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Naturally Speaking

Trees Just Keep on Giving
Dead trees are one of the most important parts of a forest ecosystem.
Almost everyone knows that living trees provide nesting sites for birds; produce nuts, seeds and berries; give us shade; furnish wood products; and make a percentage of the oxygen that we breathe. Many, however, don’t stop to realize that trees continue to be a critical part of the forest long after they are dead.
Larger dead trees, often called snags, are so important that what seems to be ideal habitat will be devoid of some species if no den trees exist in the area. Raccoons, for example, can occupy excellent habitat at the density of more than one per acre. If the same habitat has no den sites, few to no raccoons will be found.
According to Rance Harmon, extension forest resources specialist at Penn State, 35 species of birds and 20 species of mammals use tree cavities in Pennsylvania. These include many that have been featured in Nature’s Corner; such as the pileated woodpecker, bluebird, gray squirrel, brown creeper, porcupine, downy woodpecker and others.
Although the larger cavity trees provide the most value, even the smaller dead trees are important. To hold the maximum wildlife diversity, forest managers recommend 10-20 smaller dead trees and at least two large snags per acre.
Trees die because of insect infestations, drought, diseases, injury, leaf litter fires, or just because neighboring trees overshadow them. Often it is a combination of factors. In a 25-acre plot, a few trees die each year. Sometimes an insect such as the gypsy moth, oak leaf roller, or fungus such as Dutch elm blight will kill many trees in a small area in a short time. If left alone, these dead trees will prove a multitude of values until they are gone, but they are not as valuable as snags scattered throughout a healthy forest.
Even trees that measure four to five inches in diameter attract a multitude of insects and other invertebrates after they die. The bark loosens and it, as well as the smaller branches, drop off. Fungi and insects, such as carpenter ants, invade the wood — further speeding its decomposition. Birds alight and prospect for invertebrates along the dead branches. Woodpeckers drill into the trunk looking for ants and termites. Titmice, chickadees and other smaller birds enlarge the woodpecker holes to make nesting cavities.
Other values abound. Hollow trees provide thermal cover for many species during the winter. Dead trees are favored singing posts for songbirds. Kingfishers, owls and hawks use them as hunting perches. The soil around dead elm trees often grows the tasty morel mushrooms.
Depending on the species, dead trees can stand for a long time. A few American chestnuts that died 50 years ago are still standing. Aspen, cucumber, hemlock and tulip drop rather quickly, but they are particularly valuable to cavity nesters while standing because their soft wood is easy to excavate. Oaks and locust can last a long time. The gypsy moth infestations of the late 70s killed three large oak trees on our wooded property. One, a red oak, is on the ground, the scarlet oak snapped off during a storm and most of the large white oak is still standing.
Decaying trees are still valuable even after they topple or are cut. Forest ecologists now consider these decomposing logs to be biological “hot-spots.” Insects and fungi continue their action. Woodland salamanders are attracted to the crumbling wood, for it acts as a natural sponge. According to Harmon, in the northeast, “Twenty-three species of amphibians and reptiles take refuge in decaying wood.” Animals from skunks to black bears rip apart rotting logs in search of insects and amphibians.
Decaying logs and stumps provide ideal substrate for tree seedlings such as hemlock and birch. Downed logs stop erosion and eventually all of their once-towering majesty is returned to the soil as molecules that become a part of the next generation of trees.
Safety concerns sometimes outweigh ecological values. Dead trees near houses, trails, or highways must be cut to ensure the safety of people. A good compromise is to trim or have an experienced woodsmen trim all branches from a dead snag and top the tree at 10-15 feet above the ground, or whatever height can safely be allowed to stand. About ten years ago, the power company asked to remove a dead oak that was threatening their lines near our property border. I asked if they could top the tree instead. The crew evaluated the situation and then topped the tree at 15 feet, protecting their power lines while still providing wildlife value.
If you own a woodlot or know someone who does, consider the value of dead trees to forest critters and allow these trees to complete their natural cycle. Let the chain saw pass them by. If you must cut a den tree, consider doing it during the late summer or fall when you are less likely to interrupt reproduction or disturb animals during the cold of winter. As a part of a larger forest, these snags or even their downed decomposing trunks remain an integral part of the ecosystem. Trees are organisms that keep on giving long after they die..
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

