Tom’s Finch

On the last day of September, our son Mark found the first migrating white-crowned and white-throated sparrows behind the barn and guesthouse. He also pointed out a Lincoln’s sparrow he had discovered at the edge of the hedgerow bordering First Field.

A Lincoln’s sparrow in Chester County, PA, on October 5, 2015

A Lincoln’s sparrow in Chester County, PA, on October 5, 2015 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I’m not an expert on the “little brown jobs,” as birders refer to the many look-alike sparrow species. While I’ve learned song, chipping, field, American tree, and white-throated sparrows because they are here for months either during the breeding or wintering seasons, I had never seen nor heard a Lincoln’s sparrow until Mark showed it to me.

At first I thought it was a song sparrow, and I wondered how many Lincoln’s I had dismissed over the years as song sparrows. They are both in the genus Melospiza, along with swamp sparrows, and the one Mark found even had the diagnostic dark breast spot of a song sparrow, although most Lincoln’s do not. But this sparrow was smaller than a song sparrow, had grayer head stripes, lighter streaking on its sides, a broad, buffy-colored chest band, and a white belly.

After that I looked more closely at the sparrows on First Field which was, at that time, a 37-acre goldenrod and aster meadow. On October 2 I was outside at 9:30 a.m. and, as I neared the field, birds flew up from the browning goldenrod including several Lincoln’s sparrows with a song sparrow.

Audubon’s painting of the Lincoln’s sparrow, the “Lincoln finch” as he called it

Audubon’s painting of the Lincoln’s sparrow, the “Lincoln finch” as he called it (Image in the Wikimedia, in the public domain)

Then began a burble of song at song sparrow pitch but with less structure. It was pure, bright bird music, described as warbling and wren-like by some observers. But when artist and naturalist John James Audubon first discovered it in Labrador in 1833, he wrote in his Ornithological Biography that “the sweet notes of this bird as they came thrilling on my sense, surpassing in vigour those of any American Finch with which I am acquainted, form[ed] a song which seemed a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-Lark of Europe.”

Audubon and his companions chased this new species from bush to bush, trying to shoot it for a type specimen until finally 19-year-old Maine native, Thomas Lincoln, “with his usual unerring aim,…cut short its career…I named it Tom’s finch, in honour of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favourite among us.”

The last time I saw Lincoln’s sparrows in First Field was the fifteenth of October when they still looked to me like song sparrows but sang their warbling song. According to The Birds of Pennsylvania by Gerald M. McWilliams and Daniel W. Brauning, most records for Lincoln’s sparrows here are from the first week in September to the fourth week in October, and banding records at Powdermill Nature Reserve record as many as 15 birds a day during the first and second weeks in October.

Lincoln’s sparrows breed from Alaska across Canada as far north as northern Quebec and Labrador in eastern Canada, south through the western mountain ranges in the United States, and from northern Minnesota to eastern Massachusetts. The closest known breeding range to Pennsylvania is in northern New York state, although there is one record of a singing Lincoln’s sparrow on July 24, 1988, at 2300 feet in elevation at Rickett’s Glen State Park in Luzerne County.

Lincoln’s sparrows east of the Mississippi River usually winter from northwestern South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to central Florida. Those west of the Mississippi River can migrate sometimes as far south as Costa Rica and Panama, making them adventurous migrants that head farther south than most sparrows, but no matter where they go, they always use brushy, weedy areas close to shrubs both when they are migrating and on their wintering grounds.

They also migrate through Pennsylvania during the spring, usually in May, but they move through the commonwealth more quickly than during their dawdling fall migration, and as many as 30 have been counted at Presque Isle State Park near Erie.

In eastern North America, breeding Lincoln’s sparrows are birds of boreal shrub lands that are sometimes boggy. Because they are often bullied by song sparrows, according to J. Murray Speirs and Doris Huestis Speirs, who studied them from 1955 to 1957 near the north shore of Lake Superior in the Thunder Bay District of Canada, Lincoln’s sparrows could only breed in the same area as their congeners “by dint of persistent passive resistance: they always fled and returned later by stealth.”

