Gamelands Tour

view of SGL#108

view of SGL #108 on last October’s tour (all photos in this post by Bruce Bonta)

I’ve always preferred to walk rather than drive through the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. Still, I was tempted last October by a driving tour in nearby State Gamelands #108 and persuaded my husband, Bruce, to accompany me. It was a lovely autumn day when we found our way to a gamelands access road in Cambria County, not far from Prince Gallitzin State Park, and lined up behind a couple dozen cars.

At the gate we were greeted and handed several information sheets and a map that designated stops along our 7.5 mile, self-guided, one-way tour. We also tested our outdoor knowledge along the route by guessing the identity of marked trees and wildlife mounts including fisher, mink, ring-necked pheasant, black bear, barred owl, and bald eagle.

But we especially enjoyed stopping and talking to the agency personnel. I noticed the incredible abundance of pokeweed and staghorn sumac along the road and was assured by Joe McAnulty, one of the Food and Cover crew members, that they purposely widen roadsides to let in the sun, which encourages the growth of wildlife food, for example, the pokeweed and sumac, as well as blackberries and sassafras. They also allow wild grapevines to grow.

“We manage for animals,” McAnulty assured us.

With the help of special machines, also on display, they create wildlife openings in the forest to support native plants, legumes, or annual grains. They had just finished a prescribed 87-acre burn to encourage scrub oak to grow, which almost always produces a large crop of acorns every fall. In addition to the 23,086 acres of SGL#108, four workers are responsible for managing the 23,000 acres of four other nearby gamelands, McAnulty told me.

At another stop, we talked to a couple law enforcement personnel who showed us the amazing array of tools they need to foil lawbreakers. A deer exclosure, a couple shelterwood cuts, and a vernal pond were also highlighted on our route, but I was particularly eager to see a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which had been converted to a small-game and grassland nesting bird habitat.

Samara Trusso

Game Commission biologist Samara Trusso with short-eared owl habitat

There I talked to biologist Samara Trusso who told me that short-eared owls winter on the grasslands in February and March. This is important because there is a chance that they might breed there too, although so far no breeding has been recorded. The short-eared owl is one of Pennsylvania’s rarest breeding birds and is listed as endangered in the state. Pennsylvania is the farthest south this mostly circumpolar species nests and then only rarely.

Trusso also said that the rehabilitated strip-mined area provides grassy habitat for grassland birds because the sites have acidic, nutrient-poor soils that produce grasses and legumes and have a slower rate of plant succession. But she assured me that the 40% shrub component of this large acreage has no impact on grassland breeding birds that have been documented for the site—grasshopper, Savannah, and Henslow’s sparrows, northern harriers, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks.

That was our last stop, but we drove a couple more miles through the grasslands.

“This looks like harrier country,” I commented to Bruce just as a northern harrier flew up and over the grasslands.

Then, as the area grew more shrubby and medium-sized conifers, including larch and red pine, as well as deciduous trees provided more cover; two cock ring-necked pheasants strolled out in front of our car and fought. It seemed a fitting end to what had been a worthwhile tour and one that has been given every fall except for a year when it snowed.

wildlife opening on SGL #108

wildlife opening on SGL #108

To my surprise, we emerged at a gate on State Route 865 near Blandburg at the top of the Allegheny Front, a mere 26 miles from our home. I immediately made plans to return and see the breeding grassland bird species. Snow in late winter foiled my attempts to hike in and see the wintering short-eared owls, but one lovely Sunday in late June, hoping to see the documented grassland breeding birds, we parked at the Blandburg entrance and hiked back the way we had driven on the auto tour. Bruce was armed with gameland maps he had gotten off the web and had plotted out a circular route for us.

The first couple miles, amid the conifers and deciduous trees, we heard common yellowthroats, field sparrows, and song sparrows. But then, alternating with the singing of song sparrows, I heard the dreamy, lisping tsit-tsit-tsit-teee-taay of a Savannah sparrow. He remained hidden in the shrubs, but his song was unmistakable. A few minutes later, I heard the thin, dry buzzy tumble of notes of a grasshopper sparrow. He too remained out of sight in the shrubs.

Sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

We passed a large field white with daisies and heard a common yellowthroat sing both his familiar “witchity” song in addition to one of the less common variations of his song. A sudden breeze carried turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk past. The hawk was then sent on its way by several red-winged blackbirds.

Eventually we reached the largest open section of grassland. The sun was hot and bright, and already it was late morning. I began to wonder if I would see any of the grassland birds. And then our luck changed. A Henslow’s sparrow sat in a dead shrub near the road and sang his quiet tsi-lick hiccup of a song. He was so close that we could watch him open his beak and sing over and over. I noted his short tail, flat, olive-colored head, big pale bill, finely striped breast, and reddish wings through my binoculars before he flew away.

Henslow’s sparrows are found mostly in the western part of Pennsylvania on rehabilitated strip-mined areas because they like a buildup of dead litter and perennial stalks, according to Andrew M. Wilson in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. The State Wildlife Action Plan lists the Henslow’s sparrow as a species of High Concern because we have about nine percent of the world population. This native of the tallgrass prairie has lost much of its habitat to agriculture in the Midwest.

I was especially pleased to see favorites of mine—bobolinks that rose from a couple shrubs beside the road, the three males scolding, their buff-yellow napes and white wingbars a striking contrast to their black bodies. Then a brown-backed female with a brown stripe on her head joined the agitated males.

timber rattlesnake coiled to strike

the timber rattler that Bruce insisted on photographing

At the same time I noticed a timber rattlesnake crossing the gravel road in front of us. Bruce rushed up to snap several photos before it slid off into the field, causing still more anxiety on the part of the bobolinks. We watched them for as long as we could as we continued our hike past the grassland. Just as I was lamenting that I hadn’t heard or seen an eastern meadowlark, a male flew up from the middle of the field, flashing his yellow chest and throat, the latter with its black V necklace. Both the bobolinks and the eastern meadowlarks prefer to nest in hayfields, the bobolinks particularly in fields at 2,000 feet on the Allegheny Plateau. But early mowing has led to the demise of many young birds and so this high-altitude unmowed field is of great importance to those species.

From the top of the open grassland, we had a view in every direction encircled by mountains and forest. Despite the dry day, it was hot in the grassland, and gratefully we descended a trail down to a series of forested ponds. We sat on rocks beside one pond to eat our lunch. At another pond a female wood duck with her ducklings swam into cattail cover when they saw us. Singing woodland songbirds included wood and hermit thrushes, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and indigo buntings.

Looking down on still another large pond from a small planting of red pines, we flushed a great blue heron. A ruffed grouse with half-grown young flew from the edge of the woods.

We spotted the first monarch butterfly of the season nectaring on yellow hawkweed, but it was near large areas of common and poke milkweeds growing beside the access road. That was where it would no doubt lay its eggs because monarch caterpillars only eat the leaves of milkweed species.

The last half-mile of our six-and-a-half mile hike was along State Route 865 where we saw and heard our first sign of people since we had parked our car. We were impressed by the remote peace and lack of even one piece of trash on this section of the gamelands. It was as far from the madding crowd as any place near our home—a prairie on a mountaintop where increasingly rare grassland birds thrive.

April Songster

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

Sometime in late March or early April, the first male field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) of the season sings his long down-slurring whistle that ends in an accelerating trill. Soon he is joined by other returning males, and our 37-acre First Field rings with their lovely songs. Even in a dawn chorus of residents and migrants—dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, song sparrows, white-throated sparrows, blue-headed vireos, eastern towhees, and black-capped chickadees—the song of field sparrows stands out.

Not only do field sparrows start singing early, but they continue until at least the middle of August, only taking short breaks after pairing up with mates. Once the females begin incubating their eggs, males resume singing probably because such singing indicates their territorial holdings.

Their familiar song is referred to as their “simple song” by ornithologists, but there is nothing simple about it until you hear another quite different song as I did when walking across the field one morning. I was puzzled by it, but finally I spotted a singing field sparrow. He was singing an entirely different song, his “complex” or “dawn” song, which turned out to be the reverse of his “simple” song. It began with a trill of short notes and was followed by down-slurring whistles. Apparently, this is his more aggressive song sung at dawn or when interacting with other males over territorial rights.

field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar

Field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar (CC BY-ND)

Although field sparrows over-winter in some areas of Pennsylvania, notably the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and river valleys in the Ridge and Valley, here on our mountain in the west central part of the state, we see our first field sparrow at our feeders in mid-to-late March. His white eye-ring and bright pink bill and legs distinguish this rusty, brown-backed bird from other sparrow species.

