Sprucing Up a PA Woodcock Trail

By Mark Nale for the Centre Daily Times, State College, Pa.

The distant rumbling of small gasoline engines could be heard as I exited my pickup in the wooded parking lot just off of Red Rose Road. The man-made noise contrasted with the soft tranquility of Shavers Creek, flowing nearby. The Penn State Experimental Forest in Stone Valley is home to the Woodcock Trail, and I was there to meet with volunteers working to infuse new life into the once-popular walking path.

My ears led me toward the action. As I got closer, the friendly banter of working students and volunteers blended with the noisy chainsaw and posthole auger. Two crews were installing colorful new signs. A third crew cut trees and cleared brush to relocate a short section of the 1.2-mile trail.

Setting a sign on the woodcock trail

College students help set up interpretive signs on Woodcock Trail./M. Nale

Students from Juniata College and Penn State University worked alongside of PSU staff and Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists rejuvenating the Woodcock Trail. One by one, laminated interpretive signs, purchased by the Redbrush Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, replaced the aging or missing numbered wooden posts.

“We needed a project to get behind, and the Woodcock Trail seemed perfectly aligned with the mission of the Ruffed Grouse Society,” said Redbrush Chapter habitat chairman Jim Weaver, of State College. “We applied for and received $1,500 from the Drummer Fund to purchase the new signs for the trail. Clay Lutz, Game Commission Diversity Biologist, was instrumental in finalizing the wording for the signs. A few additional signs are in the planning stages.”

The effort that I observed on that mid-November Sunday was a culmination of three years of cooperative efforts to renew the habitat and improve the nature trail. Many partners have been involved and cooperation was the key to getting the job done. “This was just a great example of different entities pooling their resources to reach a common goal,” Weaver added. “Our chapter’s support will be ongoing.”

The Woodcock Trail — created in the early 1990s — had fallen on hard times. Vandals and natural rotting had toppled informational signs, giving the trail an unkempt appearance. Its value as a learning tool was severely diminished.

The habitat had changed, too. Over several decades, Mother Nature had reduced the early successional forest necessary for woodcock to a small fragment of what it once was — so much so that little woodcock habitat remained.

Hen woodcock on nest

Penn State and Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists conducted pioneering woodcock research on this property./C. Fergus

In the spring of 2012, Game Commission biologist Lisa Williams conducted a woodcock singing ground survey along the trail. She heard only one male calling. This is a far cry from the woodcock activity that had previously been recorded here.

“This place has real significance in the history of woodcock management, and I hated to lose it as woodcock habitat,” Williams said. “The early research that led to the current federal protocol for measuring woodcock populations and evaluating woodcock habitat started right here in Stone Valley and in the Scotia Barrens. It was conducted in the 1950s by Pennoyer English, then assistant leader of the Cooperative Wildlife Unit at Penn State. This research was followed by more work here by Game Commission biologist Steve Liscinsky.”

A meeting of the minds was held, and with the cooperation of PSU Director of Forestlands Joe Harding, a new young-forest habitat management plan was devised for 28 acres in the Woodcock Trail area, along with another larger area in the nearby Mothersbaugh Swamp. According to the PGC’c Lutz, the partners for the project include Penn State, the Wildlife Management Institute, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife program, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Largely supported by Pittman-Robertson funds, money generated by a tax on guns and ammo, two tracked vehicles were brought in during the winter and spring of 2013, to begin the habitat renewal. Larger trees were felled with chainsaws and the tracked vehicles mowed down the shrubs and medium-sized trees. Invasive species were cut and/or selectively treated with herbicides.

Interpretive sign on Woodcock Trail

Interpretive signs help educate hikers and other visitors about woodcock and the importance of young forest habitat to wildlife./M. Nale

“Our strategy here is to remove overstory trees and expand the wet, shrubby habitat that remained,” Lutz explained. “This included careful herbicide applications to hamper the invasives enough to tip the balance toward the native species, such as hawthorn, blackhaw viburnum and native dogwoods.”

This early-successional habitat supports not only woodcock and grouse, but a whole host of species, such as wood and box turtles, golden-winged warblers, indigo buntings, prairie warblers and yellow-breasted chats. I saw a wood turtle along the trail on the day I visited.

Harding commented about the trail project and how it fits into the overall goals of the Experimental Forest.

“It was great to see so many volunteers here today and the new interpretive signs are very nice,” Harding said. “I think that this project will help to make people more aware of the entire PSU Experimental Forest and what we do here. Most people like what we’ve done so far.”

The rejuvenated Woodcock Trail is once again a great place to take a short hike, bird-watch and use the informative signs to learn about woodcock and other young-forest species. The hiking terrain is suitable for entire families.

The trail is located off of Route 26, between State College and Huntingdon. Turn right onto Charter Oak Road (SR 1029), at the southern base of Tussey Mountain. Drive 1.75 miles and then turn left on Red Rose Road. The trailhead parking is on the left about 0.2 miles after the turn.

“The loss of young forest is a region-wide problem. We rely on collaboration to get the habitat work done. With many hands working together we are making progress,” Williams remarked. “I am very happy to see that our work is keeping the history of the Stone Valley research from fading into oblivion.”

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is chairman of the board for the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.