COVE MOUNTAIN, Pa. (WHTM) — In the trees of the Kittatinny Ridge in Perry County, a unique conservation effort is underway and already seeing signs of success.
The small forest team at Audubon Mid-Atlantic is working towards two goals: to reduce carbon emissions and to create healthy forest habitats for birds.
What is this doing for the climate?
The project, which is funded by the Stabler Foundation, PPL Electric Utilities, The Hamer Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), is unique because it pairs carbon management efforts with those for creating bird habitats.
“The forest program has these three major priorities,” Forest Program Manager, N. Scott Parkhill, at Audubon said. “There’s focusing on breeding bird habitat, focusing on migratory bird habitat, and then focusing on climate resiliency.”
When addressing the issue of climate resiliency, Parkhill said that conservationists often focus on storing carbon in large, mature trees. But an important aspect of this project is sequestering carbon, or drawing it out of the atmosphere and into trees as they grow. This is called a “young forest” approach.
“When we take this kind of dynamic, young forest approach, where we have a lot of that vertical diversity in the forest, those young trees are really going to be growing, we’re going to be maximizing that growth and they’ll be pulling that carbon out of the atmosphere,” Parkhill said.
Work began at Cove Mountain, located in Perry County along the Kittatinny Ridge, last year. Since then the National Audubon Society has installed 625 bare-root native seedlings at the site, which measures about one acre.
To do this, Parkhill said the team first removed invasive species and then replaced them with seedlings of soft-mass, fruit-bearing shrubs. These seedings included American elderberry, Black chokeberry, Spicebush, and Gray dogwood.
“The Kittatinny Ridge is a really important landscape for us…”Parkhill said. “It’s really the leading edge of what we consider the ridge and valley province and because of that, it is a really important migration corridor for birds.”
In addition to being one of Pennsylvania’s most climate-resilient landscapes, Parkhill explained, the landscape is also important for neotropical migrant birds. These birds, typically small songbirds and often warblers, travel from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in Pennsylvania and the Northeast and sometimes even up into the Canadian Maritimes.
It has also been globally named an Important Bird Area for birds such as the cerulean warbler.
In the past, Parkhill said, it has been difficult to tell exactly how birds use the area, but this project is an opportunity to learn.
“The Cove Mountain site is a really cool opportunity for us to partner with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, to really create some of this migratory stopover habitat. And then from there really try to start documenting what birds are using the site and how we can best provide habitat for those birds along with their hemispheric journeys,” he said.
What is known is that while they are here, Parkhill says, it is important that migrating birds have a habitat where they can refuel. This is where the reforestation comes in.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is a lot of birds migrate at night,” Parkhill said. “So they’ll be doing these very long-distance migrations, and then they’ll drop out during the day to forage for food.”
In the spring, Parkhill says it’s important to provide young forest patches with native plants that host the kinds of native insects that birds need to eat.
Then in the fall, the trees continue to be important an important food source as many birds, such as the wood thrush, become frugivorous, or switch from eating insects to eating fruit.
“One of the things that we try to incorporate here at Cove Mountain is, can we create a little patch of young forest that we know that they use in migration, but then also augment that patch to make sure that it has fruit-bearing or soft mass-producing shrubs. And that way we know that we’re providing for them in the spring as well as the fall,” Parkhill said.
This past spring Avian surveyors saw higher migrant diversity in the area, a sign that the team’s reforestation effort is working.
Fifty-one species were observed, including six which don’t breed in Pennsylvania.
“That’s just really exciting to see. Not only are Pennsylvania birds using this site during migration, but we know that birds that breed elsewhere are passing through and actually dropping out into our little one-acre patch,” Parkhill said.
Parkhill says the six observed species that don’t breed in Pennsylvania included the bay-breasted warbler, blackpoll warbler, Cape May warbler, Swainson’s thrush, Tennessee warbler, and Wilson’s warbler.
Several species of birds were even found exclusively in the treatment site. Among these were the Wilson’s warbler, the red-headed woodpecker, and the bay-breasted warbler.
“We’re really excited to continue this monitoring, potentially in the fall, but then in the years to come to try to see if that species composition changes over the years,” Parkhill said.
Moving forward, the team is looking forward to creating a new four-acre migratory stopover site that will employ direct seeding methods rather than the strategy of planting bare root seedlings that was used at the Cove Mountain site.
Parkhill said that direct seeding will make the reforestation efforts much more cost-efficient, potentially bringing down the price from thousands of dollars per acre to hundreds.
“The first gap is kind of our flagship. It’s a really nice site, but it’s definitely expensive per acre,” Parkhill said. “And so this four-acre patch is kind of an experiment to see, ‘Hey, can we do this sort of management on a much more affordable scale?'”
Work on this site will happen in the fall and if the team continues to see success, they also plan to use training programs to encourage the use of direct seeding among private landowners.
“From the financial perspective, if we want folks to be able to do this at the landscape level, or to do it on their own properties, maybe direct seeding is a little bit more feasible for them to do on their own,” Josh Rittenhouse, forest program associate at Audubon who did much of the planting at Cove Mountain said.
The site at Cove Mountain is open for visitors. Parking is located at 450 Sylvan Street in Marysville.
“I invite people to go out and witness some birds themselves, especially in the spring in the fall,” Parkhill said.
Hikers who are interested in going can visit The Nature Conservancy’s website for more information about the trail.