We stood on our front porch counting birds last Fourth of July. In the dawn’s early light, my son Dave timed me while I named the birds I heard or saw in three minutes–wood thrush, American goldfinch, indigo bunting, American crow, common yellowthroat, Carolina wren, yellow-billed cuckoo, chipping sparrow, blue-gray gnatcatcher, field sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, and red-bellied woodpecker. Not a bad beginning for our IBA count.
IBA stands for Important Bird Area, and the Bald Eagle Ridge, on which we live, has been designated IBA #32 [PDF], all 22,000 acres of it from Altoona to Williamsport. So far, more than two million acres of land in Pennsylvania have been designated IBAs, from Presque Isle State Park in Erie County to Fairmount Park in the heart of Philadelphia. At least a dozen gamelands are also IBAs including Roderick Wildlife Preserve (SGL 314), St. Anthony’s Wilderness (SGL 211), and Quakertown Swamp (SGL 139).
Bird Life International, a British-based global coalition of more than 100 groups, started the program in Europe in 1989. They were upset by habitat fragmentation and the resultant loss of bird habitat. They identified 2,444 IBA sites in 32 countries, and by calling attention to them they hoped to protect birds and the larger biodiversity of bird-rich areas before they were further fragmented by development.
In 1995 the National Audubon Society started an IBA program in the United States, and Pennsylvania was the pilot state. Audubon Pennsylvania went to local Audubon chapters, bird clubs, and the general public and asked them to nominate likely IBAs in their areas, emphasizing that they had to have at least one of four qualifications: they must support threatened or endangered species, have species that are not widely distributed, contain species restricted to a special habitat or biome, or have high densities of species such as waterfowl or shorebirds. Out of 160 nominations during their first round, the scientists on the Pennsylvania Ornithological Technical Committee chose 73 IBA sites, and since then they have added nine more.
Pennsylvania was also the first state IBA program to train volunteers to conduct point counts, which was what Dave and I were doing last Fourth of July. During a visit in early June, Kim Van Fleet, who is the IBA coordinator for Audubon Pennsylvania, had helped us set up 15 points 500 feet apart in varied habitats on our property and had plugged each point into her Global Positioning System while Dave tied a yellow ribbon around a tree to physically mark each point. At the same time we conducted our first IBA survey.
It was 51 degrees when we set out that lovely June day. We walked rapidly up First Field Trail to the spruce grove, where we were met by a pair of screaming, adult sharp-shinned hawks. They were nesting somewhere in the grove as they had the previous year. After standing for a minute, in what is called a “settling down” period to allow birds to settle down after our disturbance to their habitat and us to recover from our exertion, we counted all the birds we heard or saw in three minutes. We also counted any new species we heard or saw between points as “flushes” and birds that flew over the highest vegetation as “flyovers.”
Altogether that day we “bagged” 48 species and 189 individuals. Most of the birds we encountered we expected to see, except for a blackpoll warbler—a late migrant—on Laurel Ridge, and a singing Kentucky warbler in the ice storm-damaged area on Dogwood Knoll. At the top of Sapsucker Ridge we counted the first chimney swifts of the season as flyovers and in First Field we heard the first house wren.
According to the Audubon Pennsylvania site description of IBA #32, the Bald Eagle Ridge includes “mature forests, late successional stage fields, wetlands, perennial and intermittent streams, and hillside seeps,” and, indeed, our 650-acre property contains all those habitats. Of most interest are the numbers and species of neotropical migrants that nest in our relatively intact mature forest such as cerulean, worm-eating, black-throated green and black-throated blue warblers, Acadian flycatchers, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, Louisiana waterthrushes, blue-headed vireos, and ovenbirds.
The hillside seeps are valuable for American woodcocks and wild turkeys, and our part of the mountain is rich in both seeps and game birds. The Bald Eagle Ridge is also an incredibly important flyway for raptors, especially golden eagles, and I’ve spent many autumn days counting raptor species from the top of First Field.
Yet threats to our ridge seem to multiply every year. Most are connected to the ill-conceived plan to make U.S. 220 from Bedford to Bellefonte into an interstate so trucks can travel easily and toll-free from the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-70) to I-80 en route to New York and New England. Conservationists were particularly upset over the 17-mile stretch from the village of Bald Eagle to the outskirts of State College and argued that merely adding two more lanes to the existing valley highway, where the habitat is already fragmented, would have been preferable. Not only would it have saved that relatively pristine section of the Bald Eagle Ridge from fragmentation, but it would have preserved the scenic Skytop from being sliced and diced. However, the key decision-makers insisted that it had to be an interstate, and since the ascent over Skytop Mountain was too steep to meet interstate standards, a new highway had to be built.
