Penn State Experimental Forest, Central Pennsylvania

Refreshing a Habitat Management Area and a Woodcock Trail

In the 1930s, a wave of farm abandonment swept through the northeastern United States. In central Pennsylvania’s Stone Valley, in Huntingdon County, many farmers gave up on tilling the shaley soil and moved away, their lands purchased by the U.S. Resettlement Administration. Shrubs and small trees filled in the tired eroded fields, which soon began producing bumper crops – not of corn and oats, but rather of woodcock, ruffed grouse, deer, and songbirds like brown thrashers and indigo buntings.

Old sign on Woodcock Trail at Penn State Experimental Forest

Dilapidated sign on Woodcock Trail. Forest in the area was too old, so woodcock were few./C. Fergus

In the 1940s, those brushy fields caught the attention of Drs. Logan Bennett and P.F. English of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at nearby Pennsylvania State College (now Penn State University). Bennett and English conducted landmark research into woodcock on the new, regrowing young forest, by now part of a U.S. Forest Service Experiment Station.

In the early 1950s, the federal government deeded the forest to Penn State for use as an outdoor laboratory. Steve Liscinsky, a Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist, continued research into woodcock in Stone Valley and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. His 1965 publication The American Woodcock in Pennsylvania presented his findings on reproduction, feeding habits, movements and migration, and habitat requirements of this popular upland gamebird. In the bulletin, a photo of prime habitat bears this caption: “An experimental woodcock management area in Huntingdon County. Large trees are removed to encourage shrub growth. A woodcock used this particular spot as a nesting site.”

Machine with mulching head mowing down small tree.

Excavator with mulching head mowing down trees and shrubs to pave the way for new and more vigorous growth./C. Lutz

Young forest on the experimental management area would be refreshed again through timber-cutting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, conservationists also put in a Woodcock Trail, with interpretive signs about woodcock habitat needs and the importance of young forest to wildlife.

And the shrubs and trees on the site continued to grow, inexorably turning that tract of young forest into older woodland – habitat less hospitable to woodcock and the broad range of wildlife that need young, regrowing woods. In 2012, some 25 years after the last round of habitat work along the Woodcock Trail, Game Commission biologist Lisa Williams ran a springtime woodcock singing ground survey on the old demonstration area. She heard only one male calling.

New Round of Habitat Work

Clearly it was time for another habitat restoration project in Stone Valley – this one a multi-partner effort that in three years has yielded more than 168 acres of new young forest to help woodcock, songbirds, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, deer, and numerous other species that need the thick hiding cover and enhanced food resources found in this productive habitat. The effort was largely supported by the Game Commission through the use of Pittman-Robertson funds, a federal program that distributes money generated from excise taxes on firearms and ammunition; state wildlife agency can use these funds for the conservation of wildlife and their habitats.

Female woodcock with young.

Hen woodcock with superbly camouflaged chicks./E. Dresser

“At Stone Valley, our basic strategy has been to remove overstory trees and expand the footprint of the shrubland habitat that still remains,” explains Clay Lutz, a wildlife diversity biologist for the Game Commission. Key contributors to the effort, in addition to the Game Commission and the landowner, Penn State, include Dave Putnam, a contract biologist for the Wildlife Management Institute; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program; and the Ruffed Grouse Society through its Drummer Fund.

In winter and spring 2013, using a pair of tracked vehicles – one large and the other smaller – conservationists began mowing down small trees and older stands of shrubs that were becoming patchy and less vigorous. With chainsaws, they cut down larger trees. The wood was set aside in piles or removed from the site by firewood vendors, with scattered logs left lying on the ground to provide drumming stations for ruffed grouse. Workers left small uncut clumps of native shrubs spaced throughout the site, both to increase the structural diversity of the area and to retain some food and cover resources on the newly managed site.

