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Heller Caves Biological Diversity Area
Heller Caves Biological Diversity Area

Extinction is forever, but environmental victories... not so much. Five years after we thought we'd won the Heller Caves fight, the same company, Catharine Properties, plans to apply for a permit to construct a quarry impacting 100 acres in the same area along the Lower Trail. The property is owned by Clifford Wise, who also owns Catharine Properties, as well as Gulf Trading & Transport, LLC. Mr. Wise and other company officials; their engineer, Michelle Merrow; and DEP’s Chief of Technical Services in Ebensburg, Rock Martin, were present at a special meeting held by Catharine Township Supervisors on February 7. About 75 concerned citizens attended the meeting to find out exactly what Mr. Wise intends to do on his property.

Although we received very few details about the proposed mining operation, what we did hear was enough to convince many that the environmental degradation caused by a quarry in such a sensitive habitat far outweighed any economic benefits. A quarry so close to the Lower Trail would create a tremendous amount of noise, dust, heavy truck traffic, and would potentially destroy the critical habitat for a small invertebrate called a springtail, which has been found in the cave system. This species of springtail has been found nowhere else on Earth and has been proposed for listing on the Endangered Species List.

Heller Caves, located in the Heller Caves Biological Diversity Area, adjacent to the Lower Trail, not only contains this rare species of springtail, but also serves as important habitat for rare bat species. The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which protects our birds and the bats, requested protection for the Caves and the surrounding forested habitat, but their recommendations were ignored by DEP when the first permit was granted.

Fortunately, a new chief is now head of the DEP Mining Office in Ebensburg. Chief Martin assured the audience that this time DEP would adhere to the PGC recommendations. He also stated it typically takes DEP from four to six months to analyze applications and that the application has not yet been submitted.

What can you do to help?

  1. Attend Catharine Twp. meetings: 3rd Thursday of each month at 7 pm
    Meetings are held at the Municipal Building at 1229 Recreation Drive, Williamsburg, Pa.
  2. Contact Laura Jackson to get updated information - jacksonlaura73@gmail.com

Reprinted from the Sept-Oct issue of the Gnatcatcher.

JVAS member Alice Fleischer takes a look at the rocky outcropping of Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula.
JVAS member Alice Fleischer takes a look at the rocky outcropping of Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula.

It was a surprisingly pleasant day in late June when we kayaked to Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula in Lake Raystown. We deliberately picked a weekday adventure, to avoid much of the big boat traffic, but we still had to negotiate a few big waves from motor boats. We put in at Snyder’s Run Boat Launch and leisurely paddled along the shoreline. There were just five of us: my husband Mike and me, JVAS member Alice Fleischer, Dr. Eric Burkhart, and his summer intern, Teal Jordan.

We paddled slowly, observing both native and invasive plants that were growing along the water’s edge and into the forest that surrounds most of Raystown Dam. It was a beautiful morning, calm and peaceful, except for the occasional roar of big boats or jet skis. Dr. Burkhart, an expert in wild plant conservation and invasive plants at Penn State, was intently scanning the shoreline, identifying plants that were growing near the water’s edge, or even in shallow water.

Our intent was not just a casual outing; we were heading toward Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula, about an hour’s paddle away on the other side of the lake. Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula is a wild, forested tongue of land that juts out into the lake, at the base of Terrace Mountain. It contains rare shale barrens areas with associated rare plants and insects. We wanted to explore the Peninsula, to learn more about this unusual shale barrens community before it might disappear. The Peninsula is under threat due to a proposed development project.

This map shows the developer’s plan to transform a native forest with rare habitats into a resort and marina.
This map shows the developer’s plan to transform a native forest with rare habitats into a resort and marina.

For now, we were concentrating on making a list of animals and plants that we found on the peninsula. The rocky outcroppings were beautiful and sparsely vegetated. The extreme conditions mean that very few plants are adapted to withstand the arid, steep slopes. However, we were dismayed to see a number of non-native invasive species gaining a foothold: Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimineum) were a few species that definitely did not belong there.

