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.

 

Audubon’s Pewee

It’s a day in late May and already the nests of our eastern phoebes are bursting with nestlings preparing to fledge. Over the 47 years we have lived on our mountain, our buildings have hosted many eastern phoebe nests.

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

Some buildings, such as the guesthouse portico and the old outhouse, contained nests for several decades, but the outhouse finally collapsed and the phoebes deserted the guesthouse portico after years of successful fledgings. They continue to use either the outside or inside of the small springhouse, while the barn overhang has become a more recent popular nesting place.

Still, there has never been a year when phoebes have not used the top of a veranda column and one of the garage beams to raise families, even though we tried to discourage the veranda column nest sites when we had it repaired and painted by blocking in the flattened tops of the columns. Undeterred, phoebes molded their nests around the obstructions.

Eastern phoebes have been building their nests on human homes and outbuildings for centuries and were known in the 19th century as “barn pewees” as well as “bridge pewees” because they also favor the undersides of bridges. Before the advent of human dwellings and even today, they will build nests in natural rock outcroppings. All such choices protect their nestlings from the weather and often predators as well.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) (Photo by Soerfm in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family, eastern phoebes follow the first flush of insects north from their winter homes in the southern United States, Texas, and Mexico, often arriving in Pennsylvania in early March and leaving in late October. Sometimes they must survive late spring snow storms and are able to subsist on small fruits instead of insects until the weather improves.

These gray-brown birds with off-white throats and bellies are the first songbirds to arrive on our mountain around March 15. When I hear the raspy “fee-bee” of a male phoebe and see this tail-flicking flycatcher on a wire near the barn catching insects from the sunny side of the building, I know that spring is here.

In scientific circles, eastern phoebes are known as “suboscine” birds because their songs are innate instead of learned like those of “oscine” birds such as wood thrushes. But lately bioacoustic studies of their songs detected variations among male song characteristics that are not obvious to our ears but are to those of the birds.

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove (Photo by Dennis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eastern phoebes should be credited with first arousing bird artist John James Audubon’s interest in birds. When he was a youth, he lived at Mill Grove on the Perkiomen Creek in Chester County. Early in the spring of 1804, he found the empty nest of the bird he called “Pewee” or “Pewit flycatchier,” fastened to a rock in a cave on his property.

When the cave phoebes returned, he spent many hours watching them as they went about their phoebe business. “Before a week had elapsed,” he wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “the Pewees and myself were quite on terms of intimacy.”

Beginning on the tenth of April, he watched them repair their old nest as “they brought fresh materials, lined the nest anew, and made it warm by adding a few soft feathers of the Common Goose which were strewn along the edge of the creek water.”

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest (Photo by jeffreyw on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Even today, eastern phoebes often refurbish old nests instead of building new ones, since building a new nest takes five to 14 days and refurbishing an old one four days or less. One recent study found that new nest builders finished their first clutches later, were less likely to raise a second family, and lost their nesting attempts more often because of fallen nest structures, all of which led to “lower seasonal reproductive effort,” the scientists concluded.

Audubon’s close observations of phoebes’ family life reminded me of the time I spent watching a guesthouse portico family back in the early 1980s. The female refurbished an old nest and she then laid five white eggs.

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to nest under the roof another time

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to hide under the roof another time (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr

I sat inside the front door of the guesthouse and watched the family through the portico window, but I also climbed up on a chair outside and held a mirror above the nest to check the eggs. The female is the sole incubator, even sleeping in the nest overnight. It takes 16 days until the eggs hatch, and most eggs in a single nest, including the ones I watched, hatch within 24 hours.

Audubon’s eggs hatched on the thirteenth day and in his nest of six eggs one did not hatch just as in the nest of five that I watched one never hatched. In both cases a parent removed the egg. Audubon opened the rejected egg and “found the embryo of a bird partly dried up, with its vertebrae attached to the shell…”

Since the hatchlings are helpless, almost naked, and in need of nearly constant brooding, I waited until they were 11 days old, fully feathered, and active before spending an hour every day watching the nest and recording the number of feedings. For four days they averaged 25 feedings, but when they reached 16 days of age, the feedings diminished to 15 an hour. A recent study showed that parents adjust their feeding rates according to the begging rates of their nestlings.

By then the nestlings were flexing their wings or standing on the edge of the nest and beating them. When they were 17 days old, the female parent appeared with nesting materials in her beak and, despite screams of hunger from the nestlings, proceeded to build a second nest beside the first one, yanking nesting materials from the side and top of the first nest as the youngsters watched.

While she worked on construction, the male fed the nestlings. But sometimes when they begged, she tried to push construction materials down their throats which they promptly spat out. They even jumped back and forth between the old and new nests but settled into the old nest by nightfall. The following morning, at 9:30 a.m., they all fledged at once. Usually though phoebes fledge one at a time over an hour or so as the veranda column nestlings do.