The Speirs observed Lincoln’s sparrows on trout hatchery grounds from their car because “with black flies, ‘no-see-ums,’ and mosquitoes active and plentiful, a parked and closed car seemed the only livable observation point in the country.”

A Lincoln’s sparrow singing

A Lincoln’s sparrow singing (Photo by Gary Leavens in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They and other researchers have found Lincoln’s sparrows difficult to study because of their skulking, secretive nature. Still, the Speirs had no trouble seeing the males singing from elevated perches, defending their acre of territory from other Lincoln’s sparrows by singing, buzzing calls and wing-flapping, and breeding by pouncing on their mates, usually after the females encouraged them. The Speirs’ pair was less secretive than most Lincoln’s sparrows where mating was concerned, copulating on the ground, on brush piles, on a picnic table, even on a sign, and one morning, while the female was nest-building, seven times between 8:00 and 10:13.

But the Speirs couldn’t find that nest even though they watched where the female landed, first with grass and later food in her bill. Finally, with another couple, they crawled around on their hands and knees and still couldn’t locate it. Then, after supper on June 24, 1956, Neil Atkinson, a young school boy, “came puffing into our house, having run the mile from the nest site, to announce that he had succeeded in locating the nest. Immediately, we went back with him, and there the nest was, right where we had looked, but set well down into the ground under a pile of last year’s brush cuttings. It looked like a little black hole.”

A Lincoln’s sparrow hiding in low shrubs in Ontario

A Lincoln’s sparrow hiding in low shrubs in Ontario (Photo by Yankech gary in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They added that the Lincoln’s sparrows use “shrub growth less than 8 feet high for concealment and from which the male can sing, openings carpeted with grasses, heaths, or annuals less than 2 feet high in which they can forage, and a substratum of brush cuttings, grass clumps, or sphagnum that the nest may be sunk into.”

A female Lincoln’s sparrow digs out a small depression in the ground and using willow bark, grasses and dried sedges weaves a four inch by two inch nest, which she lines with a thick layer of thin, soft plant material. In it she lays three to five pale greenish to pinkish eggs specked and blotched with brown. She then incubates the eggs for 13 days.

The Speirs found it difficult to locate the nest because the female engages in what ornithologists refer to as the “rodent-run” when she leaves and returns to the nest after eating. Holding her wings against her body she lowers her head and breaks through a tunnel in the vegetation or later, during incubation, she flaps her wings and noisily breaks through vegetation especially if she is defending the nest from an intruder such as short-tailed weasels, shrews, or gray jays, all of which may prey on eggs or nestlings.

The male remains solicitous, mate-guarding her particularly during egg-laying because most studies on their breeding grounds have found twice to three times as many males as females so they are precious commodities.

A Lincoln’s sparrow in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia

A Lincoln’s sparrow in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia (Photo by Brian Henderson on October 5, 2015 in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

He also pitches in to feed them as soon as the helpless, altricial young emerge from their shells, although mostly the female broods their helpless hatchlings for a portion of their early nesting period at one to five days of age. The Speirs’ sparrows were fed green caterpillars, small white moths, and young grasshoppers, but overall, adult Lincoln’s sparrows over a year consume both insects and small seeds in equal amounts.

The young Lincoln’s sparrows mature quickly and leave their nest at 10 to 11 days old, although they can’t fly yet and spend most of their time hiding under dense shrub cover, but they often sleep at night back in their nest for several days. They practice flying during the day by first hopping and wing-flapping to nearby branches, then gradually making short and then longer flights until they are able to fly well by 18 days of age.

Because Lincoln’s sparrows are difficult to observe on their boreal breeding grounds due to their secretive natures, much of their biology and ecology are still unknown. Yet their numbers seem high during migration so they are in no danger of disappearing.

I look forward to seeing and hearing their singing this fall now that I know they visit our First Field. (See a YouTube video below that shows a singing Lincoln’s sparrow.) To me they are examples of the wonder of the natural world where I can always find something new even on familiar ground.