Both our First and Far fields host these birds because they have the shrubby, old field habitat field sparrows prefer. According to a long term study (1987 to present) of field sparrow habitat in Lackawanna County by Dr. Michael Carey, field sparrows favor fields that are open but have scattered shrub and wood vegetation, in Carey’s case, honeysuckle, dogwood, Rosa and Viburnum species, and in our case black locust saplings, blackberry, a few autumn olives, and a scattering of multiflora rose and Japanese barberry along its edges.

Furthermore, field sparrows will occupy an unmowed hayfield the first year after it has been mowed and has a cover of grasses and other forbs mainly goldenrod. Over the next ten years, their numbers will increase as shrubs and other small woody vegetation cover 30% of a field and then they will slowly decrease until the field has been unmown for 30 years. At that point, it no longer will suit field sparrows because it will be overgrown with trees and shrubs.

field sparrow nest by Mike Allen

Field sparrow nest by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

In summary, Carey found that fields eight to 11 years old after mowing produced the most field sparrow nests. As the fields neared 25 years of age, field sparrow territories were held only for a short time either by a male that failed to attract a mate or by a couple that lost a nest and left in the middle of the season.

Although our First Field has not been mown for more than 20 years, woody vegetation has not taken over because my husband, Bruce, has been hand-pruning the black locust saplings. Thus, it has remained 37 acres of mostly grasses and other forbs, especially goldenrod and asters.

Carey also found that many male field sparrows are homebodies. Even though their field habitat is no longer optimal, older birds that have nested in a particular field return each spring and defend their territory even, in one case, while it was being mown. But their offspring leave their natal home and search for their own optimal breeding area.

The best field sparrow habitat, though, according to Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas survey, is reclaimed surface mine areas in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau Section, which had the highest number of breeding field sparrows. Altogether, the atlas survey found 210,000 singing males. While that sounds like a lot of field sparrows, their population size has declined 3% a year since Breeding Bird Surveys began in 1966. For that reason, we manage our First Field as field sparrow habitat and look forward to their return each spring.

Field sparrow nestlings - about 4 or 5 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – about 4 or 5 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Ten to 20 days after males arrive, the females, which look like the males, appear. Most likely they are not the same females the males mated with in previous years, but most will remain faithful to one another during the breeding season. They pair within a couple days and begin mating while the female chooses a nest site and builds a nest constructed of grasses and tucked in grass clumps or at the base of shrubs. It takes her five to eight days with the help of her mate who closely accompanies her and occasionally offers her nesting material.

Shortly after the nest is constructed, she lays two to five white or pale green spotted eggs and begins incubating after the last one is laid, although she may delay several days if the weather is cold. Most eggs are laid between May 3 and July 27 in Pennsylvania, but later nestings never have more than two to three eggs. They are also built higher in shrubs or saplings as the season progresses.

It takes 11 to 12 days of incubating before the chicks hatch, usually all on the same day. Born naked and helpless, their eyes open at four days. By seven to eight days of age they can leave their nest but remain in the low vegetation until they are 13 to 14 days old when they can fly short distances, but their parents continue to feed them. At last, they are off on their own when they are 26 to 34 days of age.

Throughout this period, the parents feed them a diet of almost exclusively arthropods. In Pennsylvania Carey reported that of 1,853 food items he examined, 80% were butterfly and moth caterpillars, 10% adult flies and bees, 6% katydids, 3% adult moths, and 1% spiders.

Field sparrow nestlings - 9 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – 9 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Of course, both eggs and nestlings are often eaten by predators, most commonly black rat snakes, but Carey also found instances of eastern garter snake predation. Possible mammalian predators include chipmunks, red and gray foxes, weasels, skunks, mink, raccoons, and opossums. Blue jays, house wrens, and American crows are proven bird predators on field sparrows.