False Foxglove is a beautiful native flower.
False Foxglove is a beautiful native flower.

On the other hand, we were fascinated by the diversity of native plant species growing on the shale slopes and in the upland forest. Several native species were new to me: False Foxglove’s (Aureolaria laevigata or A. virginica) beautiful yellow spires were in full bloom, aromatic Common Dittany (Cunila origanoides) was a new mint for my life list of native plants, and I had never seen Creeping Bush Clover (Lespedeza repens) before. There was also a healthy forest on the Peninsula - some big Black Oak (Quercus velutina) and Chestnut Oak (Q. montana) were mixed in with a good diversity of other tree species, including Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana).

While we did not identify any of the rare shale plants or insects, our short study of the Peninsula gave us an appreciation for shale barrens habitat, as well as a renewed vow to try to save it from development. Please sign the JVAS Petition to protect the Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula.

We're sponsoring a petition to protect the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula Natural Heritage Area along Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County.

"DISTURBANCES THAT CAN LEAD TO THE INTRODUCTION OF EXOTIC AND AGGRESSIVE SPECIES ARE ONE OF THE LARGEST THREATS"
Huntingdon County Natural Inventory statement on the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula, a Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Area

A developer has proposed constructing restaurants, cabins, campgrounds, a marina and other facilities and buildings on public land on an undeveloped peninsula at Raystown Lake.

Sadly, for Raystown's public land and for the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula Natural Heritage Area, the proposed development is EVEN WORSE than what we had imagined.

Public lands ranging from the top of Terrace Mountain to the tip of the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula in Raystown Lake would be impacted severely by the proposed construction of restaurants, cabins, campgrounds, a marina, and associated buildings.

This land is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now in its natural state. The Hawn's Bridge Peninsula is of such high ecological significance that it is designated as a Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Area "of exceptional value".

The Hawn's Bridge Peninsula is part of the Raystown Dam Natural Heritage Area (Biological Diversity Area) identified in the Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Inventory [PDF]. The Inventory identifies such areas as "containing plants or animals of special concern at state or federal levels, exemplary natural communities, or exceptional native diversity."

The area in which a marina and other facilities are proposed includes red cedar-mixed hardwood rich shale woodland and Virginia pine-mixed hardwood shale woodland communities. These rare habitats support two plant species endemic to shale barrens: the shale barrens evening primrose (Oenothera argillocola) (PA Threatened) and Kate's mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum) (PA Endangered). Several invertebrate species associated with shale barrens and the surrounding xeric forest also are found there. These include the southern pine looper moth (Caripeta aretaria), the promiscuous angle (Semiothisa promisuata), and a noctuid moth (Properigea sp.).

According to the Huntingdon County Natural Heritage Inventory (p. 148), "The shale barren communities and associated plant species depend upon the harsh conditions found on these steep, dry slopes where competition from other species is low. Disturbances that can lead to the introduction of exotic and aggressive species are one of the largest threats." The establishment of campgrounds, cabins, restaurants, and a marina and associated facilities on the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula would certainly cause the types of disturbances which the Inventory warns against.

In addition, the Hawn's Bridge Peninsula is clearly visible from the Hawn's Overlook and from the Allegrippis Trails. From an aesthetic viewpoint, converting the forested peninsula to an entertainment-oriented facility with a marina would create an eyesore.

Send comments to: CNAB-CC@usace.army.mil

Please also sign the JVAS Petition to protect the Hawn’s Bridge Peninsula.

Tufted Titmouse
Many song birds, such as this Tufted Titmouse, prefer black oil sunflowers. These seeds are high in fat, providing much-needed energy during the winter.

Birders converged on the Culp Christmas Bird Count Circle in Blair County on a cold and windy December 19, 2015 to participate in the 47th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) sponsored by Juniata Valley Audubon Society, under the direction of National Audubon. The first CBC ever was in 1900 - an alternative activity to count birds ALIVE, since prior to 1900 the tools of choice were not binoculars, but were guns, with participants competing to see how many birds they could KILL.

