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Bumper Red Spruce Cone Crop May Attract Conifer Birds

By dgross October 31, 2017
Red Spruce Cones at Brady's Lake_Large file

Fresh red spruce cones near Brady's Lake, SGL 127, Monroe County by Doug Gross

This has been an extraordinary year for spruce cones in the Northeast. This may be the best cone crop in more than a decade in the Northeast. There may not be a huge irruption year for any bird species, but the cones are ready for the taking in northern Pennsylvania! Our own native spruces—red and black spruce—did very well this year. The exotic Norway spruces also have produced many cones. In addition, some birders are finding large numbers of hemlock cones that also may be a factor for fall and winter bird populations. There also are many ripe mountain ash berries in the mountains that are attractive to several boreal birds.

With this big cone crop, we could see conifer birds taking advantage of this temporarily abundant food source. Both Red and White-winged Crossbills, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, and many finches may take advantage of these cone crops. These red spruce forests are mostly in the Northeast region including North Mountain and the Poconos. Some areas for birders to focus on are the forests around Ricketts and Lopez on North Mountain and the Poconos around Blakeslee, Long Pond, Gouldsboro, Thornhurst, and Promised Land. Many birds forage on the smaller cones produced by hemlocks. This may translate into more chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, siskins, and other finches anywhere that hemlocks produce seeds.

Juvenile-plumaged Evening Grosbeak, August 2010, by Jake Dingel, PGC.

Most native spruces are found in the northern tier counties, but some red spruces are scattered as far south as Hickory Run State Park area in the Penn Forest section of Weiser State Forest and Bear Meadows Natural Area, Centre County. On North Mountain, there are some red spruce in Ricketts Glen State Park, but more in state game lands 13, 66, and especially 57. Some are readily found along game lands and state roads near the ghost village of Ricketts. Many more are deep in the woods and swamps. For example, there are red spruces along Newell Road in State Game Lands 13 just west of S.R. 487 and along South Brook, Shale Pit, and Beech Lake roads in the southern part of State Game Lands 57.Of course, there are large red spruce groves in Coalbed Swamp, Tamarack Swamp, and other wetlands of the Dutch Mountain part of State Game Lands 57.There also are some red spruce growing along the Cherry Ridge Run Trail and in a neighboring swamp in Ricketts Glen State Park.

Native spruce distribution in Pennsylvania by PNHP

There are many spruce groves in the Poconos including the woods around Blakeslee, Long Pond, Gouldsboro, Thornhurst, and Promised Land. Some are on public lands like State Game Lands 127 around Brady’s Lake and Gouldsboro, State Game Lands 318 (Lost Lakes) near Blakeslee, and Spruce Swamp Natural Area and nearby locations in Pinchot State Forest near Thornhurst. Red spruce can also be found at the Nature Conservancy’s Tom Darling Nature Reserve, the Maple Tract Preserve, and Fern Ridge Bog Preserve near Blakeslee, Fern Ridge, and Long Pond.

Some spruces are isolated from the rest of the natural spruce forests of the state. There also are scattered spots like Algerine Swamp Natural Area on the Lycoming and Tioga county line and Bear Meadows Natural Area in Centre County.

A smaller crop of red spruce cones found in SGL 57 in 2016. Big spruces produce some cones most years. by Doug Gross

In addition, large eastern hemlock groves can be found in many forests of the state. I have not sought out these cones but the birds probably will this fall and winter. Some plantings of white spruce can be found in a variety of locations including game lands and CC camps. They can attract many northern finches including Purple Finch and Common Redpolls. In the mountains, there also is a good crop of mountain ash berries that are attractive to many birds including thrushes and waxwings.

Mountain ash berries, SGL 57 near Ricketts, by Doug Gross

Birders should be on the look-out for some conifer birds in the coming months as a consequence of this big but local cone crop. That season may begin soon since the cones that ripened in September and October will begin to drop seeds as the cones dry.

This red spruce cone crop may attract flocks of Red Crossbill, an intriguing conifer forest bird that includes several “call types” that function as subspecies or perhaps biological species.  For more information about Red Crossbills, please check out the eBird article at:

If Red Crossbills do visit Pennsylvania and stay awhile, it is possible that they could nest at locations with large, persistent cone crops. Birders should make recordings of the call notes and include these as media files in their eBird reports.  Other boreal birds such as Evening Grosbeak and redpolls also should be documented.

