Pennsylvania Boreal Conifer Forest Bird Challenges and Opportunities

Pennsylvania Boreal Conifer Forest Bird Challenges and Opportunities

Pennsylvania mountain conifer forests, which are found primarily on glaciated parts of the Allegheny Plateau, and are dominated by spruce and hemlock, are diminished from pre-settlement forest.  Unlike other Appalachian Mountain spruce forests, those in Pennsylvania are mostly palustrine woodlands. The boreal conifer forests that support bird species of conservation concern are peatlands at headwaters of high quality cold water streams. They are habitat islands, isolated from other boreal forests but nested within large forest blocks.

The timber era (late 1800’s – early 1900’s) destroyed most of the PA spruce forests, but there has been partial recovery of both the plant and bird communities through benign neglect. These forests support the most southerly extent of breeding Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Empidonax flaviventris, and Blackpoll Warbler, Setophaga striata (both PA Endangered). Both species, especially Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, are persistent at some locations despite rarity. Other state conservation concern species in this habitat guild include Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis), Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), and formerly Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi).  These boreal conifer forests also host numerous other northern species including high continental conservation priorities including Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis).

Many representative species are not well-served by Breeding Bird Surveys  and require specialized surveys for adequate monitoring. Successful implementation of Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) survey demonstrates possibilities. Vegetation structural diversity is an important factor of locations that support the rarest species and  diverse assemblages. Climate change and energy extraction are potential threats. Natural conifer regeneration at sites show management potential despite many obstacles.  A combination of protection and silviculture practices are planned for management of this threatened ecosystem. These are being stepped down into local planning of public lands. Absence of  regular, systematic surveys could be resolved with a series of off-road point counts, perhaps an extension of the Mountain Bird Watch project south into the Appalachians with a geographically appropriate target species list. More sensitive surveys would serve to better gauge responses to looming threats.

doug-grossAbout Doug Gross

Doug Gross is an Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor in the Wildlife Diversity Section of the PA Game Commission. His duties include the monitoring and management of the state’s protected birds. He has been engaged with various bird monitoring projects including the PA Breeding Bird Atlases, PA eBird portal, Breeding Bird Surveys, and Important Bird Areas. He has had an abiding interest in the mountain forest birds, studying the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in the state and writing its Birds of North America account, as well its cohorts, especially the Blackpoll Warbler, and coordinating a state-wide Northern Saw-whet Owl breeding survey (aka Project Toot Route). He represents the agency at Partners in Flight, the Atlantic Flyway, and the Appalachian Mountain and Atlantic Coast Joint Ventures. He also is active in the PA Society for Ornithology as a board member, former president, and recipient of its Earle Poole Award. His interests extend internationally to include involvement with Southern Wings’ Nicaragua bird conservation project.

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