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Wildlife Along the River

Canoe and Kayak Paddlers May See These Critters Along Pennsylvania Wild & Scenic Rivers



The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America. Its distinctive brown body and white head and tail make it easy to identify even from a distance. When flying, the bald eagle very rarely flaps its wings but soars instead, holding its wings almost completely flat. Its hooked bill, legs and feet are yellow.


Eagles primarily eat fish, carrion, smaller birds and rodents. Eagles are also known to prey on large birds and large fish. ( Keep your small dog a leash distance close while canoeing, camping and kayaking.)


Bald eagle numbers in the U.S. were estimated to be between 300,000-500,000 in the 1700s. Numbers were once as low as 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Bald eagle numbers have rebounded since and now the lower 48 states boast over 5,000 nesting pairs. There are a total of about 70,000 bald eagles in the whole of North America (Including Alaska and Canada).


Bald eagles live near bodies of water in Canada and Alaska, and in scattered locations all throughout the lower 48 states and Mexico.


Immature bald eagles don’t develop their distinctive white head and tail until they are between 4 and 5 years old.

The bald eagle is not picky about how it gets its food. It will eat carrion, steal fish from other birds or hunt for its own. Their most important non-carrion food is fish, which they catch by swooping down and grabbing fish that are near the surface of the lake or stream.

Bald eagles make a high-pitched squeaking sound. Other interesting behaviors include “talon clasping” or “cartwheel display”, where two eagles clasp each other’s talons in mid air and spin down, letting go only when they’ve almost reached the ground. This may be a courtship ritual as well as a territorial battle.

During breeding season, the male and female work together to build a nest of sticks, usually located at the top of a tree. The nests can weigh up to a ton and measure up to 8 feet across. Once paired, bald eagles remain with each other until one mate dies, then the surviving bird will find another mate.


Mating season: Anywhere from late September to early April, depending on the region. Gestation: The female lays her first egg 5-10 days after mating. The eggs are incubated for about 35 days. Clutch size: 1-3 eggs.

Protected by Law

The punishment for killing a  bald eagle in the United States comes at a hefty price. Simply having eagle feathers or parts in your possession will land you in prison with a heavy  fine to pay (maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment).

Flying Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles Nest

The Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is our largest and most widespread Heron.  It stands about four feet high and has an impressive 6-foot wing span! It is also a suburb fisherman. It is the largest long-legged bird next to the crane. In flight, it has a slow wing beat and you will see it with its neck drawn in and its feet trailing. 

You might see it perched in trees, but most of us will catch sight one while it is foraging. It can usually be found silently stalking its prey at dawn and dusk. It stands motionless with its head up or folded between its shoulders as it hunts for fish, frogs and crayfish. It will  also hunt mice, gophers, small birds, insects and other small prey. Because it has a wide choice of available food, it can remain further north during the winter. Its voice is a loud “kronk” or “grate”.

By controlling its neck muscles, it can swallow a fish much larger than its long slender neck.. It is a fairly easy bird to photograph as long as you don’t approach too closely. IIf you do, it will give can alarm call of four harsh squawks and take off flying. But, if you are fast enough, it might be another good photo op!

Mating and Nesting
 The male arrives at the nesting site before the female and gathers materials for the nest. With at lot of displaying and shrieking, he presents his gifts to the female and she weaves them into a nest. The nest is built on a platform of sticks or an old nest is repaired (old nests are often used for years). The female lays 3-6 greenish-bluish eggs in the nest which is lined with leaves, and other plants. When a Blue Heron joins its mate on the nest, a greeting ceremony always takes place to appease the sitting heron.


If food is not readily available, the parents will only feed one or two aggressive chicks; the rest might starve or be physically kicked out of the nest. Normally, the parents feed the chicks by regurgitating fish into their mouths.The young Blue Herons leave the nest in about 10 weeks and are fully independent of their parents.

Blue heron in shallows
Blue Heron and fish

The Osprey

Ospreys, common along the rivers of Pennsylvania, stopped nesting there in the 1950s, due to the effects of DDT.  But in 1980, a program began to restore Ospreys to Pennsylvania.  In Pennsylvania, the osprey is listed as state threatened and protected under the Game and Wildlife Code.  Pennsylvania’s nesting osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population has been on the rise in recent years, making the species a potential candidate for upgrading from threatened to protected.

The osprey’s range is now statewide thanks to a series of successful reintroductions across the state and natural expansion of robust populations in the Delaware and Chesapeake bays into Pennsylvania’s southeastern counties. In 1997 ospreys were upgraded from endangered to threatened. 


Canada Goose

The Canada goose is one of the best known birds in North America. It is found in every contiguous U.S. state and Canadian province at one time of the year or another.

During spring and summer months geese feed on grasses and sedges, including cabbage leaves and eelgrass  During the fall and winter they will eat berries and seeds, including grains and especially blueberries. Some Canadian Geese have adapted to urban environments and will graze on domesticated grasses year round.