After a loss to predators, a female begins laying eggs in a new nest she has quickly constructed a mere five days later. When the first nest is successful, she begins laying eggs in a new nest six to 20 days after the young fledge. Still, only about 40% of nests fledge young.

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie (CC BY-NC-ND)

Once on their own, the immature birds flock together and may select their breeding habitat before their autumn migration. They also begin to expand their food sources from wholly insect to grass and forb seeds which sustain them through the winter months.

In addition, they are learning their hauntingly beautiful songs from those males they hear on their natal grounds. They perfect their songs on their wintering grounds in January and February and modify them the following spring to match those of nearby neighbors. Then, once again, I enjoy a choir of field sparrows sing as I walk the Butterfly Loop in First Field.

Grasses Wear Robes

learning a new grass

learning a new grass

We never get very far when we go on a Pennsylvania Native Plant Society field trip.  But we always learn and see more than we bargained for.  Take the grass field trip to Rothrock State Forest in central Pennsylvania that my son Dave and I joined last July.  Let by Sarah Miller of the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center, who is an expert on wetland plants and ecology, fourteen people from as far away as Lewisburg rendezvoused with her along Pine Swamp Road deep in the heart of the forest.  When Miller handed us the draft of a key she had devised entitled “Do I Have a Grass, Sedge or Rush,” we realized that we would be identifying not only the grasses but also the sedges and rushes along the trail.

A quick glance at the intricately-designed five sheets of paper, and I knew that my dependence on the old jingle, “Sedges have edges and rushes are round and grasses are hollow and move all around,” would not suffice.  In truth, I always forget what grasses are in that jingle so later I googled it on the Internet.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who can’t remember the exact wording of the grasses part because I found several versions of it including “grasses have nodes from the top to the ground,” “grasses are hollow right up from the ground,” and “grasses wear robes all the way to the ground.”

Despite the multiple versions of the grass line in the jingle, it turns out that they are the easiest to sort out.  If the stems are round, hollow, and jointed, with its leaves 2-ranked or 2-dimensional when viewed from above, it is a member of Poaceae — the Grass family.

three-way sedge

three-way sedge

Sedges and rushes, on the other hand, are not as simple as the jingle implies and, in fact, took up the remainder of Miller’s key. For instance, the three-way sedge — Dulichium arundinaceum — which is common in bogs, swamps, marshes, lake margins and ditches, shares all the same characteristics as a grass except that its leaves are 3-ranked or 3-dimensional.

Still, there were several botanical terms I had to absorb as Miller launched into her identification of a couple grasses growing beside the road.  “Node,” it turns out, is another word for the joints on a grass stem, which is called a “culm.”  Those 2-ranked, alternate, parallel-veined leaves of grasses have two parts, the “sheath,” which surrounds the culm, and the “blade” which sticks out from the culm. Where the blade joins the sheath at the culm, on the inside usually is a papery structure or ring of hairs called a “ligule.”

I should have identified the first grass Miller showed us, but I was so intent on grasping the botanical terms that I didn’t even recognize the notorious Japanese stiltgrass until Miller named it.  Also known as “Nepalese browntop,” “Mary’s grass,” “Nepal grass,” and “Japanese grass,” Japanese stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, was accidentally introduced into the United States in Tennessee, probably because the dried grass was used as packing material for porcelain.  Since then, this invasive has spread to eastern states from New York to Florida.

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass thrives in disturbed areas.  In the last several years, it has invaded the poorly-logged portion of our property that we purchased after it was cut 18 years ago.  It spreads both by rooting at its nodes and by its seeds.  Each plant produces between 100 and 1000 seeds that remain viable in the soil for at least three years.  A native of not only Japan, but also Korea, China, Malaysia, and India, it seems to thrive in eastern North America almost everywhere from forests to fields, wetlands to roadside ditches, gas and powerline corridors to lawns and gardens.

Japanese stiltgrass doesn’t flower until late summer or early fall, but it was easy enough to identify the silvery stripe of reflective hairs down the middle of the upper surface of its alternately-arranged, asymmetrical, lance-shaped leaves.