Cats and Wildlife

My mother-in-law was a cat lady. Born and raised on a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, she, like most rural residents, then and now, knew the value of “barn cats”—free-ranging cats fed by farmers in exchange for the cats dispatching the rats and mice attracted to food they grew and stored.

A stray cat hanging around a bird blind

A stray cat hanging around a bird blind (Photo by runarut on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On 25 rural acres in central New Jersey where my husband, Bruce, grew up, his mother fed 30 or more “stray” cats every evening. They also owned a pet indoor cat that had been spayed, received veterinarian care and the proper vaccinations, and never left the house.

I had not grown up with pets and was more interested in native birds and animals. But when we moved to Pennsylvania in 1971, we became reluctant owners of stray cats that folks dropped off at the bottom of our mountain. Our boys found kittens in our barn, and suddenly we had four adorable kittens to care for. In addition, a frequent visitor from New York City gifted us with mature cats she had found roaming free.

A cat in a Humane Society facility

A cat in a Humane Society facility (Photo by Douglas Muth on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Although we tried, the kittens refused to be house-trained, and I put them all outside. I continued to feed them, but one by one they disappeared. They were always replaced with more cats that migrated up our road. Finally, I started catching and taking them to the local Humane Society. After a couple trips, we were scolded for not getting them spayed and being responsible pet owners. I explained that we hadn’t asked for these animals, and I had no intention of becoming a cat lady like my mother-in-law.

I loved birds, and while I rarely saw any kills from these free-ranging cats, I knew that they preyed on wildlife. Eventually, I refused to feed any more cats. It was a difficult decision because they are beguiling creatures. And I was angry with the folks who dropped these unwanted pets out in the woods, thinking they could live on the wildlife.

Today I rarely see a cat on our mountain because eastern coyotes prey on them. But when we drive in rural valleys we often see cats hunting on the fields or killed on the roads. Many of these cats are feral or tame strays that don’t belong to anyone. Others are household pets allowed to roam outdoors.

Since the 1990s, more and more people—rural, suburban, and urban—own cats. In the United States there are as many as 80 to 90 million owned cats. Of these 60 to 70 percent go outside. In addition, scientists have estimated there are also 30 to 80 million ownerless cats that freely roam outdoors.

A cat on a birdfeeder hunting birds

A cat on a birdfeeder hunting birds (Photo by Ian Barbour on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One scientist, Stan Temple, set off a fire storm back in 1993 when he published a paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin claiming that his research on farms in Wisconsin’s dairy lands found that cats were killing as many as 7.8 million birds yearly in the state and that a minimum of 10 percent of small-to-medium birds in a cat’s range were preyed on.

Temple was concerned about the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program that paid farmers to replace erodible croplands with permanent grass cover in an effort to help the dwindling number of grassland bird species such as bobolinks, Henslow’s sparrows, and eastern meadowlarks. Those grasslands contained dozens of barn cats as well as free-ranging pets preying on the birds the program had been designed to help.

A Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) playing with its prey

A Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) playing with its prey (Photo by Daniele Colombo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Domestic cats, scientists pointed out, are not native cats but have evolved from the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and have been spread worldwide by humans, arriving in North America before Columbus’s second voyage (1493-95). Domestic cats were even eaten by starving colonists at the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s.

Cats are not the only reason that one-third of bird species (233) in the United States have declined significantly since around 1970. Grassland bird species, for instance, have been most impacted by habitat loss and pesticide use in addition to cat predation. And Temple’s study was the first of dozens more that examined the impact of non-native cats on our native birds, although he received the most vitriolic hate mail and death threats and was accused of hating cats, even though he owns an indoor cat like many of the researchers who have studied the problem.

In 2013 a paper in the scientific journal Nature Communications, authored by Peter Marra, Director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and his associates, estimated that cats killed 1.3 billion to four billion birds per year in addition to small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Specifically, each free-ranging cat annually killed an average of 30 to 47.6 birds, 1.9-4.7 amphibians, 4.2-12.4 reptiles and 177.3-299.5 mammals including native mice, shrews, voles, squirrels and rabbits.

