Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships

Project Profiles - United States

Tamarack Swamp: A Pennsylvania Rarity
by Jack Rowley, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

If you were to draw an “x” on the center of a map of Pennsylvania, you would come very close to marking Tamarack Swamp, an ancient boreal wetland and a biologically rich place that has, for the most part, escaped the markings of time and progress. This swamp is a celebration of unusual finds: bug-eating plants, uncommon dragonflies, and black spruce and balsam fir rooted in soggy soils. Birds such as Virginia rail, swamp sparrow, and northern saw-whet owl mingle with black bear, red-spotted newt, wood frogs, and an abundance of other species.

The swamp is named for the unusual presence of tamarack (Larix laricina), the only native deciduous conifer in the State. When Pennsylvania’s last glacial period ended, some 12,000 years ago, most other boreal habitats retreated northward, while this unique wetland remained intact, perhaps because of its higher elevation (1,700 feet) and location in a basin, a cold-air sink. Wetlands are not common in central Pennsylvania, and most of those that do exist are not the boreal type. Tamarack Swamp is one of the few examples of a black spruce/balsam fir/tamarack bog in north-central Pennsylvania. Its presence takes on added importance as it forms the headwaters of Drury Run, designated an Exceptional Value, High Gradient Clearwater Stream by the State’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Birds have long been studied at Tamarack Swamp: F. R. Cope, Jr., referenced the site in a 1902 article. W. E. Clyde Todd, Carnegie Museum of Natural History ornithologist, first traveled to this remote part of the Allegheny High Plateaus Region in 1894 and later made note of his findings in 1940 in Birds of Western Pennsylvania. Historically, Tamarack Swamp supported nesting avifauna such as olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, Swainson’s thrush, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, and purple finch. Today, it has Important Bird Area status.

Protection of this special place began in 1975, when the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry established the Tamarack Swamp Natural Area, which contains only about one-fourth of the 225-acre wetland. Because of the rarity and significance of this habitat type in the State, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (Conservancy) ecologists visited the site in the mid 1980s to assess its biological status, develop conservation boundaries, identify landownership, and establish conservation priorities. Landownership proved extraordinarily complex. In 1998, the Conservancy worked with seven estate executors to assemble a purchase of 319 acres, which included uplands and about one-fourth of the swamp’s area, and in 2002, with the help of a $20,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act Small Grant, it acquired another 134-acre tract from 25 heirs, to protect another 20 percent of the swamp.

Given the size of the swamp and its watershed—totaling approximately 1,300 acres—much of the area remains unprotected. But be assured, the Conservancy will take advantage of opportunities as they arise to conserve the balance of this unusual Pennsylvania habitat.

For more information, contact Ann Sand, Assistant Director of Land Protection, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 209 4th Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222, (412) 288-2777, asand@paconserve.org.

It’s Not the Original, But It Works
by Marilyn Campbell, Illinois Audubon Society

In 1820, more than 60 percent of Illinois was blanketed with native grasslands. By the mid 1800s, much of the State’s prairie was gone—as settlers moved westward the prairie fell to the plow. Today, according to Bill McClain with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (Department), one-hundredth of one percent remains.

No doubt grassland bird populations suffered losses during the early days of change on the landscape, but since the mid 1960s, these populations have suffered huge declines in Illinois. Bobolink numbers have plummeted an estimated 96 percent, and field sparrows, nearly 64 percent. Greater prairie-chickens came close to extirpation, and several other grassland-dependent species are state-listed as threatened or endangered.

Why these more recent, precipitous declines? Research shows that many grassland birds require large blocks of habitat and do not nest successfully in small, fragmented parcels. Tracts as large as 250 acres may be required to have a 50-percent likelihood of attracting species that are highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation.

Studies conducted in Illinois show that prairie-chickens require different vegetative structures throughout the breeding season, ranging from very short grass or bare areas for male "booming," to mid-size vegetation for nesting, to tall cover for hens and young in the summer. We will never again see a landscape of native prairie with elk, bison, and natural fires creating the diverse vegetative structures needed by grassland birds. So, we meet their needs by creating a mosaic of tall native grasses and forbs interspersed with parcels of short, cool-season grasses.