To identify the next grass, the terminology was even more complex for my aging brain to grasp, and I never did sort it out until much later when I sat down with Agnes Chase’s excellent First Book of Grasses. First published in 1922, the Smithsonian Institution printed a third edition in 1959 in honor of Chase’s ninetieth birthday. My own 1977 hardcover copy was the second reprint of that edition. Despite nearly 60 years engaged in productive scientific work that resulted in more than 70 scientific papers, she is best know for this little gem of a book.

Chase was a self-taught botanist, but she became the dean of agrostology (grasses) after many years at the United States Department of Agriculture working for Albert Spear Hitchcock. She helped him compile the Manual of the Grasses of the United States, which she illustrated lavishly with her drawings, and then she revised all 1040 pages of the book after his death.

She also made two exploring trips to Brazil and another to Venezuela in the 1920s and 30s when she was in her fifties and sixties.  Botanical collector Ynes Mexia, who spent a couple days collecting with her in Brazil, described her as “almost a human grass, who lives, sleeps, dreams nothing but grasses…”

Chase’s clear drawings and explanatory material finally made sense of Miller’s insistence that we must look carefully at a grass flower in order to identify it.  A grass spikelet is the equivalent of a leafy flowering branch and consists of the flowers themselves or “florets,” which are held in the axils of small green bracts called “lemmas.”  They, in turn, are enclosed in a second bract — the “palea.” The equivalent of a stem is called a “rachilla.”  Below the grass flowers are two bracts without flowers — the “glumes.” All of these terms are important because often a grass can only be identified by its spikelets and their arrangements, for example, the shape of the glumes and the lemmas.

As we worked our way through the next grass, examining the spikelets in detail, Miller eventually identified it as Poa trivialis or rough bluegrass, a native of Europe but often cultivated here and found in wet meadows, swamps, and wet forests.

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Another spikelet she showed us was that of poverty grass, Danthonia spicata, in which a long hair emerged from between a pair of stiff hairs or teeth at the tip of each floret.  And we admired the wavy branches of rattlesnake mannagrass, Glyceria canadensis — an easy way to identify this distinctive wetland grass.

We shuffled onward as folks stopped to look at every grass, sedge, and rush.  Rushes (Family Juncaceae), Miller told us, have miniature flowers with three petals and three sepals, an arrangement called “tepals” that enclose a capsule containing three or more seeds.  As an example, she showed us soft rush, Juncus effusus. This perennial native has densely-clustered stems and clumps of flowers that grow from the side of the stem.

Because the flowers of the soft rush “are individual, they are prophyllate, if they are in heads, they are eprophyllate,” according to Miller’s key, and that’s where the botanical terminology defeated me.  I knew I would need many more hours to sort out and memorize words I had always avoided.

I had never had a botany course and tended to rely on pictorial field guides to identify wildflowers as well as the more common grasses, sedges, and rushes with the help of Ernest Knobel’s Field Guide to the Grasses, Sedges and Rushes of the United States and Lauren Brown’s Grasses, which also includes sedges and rushes.  For an amateur like me these guides are invaluable. Still, they do take some work and occasional glances at botanical glossaries.

The rest of the plants we looked at were sedges (Family Cyperaceae), which usually have triangular solid stems, small flowers, and 1-seeded fruits or nutlets that are often called “achenes.” There are 15 genera of sedges in Pennsylvania, 160 species of which are in the genus Carex.  This is, by far, the largest genus of flowering plants in the state.  A couple that we saw with Miller was Carex folliculata and Carex torta, both common, native, wetland perennials and both known commonly as “sedge.”

We also looked at Scirpus cyperinus, another sedge with the common name “wool-grass,” which should explain why botanists prefer to use the scientific names.  Other members of the Scirpus genus also have variations on the name “bulrush,” even though they are neither grasses nor rushes.

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

After more than an hour, we reached the Beaver Dam as the wetland is known by the locals.  Miller called our attention to another grass, Calamagrostis canadensis or Canada bluejoint, a denizen of bogs and swamps, as some of us deftly moved from sphagnum hummock to sphagnum hummock over the former impoundment and tried to avoid the places where knee-deep water flowed swiftly.

But one elderly man, in an attempt to catch a praying mantis, fell into the water.

“Bob’s down,” son Dave said.  “Are you okay?”