Some key counters were sorely missed as they could not participate this year due to illness, but the 18 people who did participate on December 19 counted a total of 5,082 birds, representing 67 different species. JVAS President and CBC Compiler Laura Jackson would like to thank the following counters who braved a cold and windy day: Susan Braun, Michael David, JP Dibert, Carl Engstrom, Kurt Engstrom, Stephanie Gallagher, Debra Grim, Charlie Hoyer, Mike Jackson, Kristin Joivell, George Mahon, Stephen Martynuska, Ian McGregor, John Orr, Mark Shields, and Jody Wallace. JVAS VP Mark Bonta helped to organize the counters and contributed the sighting of a Horned Grebe that was recorded as a “count week bird,” making 68 the total number of species recorded during the count week.

Mild fall weather meant that there was plenty of open water, but waterfowl were surprisingly scarce. Canoe Lake is a good location to observe waterfowl, but no Canada geese were to be found. Observers did find 10 Buffleheads, one Common Goldeneye, seven Hooded Mergansers, and one Common Merganser, as well as a few Mallards, at Canoe Lake. Elsewhere in the count circle, 143 Canada Geese were found, just two Wood Ducks, one American Black Duck, and over 200 Mallards. Fortunately, the 10 American Coots spotted at Canoe Lake were alive - last year approximately 12 were found dead floating in the lake. The reason for their death remains a mystery.

Bald eagle in flight
Counters spotted 5 Bald Eagles this year - a record high for the Culp CBC Circle; Bald Eagles were rarely seen during the Christmas Bird Count until recently. Reintroduction efforts by the Pennsylvania Game Commission are so successful that Bald Eagles are actually nesting in Blair County.

It was a good day for raptors: 5 Bald Eagles and 1 Golden Eagle were counted, as well as 1 Merlin, 3 Northern Harriers, 7 American Kestrels, 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks, and 6 Cooper’s Hawks. As expected, Red-tailed Hawks were the most common - 28 were found. The highlight of the raptor survey was finding a Northern Goshawk. Sinking Valley, with its broad vistas and farm fields, is a good habitat for birds of prey, as well as for the gallinaceous birds like Wild turkey (48), Ring-necked Pheasant (16), and some exotic Chukar (7) - a partridge native to Eurasia that has been introduced as a game bird. Sadly, our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, is in decline, and only one was found. Another species that frequents Sinking Valley in the winter is the Horned Lark - 70 were counted.

All species of woodpeckers were observed, except the Red-headed Woodpecker; European Starlings are responsible for their absence. In fact, the Starling was the most common species counted in the circle, with observers reporting a total of 1,714 birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds were the second most common bird with 550 reported. A few Red-winged Blackbirds (8) and just one rusty Blackbird were found in some of the Cowbird flocks.

Many common “winter birds” were seen: Winter Wrens (2), Golden-crowned Kinglets (16), American Tree Sparrows (40), Dark-eyed Juncos (265), White-throated Sparrows (120), Purple Finches (7) and a few Pine Siskins (7), to name a few.

The relatively mild winter meant that many birds which might be scarce during cold winters were still in abundance: 53 Eastern Bluebirds, 50 American Robins, 7 Northern Mockingbirds, and 24 Killdeer.

Observers at feeders and along wooded trails also reported good numbers of our common backyard birds: 76 Black-capped Chickadees, 81 Tufted Titmouse, 50 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 7 Carolina Wrens.

It is a challenge to thoroughly cover the count circle, centered at Culp - a crossroads in Sinking Valley. The circle is 15 miles in diameter, so the effort includes observations while driving the roads, hiking the fields and forests, or counting birds at backyard feeders. This year, 18 birders counted throughout the day, from dawn to dark - and even after dark for owls, for a cumulative effort of 75 hours looking for birds.

The Culp CBC is usually held the Saturday before Christmas, so if you might like to participate next year, call JVAS President Laura Jackson (814-652-9268) and get your name added to the list of potential participants. If you live in the count circle, you could count birds at your feeder. Otherwise, expect to spend part of a day on an exciting adventure exploring parts of Blair County.