Invasive Plants Presented a Challenge

A pressing problem that needed to be addressed was the many non-native invasive plants that had proliferated in the area. These exotic newcomers, including bush honeysuckle, autumn olive, and barberry, had been introduced in the 1940s and 1950s throughout the Northeast in an effort to enhance native vegetation and provide extra food for wildlife. Certainly the conservationists of that era had no idea that these “super plants” would, in many places, outcompete native vegetation and come to dominate habitat sites. Another invasive plant, Japanese stiltgrass, had also occupied some areas in Stone Valley.

Conservation partners focused their management efforts on the area around the old Woodcock Trail, where 18 acres of habitat have been refreshed, with another 10 acres planned for the future. Adding to this core habitat are 60 acres near Muthersbaugh Swamp, 1.5 miles south of the trail; 30 acres in the Masseyburg Cutting Block, 2 miles west of the trail; and 60 acres at two other sites, Red Rose Road and Manor Hill, also in close proximity. As of spring 2015, 168 acres of young forest and shrubland had been restored or created.

Habitat area at Muthersbaugh Swamp after first growing season.

After only one growing season, young forest and shrubland near Muthersbaugh Swamp have already come back thickly./C. Lutz

The sites are all on the Penn State Experimental Forest. The Forest, which takes in 6,775 acres in Stone Valley, is open for public recreation. The university’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management manages the land for timber, wildlife, water, and aesthetics. Goals include providing opportunities for natural resources management research, and educating university undergraduate and graduate students, elementary and secondary teachers and students, and private forest landowners on modern forest management techniques. Silvicultural practices run the gamut from clearcutting to selective logging and are driven by a philosophy of sustainability and scientific inquiry.

When planning the habitat restoration project, Lutz says, “We looked for areas with some threshold of native shrubs still growing on the site. Our strategy has been to carefully use herbicide applications to hamper the invasives and to tip the balance toward the native species, such as blackhaw viburnum, red osier dogwood, gray dogwood, and hawthorn.” The conservationists cut and removed many black walnut trees, then used herbicide to treat sprouts coming up from the trees’ root systems. Lutz explains that black walnut releases a chemical, juglone, into the soil, which prevents other trees and shrubs from sharing its growing space. Non-native plants, particularly stiltgrass, aren’t deterred by juglone, so if black walnuts are not held in check, the invasives can get a leg up on the more-desirable native shrubs.

Says Lutz, “We spray a site first in early spring to control stiltgrass, an annual that germinates from seeds each year. Then, after leaf-out, we spot-spray walnut sprouts and invasive shrubs.” He adds, “We know we can’t eradicate the invasives. But our plan is designed to suppress them, giving the native species a fighting chance.”

So far, there’s been an incredible response by the native plants – not only shrubs, but wildflowers, including bee balm, goldenrod, and asters.

Wildlife Immediately Move In

“Every time I walk along the woodcock trail, I see deer and turkey in the new cuts,” Lutz says. “I don’t think browsing by deer will prevent the sites from regrowing into satisfactory cover, because there’s already a lot of food available to deer as a result of other timber harvests taking place elsewhere on the Experimental Forest.”

Another species that’s doing well is aspen, a fast-growing tree that grows in clumps, called clones, in which individual stems share a common root system that can spread over many square yards, sometimes even acres. “Aspens harvested along the Woodcock Trail are sending up tons of sprouts from their root systems,” Lutz says. Over several years, the sprouts will become thick stands of small-diameter trees. Not only will this young forest offer excellent feeding and nesting habitats for woodcock and grouse, it will also give wild turkeys places to nest and provide dense habitat where songbirds, including golden-winged warblers, can nest. Other birds will take their fledglings into the young forest patches to find insects and berries while enjoying a measure of protection from aerial predators, thanks to the close-growing stems. Box turtles, wood turtles, and black racers are reptiles native to Stone Valley that will also use the new young forest and shrubland.

Female golden-winged warbler on nest.

