Gamelands Tour

view of SGL#108

view of SGL #108 on last October’s tour (all photos in this post by Bruce Bonta)

I’ve always preferred to walk rather than drive through the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. Still, I was tempted last October by a driving tour in nearby State Gamelands #108 and persuaded my husband, Bruce, to accompany me. It was a lovely autumn day when we found our way to a gamelands access road in Cambria County, not far from Prince Gallitzin State Park, and lined up behind a couple dozen cars.

At the gate we were greeted and handed several information sheets and a map that designated stops along our 7.5 mile, self-guided, one-way tour. We also tested our outdoor knowledge along the route by guessing the identity of marked trees and wildlife mounts including fisher, mink, ring-necked pheasant, black bear, barred owl, and bald eagle.

But we especially enjoyed stopping and talking to the agency personnel. I noticed the incredible abundance of pokeweed and staghorn sumac along the road and was assured by Joe McAnulty, one of the Food and Cover crew members, that they purposely widen roadsides to let in the sun, which encourages the growth of wildlife food, for example, the pokeweed and sumac, as well as blackberries and sassafras. They also allow wild grapevines to grow.

“We manage for animals,” McAnulty assured us.

With the help of special machines, also on display, they create wildlife openings in the forest to support native plants, legumes, or annual grains. They had just finished a prescribed 87-acre burn to encourage scrub oak to grow, which almost always produces a large crop of acorns every fall. In addition to the 23,086 acres of SGL#108, four workers are responsible for managing the 23,000 acres of four other nearby gamelands, McAnulty told me.

At another stop, we talked to a couple law enforcement personnel who showed us the amazing array of tools they need to foil lawbreakers. A deer exclosure, a couple shelterwood cuts, and a vernal pond were also highlighted on our route, but I was particularly eager to see a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which had been converted to a small-game and grassland nesting bird habitat.

Samara Trusso

Game Commission biologist Samara Trusso with short-eared owl habitat

There I talked to biologist Samara Trusso who told me that short-eared owls winter on the grasslands in February and March. This is important because there is a chance that they might breed there too, although so far no breeding has been recorded. The short-eared owl is one of Pennsylvania’s rarest breeding birds and is listed as endangered in the state. Pennsylvania is the farthest south this mostly circumpolar species nests and then only rarely.

Trusso also said that the rehabilitated strip-mined area provides grassy habitat for grassland birds because the sites have acidic, nutrient-poor soils that produce grasses and legumes and have a slower rate of plant succession. But she assured me that the 40% shrub component of this large acreage has no impact on grassland breeding birds that have been documented for the site—grasshopper, Savannah, and Henslow’s sparrows, northern harriers, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks.

That was our last stop, but we drove a couple more miles through the grasslands.

“This looks like harrier country,” I commented to Bruce just as a northern harrier flew up and over the grasslands.

Then, as the area grew more shrubby and medium-sized conifers, including larch and red pine, as well as deciduous trees provided more cover; two cock ring-necked pheasants strolled out in front of our car and fought. It seemed a fitting end to what had been a worthwhile tour and one that has been given every fall except for a year when it snowed.

wildlife opening on SGL #108

wildlife opening on SGL #108

To my surprise, we emerged at a gate on State Route 865 near Blandburg at the top of the Allegheny Front, a mere 26 miles from our home. I immediately made plans to return and see the breeding grassland bird species. Snow in late winter foiled my attempts to hike in and see the wintering short-eared owls, but one lovely Sunday in late June, hoping to see the documented grassland breeding birds, we parked at the Blandburg entrance and hiked back the way we had driven on the auto tour. Bruce was armed with gameland maps he had gotten off the web and had plotted out a circular route for us.

The first couple miles, amid the conifers and deciduous trees, we heard common yellowthroats, field sparrows, and song sparrows. But then, alternating with the singing of song sparrows, I heard the dreamy, lisping tsit-tsit-tsit-teee-taay of a Savannah sparrow. He remained hidden in the shrubs, but his song was unmistakable. A few minutes later, I heard the thin, dry buzzy tumble of notes of a grasshopper sparrow. He too remained out of sight in the shrubs.

Sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

We passed a large field white with daisies and heard a common yellowthroat sing both his familiar “witchity” song in addition to one of the less common variations of his song. A sudden breeze carried turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk past. The hawk was then sent on its way by several red-winged blackbirds.

Eventually we reached the largest open section of grassland. The sun was hot and bright, and already it was late morning. I began to wonder if I would see any of the grassland birds. And then our luck changed. A Henslow’s sparrow sat in a dead shrub near the road and sang his quiet tsi-lick hiccup of a song. He was so close that we could watch him open his beak and sing over and over. I noted his short tail, flat, olive-colored head, big pale bill, finely striped breast, and reddish wings through my binoculars before he flew away.

Henslow’s sparrows are found mostly in the western part of Pennsylvania on rehabilitated strip-mined areas because they like a buildup of dead litter and perennial stalks, according to Andrew M. Wilson in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. The State Wildlife Action Plan lists the Henslow’s sparrow as a species of High Concern because we have about nine percent of the world population. This native of the tallgrass prairie has lost much of its habitat to agriculture in the Midwest.

I was especially pleased to see favorites of mine—bobolinks that rose from a couple shrubs beside the road, the three males scolding, their buff-yellow napes and white wingbars a striking contrast to their black bodies. Then a brown-backed female with a brown stripe on her head joined the agitated males.

timber rattlesnake coiled to strike

the timber rattler that Bruce insisted on photographing

At the same time I noticed a timber rattlesnake crossing the gravel road in front of us. Bruce rushed up to snap several photos before it slid off into the field, causing still more anxiety on the part of the bobolinks. We watched them for as long as we could as we continued our hike past the grassland. Just as I was lamenting that I hadn’t heard or seen an eastern meadowlark, a male flew up from the middle of the field, flashing his yellow chest and throat, the latter with its black V necklace. Both the bobolinks and the eastern meadowlarks prefer to nest in hayfields, the bobolinks particularly in fields at 2,000 feet on the Allegheny Plateau. But early mowing has led to the demise of many young birds and so this high-altitude unmowed field is of great importance to those species.

From the top of the open grassland, we had a view in every direction encircled by mountains and forest. Despite the dry day, it was hot in the grassland, and gratefully we descended a trail down to a series of forested ponds. We sat on rocks beside one pond to eat our lunch. At another pond a female wood duck with her ducklings swam into cattail cover when they saw us. Singing woodland songbirds included wood and hermit thrushes, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and indigo buntings.

Looking down on still another large pond from a small planting of red pines, we flushed a great blue heron. A ruffed grouse with half-grown young flew from the edge of the woods.

We spotted the first monarch butterfly of the season nectaring on yellow hawkweed, but it was near large areas of common and poke milkweeds growing beside the access road. That was where it would no doubt lay its eggs because monarch caterpillars only eat the leaves of milkweed species.

The last half-mile of our six-and-a-half mile hike was along State Route 865 where we saw and heard our first sign of people since we had parked our car. We were impressed by the remote peace and lack of even one piece of trash on this section of the gamelands. It was as far from the madding crowd as any place near our home—a prairie on a mountaintop where increasingly rare grassland birds thrive.

Sparrow April

Dark Eyed Junco, Slate Colored Type, by tcd123usa on FlickrLast April was the coldest on record. Birds that should have left stayed, and those that had returned during the warmer March days endured.

At our bird feeding area, we hosted nine New World sparrow species. Migrants, winter visitors, and permanent residents by the dozen mingled on the ground, the back steps, and porch, eating birdseed as fast as I spread it. Eight species were the usual suspects; one was not.

We had had as many as 60 dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) at our feeders all winter. These white-breasted, dark gray birds of the Sparrow Family Emberizidae had been trilling their song for weeks. Usually they have migrated farther north in Pennsylvania and beyond by mid-April, but last year they stayed for the entire month.

So too did the several wintering white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), which were already singing their pensive “poor Sam Peabody” song, or, since large numbers of them breed in Canada, “Oh, sweet Canada” song. In fact, we heard one singing at the edge of First Field on May 22 during our first Important Bird Area (IBA) count!

Towhee singer, by Henry McLin on FlickrAt least one eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), also a member of the Sparrow Family Emberizidae, had spent the winter on the mountain for the first time, but he had chosen a thicket more than a mile from our home, so the male that appeared at the feeders was probably a migrant back from the southern United States.

