A tiny corner of State Game Land 39 near Polk, Venango County, is being transformed into habitat for woodcock and ruffed grouse in an effort to stem their falling numbers.
In a private-public partnership involving the Ruffed Grouse Society, Mackin Engineering Co. and Pennsylvania state agencies, creation of a wetland will begin this month on what was once part of the Polk Center complex. A massive tree planting also is under way. So far, 12,000 hardwood trees and shrubs have been installed in 10 upland acres. Planting of another 18,000 is slated for the 15-acre wetland near Little Sandy Creek, off Polk Cutoff Road, this fall.
The 10,000-acre Game Land, which is also popular with birders and photographers, is expected to attract birds migrating to New England and Canada from the Carolinas and Gulf Coast.
"Some woodcock will breed in Pennsylvania and stay through the summer," said Mark Banker, a senior biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society, headquartered in Coraopolis. "More probably will use it as a stopover place to rest and forage."
Although known as the Woodcock Habitat Initiative on State Lands, it is expected to attract ruffed grouse, too. The native birds share similar habitat, but woodcock need moist soil to pick for worms and grubs, while grouse forage on insects, buds and other vegetation where it is drier. Both are ground nesters. Unlike woodcock, grouse winter over in Pennsylvania.
"We're taking what was basically a rest stop for woodcock and turning it into a five-star resort for woodcock and grouse," said Chris Wagner, a senior environmental engineer for Mackin, which conceived and designed the initiative. "If the habitat we develop is suitable and attractive, the birds will use it to mate, nest and forage. Within three to five years we should see a young but well-established scrub shrub area. We anticipate the species surviving well and reproducing."
The impetus was to provide the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, one of Mackin's clients, with a wetland mitigation "bank" it could use to replace any marsh it destroys during highway or bridge construction.
Game bird enthusiasts on Mackin's staff wanted specifically to help woodcock, whose numbers have been spiraling downward for 40 years. Sprawl has robbed the birds of the dense stem habitat they historically have used, and they cannot adapt to the state's aging forests. Woodcock are a species of conservation concern in Pennsylvania. Grouse are not on the list, but their numbers also have diminished.
"We have measured the woodcock decline and know it's significant," Banker said. "We don't have tracking mechanisms for grouse as we do for woodcock, but we know grouse habitat has declined tremendously."
Banker said hunter impact on both species is negligible because seasons and bag limits are conservative and the birds are difficult to flush and shoot.
"Research shows that hunting makes little difference. It's about the same as predation by hawks," Banker said. "The bigger impact has been habitat loss."
Restoring the sort of vegetation that would reinvigorate both species prompted local sportsmen to get involved. Members of the Allegheny Woodlands chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society helped plant trees by hand when the Pennsylvania Game Commission's planting machine couldn't navigate wetter areas. Their incentive goes beyond hunting, said chapter President Jeff Perdue, of Cochranton.
"Sure, we'll run our dogs down there, and we might hunt a little, but it's not about what we put in the bag," he said. "It's about improving habitat for all wildlife, including songbirds. It's about regenerating the life cycle for many different species."
The bulk of the project's funding came from a $125,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, but in-kind contributions, such as trees from the Game Commission's Howard Nursery, have proved invaluable, Wagner said.
This month, a tile drainage system in the lowland will be broken and low earthern berms installed to promote soil saturation from ground water and runoff. The wetland will be planted with red ozier dogwood, silky dogwood and smooth alder. Hawthorne, crab apple and quaking aspen have been planted in the upland.
"If more wetlands develop, that will be fine," said Wagner, "although the two areas should stay pretty distinct."