Female golden-winged warbler on nest. Songbirds will use new habitat for breeding, feeding./L. Stout

On the habitat areas, conservationists have planted more than 4,000 native trees and shrubs, including aspen, arrowwood, silky and gray dogwood, wild plum, crabapple, nannyberry, hawthorn, and, in damp-soil areas, alder. “The seedlings are still very small,” Lutz reports, “but so far, survival has been decent.” He adds, “Projects like the one at Stone Valley mainly depend on sprouts coming up from the roots of the mowed shrubs and trees, and from the local seedbank.” When possible, habitat managers prefer to rely on the natural resprouting of desirable plants already present as opposed to planting. “Relying on regeneration is less expensive and typically more successful than planting, and it also allows for greater diversity in species and structure composition that’s hard to replicate through planting alone,” Lutz says.

“It’s really turning into beautiful habitat,” reports Game Commission biologist Lisa Williams. “At first, things looked a bit messy. But the scars from management actions quickly disappeared as the vegetation grew back. The Woodcock Trail and the satellite sites are showing incredible regeneration of native shrubs. As habitat managers, we understand that you can’t just go out and mow down invasives and expect a site to return to natural native regrowth.”

Following the spring of 2012, when she recorded only one singing male woodcock on the Woodcock Trail, Williams picked up two males singing in 2013, four in 2014, and three in 2015. “The trend is definitely in the right direction,” she says. Adds Lutz: “We just completed the 2015 singing ground surveys for the other managed sites and recorded a total of 26 males singing in or adjacent to the other treatment areas.”

As a graduate student at Penn State, Williams remembers the Woodcock Trail as a popular spot, with buses parked at the trailhead and school students following the trail and being introduced to woodcock and young forest. Most of the old wooden trail markers fell down years ago. Now, a new interpretive trail will feature colorful educational signs paid for in part by the local Red Brush Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society.

Learning from Habitat, Interpretive Trail

At Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, a Penn State-run nature center less than a mile from the Woodcock Trail, Jason Beale oversees a menagerie of amphibians, reptiles, and raptors with prior injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild. He and his colleagues also work to connect the center’s visitors – more than 20,000 a year – to wildlife habitat conservation issues. “There are many parts of our region with farm fields and forests, but not a lot of the ‘in-between’ habitat that so many animals need,” he says. “If you look at the list of birds whose populations are declining, it’s not surprising that many of them require young forest habitat.

Wood turtles need young forest habitat.

Wood turtles, box turtles, and other reptiles will find food and cover in new habitat along the Woodcock Trail./J. Mayes

“A healthy forest should be a mosaic of different habitats, different types of trees, areas where the trees are of different ages, from young to old. The new Woodcock Trail and the accompanying young forest habitat areas will be great destinations for folks who use the Experimental Forest, and for our center’s visitors, including Penn State students who attend our SEED semester and Plant Science programs.”

Clay Lutz echoes that sentiment. “The Woodcock Trail will be excellent for hiking and bird-watching. Visitors will be able to see and walk through the results of the recent habitat management efforts, and learn more about nature and the value of young forest.”

He continues, “We’re learning a lot, too. We’ve learned from past research by Steve Liscinsky and his colleagues, and we’re using that knowledge as we move forward with management actions to make young forest in Stone Valley. We’re trying to figure out the best ways, the best prescriptions, for creating and renewing habitat in areas with non-native invasive plants. In my opinion, what we’re doing is a continuation of that earlier woodcock research, with an emphasis on addressing today’s problems.”

How to Visit

The Woodcock Trail is on the east side of Red Rose Road. Visitors coming from State College and Penn State should turn right off Pennsylvania Route 26 at the bottom of Tussey Mountain onto Route 1029, Charter Oak Rd., then after about 1.75 miles turn left on Red Rose Rd. The parking area for the Woodcock Trail is on the left after about 0.2 mile. Shaver's Creek Environmental Center is at 3400 Discovery Rd., Petersburg PA 16669, 814-863-2000. Download a map of the Penn State Experimental Forest below, or pick one up at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center.