As if in answer, he scrambled to his feet and showed us the mantis he held between forefinger and thumb.  This was, after all, a group of amateur naturalists interested in every aspect of the natural world.

Next, a younger woman plunged in up to her knees and emerged muddy but cheerful.  After that, we were even more careful.

Then Miller showed us another grass.

“It’s a Panicum,” she said.

“What is the species?” I asked.

“I have no idea.  I have trouble with Panicum,” she answered.  With that honest reply from an expert, I felt better about procrastinating trying to learn all the grasses, sedges, and rushes even on our mostly dry, mountaintop property.  The least I could do, I resolved, was identify those plants.

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

The Beaver Dam wetland is a lovely place.  Masses of purple steeplebush bloomed in the middle of it, and we knelt in the mud to examine the delicate flowers of blooming sundews with our hand lens. Ebony jewelwing damselflies flitted over the water, a wide expanse of cotton grass grew on the far side of the wetland, and large white pines towered over its edges.

But I was distressed to see the telltale tire marks of an all-terrain vehicle imprinted in the mud.  It had been driven heedlessly through the sedges and rushes.  Such incursions, especially in wetlands and along streambeds, continue to destroy habitat and frustrate those of us who value such places.

At last, we were marshaled back to our cars, and off we went.  But the adventure was not over.  The lead car suddenly braked to avoid a tiny porcupette crossing the road.  Everyone stopped their cars and rushed to get a better look at it as it scurried into the underbrush.  Son Dave scared it up a tree, which it looked as if it was climbing for the first time. At the first branch, barely six feet from the ground, it paused to rest, and eager naturalists and photographers gathered around to admire and take its picture. Only Dave had ever seen one before and that was on our property several years ago.

Then, farther along, at the side of the road, Dave spotted a wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) in bloom.  By that time, our car was on its own.  All four of us got out to photograph that gorgeous, deep orange, purple-spotted wildflower standing erect on a stem above whorled leaves.  This last, unexpected floral gift from Rothrock State Forest ended our grass field trip on a high note.

Lilium philadelphicum

Lilium philadelphicum

All photos were taken by Dave on the day of the outing, except where noted otherwise.

Saving the Future

Brook Trout“I’m convinced that something has to be done to keep cows out of the stream,” David Heverly told me. And so he had enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is better known by its acronym CREP. A federal program authorized and funded under the current Farm Bill, it is administered by the Farm Service Agency in the United States Department of Agriculture with technical assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and its many private conservation partners, as well as our own Game Commission, also contribute to this program, and keeping cows out of streams is one of their major goals. Instead of forested buffers along many of our streams, especially in the valleys, the banks are bare and broken down by watering cattle.

Yet there is a better way, as Heverly has discovered. At no cost to him, Heverly’s stream was fenced, a cattle crossing was constructed over it, and native trees and shrubs were planted on either side of it. By choosing CREP Conservation Practice 22 (CP22), which creates a riparian forest buffer, Heverly has protected 1600 feet of an unnamed tributary of the Bald Eagle Creek from erosion and pollution. All of this fencing and planting had been done in 2005, and already green ash trees were sticking out of his three-foot-tall, plastic grow tubes.

That was back in mid-May of last year when I joined a tour led by Frank Rohrer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s stream buffer specialist for Centre County, and Daina Beckstrand, a wildlife habitat biologist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, although Beckstrand’s salary, travel and vehicle expenses are paid for by the Game Commission in an agreement with the NRCS, according to Michael Pruss, the PGC’s Private Lands Biologist. Rohrer’s employer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is another CREP partner, along with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and a host of others, that helps guide landowners through the CREP enrollment process and phases of the project.

CREP first started in Pennsylvania back in 2000, when it was available only in 20 counties in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac River basins, where the excessive nutrients and sediment from agricultural runoff directly impact the Chesapeake Bay. Once CREP reached its goal of 9,000 acres of riparian buffers in those counties, they extended the program in 2003 into the 23 counties in the Upper Susquehanna whose watersheds also impact the Chesapeake Bay. A year later CREP moved into the 16 counties in western Pennsylvania in the Ohio River Basin.

Frank Rohrer likes to say that “Trout grow on trees.”