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it (Image in the Wikimedia, in the public domain)

While I kept a “hands off” approach to the young, Audubon spent his time gaining the trust of both parents and nestlings so that they tolerated the light silver thread he fastened to the leg of each nestling before they fledged. This was the first time that birds had been banded in North America.

His banding proved the following year that phoebes return to their same nesting site and even nest, writing, “When the Pewees returned to Pennsylvania I had the satisfaction of observing them again, in and about the cave. There again in the very same nest two broods were raised…Several of these birds which I caught on the nest had the little banding ring on the leg…”

He assumed many of the pairs he observed, not only in the cave, but on farm buildings and his mill nearby remained faithful during one breeding season and from year to year. Recently, two studies found that most pairs were both socially and genetically monogamous within a breeding season. In one case in Indiana only 15 of 87 families had extra-pair young in at least one brood, most commonly the second brood.

Those researchers followed up with a second study in which they captured and color-banded 198 males and 237 females, studied them for three seasons, and discovered that they were faithful to their territories, nest sites, and mates within and between years with 85.5% of males and 92% of females mating with the same mate during multiple breeding attempts. But mates were replaced following their disappearance and probable deaths.

A study of infanticide in Kentucky by an unrelated male phoebe even while the female continued feeding her nestlings, resulted in the death of all the nestlings. The researchers hypothesized that the male parent of the nestlings had died or disappeared and that it was a way for a non-breeding male to obtain a mate and start his own family.

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg (Photo by Galawebdesign in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A greater threat to breeding phoebes has been repeated brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds. I’ve occasionally observed cowbird parasitism in our nests over the years, but never in the veranda column nests. A study of cowbird parasitism in New York State concluded that even over generations of birds, cowbirds prefer particular eastern phoebe sites, such as our old outhouse.

Other threats to phoebe eggs and nestlings are black rat snakes, raccoons, coyotes, blue jays, American crows, chipmunks, and house wrens, but not one of those predators has climbed or flown into the veranda column nests.

Overall, phoebes are incredibly successful throughout their range including Pennsylvania where they live everywhere except for the urban cores of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Although our songbird population has dwindled since the 1970s, it is comforting to know that eastern phoebes continue to thrive and are able to quickly adapt manmade structures for their own purposes.

 

Chasing Waterfowl

Early April is the time to see migrating waterfowl on every pond, lake, and river in our state, and last spring was no exception. On a warm, breezy, April day, led by our birder son, Mark, my husband Bruce and I took an all-day tour in search of ducks, geese, and other assorted waterfowl. Mark had spent much of his spare time exploring the best places to bird in Bald Eagle Valley and beyond and wanted to share them with us.

The Julian Wetlands with the Bald Eagle Mountain in the background

The Julian Wetlands with the Bald Eagle Mountain in the background (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Our first stop was the Julian Wetlands, renamed the Tom Ridge and Julian Wetlands by the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation. This privately funded organization, located in State College, was founded in 2004 to promote wildlife conservation and education in Pennsylvania and is committed to maintaining habitat for our 480 species of birds and mammals as well as our fisheries according to their website.

In 2002 the WHM Group, Inc., in State College had been hired by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to construct the Julian Wetlands on both sides of Alternate Route 220 as mitigation for the environmental impacts caused by the building of Interstate 99 on Bald Eagle Mountain. The scientists working for the WHM Group chose the location based on existing water sources, both from the Allegheny Plateau run-off on the Julian Wetlands side and Bald Eagle Creek saturation feeds along the riparian wetland on the south side of the highway. These waters enabled them to construct wetlands without using large machines.

The WHM Group, Inc., gave the property to the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation in 2004. That was when the Foundation dedicated the property to Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, prominent conservationist, and honorary board member, hence its name change. The property consists of 135 acres—55 acres of man-made wetlands, 15 acres of riparian wetlands along Bald Eagle Creek, and 65 acres of upland forest and meadows.

Naturalists, particularly birders, have been documenting wildlife species there since it was constructed. Already more than 180 bird species have been seen on the property. The Foundation plans to build a mile-long, accessible, mostly boardwalk trail around the 55-acre wetland, birding blinds, and an education pavilion with observation platforms. But on the day of our visit, we found that the rudimentary wetland trail was overgrown and wet. Another birder we met told us that getting around on it was practically impossible so we birded along the country side road where we had parked our car.

A female redhead

A female redhead (Photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Many newly-arrived tree swallows swooped over the water, a pair of Canada geese called, a swamp sparrow emerged from the underbrush, and those signature spring birds of wetlands, the red-winged blackbirds, sang their “Okalees.” We also saw a pair of eastern bluebirds, a northern mockingbird, and several song sparrows. But the only migrating waterfowl we spied was a brown female redhead, half-hidden by the dried plants in front of the water.

The next mitigated wetland we visited, the Curtin Wetland, is a mile north of the Milesburg Exit for Interstate 80. Tucked between Pa. Route 550 on one side and Bald Eagle Creek on the other, this wetland had been constructed about 30 years ago, is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

We carefully picked our way over a muddy trail beside a field of teasel. In the middle of it an American kestrel nest box hosted a pair of the small, handsome raptors. Aggressive tree swallows occupied other nest boxes and repeatedly dove near our heads.

