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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.