Monday, March 27, 2023

The Susquehanna Greenway: A Corridor for Wildlife

As we welcome spring across the Susquehanna River Valley, more and more of us will be throwing on our outdoor gear and venturing outside to enjoy the many parks and trails of the Susquehanna Greenway. 

This 500-mile corridor of parks, trails, conserved lands, and communities along the Susquehanna River, provides a host of active and passive recreation opportunities to enjoy this spring. 

But, did you know that this landscape also serves as a vital corridor for wildlife?

So, let’s learn all about our animal neighbors who live and thrive alongside us within the Susquehanna Greenway corridor.

A Home for the Largest Elk Herd in the Northeastern U.S.

As you travel along the Susquehanna River’s upper West Branch in Clinton and Clearfield County, human infrastructure gives way to the thick, forested ridge-and-valley landscape of the Pennsylvania Wilds

Wildlife abounds among the ample vegetation with one unique resident drawing visitors from across the northeast: Elk.

Currently, the Pennsylvania Elk herd is the largest wild elk herd in the northeastern United States, at a population of roughly 1,000. The herd owes their success to the conserved lands along the West Branch, including a network of state forests, state parks, and state game lands which provide a pathway for the elk to traverse in search of food, water, and other elk. 

If you want to observe these magnificent mammals on your next outdoor adventure, we recommend visiting a state park or forest located between Clearfield and Renovo. 

Lucky paddlers of the Susquehanna River Water Trail – West Branch have also reported sightings of the herd in late fall along the banks of the river. Either way, when you visit, stop, wait, and listen. 

You might be lucky enough to hear the enchanting sound of the Bull Elk’s bugle. 

A Flyway for Winged Wildlife

Greenway creatures are not limited to just the ground; the river corridor also serves as an important feature for winged wanderers along the Atlantic Flyway—the easternmost of the four major flyways in North America, according to the Appalachian Audubon Society.

Gulls, terns, swallows, and other birds follow this route during their north-south migration each year, utilizing the network not only for navigation, but also as sources of food and respite among the banks, marshes, and islands of the Susquehanna River. 

The Conejohela Flats in the Lower Section of the Susquehanna Greenway is one such location where migrating birds are known to rest and nest. Designated as an ‘Audubon Important Birding Area,’ the Flats are a combination of low-lying brushy islands and adjacent mud flats on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County just offshore from Washington Boro. 

The islands restrict human access but can be explored from a distance via kayak. Plan a paddle around this area and you’ll likely see migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, and other birds including bald eagles and osprey. 

The flyway is not limited to birds alone, the route is also used by butterflies, as well as some species of bats and dragonflies.

A Thoroughfare for Underwater Species

We can’t forget about our friendly, underwater neighbors: the fish. The Susquehanna Greenway offers a thriving habitat for a roster of aquatic fins that dwell beneath the river’s surface. 

Some of the species you might see include Smallmouth Bass, Muskellunge, Catfish, Sunfish, Carp, Yellow Perch, Walleye, and even Trout.

Of all the fish in the Susquehanna River, Smallmouth Bass are the largest and most abundant. As the water warms up, ‘Smallies’ move to deeper waters, so sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to see one swimming beneath the surface. 

Catfish are also abundant throughout the Susquehanna, while ‘Muskys’ prefer sections with deeper water, and Trout are most prevalent along the Upper West Branch.

Aside from fish, native freshwater Pearly Mussels are also an integral part of the Susquehanna River’s ecosystem, consuming microscopic algae, bacteria, other plankton, and fine particulate matter—doing their part to improve water clarity.

Shad and Eel—species that migrate to spawn—dwell in the Susquehanna, as well. These species were once an abundant food source for Native Americans who lived along the river. You can still see the V-shaped trapping structures, known as ‘weirs’ that were built to catch these critters. 

Today, their numbers are dwindling due to the presence of dams that limit their migration passage.

Dams effect each of the species mentioned above, but that said, there are some exciting projects in store for fish passages that would assist these species in their migration, for example, a fish passage around the Adam T. Bower Memorial Dam in Sunbury, PA. 

This project, which is set to begin this summer, will install a natural stream-like passage around the dam opening up new miles for these underwater residents! 

A Habitat for Wetland Life

The banks of the Susquehanna are not continuous; offshoots around islands and overflow marshes are common throughout the corridor. These spurs of the river serve as havens for wetland wildlife looking for smaller and more slack waters. 

Residents that depend on this landscape for survival include Beavers, Herons, Northern Water Snakes, Gray Tree Frogs, and Painted Turtles. 

The best means of spotting these inhabitants is to look for the signs they leave behind. Dammed waterways and felled trees are signs that the wetland engineers, the beavers, are nearby. 

Their dams, in turn, create habitat for reptiles and amphibians who’s foot prints and slides can be seen in the mud. 

Wetland species like Spring Peepers and Painted Turtles also dwell in these areas. Spring Peeper frogs are difficult to see but are a signature part of the spring symphony in the Susquehanna Greenway. You may have a better chance at spying a Painted Turtle. 

In the springtime, these critters emerge from the muddy bottoms of wetlands and can be seen sunning themselves upon rocks and downed trees in the shallower areas.

A few favorite locations to see these creatures in the Susquehanna Greenway include the Robert Porter Allen Natural Area in Williamsport, Susquehanna Riverlands in Berwick, and Wildwood Park in Harrisburg.

A Corridor for Coexistence

From woodlands to wetlands, the many environments of the Susquehanna Greenway are home to an abundance of wildlife. 

These landscapes and the ecology of Susquehanna River have changed dramatically over time with the logging of old growth forests and degraded water quality. 

However, corridors like the Susquehanna Greenway have become places where these habitats can recover, and humans and animals can coexist.

The parks and trails of the Susquehanna Greenway offer opportunities for us to hike, bike, and paddle right in our backyard. But they also offer safe spaces for wildlife to live and thrive.

As you head out on your next outdoor adventure, keep an eye out for these Greenway neighbors. 

Take the time to learn who lives within your favorite parks or trails, or visit the Susquehanna Greenway website to find new parks, trails, and paddling itineraries to explore this season. 

It’s the perfect time of year to spot many of our local critters who emerge in Spring!

(Photos: Turtles - Patrick Greenbaum; Elk - Mark Boyd; Heron - Joe Endy; Fish - Michael Kenney, courtesy Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. )

The Susquehanna Greenway is a corridor of connected trails, parks, river access points, and communities, linking people to the natural and cultural treasures of the Susquehanna River. The mission of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership is to continue to grow the Greenway by building connections along the Susquehanna River, inspiring people to engage with the outdoors, and transforming communities into places where people want to live, work, and explore.

[Posted: March 27, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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