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

I gathered some information on native spruce cone crops and participated in projects involving spruce. The Game Commission’s Howard Nursery and DCNR’s Penn Nursery gather cones for seed propagation. I assisted with these collections and a research project conducted by the USDA Forest Service on the genetic diversity of red spruce in the Appalachian Mountains and the Northeastern region. Most red spruce of the Appalachian Mountain region grow in isolated groves or forests at high elevations in “islands of conifer habitat” separated sometimes by several miles from others of its kind. So, there may be isolated populations and relicts of former larger forests that have lower genetic diversity and viability as a result. Some of this is “natural” because of the nature of spruce on a changing landscape after glaciation and natural reforestation, but some of this isolation has been exaggerated by timbering in the past that eliminated conifer forests from large areas with little chance of reforestation.

Male Purple Finch by J. Dingel, PGC

There is a big demand for red spruce seedlings because of concerns about the loss of our native hemlock to hemlock woolly adelgid and other pests and diseases as well as an increased interest in native spruce in its own right. Red spruce may be a replacement for hemlock in some situations where it overlaps in acceptable growing conditions. Spruce and other evergreens provide thermal protection for many kinds of wildlife in cold weather, especially at higher elevations and northern slopes. Our native spruces could have increased value as we lose northern forests to development and other forces that reduce forest diversity. Our red spruce component is less than a fourth what it was in pre-settlement times. By managing for red spruce, we may be able to reverse the negative trends in that forest cover and the wildlife that make it a home. Red spruce is home to many rare wildlife species in Pennsylvania including Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Flying Squirrel, and Snowshoe Hare.

Red-breasted Nuthatch hanging from a Norway spruce cone by Jake Dingel, PGC

Greg Turner, Game Commission mammologist, and I provided site locations for native red spruce stands to Dr. John Butnor of the USDA Forest Service who collected several samples in a study of the genetics of red spruce in the Appalachian Mountains. I accompanied John to several locations where we selected more than 40 trees for cone sampling. John used a very impressive pruning tool with a telescoping pole that allows cone collection as high as 40 feet. We also had the assistance of the DCNR Penn Nursery staff to collect cones on state game lands 13 and 57, which were loaded with cones along game land roads.

John Butnor sampling cones with his telescoping pruner, by Doug Gross

The Pennsylvania red spruce populations are scattered and isolated from each other, removed from both the Maryland and New York spruce stands in the high mountains of each state. The Pennsylvania red spruce patches differ from other states because they are more likely to be associated with wetlands, often at lower elevations than neighboring states. So, Pennsylvania red spruce may have attributes lacking elsewhere that make their seeds good candidates for transplanting in locations where others might fail. Red spruce is reproducing freely where there are mature trees and growing slowly under canopies of deciduous trees such as red maple and American beech. Some in the Poconos grow right next to scrub oak and pitch pine where scrub barrens and boreal bogs meet in strange places. We have a unique native spruce community in Pennsylvania that offers lots of opportunities for birding and ecological exploration.

Processing red spruce cones collected near Ricketts, SGL 57, by Doug Gross

Not only are we connecting with the Pennsylvania birding community on the potential of this spruce crop to attract birds but we also would like to learn about spruce crops that you find other than those mentioned above. We are particularly interested in learning about spruce cones that are easily accessible by a truck on a drivable road. Such trees could be harvested for cones when we have spruce cone crops worth harvesting for seeds.

Blackpoll Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher habitat in a spruce swamp with a shrub community of blueberries, mountain hollies, and swamp azaleas. by Doug Gross

Two spruce forest species are listed as Endangered in Pennsylvania, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and the Blackpoll Warbler.  The northern flying squirrel is a boreal mammal that also inhabits spruce forest.  For more information about these birds and their habitat, please see the Pennsylvania Game Commission website’s section on Wildlife in the Endangered species section.

Doug Gross, Game Commission Ornithologist

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher female on nest, Pennsylvania, by Doug Gross