As a wildlife person, I was appalled. But the majority of people in our country are now urban and suburban inhabitants and their association with animals is with their pets—mostly dogs and cats. But dogs must be licensed and cared for and are completely dependent on their owners for food and exercise outdoors on a leash. Those owners must even dispose of their waste in a responsible way.

Two raccoons eating cat food on a porch

Two raccoons eating cat food on a porch (Photo by Lou on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

That’s not true for cats in many parts of our country. Pennsylvania’s own Department of Health as well as the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider rabid cats to be a serious public health concern. Dogs used to be but since stray dogs are controlled here and owner dogs vaccinated, free-ranging cats, fed by well-meaning, compassionate people who love them, are often joined by raccoons at their feeding sites.

Raccoons, since the 1950s, have been the main vector for rabies in the eastern United States but from 1982-2014 there were 1,078 laboratory-confirmed cases of rabies in outdoor domesticated cats in Pennsylvania. Nationwide, by 2013, 53 percent of all rabies from domesticated animals were cat-caused and only 19 percent from dogs. Cats need several vaccinations over the years to keep them rabies-free, which is possible only if cats are owned and taken regularly to a veterinarian.

A veterinarian examining a cat

A veterinarian examining a cat (Photo by Priority Pet Hospital on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Admittedly, contracting rabies from either a wild or domesticated animal is a rare occurrence in our country. But Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is often transmitted through cat urine and poop, sickens as many as 22 percent of the United States population. Toxoplasmosis used to be thought fairly innocuous, but studies by neurologists have linked it to blindness and a large array of mental illnesses in some infected people. Most likely this “Zombie Maker,” as Peter Marra and Chris Santella call it in their eye-opening book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, changes the brain chemistry in humans as it does in rats and other animals.

One study in the United States found that those with toxoplasmosis were 2.7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life, especially if, as children, they had had close contact with cats. Severe depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorders may also be caused by the disease. In addition, a study in 20 European countries seemed to prove that suicide rates in older postmenopausal women were positively related to the disease. Frankly, after reading the chapter on toxoplasmosis I was horrified that I had ever allowed our sons to play with stray cats.

Because the parasite gets into public and private water systems through cat urine and feces, it is also infecting a wide array of marine animals, wild birds, and other animals. Ongoing studies seek to find out exactly how dangerous toxoplasmosis is to them. Cats also contract feline leukemia which can spread to bobcats and cougars if they prey on free-ranging cats as I am sure our bobcats do.

Cat-lovers continue to question the findings of scientists regarding the number of cats roaming outdoors and the damage they do to wildlife because current estimates are based on extrapolations from many small-scaled studies. Still, given the current research, it seems that for the health of cats, their owners, and wildlife, keeping cats indoors is better for all.

A catio with a cat inside

A catio with a cat inside (Photo by HackRVA Makerspace on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Outdoor writer George H. Harrison, quoted in National Wildlife magazine, says that “indoor cats are healthier and longer-lived and a cat’s interest in birds can be satisfied by setting up a bird-friendly area outside your pet’s window.”

Other pet owners, including Stan Temple, have built cat enclosures, now dubbed “cat patios” or “catios” so they can enjoy the outdoors without endangering birds and other wildlife. They can also take agreeable cats for walks on a leash.

Much more needs to be done to prevent people from abandoning their pets in public places or feeding the resultant strays like my mother-in-law did. As Marra and Santella conclude in their book, “Inside, cats make excellent pets; loose on the landscape, they are—by no fault of their own—unrelenting killers and cauldrons of disease.”

 

Central Appalachian Fishers

It was near the beginning of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s reintroduction of fishers to the commonwealth. This second largest member of the weasel family had last been documented in Pennsylvania when it was trapped in 1921 at Holtwood, in Lancaster County.