After they cut off one part of the ridge at Skytop and used it as fill for another, orange water began seeping out of the mountain. They had hit a broad vein of pyrite and sent acid water flowing into local streams and wells. This stopped that part of the project for several years while the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation tried to figure out what to do to solve the problem.
In the meantime, they continued construction of the rest of the interstate from the village of Bald Eagle to the base of Skytop, denuding the ridge nearly to the top and mitigating the many seeps they had eliminated by constructing a series of wetlands in the valley beside old 220. But as David Densmore of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said, when conservationists were still hoping to defeat the project, the interstate construction on the ridge “will have substantial adverse effects on aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat that will not, and in some cases cannot, be mitigated.” By disregarding conservationists’ arguments, not only has this interstate stretch badly fragmented a portion of the Bald Eagle Ridge, it has cost far more to build because of the pyrite, and it has taken many more years to construct than a simple two-lane addition would have.
By selling the entire interstate as an economic opportunity (the so-called I-99 Innovation Corridor) for more businesses to locate off the interstate’s exits, Bald Eagle Ridge has been further fragmented by a shopping center now being constructed on mountain land above Altoona. Once again nature posed considerable problems with heavy rainstorms that caused a large landslide above the shopping center, which sent soil into the construction area. Because of this, ten additional acres had to be added to the conservation easement area. Of course, conservationists did their best to oppose that project also, but again the decision-makers triumphed.
The latest scheme is to build wind on the ridgetops throughout the ridge-and-valley section of Pennsylvania. Since the valleys are already developed, wind plants, which require enormous amounts of clearing and infrastructure such as roads, will pretty much doom the birds and bats that follow these ridges during migration. Not only will they find fragmented habitat when they try to set up housekeeping, or rest and forage during migration, but the incredibly large windmills themselves will pose a physical danger to them, as has been documented by other wind installations in migration corridors.
So, just because an area has been declared an IBA, does not mean it is protected from habitat degradation and/or fragmentation by government projects or private property owners. The hope is simply that the designation will help convince landowners to act as better stewards. One thing we feel we can do is protect our small portion of this enormously important IBA and count the birds. That way, in the decades to come, we will be able to scientifically document what was once here.
During our second IBA point count on the Fourth of July–a hazy, but cloudless 64-degree morning–we spent a strenuous three hours climbing up and down Laurel Ridge to count the birds at nine points in our mature forest and beside our stream. Then we documented the birds at six more points up and down Sapsucker Ridge, back Greenbrier Trail, through the 15-year old clearcut, past the ice-storm damaged area, and finally into First Field.
We ended with 47 species. While 37 of those were the same species we had counted the month before with Kim Van Fleet, on June 2 we had found 11 species–black-billed cuckoo, common raven, tree swallow, house wren, gray catbird, magnolia warbler, black-throated blue warbler, black-poll warbler, Kentucky warbler, northern cardinal, and Baltimore oriole–that we didn’t count on July 4. On our July 4 count we found 10 species–Carolina wren, American robin, black-capped chickadee, ruby-throated hummingbird, brown-headed cowbird, Cooper’s hawk, cedar waxwing, least flycatcher, cerulean warbler, and blue-gray gnatcatcher–that we didn’t count on June 2.
With our two counts we identified 58 species and still managed to miss some obvious ones such as wild turkey. That’s why it is essential to continue counting both numbers and species for many years, especially if bird populations continue to dwindle. While I am certain we had many more birds here when we moved in 35 years ago, I have no real proof. By following the scientific protocol of point counts, the information will be verifiable. And when I am no longer able to conduct our point count, my son Dave and his older brother Steve, who has been a birdwatcher since he was a toddler, will carry on. They are both in training now.
Audubon PA is still looking for volunteers to conduct point counts on many of the IBAs. For more information, please consult their website or call them at 717-213-6880. In the words of their Executive Director Timothy D. Schaeffer, “Audubon Pennsylvania is using Important Bird Areas as ‘portals’ to connect people to the natural world around them. Whether urban, suburban, rural…it doesn’t matter. Each IBA site possesses unique characteristics that help to engage people in conservation, introduce them to environmental issues, and foster a sense that their local park or the wetland down the street is part of a worldwide network of important sites for birds and other wildlife.” And, in some cases, they are able to stop damaging schemes that threaten them.