A Christmas Bird Count Dinner was held immediately following the count when most of the birders enjoyed an evening at Marzoni’s - after a great meal each group reported their findings at the “tally rally.” A good day was had by all!

A complete list of all the bird species counted for the Culp CBC can be found on the National Audubon website.

Gone Piching group photo
(l-r) Ian McGregor, Mark Bonta, and Catherine Kilgus

Congratulations are in order to Mark Bonta (JVAS Vice President and Education Chair), Ian McGregor (Conservation Chair) and Catherine Kilgus. Their team, Gone Pishing, braved the elements last weekend and nabbed 100 bird species in 24 hours to win the Potter Mug at the Shaver's Creek 2015 Birding Cup. The Potter Mug is awarded to a team with a majority of members who have only been birding for less than a year.

Laura Jackson, incoming JVAS President, presents the 2014 Conservation Award to Ron Singer, founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch
Laura Jackson, incoming JVAS President, presents the 2014 Conservation Award to Ron Singer, founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch

The Juniata Valley Audubon Society 2014 Conservation Award was presented to Ron Singer, the founder of the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch, at our Annual Banquet in April. Ron started watching migrating birds on Jacks Mountain in Mifflin Co. almost 40 years ago, before many people knew that the mountains in the ridge and valley province in Pennsylvania were critical flyways for thousands of birds. Ron's particular interest was documenting the hawks and eagles that migrate over Jacks each year. Ron is still very active today, as he is the main facilitator and compiler of the Hawk Watch. Ron organizes a fall hawk watch each year, and all data is sent to the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). You can access this data on the Jacks Mountain page at hawkcount.org.

Because of his love of the mountains that surround him, Ron has helped with Mid-State Trail 
maintenance and he was instrumental in organizing a large-scale clean-up project along the sides of the Jacks Mountain Overlook which removed huge amount of trash that had been dumped there for decades.

Ron spends innumerable hours on top of Jacks sharing his love of migrating raptors and his expert identification skills with everyone who stops during the migration season. His leadership and dedication to the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch has also ignited a larger group of people to form known as Friends of Jacks Mountain. This new organization is a community action group that was formed because the Jacks Mountain Hawk watch is threatened by industrial wind turbine development on Jacks Mountain.

The Juniata Valley Audubon Society 2014 Conservation Award honors Ron’s dedication to observing and documenting raptor migration, as well as founding and maintaining the Hawk Watch at Jacks Mountain.

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Jacks Mountain commemorative patch featuring a broadwinged hawk
Jacks Mountain commemorative patch

The Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch has a commemorative patch for sale. Email Ron Singer at risinger2@verizon.net if you would like to purchase one for $5.70, which includes shipping. The patch features a Broad-winged Hawk, since thousands of them migrate over Jacks each fall.

You can learn more about the Jacks Mountain Hawk Watch at their webpage.

After weeks of waiting for the right weather, my husband Bruce, always the designated driver, a new young birder in our area, Michael David, and I headed down to Sinking Valley to do our annual Winter Raptor Survey. It was a perfect day—fifteen degrees, still, and blue-skied.

We had a slow start, but finally Michael and I started seeing white spots sitting in trees. They all turned out to be red-tailed hawks. Sometimes we thought they might be something else and Bruce set up our scope. Nope! Only red-tails. This went on for most of the morning.

Since Michael was working on his county list, we noted other birds too. Robins eating staghorn sumac fruit. Twenty-six horned larks in the fields along Crawford Road so close we could almost touch them. A great blue heron sitting under a tree near the stream at the Arch Spring homestead. A pileated woodpecker clinging to a sapling near the road.

Ah! But I’ve saved the best for the last. After counting 26 red-tails and not even seeing a kestrel, we drove beneath what might be a kestrel. “Stop!” I yelled to Bruce and found I had made the same mistake as last year at the same place. A flock of mourning doves took off.