We also had three wintering song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) that had been joined by several migrants during the cold spell in April. They too had been singing for several weeks, and their distinctive “Hip! Hip! Hurrah boys! Spring is here” song, along with the dark spot on their brown-streaked breasts, made them easy to identify.

Five fox sparrows (Passerella iliaca) had appeared in mid-March, but four had left for their nesting grounds in Canada by April. Still, one of those large, rusty-brown, rufous-tailed sparrows remained through the cold spell, and even sang his brilliant musical song after the Good Friday snow.

American Tree Sparrow, by ericbegin2000 on FlickrThen there were the usual three rusty-capped sparrow species. I heard the first singing American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea) on March 21, and most of those so-called “winter chippies” had left for their northern Canadian breeding grounds, but two still came regularly to the feeders in April.

Their look-alike congener, the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), first appeared on March 27. Although both the chipping and tree sparrows have rusty caps, only the American tree sparrow sports a dark spot on its breast. In addition, the chipping sparrow has a clean white line above its eye and a black line through it, while the tree sparrow has a gray line rimmed with rusty-brown. Then too the tree sparrow sings a sweet, high song, but the chipping sparrow rattles on a single buzzy note, sounding more like an insect than a songbird. field sparrow grooming 3The first field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) returned on March 26. It also has a rusty cap and a plain breast, but its bill is pink, and it has a white eye ring. Its lovely, descending trill is one of my favorite spring songs.

By then my husband Bruce was thoroughly confused. No matter how many times I tried to point out the differences between those “lbjs” or “little brown jobs,” as birders refer to most sparrow species, he could not confidently tell a field sparrow from a song sparrow or a chipping sparrow from a tree sparrow.

Imagine his disbelief then, on April 5, when I looked outside in late afternoon at the birds mobbing the feeders and the ground beneath them and noticed a different rusty-capped sparrow. Its cap was a deeper chestnut than that of a chipping sparrow. It had gray instead of white above its eye, a dim white patch below its throat and no spot in the middle of its blurry-streaked chest like a song sparrow. Its wings were a reddish-brown without the wing bars of chipping, field, and tree sparrows. A swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) had joined the sparrow throngs. Despite its rusty cap, though, it is most closely related to the song sparrow and Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), the latter of which is an uncommon migrant in Pennsylvania and does not breed in the state.

swamp sparrowHere on our dry mountaintop we had had only fleeting glimpses of the elusive swamp sparrow during migration, so I was pleased to have more than two weeks to closely observe what was probably a male swamp sparrow because of its richer chestnut crown and cap color and because male swamp sparrows migrate ahead of females. He did, however, shed his shy, retiring nature at the feeding area and was incredibly feisty as he competed for food.

Pennsylvania has two subspecies of swamp sparrows — the inland M. g. georgiana, which is most abundant in the freshwater marshes of the glaciated northwest, and the Coastal Plain swamp sparrow M. g. nigrescens of the lower Delaware River tidal marshes. But, as ornithologist E. H. Forbush once wrote, “Any watery, muddy, bushy, grassy place where rank marsh grasses, sedges and reeds grow — any such bog or slough where a man will need long rubber boots to get about — is good enough for Swamp Sparrows… But in migration they may appear almost anywhere, though seldom distinctly seen and recognized by ordinary observers, because of their retiring habits…”

First called “reed sparrow” by Pennsylvania naturalist William Bartram, it was bird artist Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant in Philadelphia, who, in 1811, named it “swamp sparrow.” It breeds in Canada south of the tree line from British Columbia to Newfoundland and in the United States east of the Rockies except for much of the cultivated prairies belt and south to Virginia. It can winter as far north as southern Ontario but mostly in the southern United States.