But the waters of Centre County, like the waters of my own Blair County, are part of the Susquehanna River Basin and thus impact the Chesapeake Bay as well as our local waterways. Whenever we drive from our home along back country roads to State College, we cringe at the sight of so many unbuffered banks and muddy streams filled with cattle. So I was pleased to meet a farmer like Heverly who cared about protecting a precious resource on his land, and, by doing so, was also improving his cattle’s health by keeping them clean and dry.

Rohrer showed me a copy of Heverly’s plan, and it was clear that although the initial work had been done by contractors, it was up to Heverly to make sure at least 70 percent of the trees and shrubs survived. And during the life of the contract–15 years–Heverly is not allowed to harvest any trees or shrubs.

His riparian buffer also has three zones. The one closest to the stream contains only trees, the second zone has a mixture of trees and shrubs, and the third zone is composed of grasses. All tree seedlings had to be protected from deer-browsing by tree tubes buried deeply enough to prevent rodent and heat damage and covered on top by bird nets to keep songbirds from flying down into the tubes and dying.

Altogether, 290 trees and shrubs grow on Heverly’s 2.3 buffered acres including winterberry holly, gray and silky dogwood, shagbark hickory, black cherry, green ash, pin, white, and swamp white oaks, sycamore, and flowering crabapples. While the choice of species is left up to the landowner, with help from specialists such as Rohrer and Beckstrand, they must be native, they must be good species for the site, and less than 20% can be evergreens. Hardwoods are preferred, especially along the stream, because they add more nutrients, in the form of fallen leaves and other detritus, to the stream, which in turn feed the aquatic invertebrates. Eventually, the food chain reaches the fish.

As Rohrer likes to say, “Trout grow on trees.”

streamside grow tubesSigning up for CP22 makes economical sense as well. David Wise, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that “Forested buffer projects boost income in two ways. First are one-time incentive payments based on the cost of the project, and second are annual rental payments of $67-$200 an acre. In typical projects, these combine to produce profits of $2000 to $3000 an acre over the life of the project.” In other words, not only are landowners reimbursed for the initial cost of CP22, but they make a substantial profit for keeping the forested riparian buffer on their land throughout the life of the contract (10-15 years).

After the contract runs out, they are free to do whatever they like with the land, but the hope is that, like Heverly, landowners will be pleased with their growing forest and shaded stream, and it will remain a permanent part of their overall property. After all, the CREP program wants to improve marginal farmland on highly-erodible slopes and stream banks, which is summed up in Pennsylvania’s slogan, “Farm the best, CREP the rest!”

The rest of Heverly’s 16-acre property is a cattle pasture that attracts singing bobolinks and swooping barn swallows as we discovered that day. It also provides ideal foraging habitat for the eastern bluebirds that breed in the nest boxes he has provided for them.

CP22 is one of 13 conservation practices in CREP, and one of the most popular. Another is CP1, the establishment of permanent introduced grasses and legumes on erodible cropland and CP2, the establishment of permanent native grasses, and we saw excellent examples of both on the 203-acre property of Robb and Lea Ann Kimble. Robb, accompanied by his six-year-old daughter Kayla, proudly showed off their 42 acres of warm and cool season grasses and legumes.

“We did it for habitat,” he told us, and Kimble planted 13 acres in warm season grasses–big and little bluestem and Indiangrass–and 22 acres in cool season grasses and legumes back in 2004. A year later, he wrote a “Field Note” for Quality Whitetails, illustrated with a photograph of him standing in his field with Kayla on his shoulders.

“I am 5’11,” he wrote, “and with my daughter on my shoulders the grass is as high as her head. As we had hoped it [their planting of grasses] has been well received by a broad range of wildlife. We have had the pleasure of viewing red foxes, bobcats, turkeys, many rare songbirds, and, of course, the magnificent whitetail.”

Because such CREP acres are not mowed during the nesting season, not only are nesting birds more successful, but the larger CREP fields support both more species and more obligate grassland species such as eastern meadowlarks, American kestrels, grasshopper, vesper and Savannah sparrows, bobolinks, dickcissels, mallards, and ring-necked pheasants than do similar-sized hayfields, according to recent studies by Margaret Brittingham, Kevin Wentworth, and Andy Wilson of Penn State. American kestrels and eastern meadowlarks were particularly successful on CREP fields.