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Sports

Naturally Speaking

New State Game Lands Regulations
Non-hunting users of game lands should be aware of new regulations that went into effect last month.
One of the greatest legacies that Pennsylvania hunters and trappers have built for future generations is the 1.4 million-acre State Game Lands system. Although primarily purchased by hunters, these lands are open for all people to enjoy. They preserve critical habitat for game and non-game species. This isn’t a stagnant legacy, either, for the SGL system continues to grow as hunter’s license money is used to purchase additional land.
Since July of 1999, property totaling more than 40,000 acres has been added to the system. This included the new 2,410-acre SGL 323 i Centre County, purchased in 2000 with the help of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Conservation Fund, along with the 3,350 acres that was added to SGL 120 in neighboring Clearfield County. Another 310 acres, in four counties, was approved for purchase in January of this year. Recent deals with PennDOT and PSU will eventually increase the acreage even more.
Unfortunately, problems have occurred on game lands, and they need to be addressed. Because game lands are open to all people, not just hunters and trappers, conflicts between users have sometimes arisen, particularly those caused by horseback riders, mountain bikers and commercial businesses using State Game Lands for financial gain.
According to Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross, “Unrestricted use of State Game Lands has led to unintended degradation or destruction of wildlife habitats, disruption of nesting or wintering wildlife populations, and competition with lawful hunting seasons.”
A committee, composed of representatives of different user groups, was formed in 2001 to develop initial recommendations. A year-long public input process began, including several news releases, nine open houses, three mailings to potentially affected user groups and, most recently, an official 90-day public comment period.
On January 15, 2002, the Board of Game Commissioners gave preliminary approval to a new regulations package and, after adding three amendments, unanimously voted its final approval at the April 2002 meeting. The regulations went into effect on February 1 of this year.
Since many county residents use State Game Lands for alternate recreational purposes, it would be wise to become aware of the new rules. Among other things, they restrict horseback and mountain bike riding, forbid the spreading of food for wildlife, limit target shooting, forbid almost all commercial activities, limit organized activities and require the wearing of fluorescent orange by non-hunters during hunting seasons. Here is a brief summary of most of the regulations that went into effect on February 1:
* The Game Commission will designate routes for riding animals or non-motorized vehicles. These will be in accordance with the management plan for each game lands. Such riding is limited only to those designated routes. The public may suggest routes. The Game Commission has designated over 1000 miles of trails. All of these are listed on the commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) and most have been posted with signs by the PGC’s area land managers.
* Such riding activities will not be permitted , except on Sundays or on roads open to public travel, from the last Saturday in September to the third Saturday in January, and after 1 p.m. from the second Saturday in April to the last Saturday in May. This does not apply to those lawfully engaged in hunting, trapping, or fishing on the game lands. This keeps non-hunting riders safely off of the game lands during the fall/winter hunting seasons and during spring gobbler season.
* Removal of manmade or natural objects such as rocks, animals, sand, and native American arrowheads is prohibited. Lawfully taken game and fish and shed antlers may be taken.
* Campfires may be built on game lands as long as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ fire index is acceptable and as long as precautions are taken to prevent the spread of fires. Fires should be supervised at all times.
* No one may feed wildlife or put out any food, fruit, hay, grain, chemical, salt or other minerals intended for wildlife.
* No one may target shoot in areas posted as closed to such activities. With the exception of ranges, the discharge of any weapon not legal for hunting is prohibited.
* No one may participate in an organized activity or event involving more than ten persons, except for hunting or trapping, unless those activities are not in conflict with the intended uses or purposes of game lands.
* From November 15 through December 15, except on Sundays, those not hunting, trapping or fishing must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange on their head, chest or back combined.
* No one may use State Game Lands for personal, organization or commercial purposes other than the intended uses. Commercial activities include any activity in which a person directly or indirectly accepts any payment as compensation for providing goods or services. This outlaws paid horse and mule guided trips that were occurring on some game lands in eastern Pennsylvania. The regulation also outlaws all paid guide services except for those provided by licensed bobcat and elk guides.
This last regulation has some turkey guides up in arms, but I’m wondering where they were during the year-long public input, review and comment period.
According to Ross, “The new regulations provide common-sense guidelines so that alternative uses of State Game Lands may continue in a manner that does not conflict with our legislatively-mandated mission to protect and manage Pennsylvania’s wild birds and mammals, and to develop, conserve and preserve critical wildlife habitats.”
Due to the abuses that have occurred on some game lands and certain uses that have detracted or interfered with hunting, I feel that most of these changes are long overdue. Time will tell if the paid guiding issue is a major problem, but regulations can always be changed or adjusted at a future commission meeting.
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

