“Tsi-lick” went the Henslow’s sparrows. From every direction, they called as the cold wind swept over the prairie. Only it wasn’t a prairie. It was a rolling, brushy grassland in Clarion County called the Piney Tract. Also know as Mt. Zion, it is now officially State Game Lands 330.
My husband Bruce and I were visiting the tract with 26 other members of the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology (PSO) during their annual meeting the third weekend in May.
As soon as we left our car, we joined a lineup of spotting scopes trained on one cooperative Henslow’s sparrow perched on the top of a grass stalk. Our field trip leaders–Mike Leahy and Gary Edwards of the Seneca Rocks Audubon Society–helpfully pointed out the identifying characteristics of the little sparrow–a flat, striped, olive-colored head, short tail, large, pale-colored bill, reddish wings, and lightly streaked breast. Still it looked like most other sparrows–lbj’s or “little brown jobs” as birders call them–but the Henslow’s unusual song helped to identify it.
Because they are secretive birds, hiding in the grasses, the best time to see them is during their breeding season, when they are singing, which in Pennsylvania is May and June. Like most grassland birds, Henslow’s sparrows are declining across their range, particularly in the Midwest prairies where the habitat is down to one percent of its former range. But here in Pennsylvania they have found a new habitat, that of strip mines reclaimed in grass, which are most common in Armstrong, Indiana, Venango, and southern Clarion counties.
The Piney Tract is one such reclaimed strip mine. Because of the passage of the Surface Mining and Control Act of 1977, C&K Coal Company, the owners of the area, saved the original topsoil and, after stripping the tract, planted a variety of legumes and grasses to revegetate the site. The grasses quickly took hold, and grassland bird species began breeding on the tract. According to Dan Brauning, the Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor, the Piney Tract “probably represents the largest concentration of [Henslow's sparrows] in the state,” over 1000 breeding pairs of this globally rare species. Folks in the Seneca Rocks Audubon Society, who have been keeping track of the bird species in the tract since it was reclaimed in 1979, have identified at least 130 species. During our visit we added species #131 as an osprey flew overhead.
At close to 2300 acres, the Piney Tract is a valuable swath of grassland, not only for Henslow’s sparrows, but also for vesper, savannah, and clay-colored sparrows, short-eared owls, upland sandpipers, northern harriers, and other grassland species as well as for game birds such as ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, and ruffed grouse. Deer, too, thrive there.
Under gray and lowering skies, we followed Leahy and Edwards along the gravel roads that bisect the area. They took us to a bare, mossy area covered with pellets and were not certain whether they belonged to short-eared owls, long-eared owls, or northern harriers, but we did learn that southern Clarion County has the most breeding short-eared owls in Pennsylvania. Back in 1988, writing for Pennsylvania Birds, the journal of the PSO, Margaret Buckwalter who, along with Walter Fye, has been monitoring the area since the early 1980s, tells of Fye’s discovery of breeding short-eared owls at both the Curllsville site southeast of the Piney Tract and the Piney Tract itself. Fye witnessed courtship and later found their ground nests and young, which, as a licensed bird bander, he was able to band. Since then up to three pairs have nested periodically on the Piney Tract. Buckwalter recalls a particularly memorable year back in 2001 when at least five young were found. Later that season, she says, Walter Fye reported a total of ten adults and juveniles. We didn’t see any owls on our May visit, but we heard singing bobolinks, field and song sparrows, prairie warblers, eastern meadowlarks, and common yellowthroats.
Leahy and Edwards also pointed out the site where the first breeding clay-colored sparrows in Pennsylvania had been documented by birder John Fedak in May of 1999 in a sparsely-planted island of red pines and shrubs. Looking much like a chipping sparrow, it is a little smaller and lacks a breeding male’s bright, rufous cap. Instead, the clay-colored sparrow has a light crown stripe and well-defined ear patch.
We could hear the insect-like, dry, three or four, low, buzzes of a singing clay-colored sparrow, and, after an intense search, spotted it on one of the pines just as the sun came out. After more watching, we could see that a pair was building a nest in a pine tree.
The sun enlivened the birds and as Leahy said, “Listen to the birds sing. They’re just ripping!” So they were, and our ears rang, especially with the “tsi-licks” of Henslow’s sparrows. On our way back to our cars we also saw the pair of northern harriers that nest on the Piney Tract flying past.