In our mid-May visit to the Kimble farm, the warm season grasses had barely germinated, but their dried, shoulder-high, winter remains were impressive. Unlike cool season grasses, which begin growing in March and April, warm season grasses grow during June, July, and August. These native bunch grasses grow tall and put down deep roots that help to prevent soil erosion. They also remain standing throughout the winter and provide food as well as shelter for wildlife.

Perhaps his grandfather said it best when he told Walizer, “No man owns the land; you are only the caretaker for your generation. The goal is to leave the land better than you found it.”

The last place we visited was the property of Libby and Jim Walizer. I knew Jim from his work in the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and had been eager to see his beautiful, 250-acre farm, once primarily planted in corn and soybeans, now mostly devoted to a variety of conservation practices, including both CP22, CP1 and CP2.

Walizer is a wiry, energetic man in his mid-seventies who I think of as the experimenter. “I’m in the conservation business,” he told us, as he showed off his 22-acres of warm season switchgrass and wildflower mixture including blooming wild lupines that attract bobwhite quail. He and his family, who did all of the work, also planted another 21 acres not only with wildflowers and switchgrass but also little and big bluestem and Indiangrass back in 2004. After an accidental burn of those acres, Walizer told us that “Indiangrass beat out the bluestem.” That was the first year after the burn, but last year the other grasses also rebounded, according to Rohrer.

At the same time Walizer also planted cool season grasses in 14 field acres that border the warm season fields. His planting makes both conservation and economical sense. If he had rented out the acres to other farmers for growing standard crops, he would have received $50 an acre per year. From CREP he receives $112 an acre.

But as I looked across the road from Walizer’s farmhouse and saw rows of new homes, I realized that by selling his land to developers he could have made millions and retired to Florida with his wife. Instead, he remains on his land, an active farmer who still raises some beef cattle, but who is mostly interested in “giving this area back to nature instead of farming it fencerow to fencerow,” as he said when he and his wife were chosen Northeastern Regional Tree Farmers of the Year in 2006.

After we admired his warm season grasses and especially his lupines, we visited a portion of his forest, specifically his 5.8 acres of CP22 along Little Fishing Creek at the base of Nittany Mountain. There he and his family had planted tulip poplar, sugar maple, black locust, red oak and a tall variety of Chinese chestnut (as closely-related to our extirpated native American chestnut as possible), as well as the shrubs silky dogwood and silky willow.

Dissatisfied with the standard tree tubes, which he had used in his tree farm before his planting of a riparian forest buffer, he had been experimenting with a variety of different sizes and shapes for several years. Finally, he had developed his TIP System (Tree Incubation and Protection System). As an article he wrote in Pennsylvania Forests magazine explains, it “uses a plastic tube 16 inches high along with a 4-foot high plastic fence with 2-inch grids…The 16-inch tube protects the tree from sprays, rabbits, and rodents and still maintains the greenhouse effect [of the standard tubes]. The fencing protects the tree from deer browse, gives the tree wind stability, and eliminates excessive heat around the tree. The cost is less than $2.00 per shelter. There have been no birds in our tubes and I have found only six wasp nests in 600 tubes checked.” Altogether, he and his family built 1000 TIP System shelters, and he proudly showed them off to us.

Walizer, ever the rapid-talking raconteur, kept us entertained with story after story of his experiences in conservation practices over many years, including those in the CREP program. But perhaps his grandfather said it best when he told Walizer, “No man owns the land; you are only the caretaker for your generation. The goal is to leave the land better than you found it.”

No doubt, Heverly, Kimble, and all the other landowners participating in the CREP program throughout Pennsylvania would agree.

For more information on the CREP program, call toll-free 1-800-941-CREP (2737) and you will hear a recording that will explain the program and direct you to your local CREP coordinator. You can also visit your local U.S. Farm Service Agency office in your county Agriculture Service Center. Information on the Pennsylvania CREP program is here.

Illustrations: “Brook Trout,” by Bob Hines (courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free image library); photo of tree grow tubes above a badly eroded streambank by Kelly Donaldson of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (used by permission). For more photos (including one of me), see the CBF’s own account of the outing here.