A fisher

A fisher (Photo by Bethany Weeks, Pacific Southwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Denise Mitcheltree, then a graduate student at Penn State back in May of 1995, took me with her to the Quehanna Wild Area and the Sproul State Forest, where she was searching for the first radio-tagged fishers released in late 1994.

Mitcheltree was working under the tutelage of Dr. Tom Serfass, who had previously been the prime force behind the reintroduction of river otters to Pennsylvania. Both of them believed that weekly, long distance radio-monitoring without disturbing the fishers would allow them to learn more about their preferred habitat, dispersal, and prey species.

Most of the fisher research they were depending on had been done by scientists working in the largely coniferous and mixed deciduous forests of Maine and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where remnant fisher populations remained after habitat loss and over-harvesting had extirpated them not only in Pennsylvania but farther south in the Appalachian Mountains.

Another fisher

Another fisher (U.S. National Park Service photo by Emily Brouwer in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Fishers, Mitcheltree told me, were known to avoid water so the West Branch of the Susquehanna River was supposed to be a barrier for them, but already three fishers had crossed the river. Furthermore, since the scientific literature stated that fishers needed coniferous and mixed forest with a heavy canopy to provide better protection from winter weather, fisher releases were only to occur in Pennsylvania’s north woods.

Mitcheltree objected to information claiming fishers were ferocious animals. She insisted they were shy, secretive creatures that avoided any contact with humans, which was why she was surprised that some of the fishers she was following were moving through the back yards of the cabins and, in some cases, isolated occupied homes.

A lot has changed since then. Even its genus. Formerly, it was Martes, the same as that of the marten. But DNA studies in 2008 found that although both descended from a common ancestor, the fisher was distinct enough for its own genera Pekania, based on its alternate name pekan. Its species name remains pennanti for Thomas Pennant who called it a fisher back in 1771.

A fisher in the snow in West Virginia

A fisher in the snow in West Virginia (Photo by Animal Diversity Web in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This amazing animal has been doing spectacularly well here since it was reintroduced. As Dr. Jeff Larkin of Indiana University of Pennsylvania wrote to me in an email, “I think fishers are finally in the biome (deciduous forest) for which the species is best adapted…Once harvest regulations were in place [and] deciduous cover increased, and fishers were reintroduced into places like West Virginia, southern New York, and Pennsylvania, we quickly learned that the species thrive in such places…With really minimal reintroduction efforts… the species has established populations…It certainly is a testament to the species ability to thrive alongside humans in such landscapes…”

Larkin, his graduate students, and Matt Lovallo, Mammals Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, have published three recent papers on fishers in Pennsylvania, and all of them reflect changing ideas about the lives of central Appalachian fishers.

The first paper studied the selection of rest sites by fishers in the eastern deciduous forest, specifically in south-central Pennsylvania in and around state game lands 26, Gallitzin State Forest, and adjacent private lands. They captured and radio-collared 23 fishers that used 79 resting structures. The most common (65%) were in live black cherry, American beech and sugar maple trees with broken tops or cavities. The second most used (17%) were in standing dead trees with cavities or broken tops. Finally, 14 percent utilized ground-level structures such as burrows, rock piles, and root balls. The forest surrounding the resting structures had floors of coarse woody debris and rocky ground cover, a complex canopy, and more diverse tree species.

A fisher feeding at a game cam on a Pennsylvania mountaintop

A fisher feeding at a game cam on a Pennsylvania mountaintop (Photo by Paula Scott and used with her permission)

However, the rest sites were mostly in pure deciduous stands (74%), followed by 21 percent in mixed stands and none in coniferous stands. In selecting rest sites, canopy cover was not that important and they rested in stands with a wide range of canopy covers.

In conclusion, they wrote that “Maintaining resting habitat for fishers in the eastern deciduous forests can be accomplished through management practices that encourage structurally diverse forests, including retention of coarse woody debris and variation in tree size and condition.”