Then Michael started studying a flock of what he thought were starlings, but they turned out to be brown-headed cowbirds.

“I think I see a rusty,” he said and was out the car and down the road to study the flock more carefully. After all, my sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a flock of cowbirds during Christmas Bird Count, perhaps in this very same place.

I followed Michael at a slower pace and stood waiting for him to decide if he had found a rusty. Just as he had concluded that whatever he had seen had flown, I glanced idly across the barren, snow-covered field at a huge old tree standing by itself and saw two spots of white. I looked through my binoculars, expecting to see more red-tails and instead saw a pair of mature bald eagles, one sitting on the branch directly above the other.

Finally, raptors to get excited about! Michael wondered if they were a pair and perhaps nesting in the area. After all, this is the time of year when they begin building a nest. I certainly hope folks living in Sinking Valley keep an eye on this pair.

To cap the day, just after we saw the great blue heron, a golden eagle flew low over our car. Perhaps it was the same eagle Bruce and I had seen fly low over us while we walked on our Far Field Road several days ago.

Altogether, it was one of the more exciting Winter Raptor Surveys we have done over the years.

—Marcia Bonta

The Winter Raptor Survey is a state-wide citizen science program coordinated by JVAS member Greg Grove with the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. See their website for information on how to take part.

man in blaze orange baseball cap
A blaze orange cap is more than a practical necessity—it's a fashion statement.

Archery season for antlered and antlerless deer begins today statewide in Pennsylvania. Although archers tend to make very sure of their targets, it's still a good idea for anyone in the woods — birdwatchers, hikers, mushroom gatherers, etc. — to wear a blaze-orange cap at least, if not a vest or coat as well. In State Game Lands it's more or less mandatory, but state forests, state parks, and most other public lands are open for hunting as well. Later on in November, when regular rifle deer season comes in after Thanksgiving, non-hunters should probably stay out of the woods altogether on opening day and the first Saturday, and be very cautious and visible for the rest of the season. And turkey season, which is in November, is also a very good time to get shot if you're not wearing blaze orange. Gobbling and scratching in the leaves is also discouraged.

See the complete list of 2013-2014 hunting seasons on the Game Commission website. (Scroll down for the map of wildlife management areas. Our area is split between 4D, 4A and 2C. )

Needless to say, as a conservation organization, Juniata Valley Audubon strongly supports deer hunting, and many of our members are also hunters. Shoot a deer, save a wood thrush.

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Every fall, the Pennsylvania Game Commission offers tours at select game lands around the state. This year, one of them is in our area: State Game Lands 108. Here's the relevant section from their press release:

Cambria County: Sunday, Oct. 6, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., State Game Lands 108, consisting of 23,086 acres. This 7.5-mile, self-guided, one-way, driving tour will highlight mountainous terrain and fall foliage on the Allegheny Front. Items of interest along the tour route include a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which has been converted to small-game habitat. The area also serves as a study area for grassland nesting birds, including the Henslow’s sparrow, a grassland species of special concern. Northern harriers and endangered short-eared owls also inhabit the study area. Also highlighted are tree and shrub identification, wildlife habitat food plots and a deer exclosure fence. Each tour participant will be provided a brochure with directions and information about various features along the tour route. The tour begins at the State Game Lands access road three-tenths of a mile north of Frugality, along State Route 53, in White Township. Watch for the sign. The starting point is just minutes away from the main beach at Prince Gallitzin State Park, where the annual Apple Cider Festival will be taking place on the same day. The tour will conclude on State Route 865 near Blandburg, in Reade Township. Game Commission land management, forestry, wildlife management, and law enforcement personnel will be on hand to explain the various habitat improvement projects on this SGL and to answer questions.

We just received this update from Molly Anderson via email: "Due to current acorn conditions (or lack thereof) we will be cancelling this workday after all. It’s such a shame too because the weather is going to be nice and cool."

Needless to say, a widespread failure of the acorn crop for a third year in a row is very bad news for wildlife in our area.