But we didn’t see the other grassland species we were looking for. The Piney Tract has been evolving, and more trees and shrubs are slowly moving into the grassland. No doubt that is why the clay-colored sparrow, which prefers scrub and brushy prairies, has adopted the area. So part of the management of the tract will involve getting it back to a prairie-type habitat by removing invasives such as multiflora rose and keeping black locust trees, Scotch and red pines from spreading.
At least one mowing experiment took place at the Piney Tract at the end of the twentieth century when Brauning, Mary Grishaver and Chris Grainer mowed sections of the tract and then compared the attractiveness of the mowed and unmowed sections to grasshopper, savannah, and Henslow’s sparrows. While grasshopper and savannah sparrows did not seem affected much by the mowing, Henslow’s sparrows were. They much preferred the unmowed areas, probably because mowing eliminated their song perches and reduced cover for their ground nests.
To see what the tract looked like when Fye and Buckwalter first saw it, Leahy and Edwards took us south to the more-recently reclaimed strip mines in Mt. Airy. One meadow rang with the songs of bobolinks, and I easily counted 50 singing males. On another meadow we both heard and saw a beautiful pair of upland sandpipers, a life bird for me. Listed as a Threatened Species in Pennsylvania, this thin-necked, brown-bodied bird has a light eyebrow stripe, white belly, and the long legs and bill that characterize sandpiper species. Best of all, though, is its haunting “whoolee, wheeloo” song.
We also finally had good views of savannah and grasshopper sparrows. Named for its dry, buzzy song that sounds like a grasshopper, the grasshopper sparrow has a flat head like the Henslow’s sparrow but an unstriped, buffy breast. The Savannah sparrow resembles a smaller song sparrow but is more heavily streaked and lacks the breast spot of a song sparrow and it has a distinctive, notched tail. Its song is more melodic than the grasshopper sparrow’s–”a dreamy lisping tsit-tsit-tsit, tseeee-tsaaay (last note lower),” according to the late, great Roger Tory Peterson. Both birds like to nest on the ground in open fields, prairies, and grasslands.
We finished our field trip with enthusiasm for the “eastern prairies” of southern Clarion County, and later learned more about the conservation groups that pulled together to save the Piney Tract from such threats as a motor sports park and industrial development. Shortly after Walter Fye discovered not only nesting short-eared owls on the Piney Tract but also the first Henslow’s, savannah, and grasshopper sparrows in the early 1980s, he, Margaret Buckwalter and other birders formed the Seneca Rocks Audubon Society in Clarion. Members began collecting breeding bird information on the reclaimed strip mines for the first Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas and quickly established the importance of the Piney Tract for declining grassland bird species.
Then, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was selected by the National Audubon Society as a pilot state for its Important Bird Area project (see my upcoming July column for more about the IBA). With all the birding information the Seneca Rocks Audubon had gathered on the Piney Tract, it was designated Pennsylvania Important Bird Area Site #21 in 1999 and named the Mt. Zion IBA. Later it was chosen as one of the 500 best IBAs in the United States.
In the meantime, Dan Brauning, then the Game Commission’s ornithologist, recognized the importance of the tract and helped to form the Mid-Appalachian Grassland Initiative Coalition (MAGIC) in 1998, which consisted of interested community leaders and local sportsmen’s and environmental groups, all of whom wanted to acquire the tract and manage it for local wildlife including the grassland bird species. The PGC also began managing it as part of its Farm and Game Program.
Then, in 2004, the C&K Coal Company declared bankruptcy. Representatives from the PGC, Seneca Rocks Audubon Society, Sportsmen’s Federation of Clarion County, Trout Unlimited, League of Women Voters, and PSO attended a meeting with the county commissioners to decide the future of the Piney Tract. Bernie Spozio of the Alliance for Wetlands and Wildlife, a local conservation group, asked the commissioners’ approval to purchase the property and received it. They then resold it, in three separate transactions last year, to the PGC, which bought it with the help of a 50 percent Federal-State Wildlife Grant reimbursement.
Later, at the annual PSO banquet, Bruce and I watched as Margaret Buckwalter received the Earl L. Poole Award for significant contributions to Pennsylvania ornithology in part because of her work to have the Piney Tract grasslands declared an IBA with global status and to have it purchased as a SGL. The Seneca Rocks Audubon Society was presented with the first PSO Conservation Award for their collective work to establish the Piney Tract as an IBA and to support the purchase of it by the PGC. Walter Fye accepted the PSO Conservation Award on behalf of the society and gave a short history of his relationship with the tract, beginning with his discovery of the many nesting grassland species, including a dickcissel in 1983, on the tract. These folks, and many others, deserve our thanks for working hard over the years to make certain that the Piney Tract became SGL#330.