A second study in three distinct regions of Pennsylvania—northern (Allegheny), central (Quehanna), and southern (Blue Knob)—consisted of mostly deciduous forest and sought “to examine the influence of landscape characteristics on patch use by fishers in the predominately deciduous forests of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania,” according to their 2017 paper published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management.

Roland Kays explains to a couple helpers how camera traps work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Roland Kays explains to a couple helpers how camera traps work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (Photo by YourWild_Life on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Surprisingly, they found that fishers used low-density residential areas and could tolerate some kinds of land development, especially if they harbored favorite prey such as squirrels and chipmunks and some forest cover. Few roads might also favor fisher use, but that was not as clear cut. So far, studies have not been done in heavily suburban areas in Pennsylvania, but research on GPS collared fishers by Roland Kays and Scott LaPoint near Albany, New York has found that fishers use small drainage culverts to cross highways and move from one fragmented forest habitat to another. One of their fishers hunted in larger patches of forests and then moved along narrow forested strips to get between patches. Rabbits and squirrels were their favorite foods.

A fisher they named Phineas crossed on/off ramps to hunt in the forest of a highway cloverleaf interchange. When Kays tracked him in the snow he discovered that Phineas dug in the snow after mice, ran up trees pursuing squirrels, and tunneled down into a cattail marsh after either rabbits or muskrats.

Other fishers they studied were similarly unfazed by development. One cut through the yards of subdivisions and spent the night in a pile of junk in the woods and another hunted in patches of woods between golf fairways. A female was able to survive in a kilometer of suburban forest and a male killed on an interstate in Schenectady had traveled over 205 miles in one month, crossing dozens of roads before leaving the countryside and returning to urban forests where he crossed his last road. Kays hypothesized that he was searching for his own territory.

Most, though, were in search of food. A third study by Larkin, Lovallo, and graduate students looked at the diet of central Appalachian fishers in 30 counties in Pennsylvania which showed how diverse the food of fishers can be.  From 2002 to 2014, they examined the stomachs of 91 road-killed, incidental trapper-killed, and legally harvested fishers using microscopic hair inspection and macroscopic examining of bones, teeth, claws and other hard parts. They discovered remains of deer (12), rabbits (11), porcupines (10), voles, woodrats, and mice (21), woodchucks (4), eastern gray squirrels (8), eastern chipmunks (3), red squirrels (3), coyotes (2), red foxes (3), raccoons (6) and opossums (8), as well as one each of ring-necked pheasant, black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, black rat snake, frog, and brown prionid beetle, and two bony fish. They also ate a variety of plant materials. Incidentally, there was no sign of domestic cats in their study nor in a separate study Kays did in New York State. Both Kays and Larkin believe that coyotes are the culprit cat killers.

The Larkin et al. food study’s most surprising discovery was that 11 “had fisher remains that were clearly the result of cannibalistic behavior,” which was their “most noteworthy and novel finding.” Because these fisher remains were collected between November and February, they were not eating newly-born fishers (they are born in late March and early April), but adult fishers. Since the timing coincided with fisher dispersal, they hypothesized that “perhaps the intraspecific predation we observed was the result of territorial disputes.”

Central Appalachian fishers are finding so much prey and so few predators that they are spreading quickly in areas where they disappeared from centuries ago, such as in New York City, where the first known fisher, since shortly after Manhattan was settled, was photographed in June of 2014.

Larkin hopes to study fishers in Pennsylvania’s heavily suburban areas soon, adding that “we are going to learn a lot about this species over the next ten years as it colonizes more of the eastern United States.”

 

Right-of-Way Science

It’s a hot, dry day in late June when my 12-year-old granddaughter Elanor and I, along with 25 other folks, visit the First Energy/Penelec Right-of-Way on SGL#33. Our friend, Dr. Carolyn Mahan, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona, has organized one of four scheduled bee-collection dates for this well-studied right-of-way.

A group of visitors exploring the powerline right-of-way on State Game Lands 33, June 2017

A group of visitors exploring the powerline right-of-way on State Game Lands 33, June 2017 (Photo by Therese Boyd of Penn State on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Research on the best way to manage right-of-ways (ROW) has been ongoing at this site since 1953, which is, by far, the longest study of any ROW corridor in the world. A large 500 kV transmission line in Centre County, it passes up and over the Allegheny Front through a heavily forested area.