Illinois’ 3,470-acre Prairie Ridge State Natural Area has been a state focus area for grassland bird management for several years. Thanks to a partnership between the Illinois Audubon Society (Society) and the Department, what began as a "prairie-chicken refuge" has expanded to include habitat for both grassland and wetland species. In the past 3 years, the Society has added significant holdings to Prairie Ridge and developed its own sanctuaries within the area. In 2001, the Society and its partners created a wetland and an interpretive trail on a 40-acre, former agricultural tract adjacent to the State’s land, providing the only public access to the Prairie Ridge area. The trail and an observation deck overlooking the wetland have lured nature lovers from around the State.

Birds also wasted no time in finding the new habitat at the Society’s Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature Preserve, including several state-listed species. Sandhill cranes, black terns, and other migrants partook of the wetland's offerings, and dickcissels and several other grassland species nested in the “restored prairie” in the spring and summer of 2002. The measure of success was best defined when a prairie-chicken and her brood were spotted.

Partners will continue to purchase land from willing sellers in the focus area, adding to the State’s acquisitions. The Society is managing its preserve to complement the State’s management. The Prairie Ridge partnership may not be able to restore the Illinois landscape to its original state, but the simulation seems to be working.

For more information, contact Marilyn Campbell, Executive Director, Illinois Audubon Society, P.O. Box 2418, Danville, Illinois 61834, (217) 446-5085, director@pdnt.com.

Prairie Ridge Partners

Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Illinois Audubon Society
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Grand Victoria Foundation
Illinois Conservation Foundation
Embarras River Tourism Council
Wildlife Forever
Hamill Family Foundation
Eight Illinois Audubon Society Chapters
Fifteen Illinois Audubon "Habitat Savers" Donors
Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation

A Resort of a Different Kind
by Daniel Papp, Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Nestled on the edge of Boise, Idaho’s, west bench lies the Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve. No, it’s not another resort of the world-famous hotel chain—it’s better.

A piece of land with a checkered past, the property was once owned by F. Clyde Peck and farmed for a number of years before being leased to an asphalt paving company. The company operated a gravel mine on the site from the 1960s to the 1980s. As mining operations progressed, groundwater seeps were exposed, allowing water to flow into the excavations. To drain the extraction areas, channels were constructed that emptied water into Warm Springs Creek, at the north end of the site, and eventually into the Boise River. When the gravel operation ceased, beavers took ownership, damming up enough water to create a 22-acre wetland.

Over the past century, the property has evolved from an upper-river sagebrush terrace to an emergent/open-water wetland, with surrounding stands of small black cottonwood and grass/shrub uplands. The 44-acre site has become a significant pocket of wildlife habitat in the midst of residential neighborhoods.

In 1990, Larry Hyatt purchased the land from the Peck Family Trust. He intended to donate the wetlands to the city but retain the 22 upland acres for residential housing development. Various interests envisioned a greater purpose: to secure the entire acreage as a wildlife preserve, integrating compatible, minimal-impact, public recreational and educational uses.

With funding from impact fees, private donations, and grants, Boise Parks and Recreation (Boise Parks) purchased the 9 upland acres east of the wetland for $149,550, and in 1998, added the 13 upland acres west of the wetland for $273,326. Idaho Department of Fish and Game received a $50,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act Small Grant to aid in the acquisitions. Hyatt donated the wetlands, valued at $27,820, to the project.

In 1999, Boise Parks contracted with CTA LandWorks Group to develop a master plan for the reserve, which was realized following three public meetings. The plan proposes a balance between recreational and educational uses on enhanced upland habitat and in open-space areas. Habitat enhancements include the installation of two permanent water-control structures, the creation of an island of protected habitat, the enlargement of open-water areas, the planting of vegetation along the water’s edge and throughout the upland area, and the installation of mechanical filtration devices to pre-treat storm water before it enters the wetlands. A water-filtration swale along the eastern edge of the site will be maintained for educational and aesthetic reasons. Finally, fast-growing riparian trees will be planted along a proposed road extension along the eastern upland boundary to help buffer the wetland from the roadway. With its unique history, commanding views of the Boise Foothills, resident wildlife, 6,000 migratory waterfowl, and potential for environmental education, the reserve will be a significant asset to the city.

Boise Parks manages the reserve and looks to the community for help in developing plan-implementation funding and site-monitoring and environmental-education programs. With all of this, the reserve is giving new meaning to the name Hyatt.

For more information, contact Daniel Papp, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, P.O. Box 25, Boise, Idaho 83707, (208) 465-8465, dpapp@idfg.id.state.us.

Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve Project Partners

Boise Parks and Recreation
Idaho Department of Fish and Game
Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation
Larry Hyatt
Intermountain West Joint Venture
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
Golden Eagle Audubon Society