They mate for life with very low “divorce rates”, and pairs remain together throughout the year.  During spring, pairs break out from flocks and begin defending territories.

The Canadian Goose nest is a large open cup on the ground, made of dry grasses, lichens, mosses and other plant material, and lined with down and some body feathers. They place the nests on the ground, usually on a muskrat mound or other slightly elevated site, near water. They prefer a spot from which they can have an unobstructed view in many directions. The female will select the site and does much of the nest construction. She adds down feathers and some body feathers beginning after the second egg is laid. She also does all the incubation while her mate guards her and the nest.

Geese that breed in the northernmost areas of their range tend to migrate long distances to winter in the more southerly parts of the range, where those geese that breed in the southern Canada and the United States migrate shorter distances or not at all. The life span in the wild of geese that survive to adulthood ranges 10-24 years.

Female Canadian Goose
Canadian Geese with gooslng

Common Merganser - Plunging Goose

Common Mergansers spend much of their time afloat, loafing, fishing, and often sleeping on open water. The word “merganser” comes from the Latin and roughly translates to “plunging goose”ča good name for this very large and often submerged duck.

They may form flocks of up to 75 individuals. They often swim in small groups along the shoreline, dipping their heads underwater to search for prey and then diving with a slight leap. Often when one bird dives in a large group, the others follow the leader and disappear. They can stay under for up to 2 minutes, but they normally dive for less than 30 seconds.

Females sometimes lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests. The male usually abandons the nest during incubation, and the female cares for the ducklings on her own. She escorts them from the small streams and ponds near the nest site to larger lakes, rivers, and bays downstream.


After leaving the nest, the young are in danger from hawks, owls, Bald Eagles, and even fish such as northern pike, but they can escape from predators by running on the surface of the water or skulking under banks. Broods often join together in groups of multiple females with 40 or more young.

The oldest Common Merganser on record was at least 13 years, 5 months old

Common Merganzer goose
Female Merganzer

Common Snapping Turtle

There are two types of snapping turtles: the common snapping turtle and its giant relative, the alligator snapping turtle. The snapping turtle found in Pennsylvania is the common snapping turtle. The common snapping turtle’s scientific name is Chelydra serpentina. It is a large turtle, weighing up to 45 pounds and having a shell that can measure up to 18 inches in length. This shell is brownish green in color. The common snapping turtle can live for up to fifty years.

The common snapping turtle kills its prey by using its long, pointed jaw to “snap” its prey in its mouth. The snapping turtle kills fish, frogs and birds such as ducks and geese. The common snapping turtle has a wide throat which allows it to swallow large pieces of food in one gulp such as whole fish and baby ducks and geese. The common snapping turtle also eats plants, including underwater plants in lakes and rivers. It has also been known to eat worms, water snakes and leeches. The common snapping turtle has a slender, wormlike attachment on the tip of its tongue, which it uses to catch fish by luring them with it.

After mating, the female common snapping turtle builds its nest usually between the months of October and April. The turtle digs in the sand or mud to make a small hole and then lays its eggs inside the hole. The female turtle will walk up to 2 miles round trip to deposit her eggs ( 20 to 40) in a place that she finds ideal.The baby turtles emerge from the eggs about three months after they are laid.

It is unlawful to sell, barter, trade or offer for sale a common snapping turtle, dead or alive, in whole or in parts taken from lands or waters of Pennsylvania without first procuring a snapping turtle permit.

Common Snapp;ing turtle
Turtle egg
Snapping turtle egg

Spiny Softshell Turtle

The Spiny softshell turtle is a species of turtle found in many parts of North America and Mexico. They have derived their name from their flexible, rubbery shell top having spiny projections on the front brim of the carapace. 

These turtles have a flat, rounded and rubber-like carapace (upper shell). The soft brim of the carapace is lined with small spines. These turtles are generally olive or tan in color. The  upper shell is covered with black speckles or spots.  The turtle bones can be seen through the yellow or off-white-colored plastron (bottom shell).

The length of the female’s upper shell ranges between 7 and 18 inches and that of the males range between 5 and 9 inches. Compared to the females, the males have a rougher upper shell. Males also have a thicker, longer tail. The females also change in their appearance with age, developing an overall darker complexion and having a grayish mottling over the carapace.

These turtles mostly like to bask in the sun on the shore. However, they retreat quickly at the slightest hint of a movement which makes it difficult to spot them. The spiny softshell turtles are able to stay underwater over long periods of time without drowning as they can breathe oxygen directly through their skin.

Spiny softshell turtles are mostly carnivorous and like to eat crayfish, fishes, crickets, worms, shrimp, pink mice, carrion, snails, mollusks, amphibians and aquatic insects. They also like to consume acorns, aquatic plants and leaves. They can actively search for their prey or they can hide themselves in mud, sand or gravel and wait for an unsuspecting victim to swim by. These turtles have a life span of around 50 years or more. 