On this day, students and faculty from Ohio State University have joined representatives from First Energy, vegetation-management companies, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission along with Penn State faculty, staff, and students and collectors willing to help snag bees with bug nets and put them in killing jars so the insects can be identified, studied, and then stored in Penn State’s Frost Entomological Museum.

Back in the 1990s, Mahan first started working on this site as a graduate student with Dr. Richard Yahner when bird and mammal studies were underway. Yahner authored numerous papers on this site before his untimely death in 2015. When Mahan took over the work then, she put an emphasis on native pollinators, along with continuing studies of birds and plant species. Once a month in May, June, July and August volunteers collect bees in six different 50×25 meter sites for two hours both morning and afternoon.

Another powerline in PA that appears to be using wire-border zone management

Another powerline in PA that appears to be using wire-border zone management (Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Before the collecting began, we heard about the various treatments used in an effort to determine which ones were most useful in keeping the electric lines operative in all kinds of weather, yet did not harm the mammals, birds, and insects that live on the ROW. Although management methods have varied since 1953, in the mid-1980s, they adopted the wire-border zone method in which the area directly under the transmission lines (wire) is managed for grasses, forbs, and low shrubs and the narrow border zone on each side of the wires for low-to-medium-sized shrubs.

The vegetative-management company uses one of six treatments, including (1) mowing and using a diluted herbicide on the wire zone, (2) a high volume foliar herbicide treatment, again in the wire zone, (3) an ultra-low volume treatment with herbicide only on target vegetation in the wire zone, (4)a low volume basal bark treatment where herbicides are sprayed on individual target plants to control trees and shrubs up to six inches in diameter in both the wire and border zones, (5)mowing in the wire and border area and (6) hand-cutting with a chainsaw.

A killing jar filled with various species of bees collected by Elanor Bonta

A killing jar filled with various species of bees collected by Elanor Bonta (Photo by Elanor Bonta)

The site where we were to collect bees has had the low volume basal bark treatment which has been the most successful in creating early successional habitat for native bees. In addition, the border zones have reacted well to this treatment and are important for birds, Research Assistant Brad Ross reported.

After more than an hour in the hot sun listening to various speakers, we were eager to get started collecting and watched as Dana Roberts, a Research Technologist in Penn State’s Department of Entomology, demonstrated how to carefully net a bee and put it in a jar with acetone. Elanor didn’t need any lesson. She is very proficient with an insect net, having learned from her father who has been collecting beetles since childhood.

Elanor with her collecting net

Elanor with her collecting net (Photo by Therese Boyd, Penn State, used with permission)

I, on the other hand, am not proficient with a net so I was in charge of holding and opening the killing jar whenever she netted a bee. During the collection period she caught several bees while I noted the wide variety of wildflowers in the wire zone—common milkweed, evening primrose, whorled loosestrife, goldenrod—and other native plants such as sweetfern, spreading dogbane, Virginia creeper, dewberry, and hay-scented fern. But most of the bees we collected were nectaring on the beds and beds of blooming non-native daisies brought from Europe centuries ago.

I was also interested in Ross’s research. He conducts bird singing surveys on eight sites four times a year during the breeding season. In addition, he and his helpers search for nests on the ROW. They had found 63 nests, 15 more than in 2016. For birds, he concluded, “It’s a source, not a sink.” He showed us an eastern towhee nest in a black cherry tree sapling on a border site that had been cut with a chainsaw but not treated with herbicide. Nearby, a blackberry shrub harbored a chestnut-sided warbler nest. I also heard singing field sparrows and an indigo bunting.