With Mark and our spotting scope

With Mark and our spotting scope (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Finally, we reached the dike area and climbed up to an overlook of the extensive pond, where we set up our scope. The water teemed with waterfowl, and after much staring through binoculars and scope we added 10 more waterfowl species to our list. Close in was a flock of ubiquitous mallards, the handsome, green-headed males riding herd on the brown females.

Next I looked up when I heard and then saw the beautiful, multi-colored male American wood duck and the brownish gray female with her white eye patch flying overhead. Both mallards and wood ducks are dabbling ducks because they feed by “dabbling” with their bills to pick up material from the surface of the water or by upending their bodies, heads under the water and tails in the air. Mallards are the most widespread and abundant resident duck species in Pennsylvania, closely followed by American wood ducks.

But the gray-bodied male and brown female gadwall ducks we spotted are dabbling ducks that are migrants on their way north and west of the commonwealth. According to The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, the last gadwalls that bred in the state were recorded in 1964 in Conneaut Marsh near the border with Ohio.

A pair of blue-winged teal

A pair of blue-winged teal (Photo by Eric Ellingson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Blue-winged and green-winged teal are also dabbling ducks and flocks of both species swam in the pond. The white facial crescent and blue patch on his forewing are the male blue-winged teal’s most identifying characteristics on a mostly brown body. The slightly smaller green-winged teal male is known by his green head patch on a chestnut brown head and his mostly gray body. Females of both species are primarily brown.

Blue-winged teal breed in temporary wetlands surrounded by healthy grasslands while green-winged teal prefer dense emergent marshes and shrubby swamps. Both species are still listed as breeding birds in Pennsylvania but green-winged teal have always been rare because most breed farther north and west of us. On the other hand, blue-winged teal used to be more common breeders here but their numbers fell between the first (1983-89) and second (2004-2009) atlasing periods. However, on that day at the Curtin Wetlands, green-winged teal repeatedly flew in tight flocks overhead and blue-winged teal remained feeding on the water.

Farther out in the pond were several diving ducks that forage by diving under water. Most abundant were the male and female ring-necked ducks, noticeable for the white ring near the tips of the bills of both sexes. Still, they are named for the maroon band around the male’s neck that is almost impossible to see under the best light conditions. Ring-necked ducks nest in the boreal belt throughout Canada.

A female greater scaup at the Norristown/Bridgeport Dam, Montgomery County, PA

A female greater scaup at the Norristown/Bridgeport Dam, Montgomery County, PA (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A few lesser and greater scaup, look-alike bay ducks, also headed for boreal Canada, and a lone female hooded merganser rounded out our duck list, the latter an uncommon breeder in Pennsylvania, nesting in tree cavities beside lakes and wetlands, especially beaver impoundments.

We also spotted a flock of American coots, members of the rail family that pump their heads back and forth as they swim. Mostly black and slate gray with bright white bills, they both dabble and dive. They too are rare breeders in Pennsylvania because we lack large freshwater marshes interspersed with open water which is their preferred habitat.

Our final waterfowl there was a handsome, male horned grebe, his golden plumed head standing out from his rusty brown neck and body. He too was headed northwest to boreal lakes in western Canada and Alaska.

The Bullit Run Access

The Bullit Run Access (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Bald Eagle State Park and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Foster Joseph Sayers Dam were our last destinations for the day. We had visited the larger fields and lake of Bald Eagle State Park, but Mark had sought out the smaller access areas beginning with the Bullit Run Access where we saw a small flock of common mergansers, followed by the Sunken Run Overlook that yielded two common loons and seven buffleheads.

Sometimes I hear a common loon call as it flies over our mountain home during migration so I was pleased to see them in their dapper black and white breeding plumage. They nest on large lakes throughout the boreal forest and tundra and were last seen nesting in Pennsylvania at the Pocono Lake in Monroe County in 1946.

Buffleheads are also small diving ducks that are studies in black and white. The adult male has a large, puffy, black head with a prominent white patch on it along with a black back and white sides. They were on route to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

A red-breasted merganser

A red-breasted merganser (Photo by Rich Engelbrecht on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We ended our day near the dam breast. With a sighting there of red-breasted mergansers, we had seen all the merganser species.  Known for the females being as distinctly plumaged as the males, they are brown-crested with grayish bodies, while the males are variations of black, white, and brown. All are diving ducks. The medium-sized red-breasted merganser breeds in northern Alaska and Canada next to lakes and rivers in the boreal forest and tundra. The common merganser is the largest and the hooded the smallest. All have long, spike-like bills and saw-edged mandibles.

We also added pied-billed grebe to our list. Like the horned grebe, it has toes that are lobed rather than webbed and tiny tails. The male has a short, black-banded bill that gives it its name. It nests on ponds and lakes, even in Pennsylvania, with emergent vegetation. As species 18 it ended our productive day of chasing waterfowl.