Water, Willows, and Warblers: The role of riparian corridors in sustaining migratory birds in Lancaster County

Louisiana Waterthrush – NAS

Seventy-five percent of birds use a streamside buffer (riparian corridor) at some point in their lives.  Warblers and other neo-tropical migrants in particular rely on these corridors on their travels through the Atlantic Flyway and Susquehanna River watershed.  Trees like black willow, red maple, and river birch are critical in this web of life, as is the width and density of streamside buffers to provide the most resources to birds and associated wildlife.

During early spring, long before the butterflies have laid eggs on the yet-to-emerge vegetation of the forest, neo-tropical migrants – birds that winter in Central and South America – spend a good deal of their time foraging in riparian corridors where dense vegetative cover hosts early insects.  Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroat and numerous other species congregate along stream buffers.

Black Throated Blue Warbler – NAS

Moving into summer, countless species of winged insects emerge from the water and continue their life cycle; mayfly, caddisfly, stonefly, dobsonfly, and dragonfly are plentiful around streams.  Birds such as Prothonotary Warbler, Willow Flycather, Red-eyed Vireo, and Cedar Waxwing favor this area for its bounty. Because neo-tropical migrants are primarily insectivores, a healthy stream corridor is a critical link to their survivorship.  And one birds holds the crown as the species most indicative of healthy headwaters; the Louisiana Waterthrush, a striped warbler which nests in stream banks and feeds almost exclusively on aquatic insects, overturning leaves and small rocks to find its prey.

Beyond the terrestrial songbirds, there are dozens of other species which are tied to this habitat including Belted Kingfisher, Wood Duck, and Great Blue Heron. 

For humans living streamside, enhancing the “backyard corridor” for birds will add esthetic value and create a functional landscape that becomes a vital part of local ecology.  With our area native plant growers in mind, here is a list of plants that property owners might think about to enhance their habitat. 

Recommended Plants for Your Riparian Corridor

Trees                                                    Shrubs/Understory
River Birch                                          Alder                                       Spicebush
Black Willow                                      Silky Dogwood                  Buttonbush
Red Maple                                           Red-osier Dogwood             
Shagbark Hickory                            Flowering Dogwood            
Tuliptree                                               American Strawberry-Bush
Swamp White Oak                          Ninebark

By Steven Saffier, Program Manager, Audubon Pennsylvania’s Bird-Friendly Communities


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