Although research done in the Erie National Wildlife Refuge by Russell Greenberg in 1985 and 1986 found that the later arriving swamp sparrows, which are smaller and socially subordinate to song sparrows, were relegated to wetlands because song sparrows had already settled on the drier territories, swamp sparrows are also physically suited to wetlands. Their legs are longer than those of song sparrows. This allows them to wade in shallow water for long periods and pick both insect and plant food from the water’s surface. They also move through the bases of dense shrubbery, unlike song sparrows, which seem unable to move through thick vegetation and search for food floating on water.Earlier observers of swamp sparrows described them as wading “in shallow water like a sandpiper,” and “splashing through the water like little muskrats.” T.S. Roberts wrote that a swamp sparrow “climbs up and down the coarse stems of the reeds and bushy shoots in a nimble, mouse-like manner…” In summary, shallow standing water, low dense cover, and elevated song posts provide ideal habitat for breeding swamp sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow, by Fritz Myer on Flickr

But in migration, although they prefer thick vegetation near water, they also visit old fields, farm hedgerows, blackberry thickets, and even residential shrubbery — habitat that we have around our feeder area and nearby. They don’t always avoid woods and mountains either, especially if they include small swamps, bogs, or swales in forest openings such as our small swamp at the base of First Field.

Nevertheless, song sparrows always occupy our shrubby environs, even those wet areas near our springhouse, so the swamp sparrow left when it warmed up on April 19. I like to think that he ended his migration in a northwestern Pennsylvania swamp where his musical “weet-weet-weet” trill attracted a mate. He would have declared his territorial boundaries from several elevated song posts and even shifted his boundaries as surface water shifted.

She would have sat on another perch, fluttered her wings and softly mewed. He would have quickly searched for her and formed what is usually a monogamous union for the season.

The female swamp sparrow selects the nest site and builds her nest in three to four days. At Pymatuning Reservoir, most swamp sparrow nests are constructed between cattail stalks or on bent over clumps of leaves and are hidden in or under dense vegetation. The nest is rough on the outside and neat on the inside and is composed of local grasses, sedges, cattails and other plant materials.

She lays an average of four strongly marked, pale green eggs at Pymatuning Reservoir anywhere from May 20 to July 18 according to ornithologist Melissa Hughes. She then incubates the eggs 12 to 14 days. After that, she broods the nestlings, and both parents feed them. It takes another 9 to 11 days for the altricial young to fledge, although if they are disturbed at 7 days of age they can already flutter to the ground and later from branch to branch. The parents may continue to feed them for another two weeks. Most swamp sparrows in Pennsylvania raise two broods a season.

At any time during egg-laying, incubation and nestling stages, a host of predators can interfere. Blue jays are the major predator, but other suspects include minks, northern water snakes, garter snakes, voles, raccoons, and common grackles. Hughes reports that eggs were often stolen one or two at a time at Pymatuning, and she suspects either garter snakes or voles. Flooding sometimes kills broods too. In general, unusually harsh weather as well as cats, dogs, hawks, owls, shrikes and rodents kill swamp sparrows throughout the year.

Swamp Sparrow, by Scott A. Young on Flickr

But wetland loss remains the greatest threat to this species. When a beaver pond was drained at the Erie National Wildlife Refuge back in 1985, the number of breeding swamp sparrows went from five to zero, and the dried-up land was claimed by song sparrows. The extensive wetlands in northwest Pennsylvania are particularly important to swamp sparrows because they provide many breeding territories lightly impacted by humans that produce high quality abundant food for swamp sparrow families.

They mostly eat weeds and fruits in the winter, but during the breeding season they also consume a wide variety of insects such as damselflies, dragonflies, beetles, ants, bees and aphids. Fledglings and adults eat plant food as well and especially like the fleshy insides of high bush blueberries. During late summer and fall the seeds of sedges, smartweed, panic grass and vervain are popular.

By late April my sparrow April was mostly over. Not only had the swamp sparrow left but also the American tree, fox, and white-throated sparrows and the dark-eyed juncos. Field, chipping, and song sparrows and eastern towhees had set up territories in the yard, overgrown fields, and shrubby areas. True spring had arrived at last.
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Photos: Dark-eyed junco by tcd123usa; Towhee by Henry McLin; American tree sparrow by ericbegin2000; Field sparrow and first photo of swamp sparrow (the same individual discussed in the article) by Dave Bonta; first large photo of swamp sparrow by Fritz Myer; second large photo of swamp sparrow by Scott A. Young. Thanks to the photographers for licensing their photos under Creative Commons for free, non-commercial use with attribution.