Birding Pennsylvania’s “Big Woods”

By dgross July 6, 2014
SCTA_Male_Left_Dingel

Male Scarlet Tanager by Jake Dingel, migrates to South America

During the heat and humidity of summer, birders can still find great birds back in the cool “big woods” of  northern Pennsylvania.  Although only a hint of the vast forest that existed in the late seventeenth century when William Penn was granted his royal charter, forests dominate Pennsylvania and account for 59 percent of its land cover. Pennsylvania is situated at the center of the Eastern hardwood forest and the state’s 16.7 million forest acres provides breeding grounds for many forest bird species; vital food and cover during migration; and wintering habitat for waterfowl, raptors and other winter residents. Despite land-use changes, the overall coverage has remained fairly consistent over the last half-century with reverting forest offsetting deforestation. The consistent forest coverage, however, fails to reveal the fragmentation occurring that has negatively affected forest interior birds, including several species that have a notable portion of their global breeding population in Pennsylvania, such as the Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Cerulean Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler. Pennsylvania has a high responsibility for these and other forest interior species. So, each bird survey in the state’s “big woods” helps us all better understand Pennsylvania’s importance to birds.

The state may have a lot of forest, but the size, quality, and quantity of forest habitat is slowly eroding. About 150 acres of Pennsylvania forest is lost each day with 67 percent of that forest being lost to development. Unlike agricultural lands and timbered lands, that with time and favorable conditions could return to forest, forest land converted to housing and industrial development does not typically revert to forest, giving a “lost forever” reality to its bird conservation potential. Much of Pennsylvania’s current forest cover is segmented and parceled into a patchwork of small forests and woodlots. These fragmented parcels provide less ecological functions as compared to large contiguous tracts of forest including less protection and suitability for forest interior species. In addition, private owners manage 70 percent of the state’s forest cover. The majority of private forestland owners are families and small groups and they have a broad range of management objectives and priorities.

Drake Common Merganser, an indicator of good water quality, by Joe Kosack

Drake Common Merganser, an indicator of good water quality, by Joe Kosack

No other landscape in the state comprises the contiguous forest tracts of the northern regions, the highlands and deeply carved valleys of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Plateau. The northcentral highlands are the heart of the vast Pennsylvania “big woods” and is being threatened by many Aerial images of the region afford a glimpse of the size and density of forest cover. An aerial viewpoint shows a fairly unbroken canopy resembling a textured blanket in multiple hues of green. Northern hardwood forest dominates the region in a state of mature and maturing second growth forest. There is also a conifer presence of eastern hemlock and white pine. Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo prefer mature forest. Both the Green-throated Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo are species of maintenance concern in Pennsylvania and appear to have their greatest abundance in the northcentral forests according to Breeding Bird Survey data.  Some of the other species that are closely associated with the northern hardwood forests include Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Canada Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Veery, and Cooper’s Hawk. In fact, any forest hawk can be the highlight of the field day. Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, and Sharp-shinned Hawks can appear along a forest trail in Penn’s Woods.

Broad-winged Hawk can be common in larger forest tracts.  By Jake Dingel.

Broad-winged Hawk can be common in larger forest tracts. By Jake Dingel.

 Penn’s pre-settlement forests likely contained a diversity of old, even ancient, trees; an assortment of dead, dying and live trees of varying girths and ages; along with areas of natural disturbance in different stages of succession. Such forests may have supported a greater diversity of wildlife species than our more uniform forests of today but our north woods still hold good birding opportunities as well as forest interior birds of great conservation need that could benefit from monitoring in this area. Conifer were much more dominant in the original Pennsylvania forests and are returning in some parts of the state. The forests of north-central Pennsylvania are largely “under-birded” and its vast mountainous landscape and remote character may be part of the reason. Headwater swamps are centers of biodiversity in any of these forests tracts, often adding to the species total for any watershed. These features, however, are also part of the birding appeal.

Black-throated Blue Warbler male by Jake Dingel

Black-throated Blue Warbler male by Jake Dingel

Species that are considered passage migrants or rare breeders in southern Pennsylvania are common in the “big woods” of the state. Where there are large hemlocks, Blackburnian Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Black-throated Green Warblers, and Magnolia Warblers are easy to find. They can be locally abundant in large conifer groves. Purple Finches start singing energetically again in July, sometimes skylarking over the tall conifers in song. Even Golden-crowned Kinglets and Pine Siskins nest in some hemlock and pine groves. Red-breasted Nuthatches also may surprise you in a spruce or hemlock grove. There are some records of summering Red Crossbills in the Grand Canyon area, hinting of occasional nesting.  