Spiny softshell turtle
hokding spiny softshell turtle
Spiny softshell turtle

French Creek  Watershed - Pennsylvania's Most Biologically Diverse Body of Water

French Creek, which could accurately be described as an old-growth river because of the low level of manmade disturbance it has seen, may hold the key to restoring rare populations of animals into other parts of the Ohio river system.

Freshwater mussels are vulnerable to changes in their surroundings. But their habitats in French Creek ą still occupied by individuals of varying ages, some 60- to 70-years-old ą may have gone largely undisturbed for thousands of years.

French Creek also supports rare fish found in only a handful of other rivers, including Longhead Darter and Spotted Darter. The hellbender, Pennsylvania ’s largest salamander, inhabits French Creek as well, feasting on crayfish, yet another pollution-sensitive family of animals.

HELLBENDER - French Creek’s Signature Salamander

Eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) giant aquatic salamanders that can reach 29 inches in length and weigh over 5 poundsčare one of the most unique creatures in the French Creek Watershed.

The salamander requires cool, clear, rock-laden streams for its habitat where it preys on crawfish, fish, insects and worms. Although it has lungs, a hellbender breathes by absorbing oxygen from the water through thousands of capillaries located in the folds of its skin. French Creek supports a stable population of eastern hellbenders, however their numbers have been reduced in many eastern streams due to acid mine drainage, siltation and industrial pollution.

Freshwater Mussels
Hellbender - Giant salamander

The Juniata River Endangered Map Turtles

Along part of the Juniata river are the nesting grounds of the very rare northern map turtle. Young turtles have designs on their backs much like topographical lines. 


No one knew the endangered turtles were using the warm, black coal piles located along part of the Juniata to lay their eggs until a road was constructed in 1999 in the Mount Union area. That first year, there were 100 turtle road casualties.


In a conservation effort,  the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation erected a fence along the river side of the river tp prevent the turtles crossing the newly constructed highway to their former nesting grounds. This effort has  recreated a nesting ground with loose shale covered in sand. 


They have observed 470 adult map turtles, protected more than 200 nests and released more than 700 hatchlings since the program began in 2000. It has created stewards out of PennDOT employees, the local residents and everyone who paddles the river and learns of these beautiful creatures.  •

Map Turtles
Juniata Endangered map turtle undeside.

Map turtles get their name from their appearance. Their carapace (the top/dome portion of their shell) has designs on it that resembles those seen on some maps. Specifically, it has been noted that the lines on their shells look like waterways on a map. These lines are often a yellow or orange color, with darker colors in between them such as greens and browns.

The Delaware River - Habitat for the American Eels

The Delaware River is home to the most abundant population of American eel in Pennsylvania and one of the largest populations of eels in the Nation and are distributed throughout the river basin. The fact that the Delaware river has no dams along its entire length, maks it an ideal habitat for the long-liver American Eel.

Freshwater Eels are the only catadromous fishes in North America. “Catadromous” means that they spawn in salt water and live as adults in fresh water. Anadromous fishes, like Salmon and American Shad, spawn in fresh water but live as adults in the ocean. 

The American Eel’s body is long and slender, and seems scaleless. Actually, it has smooth, tiny scales that are embedded in the skin. A long, low dorsal fin extends over at least two-thirds of the back. When ready, the American eel return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn in the northern Caribbean-Bermuda region of the Atlantic Ocean.

After the adult Eels spawn, they die. The larval Eels, called “leptocephali,” are ribbonlike and transparent. These “glass Eels” drift with other tiny organisms in the northward-flowing ocean currents. The transforming young Eels, called elvers, enter river estuaries when they reach the continent.


The females don’t stop. They continue swimming many miles upstream, mainly at night, even to the river system’s headwaters. The trip from the spawning grounds in the ocean to the Eel’s freshwater upstream home takes about a year. The male Eels, which remain smaller than the females, stay in the lower reaches of the coastal river and in the brackish tidewater just off the river’s mouth.

After remaining  for 8-30 years in estuary and freshwater streams, the adult females, now called “silver Eels” because of their silvery appearance, migrate downstream in the fall on their long way back to the Sargasso Sea. Sexually mature female Eels may contain two million or more eggs.




Until the early 1900s, Eels supported an intense commercial fishery in the Susquehanna and Delaware River systems. Adult Eels on their downstream migration toward the sea were trapped by low, in-river V-shaped wing dams, which were barricades made of rocks. The Eels entered these Eel racks from the wide upstream side and swam through the small funnel opening downstream, into holding baskets.


The remains of old “Eel weirs” can still be seen in some Delaware and Susquehanna River watershed streams. Even in a “poor” Eel year, the take was staggering: In 1912, called an “off year,” 50,000 Eels weighing more than 44,000 pounds were caught in Pennsylvania. Today, Eels are caught mostly by anglers looking for food and sport (Eels are good eating, especially smoked).

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