Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Middle Creek WMA: "A Little Out-of-the-Way"

In the 1960s the American waterfowl conservation movement had taken a hard turn towards restoration and reclamation, building on the previous decades' policies and practices that scientifically employed biological surveys and highly enforced regulation of hunting privileges. Waterfowl species of North America had taken a huge hit: a century of free-for-all hunting history that included unregulated taking of all species of ducks, cranes, geese, wading birds, raptors, years of marketing gunning, and the deliberate destruction of eggs, chicks, and habitat as wetlands  were converted to agricultural use. 

The Amish, school groups, university classes, families, elders, and wildlife enthusiasts from near and far gather to watch. 

In the 1940s and 1950s ideas of ecology were just beginning to make sense to policy makers, even though researchers and field biologists had been sounding an alarm since the 1930s.  Adding hurt to misery, the effects of DDT and other pervasive chemicals used for broad spectrum pest control illustrated a collapse of ecological systems through the process of bio-accumulation.  In the age of chemicals, disappearing ducks, geese, and swans were joined by eagles, osprey, and all manner of bird life that depended on wetlands and aquatic environments for survival.

Our now common Canada geese were uncommon and a thrilling sight in the 1960s in Pennsylvania.

Following the model of the national refuge system, states in the Mid-Atlantic struggled to establish their own management areas as budgets and land prices allowed. Funded in large part by progressive hunting groups, bond sales, and project grants, the Pennsylvania Game Commission established its first management area on the Ohio - Pennsylvania border in 1935. This large wildlife management area was wildly successful, helping to build populations of Canada geese that were an uncommon sight in those days! Hoping to duplicate the success of the Pymatuning WMA, the Pennsylvania Game Commission studied sites in the eastern part of the Commonwealth, a long process that by the 1960s brought planners to a small valley on the border of Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.

PA Game Commission engineers reshaped the gently rolling fields of the Middle Creek basin to create dozens of wetlands.

Backed by federal and state dollars, land was acquired (sometimes by eminent domain) and reshaped by engineers to include a system of constructed wetlands, ponds,  and a 400 acre impoundment completed by the early 1970s. Canada geese were relocated from the Pymatunning project. Farmers  became a vital part of this story and with their help, agricultural lands served as  feeding grounds for geese. Farmlands were protected under easements and critical area protections. In the 1970s DDT was banned and within the decade some bird species began to rebuild populations, but others took longer to recover. By the 1980s the Middle Creek project had become so successful, and Canada goose populations so healthy, that special goose hunts were offered by lottery. All manner of wetland birds became established at Middle Creek, including bald eagles who have raised young on a ridge line nest for many years. In past few years, I've even seen sandhill cranes!

Tundra swans have returned to the Atlantic Flyway in large numbers, thanks to Middle Creek WMA
Today Middle Creek WMA is a treasured and much-visited site. Snow geese in the tens of thousands use the impoundment as a staging area on their spring migration, gathering there over a period of weeks until a critical mass and a favorable wind signal it's time to head home to the far reaches of the North American Arctic. Tundra swans, an evolving come-back story, increase in numbers every year. The swan's musical bugling combined with the barking honks of thousands of snow geese create an almost deafening backdrop to an early spring visit. 

An eagle overhead is enough to 'jump' thousands of snow geese into a swirling mass of feather, wing, and noise!

Middle Creek is an important stop-over on the Great Atlantic Flyway, the broad river of sky that connects the Arctic nesting grounds to wintering grounds of the Mid-Atlantic and points south. Federal and state refuges are found throughout our region, especially in the broad coastal plains of Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland providing winter habitat.  Middle Creek WMA plays a critical role for migrating waterfowl as a resting place and staging area for migrations, as well as hosting a winter population of northern birds. Its placement in the flyway is an important reason why tundra swans, snow geese, and Canada geese have made such a spectacular come-back in these parts. 

Thousands of birdwatchers show up in the early spring to watch the spectacle of geese and swans on the lake.

Aldo Leopold, the father of American wildlife conservation, dedicated his career at the University of Wisconsin to creating large and well-managed cooperative refuges at the state and local level across the nation. He applauded Pennsylvania's early adoption of wildlife management best practices in the 1930s, and though he didn't live long enough to see Middle Creek, I wonder what he would have said had he visited with us last Saturday? I think he would have been incredibly happy that not only once- endangered birds were there in massive flocks, but that people were everywhere, enjoying the amazing sights of tens of thousands of geese and thousands of tundra swans congregating in this engineered, now naturalized, wilderness.

Imagine the deafening roar of a vortex of swirling snow geese!

"Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."  - Aldo Leopold

How things have changed! Leopold introduced the idea of landscapes (to include humans) as  communities of living things. He challenged the western man-centric idea of domination, long held by Americans still 'taming the wilderness' for agriculture, mining, and development, and replaced it with people as members and stewards of ecological communities. This shift in thinking took decades to have its effect on large government agencies, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission was an early exception and with that headstart, we now have Middle Creek serving as model of profound success for restoring and protecting entire natural communities. It is well worth visiting the PGC history museum at the glass-fronted visitor's center. You really get a sense of how cutting-edge the PGC's conservation strategies were - and still are!

A large visitor center overlooking a variety of habitats provides indoor viewing opportunities and programs.

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but
do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?
To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."
- Aldo Leopold

Surrounding farmlands are critical feeding grounds for geese and swans. The wind ruffles some neck feathers!

The real miracle of Middle Creek is that it is here at all. The selection of this site was, by default, the last of three under consideration.  Two more favored choices, closer to Philadelphia, were dropped because of expensive land prices. Worried that people would not make the long drive out from the city to Middle Creek "just to look at some birds," and some speculated, " a little out of the way." Well, apparently they needn't have worried! Besides the refuge itself, adjoining Game Commission gamelands offer a section of the famed Horseshoe Trail for hikers (as well as many shorter trails in and around the visitor center). Abundant dirt roads and quaint  country lanes make the area popular for road and mountain bikers. Picnic areas, a boat launch, and plenty of wildlife viewing areas are popular with everyone who visits.

The Furnace Hills beyond, Dana and I enjoyed the brilliance of white birds against the dark forested ridges.

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such." - Aldo Leopold

Leopold warned that it would take more than simply carving out places for wildlife to exist. He urged us to exercise our collective responsibility as a human society to care for nature as our moral duty to the planet. I expect that many of the people visiting Middle Creek last weekend felt some sense of this responsibility. One gentleman who passed us on a trail mentioned to his companion "Now this is a good use of my tax dollars." The crowds were quiet yet celebratory, excited to have the opportunity to witness this place, this event. I kept asking "What would Leopold say if he could see this?" My birding partner Dana must have thought I couldn't think of anything else to say! Well, it was hard to put into words what we were seeing and feeling!

"The question is, does the educated citizen know he is only a cog in an ecological mechanism? That if he will work with that mechanism his mental wealth and his material wealth can expand indefinitely? But that if he refuses to work with it, it will ultimately grind him to dust? If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?" - Aldo Leopold


Learn a little more about the father of conservation, Aldo Leopold. Start

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area:

Tundra Swans life history:

From my friends over at Mid-Atlantic Hikes, this is a very nice description of the hiking at Middle Creek:

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