Most avid birders have a repertoire of favorite birding spots: hotspots where they are likely to find a high diversity of species, or seasonally unique species, or even just an easily-accessed spot that will consistently provide a good list. In an area that is birded frequently (say, Centre Country), that list of spots, though still worthwhile, tends to remain stagnant. It isn’t often that a new, extremely valuable birding area shows up. But in Centre County, that is precisely what has happened.
In 2007, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a bill ordering the divestment of all land north of I-99 belonging to the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in Centre County. This land (just over 1800 acres) includes the notable ecological landmark, Spring Creek Canyon, an area with a high diversity of habitats and species. As many central-Pennsylvania residents know, the bill caused some public objection, primarily with respect to the proposed recipients of the land. The original bill called for the vast majority of the land to be sold to Penn State University for use as agricultural cropland. Local residents understood the ecological and cultural gem that the area represented, and wanted it to become public land available for recreational use. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of protecting the riparian areas of Spring Creek, as well as the many other habitats present (mixed forest and successional fields, for example). Much discussion, debate, and compromise from all parties ensued.
In the end (and almost four years later), PSU purchased 452 acres of land directly north of I-99, with the intention of using the land for agricultural purposes; most of this acreage is already agricultural fields, previously used by the Correctional Institution. The Pennsylvania Game Commission now owns 1211 acres of mostly forested areas which is now known as State Game Lands 333. Benner Township is responsible for designated recreational areas around the creek itself, including a 4.4 mile trail that allows hikers to travel down a stretch of Spring Creek Canyon previously unavailable to the public. And finally, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission obtained easier access to two of their fish hatcheries on Spring Creek (the Benner Spring and Bellefonte hatcheries). The entire 1800-odd acres is known collectively as the Spring Creek Canyon Cooperative Management Area (SCCCMA).
And of course, the good news for birders, hunters, and general outdoorsy types alike, is that almost all of the land is open for public use. And look at how much land 1800 acres is:
At any rate, I’m sure a lot of local birders are itching to see what SCCCMA has to offer. Birding this area from a tiny parking lot on Shiloh Road last year resulted in high numbers of sparrows as well as some less common species such as Short-eared Owl (endangered in PA) and Rough-legged Hawk. (Check out this link for a list at what’s been seen – from afar – in the area.) And I have an opportunity for you to both bird some of the area AND contribute to Penn State’s plan on how to use the agricultural land while still maintaining critical habitat. You should probably keep reading, as that seems like a pretty excellent combination. (Who wouldn’t like birding for a good cause?)
Penn State’s acreage is a mixture of habitats, including agricultural fields that will be used for sustainable biofuel and organic crops. Because of the circumstances surrounding land assignments, Penn State would like to proceed with as much ecological caution and foresight as possible. With that in mind, Dr. Margaret Brittingham’s wildlife habitat lab at PSU will be performing a variety of bird surveys throughout the year to determine which birds are using the area, their general abundance, and the habitat components that seem to be most critical to their needs. With these results in hand, we will be able to provide recommendations to the University on how to incorporate important habitat needs into their agricultural landscape.
Your opportunity comes here: we need some volunteers to participate in general bird surveys during the winter season. The first one is being scheduled for Sunday, December 4th at 8am. If you are interested in participating (and contributing!) please contact me for more information. This is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in a new birding hotspot, or for anyone who has followed the Spring Creek Canyon story. I look forward to hearing from you!