cold-season cover crops and the ascendency of the warm-season crops to complete a brood cycle.  Comparing the site selection and success rates of nesting Horned Larks under various crop management methods, including reactions to herbicide use, could be an enlightening study project for inquisitive minds. (Hint-Hint)
The dainty Chipping Sparrow has arrived. This species commonly nests in small trees, often in suburban gardens.