Posted: May 13, 2015

One club's efforts to restore young forests to their woodlands and the benefits reaped by the Beaverdale Sportsmen's Association for themselves and the wildlife.
Creating Young Forest. Photo by Adam Katrancha

Creating Young Forest. Photo by Adam Katrancha

By Adam Katrancha – PA Forest Steward ‘09 and Secretary – Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association

It was an atypical spring day on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Front in southern Cambria County…it was sunny and warm. The blazing star that has powered our planet for over four billion years was traversing the sky, warming a gentle breeze that carried the scents of the season. The residents of the Allegheny Front, and the greater plateau, have come to appreciate these sunny days of new growth since the only region in the United States experiencing more cloudy days annually is the Pacific Northwest.

The members of the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s Association were also enjoying the brief respite from activities at the club’s property. Over the past several years members have been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop young forest habitat under a program designed to aid in the recovery of the Golden winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). Understanding the effects of the maturing forests across the state, the club, as stewards of 325 acres of Pennsylvania’s woodlands, recently completed their second contract for Golden winged warbler (GWW) habitat development.  

This warbler, a small Neotropical woodland bird similar in size to the black-capped chickadee, but with a cap and wing bars of yellow on the male, is second only to the Cerulean warbler in population decline. After the arduous nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico, this diminutive bird, weighing no more than two quarters, seeks young forest habitat on the higher ridges of Pennsylvania and the surrounding states where it can build nests, raise young and return to Central America, thereby continuing the millennially old circle of life. 

It was on this warm sunny day when the club president received a phone call requesting access to the club’s property. Darin J. McNeil (D.J.), a graduate research assistant from Cornell University, now working with Indiana University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with the NRCS, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and several other agencies and organizations, was assigned the task of investigating the recently developed habitat for the presence of American woodcock (Scolopax minor). Eager to learn, eight inquisitive members and guests of the club gathered in the twilight with D.J. to determine if the woodcock found this youthful growth as appealing as the warbler. D.J. later explained that while habitat projects are funded under a program for the Golden winged warbler, researchers are also examining the correlation between other avian species and the assortment of growth that follows the opening of the forest canopy.

In contrast to the warbler, the American woodcock, also commonly referred to as the timberdoodle, is a stocky bird with a long bill. A member of the shorebird family that winters in the southern states, this woodland nester spends much of its day probing for earthworms in moist soils. Well camouflaged with a pattern of rusty plumage, this migratory gamebird has short, rounded wings ideal for evasive flight amongst the trees. Having evolved to spend its days low to the ground, its large eyes, which provide excellent nocturnal vision, have moved towards the back of its head were it can guard against predators, seeing all 360 degrees of its surroundings. Requiring woody and shrubby areas with moist soils for nesting and feeding along with forest openings for singing grounds, the woodcock are also experiencing population decline due to the loss of suitable habitat. With the loss of ideal conditions due to land development and maturing forests, the birds use less suitable environments, reducing their chance of survival. While still a relatively common species in Pennsylvania, monitoring newly created early successional habitat will help researchers identify the age and composition of forest that the woodcock find most appealing.

Those joining D.J. learned that woodcock only sing for approximately 40 minutes as the dusk turns into night. Recognizing their time constraints, the troop eagerly set out for designated observation points by following the curving woodland road across a stony stream, now flowing with the last of the melting winter snow. The mostly novice group quickly recognized they were ill prepared for a nocturnal excursion when D.J. switched on his headlamp. 

The group moved with urgency to a former log landing now maintained as an herbaceous opening. As the contingent approached a grassy opening next to the now regenerating habitat, a male woodcock sounded its inviting song; a nasally “peent…peent.” As the group waited, the bird completed his call and took off in his display of crepuscular acrobatics, flying high in a large circle before spiraling down to its origin of flight. D.J. took a minute to explain that the twittering whistle heard during the woodcock’s decent is created by its stiff outer wing feathers.