A common yellowthroat in Pennsylvania using a shrubby habitat (Photo by Dave Inman on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A common yellowthroat in Pennsylvania using a shrubby habitat (Photo by Dave Inman on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Since 1982, scientists have identified over 44 bird species on the ROW, most notably nesting common yellowthroats, American redstarts, field sparrows, indigo buntings, chestnut-sided warblers and eastern towhees, all species that use grassy, shrubby nesting areas, especially blackberry, mountain laurel, blueberry, witch hazel, hay-scented fern and poverty grass.

Other, earlier studies of reptiles and amphibians found that small snakes such as northern red-belly and northern ringneck snakes use the wire zone and salamanders the border zone.

A two-year study of small mammals comparing species numbers and richness with the nearby forest identified eight species—white-footed, woodland jumping and meadow jumping mice, meadow and red-backed voles, short-tailed and masked shrews and short-tailed weasels—on the ROW and only two species in the adjacent forest.

Still another study on deer use of the ROW in the early 1980s before and after herbicide treatment showed that deer actually increased after the treatment, using it 48% more than the forest as they browsed heavily on the resulting herbaceous vegetation.

An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on a thistle in Pennsylvania

An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on a thistle in Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Even butterflies proved to be more abundant on the herbicide-treated sites than on hand-cut ones. They, like the bees, are valuable pollinators for the many wildflowers where they collect nectar. On that two-year study, scientists identified such natives as Aphrodite fritillaries, little wood satyrs, monarchs, spicebush and eastern tiger swallowtails.

Most abundant of all, though, were the numbers and diversity of bee species on our collection day and the others throughout the designated spring and summer months. In a draft of a paper authored by the five scientist conducting the work, including lead Postdoctoral Scholar Laura Russo from the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research as well as Mahan, Ross, H. Stout and D. Roberts, which is under review at the Journal of Pollinator Ecology, they wrote that they had “net-collected 1,056 bee specimens representing 96 bee species,” only five of which were not natives, and two which had never been identified in Pennsylvania. In addition, all six bee families in North America were represented.

Once again low and selective basal bark treatment yielded the largest number of bees and they concluded that furthermore, “These ROW have potential to provide valuable conservation land if managed to promote biodiversity.”

Marcia and Elanor on the right-of-way in SGL 33

Marcia and Elanor on the right-of-way in SGL 33 (Photo by Therese Boyd, Penn State, used with permission)

Elanor and I enjoyed the chance to work with scientists for a morning and to see how valuable the open land of a ROW can be in providing habitat for native species that need shrubby, grassy areas. But while there is the possibility of such management on the two to three million hectares of ROWS in the United States, I couldn’t help comparing what I saw on the SGL#33 ROW with the small ROW that goes up and over our lower ridge-and-valley mountain. When we first moved here in 1971, it had been sprayed from the air, killing everything on it.

Gradually the plants and trees returned, and we were able to persuade the power company to hand-cut the trees and treat the stumps with herbicide. On the Laurel Ridge side the ROW reverted to mountain laurel, lowbush blueberry, scrub oak and sweetfern and on the steep south side of Sapsucker Ridge to hay-scented fern and pale corydalis. In the First Field and flatter areas on either side of the field that were also part of the ROW, blackberry shrubs, goldenrod and asters grow. As far as we could see, no trees threatened the wire zone. Pointing out to the many college classes we have hosted here over the years how well our ROW was managed, especially the healthy scrub oaks, also called bear oaks, loaded with acorns for wildlife every year, has always been part of our managed-land tours.

A scrub oak in the powerline on Laurel Ridge with a cicada

A scrub oak in the powerline on Laurel Ridge with a cicada (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

But last fall we heard chainsaws on the Laurel Ridge side. To our horror, the electric line workers had cut down all the scrub oak, having been told by their boss to cut all hardwood species. Although scrub oak can grow up to 20 feet tall in the best of circumstances, ours have never grown much higher than the mountain laurel. That’s because they grew on inhospitable mountain soil and formed a dense and extensive thicket.

It seemed especially bittersweet to lose valuable shrubby habitat to ignorance after spending so much time on a model ROW. Unfortunately, this heavy-handed attitude to ROWS is more the rule than the exception.