Blackburnian Warbler by Jake Dingel

Blackburnian Warbler by Jake Dingel

At the other end of the woody spectrum, the freshly timbered areas offer good opportunities for Alder Flycatcher, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and American Goldfinch to spice of the day’s list of deep forest birds. Cedar Waxwings often dine on blackberries and cherries found in new cuttings. These younger forests also have Field Sparrows and Eastern Towhees. Also, these more open woods are often the easiest places to see colorful songbirds like Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. White-throated Sparrows are sometimes found in the underbrush of fresh cuttings and also in shrubby swamps.  Some of these species are double-brooded, so they can be more readily detected by song or territorial behavior in mid-summer than other species.

The loud "drink-your-tea!" song announces the presence of Eastern Towhee. by Jake Dingel.

The loud “drink-your-tea!” song announces the presence of Eastern Towhee. by Jake Dingel.

Our state forest wild areas and natural areas in the region are especially worth a birding hike. The game lands of the region also have great bird and wildlife habitat accessible by roads and trails. Several sites protect old-growth remnants, encompass areas with more diverse forest layers or contain headwater swamps and bogs. Regional highlights include: Quehanna Wild Area in Elk and Moshannon state forests, the largest of our state forest wild areas; Johnson Run Natural Area, a mix of hemlock and hardwood old growth; Lower Jerry Run Natural Area, which holds a significant stand of old growth pine and hemlock; Tamarack Swamp Natural Area and Cranberry Swamp Natural Area in Sproul State Forest. Also in Sproul are the Fish Dam and Burns Run Wild areas. In Susquehannock State Forest, Hammersley Wild Area is one of the most remote and largest tracts of unbroken forest and contains a stand of old growth timber within the Forest H. Dutlinger Natural Area. Farther north is the Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area, Black Ash Swamp Natural Area and Reynolds Spring Natural Area which are all in Tioga State Forest. In this same rugged valley, sits a glacial bog in the Algerine Swamp Natural Area which is part of Tiadaghton State Forest. Both Algerine Wild Area and Wolf Run Wild Area in Lycoming County adjoin State Game Lands 68.

Brown Creeper, a true forest bird, by Jake Dingel

Brown Creeper, a true forest bird, by Jake Dingel

Just to the east is Loyalsock State Forest that spans eastern Lycoming and Sullivan counties. It has large tracts of mature forests, mostly northern hardwoods with a mix of hemlock and white pine. It can be accessed by traveling up Rock Run Road or the various forest roads that eminate from World’s End State Park and Eagles Mere. High Knob vista has given a few birders their first Mourning Warbler or Yellow-breasted Chat. A bit further east, Ricketts Glen State Park and adjacent SGL 13 and 57 feature many area-sensitive forest birds.  The “big woods” are also good for nocturnal and crepuscular birds. Barred Owls hoot in this setting, sometimes during the day. The young Barred Owls might follow you around out of curiosity along a trail. Northern Saw-whet Owls also are regular breeding birds of the big woods. Where there are breaks in the canopy, Eastern Whip-poor-wills call in the moonlight. There are records of summering Common Nighthawks in the rimrock areas of the Pine Creek Gorge.

Red Crossbill, a rare breeding conifer forest bird, by Jake Dingel

Red Crossbill, a rare breeding conifer forest bird, by Jake Dingel

Birders are invited to use more specific “hotspots” that focus on smaller areas like natural areas or well-known roads and trails. Have you ever visited places named Ole Bull or Colton Point? Don’t be afraid to try them out! With holiday weekends of summer, there are opportunities to explore and to find new birding places. The cool woods can offer some “hot” birding.

For access and trail information: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/stateforests

Maps of Pennsylvania Game Lands can be found at the PGC website: http://www.pgc.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/pgc/9106

 By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross, PGC

 

Bald Eagle in a white pine, symbolizing wild Pennsylvania. By Hal Korber.

Bald Eagle in a white pine, symbolizing wild Pennsylvania. By Hal Korber.

Resources:

McCaskill, George L.; McWilliams, William H.; Alerich, Carol A.; Butler, Brett J.; Crocker, Susan J.; Domke, Grant M.; Griffith, Doug; Kurtz, Cassandra M.; Lehman, Shawn; Lister, Tonya W.; Morin, Randal S.; Moser, Keith W.; Roth, Paul; Riemann, Rachel; Westfall, James A. 2013. Pennsylvania’s Forests 2009. Resour. Bull. NRS-82. Newton Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 52 p.

Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. 2012. A. M. Wilson, D. W. Brauning, and R. S. Mulvihill, editors. Penn State University Press, University Park, PA.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources www.dcnr.state.pa.us

 

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