Landowner makes effort to aid warbler
Just as canaries were used in coal mines to warn miners of imminent danger, the cerulean warbler serves as today’s canaries in Pennsylvania’s woods.
That’s what Stephen Zuk, a Pennsylvania forest steward and landowner from North Manheim Township, says. He is in Washington, D.C., today speaking about conservation efforts for the migratory songbird.
“The demise of the cerulean warbler and other species are telling us that the ecology of the forest as we know it today is in immediate and imminent danger,” Zuk, who has a conservation cost-sharing contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.
He was asked to join Amanda Duren, Pennsylvania Cerulean Warbler Partnership coordinator, and Todd Fearer, coordinator of the
Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, today as they highlight the success of the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project.
They were scheduled to address the Farm Bill conservation programs administered by the USDA NRCS and how the programs benefit birds they seek to protect.
About 80 percent of the total cerulean warbler population breeds in the Appalachian Mountains, which includes parts of Schuylkill and Dauphin counties.
“Unfortunately, cerulean warbler populations have declined steeply and, over the last 60 years, about 70 percent of the population has been lost. The loss of forest habitat and declines in mature forest health have led to these declines,” she said.
The cerulean warbler, named for the male’s brilliant blue color, breeds in mature deciduous forests of eastern North America.
They prefer oak-dominated forests that have large trees and some gaps in the forest canopy. While much of Pennsylvania is forested, most forests are very uniform with densely packed trees and closed canopies. Without canopy gaps, forests lack the variety of habitat structure required by many songbirds, according to Duren.
Private landowners, like Zuk, have stepped in to help.
“When I inquired about the Cerulean Warbler Project through the NRCS, I was informed that certain land topography (south sides of mountains and certain elevations), species of nesting trees (large old white oaks), food sources (new forest regeneration), and other factors were necessary for the cerulean warbler habitat,” Zuk said.
“This particular land parcel is my largest lot. Almost all of this parcel will be set aside (60 of about 67 acres) and dedicated to forest regeneration. The remaining 7 acres have unique natural features, and other parts have too steep of topography where regeneration practices would produce minimal regeneration results.”
Zuk is on the board of directors for Schuylkill County Conservancy and a member of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and American Chestnut Foundation.
“On my property, the financial aid I have received has enabled me to offset the cost of having over 30 acres of invasive plant species treated with herbicide. Had I not the financial aid, only half of the acreage would have been treated, resulting in the invasive plants not eradicated, then re-establishing across the acreage already treated. I am placing deer fencing to enclose approximately 60 acres in an effort to prevent overgrazing and thus provide regeneration of the forest. The fence alone is approximately $25,000, beyond my financial means, yet possible due to cost sharing provided by the NRCS,” he said.
So far, 84 Regional Conservation Partnership Program contracts have been awarded in Pennsylvania, providing landowners with $2.1 million in financial assistance and improving habitat for cerulean warblers on more than 3,600 acres in 24 counties.
Schuylkill and the northern portion of Dauphin County are part of the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project’s focal area, which covers parts of 35 Pennsylvania counties, Duren said. It identifies areas most likely to provide quality habitat for the bird and where habitat improvement efforts are most likely to have the most impact. In particular, The Kittatinny Ridge, also known as Blue Mountain, in Schuylkill and Dauphin counties has been identified as a Globally Important Bird Area for cerulean warblers.
Duren said they are excited to have an opportunity to meet with staff members from the offices of U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-17, Moosic, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey to discuss the work that the AMJV does in Pennsylvania to assist private landowners like Zuk in sustainably managing their properties to benefit wildlife.
“It was an obvious choice to invite Mr. Zuk along with us on our visit to D.C. He is well-spoken and knowledgeable about forest management, but it is his passion for conservation and commitment to improving his woods for future generations that is most striking,” Duren said.
“I was in shock, extremely humbled and honored to be chosen,” Zuk said. “Thirdgeneration landowners such as myself have endless pride in preserving the land for generations to come, for we do so with such vigor and enthusiasm that no government agency can replicate. However, without the financial aid we could not make the forest sustainable for future generations, nor save the endangered species that make the forest a forest.”
Duren works for the AMJV and American Bird Conservancy. Her office is in Bloomsburg, but she resides in Mifflinburg.
The AMJV is a partnership of agencies and organizations that focuses on conserving and restoring habitats for priority bird species in the Appalachian Mountain region, stretching from Alabama to southern New York. ABC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.
Approximately 75 percent of cerulean warbler breeding habitat in the Appalachians is on privately owned land. That means it is unlikely they would be able to reverse the decline of the species by focusing on public lands alone, Duren said.
“In 2015, the AMJV partnership received an $8 million grant through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program to support the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project. The five-year Regional Conservation Partnership Project allows us to work with private landowners to implement active forest management to improve 7,000 acres of forest habitat for cerulean warblers and other wildlife in Pennsylvania.”
The partnering groups have made exciting progress over the last three years toward achieving their habitat improvement goals and, hopefully, in reversing the decline of this imperiled species in the region, according to Duren.
“Our project team in Pennsylvania works in the local USDA service center with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop contracts with private landowners, offering technical and financial assistance to conduct active forest management,” Duren said.
Landowners should contact NRCS at their local USDA service center for more information.
Some landowners throughout Pennsylvania are working to make areas more inhabitable for the cerulean warbler.