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Come nest with me

By Carol Sones Shelter - | Mar 31, 2021

photo by Carol Shetler/The Luminary Gary Metzger, a member of the Lycoming Audubon Society, explains improvements made to encourage grass nesting birds at Lime Bluff Park Recreation Area in Wolf Township.

The days have arrived when migrating birds are flying in joining those that have wintered here. The male Red-winged Blackbird, one of those early arriving migrants, sizes up suitable nesting habitat such as marshy, reedy areas and fields of tall grasses and sets up shop in hopes of impressing the soon to arrive females. When the females arrive, males vie for their attention by singing, “I’m a pretty boy, come nest with me.” The female will look him over, inspect the nest sites, and if satisfied the two become a couple.

This is but one of the mating rituals explained by Gary Metzger, as he recently scanned the horizon at Lime Bluff Recreation Area in Wolf Township. About 15 years ago, Metzger was ‘snagged’ into the membership of the Lycoming Audubon Society where lifelong experiences suited him well as the society’s past President and current Conservation Committee chair.

Metzger had worked in concert with the environment beginning as a farm boy in the Salladasburg area prior to preparing for a 34-year career with the Department of Environmental Protection. Until recently, he and his wife Joan owned a 67-acre spread in the Loyalsock Valley. Currently, the couple resides near Hughesville in a rural community with plenty of opportunities for birdwatching.

The Lycoming Audubon is one of 21 local chapters of the National Audubon Society located in Pennsylvania.  The chapter’s stated mission “is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats, for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.”  It has proven to be a good fit for Metzger’s retirement years as the group works to preserve and enhance the natural environment in Lycoming and Clinton Counties.

One example of the chapter’s work was close at hand as we talked in the park. “Humanity tends to be a bit too neat in mowing and tree removal,” he said. At Lime Bluff, Metzger pointed to areas in the center of the Recreation Area which previously had been completely maintained as essentially a big a lawn. Thanks to suggestions by Society members, mowing in these areas is now curtailed until at least late summer so the field birds have good habitat for nesting.  

photo submitted Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbirds and the melodious Eastern Meadowlark now nest each season in these areas. When these areas are mowed, it is kept high so that winter raptors can hunt rodents and the park provides that much extra habitat for birds and other critters.  So, the change in maintenance of this portion of the park has been a win for the birds and a win for the East Lycoming Recreation Authority as they save time and fuel due to reduced mowing.  

Area residents who use the park have a bit more diversity in their experience in the park, including the opportunity to enjoy lots of new birds. The society also has erected 10 nesting boxes in the park for Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, both species which need some artificial nesting cavities in order for their populations to remain stable.  The boxes are checked weekly after pairs have taken up residence in the spring and summer nesting season.

Additional places Metzger recommends for bird watching in the area are Muncy Heritage Park and Nature Trail and Glacier Pools Preserve, near Picture Rocks.  At Muncy Heritage, “Though a small seven or eight acres, it is a good habitat spot with mature trees, and beyond Fisher’s Pond, standing water most of the year.  The West Branch Susquehanna River adjacent to the park hosts a whole additional suite of water loving birds. The trees bordering the park could potentially provide nesting cavities for Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and other cavity nesting birds. We maintain two wood duck boxes at Heritage Park to provide additional nesting opportunities, checked once a year,” Metzger said.  There are also two bluebird nest boxes maintained in the park.  The mature trees at Muncy Heritage as well as those bordering and within Lime Bluff provide wonderful nesting and foraging habitat a for a multitude of bird species.  

Just as the naturalized grasslands at Lime Bluff have created living space for more species of birds, the general practice at the two parks of leaving the trees just be trees has also enhanced bird habitat.  Trimmed and tidied up tree and brush lines aren’t the goal if you want to help our birds and critters.  Metzger explained that, “When dead limbs or trees can be left in place, unless they actually pose a safety hazard, many species of birds benefit from the insect infested dead and dying tree tissue.”

Woodpeckers don’t damage trees when drilling their holes–they are actually helping clean out carpenter ants and other insects that have already invaded the trees.  In searching for these insect invaders, the woodpeckers actually make nesting cavities themselves and for a whole group of other “cavity nesting” species.

Metzger could not name a favorite bird but he did mention the backyard Mourning Dove. “The gray-brown tips and fringes of their feathers are actually iridescent,” he said. Like many of the multitude of bird species which you can see here in Pennsylvania, if you take the time, and perhaps use a decent pair of binoculars, you see that they’re all particulally beautiful works of art.  

We also talked about how you can identify all the birds in our neck of the woods.  Many still use the traditional field guide books such as the Peterson Field Guide of Birds for photos, descriptions and range maps for each species of bird.  “Many of us have begun to use the smartphone free apps such as Audubon Birds which have lots of photos and many of the songs and other vocalizations for each kind of bird.  For “bird watching,” this auditory feature is really helpful as we often hear birds even when we can’t see them.  Birding by ear is an important part of the art,” Metzger said.

In years uninterrupted with a pandemic, the local Audubon chapter hosts 35 to 45 walks annually lead by seasoned birders to local ‘hot spots.’ The society has a stock of free loaner binoculars suitable for all ages. They also provide for special programs at libraries, public parks or common areas. Information can be found on the website www.lycomingaudubon.blogspot.com.