Following his GPS to the first observation point, D.J. abruptly turned from the forest trail into the two-year old cuttings. He aggressively worked his way through the felled trees and juvenile vegetation while courteously trying to defend his followers from the elastic Rubus canes. Turning to break a trail through the growth while checking on his pupils, his head lamp lit the gray-haired faces of his followers. Recognizing that the photogenic qualities of these veteran woodsmen had already been lost to the past whips of branches and briars, he hurriedly continued his advance to the predesignated coordinates.

Once at the GPS coordinates, the novices took surrounding positions, one on a cut stump, another on log, while D.J. recorded the time, weather and other site conditions. The task at hand was simple, wait and listen. The observation was to last eight minutes. The previously observed male was still audible. The American robins (Turdus migratorius) continued to call as darkness deepened. With satisfaction, the “peenting” of a second woodcock was heard over the scrubby hill. It was distant, but definite. An Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) joined the chorus, only to quit with the darkening sky. The brief minutes passed with the two birds continuing their sequence of song and flight. After the eight minute sampling period, results were recorded and the group, mistakenly thinking they had found a better path out of the thicket, returned to the forest trail with a second cache of thorns and scratches, to where several members of the entourage had judiciously decided to remain.

Acknowledging the limited sampling period, the band of amateur ornithologists hurried back to the forest opening where the first cock continued with his masculine display. Seeing the grounded bird, D.J. promptly stopped, illuminating the subject with his lamp, and explained that they will sit, blinded by the light, for observation. As a demonstration, D.J. produced the territorial “peent” call of another male from his smart phone, swiftly followed by our subject’s aggressive chuckles and flushing to defend his territory from this electronic invader. After disrupting the amorous activities of this summering guest, the group proceeded on to the second observation point. 

A similar procession again followed D.J. off of the trail into the thicket. Places were taken, conditions recorded, and again, the troop waited in silence, straining to hear the pleading call for attention. In short time, a distant hail was detected, but could it be one of the previously recorded birds? D.J. explained that the sampling points are spaced such that the vocal ranges of the birds do not overlap between points. While this call came from the direction of the first observation, it was most likely a third bird.  Without repeating his chorus, this brief observation period also came to an end and the sampling for this night was completed. Not learning from their first excursion, the group of flashlight toting enthusiasts again took an alternate route out of the brambles and again acquired a new collection of scratches, souvenirs of the first woodcock survey on the Beaverdale Sportsmen’s property. 

Contented the party followed their headlamps back to the cabin where they took seats in a room dimly lit with gas lights and showing vestiges of the organization’s past generations of woodland enthusiasts. D.J. continued to infect everyone with his enthusiasm as he explained his role in the research and how additional surveys will be conducted for songbirds and vegetation. Hoping to foster a symbiotic relationship with this new found resource, the club members promptly invited D.J. and his colleagues to return to the property as guests as they offered a brief history of the recent management activities. 

Ten years ago club members elected to develop a forest stewardship plan for the property. Supplied with limited knowledge but abounding ambition, members, under the tutelage of foresters, biologists and ecologists have been working to return an exploited piece of Penn's woods back into a diverse and productive woodland. 

With the support of the PA Department of Natural Resources, the PA Game Commission and the NRCS, these members, who only a few years ago found a daunting wall of striped maple and beech brush, have now created habitat worthy of exploration and research. Never did the members envision that their first step of controlling striped maple would set them on a path to contracts for the development of habitat for declining species. The journey of awareness and understanding initiated with the forest stewardship plan was unforeseeable. Yet, those members who have contributed to the success of the plan now enjoy the perception allotted to the few who have taken the time to personally connect with this forest ecosystem. 

With the property now used for research and education, it is clear that the work initiated under the forest stewardship plan is an unquestionable success. While the work has been exhausting, moments of great satisfaction, recognized only by those who have contributed to the revitalization of this forest, are ensuring that an appreciation for Pennsylvania’s woodlands and wildlife will continue onto future stewards of this cherished woodland.