Categories
Sports

Naturally Speaking

Get Ready for Bluebirds
While the snow, ice and cold weather are giving us the appearance that winter might never end, local birders Deb and Ed Escalet sent an email reminding me that it’s time to clean out or put up new bluebird nesting boxes. Believe it or not, spring and the new nesting season are almost upon us.
Although continuous cold weather sometimes holds them back, eastern bluebirds have returned to central Pennsylvania or will be returning within the next two weeks. They’ll begin to investigate nesting boxes as soon as they return, and sometimes groups of them share an empty box on a cold night.
The Escalets don’t have to wait for migrants to see bluebirds. They’ve been feeding a flock of 30 to 40 bluebirds all winter. I’ve heard of a few bluebirds staying the winter in Pennsylvania – usually in the southern part of the state – but seeing a flock of 35 or so of the beautiful blue and orange birds in the Escalet’s backyard was something else. This began when they fed four bluebirds during the winter of 1999-2000, and their wintering population has now grown to well over 30 birds.
Keeping bluebirds alive and healthy all winter is no small feat, because bluebirds are primarily insect eaters. The Escalets feed their feathered friends mealworms and currents. They have also observed a few eating sunflower chips. Their bluebirds, as well as some assorted interlopers, consume an amazing 100,000 mealworms per winter month! And I thought that I ran up a bill with sunflower seeds.
The bluebirds certainly love the mealworms and, with our rough winter, they are very dependent on their human friends. Ed said that the bluebirds seem to be conditioned to his bathroom light being turned on as he gets ready for his job with Penn State University. Soon after turning on the light, which illuminates a skylight, he can hear the scratching and clicking of tiny avian feet on their rain gutter. The birds are ready for their first handout of the day, and Deb is happy to please them.
It won’t be long before bluebirds are setting up housekeeping. Deb has already observed the first signs of pairing and nesting site selection as bluebirds go in and out of her boxes. Once they get started, it takes them four to five days to build a nest, and the earliest eggs are usually laid the first week of April.
The Escalets have several bluebird boxes near their home on Skytop Lane, and Ed manages a “bluebird trail” of 12 nest boxes on State Game Lands 176. This will be the third spring for Ed’s bluebird trail. The Escalets also support and encourage their neighbors to erect boxes, and others, for Deb is the Center County Coordinator for the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania.
Last year, bluebird pairs nesting on Ed’s trail fledged only 6 young, because two complete nests of baby birds died during the severe cold snap that we had in mid-May. The Escalets had amazing success, however, with their four backyard boxes. Deb is quite proud of this accomplishment, and she is quick to point out that erecting bluebird nesting boxes is only the beginning. A lot of love and care goes into successful boxes, as our bluebird population is almost totally dependent on human-made nesting structures.
Care begins with the building or purchase of a nesting box, which is best left unpainted or painted a light color to prevent overheating. The box should be made specifically for bluebirds, with no perch and the correct-sized opening.
Nesting boxes are usually erected on a metal pole at least five feet from the ground. It is often a good idea to place two boxes in close proximity. Only one will be used by bluebirds, but placing two boxes together leaves one for the more aggressive tree swallows and one for the bluebirds. Tree swallows, a native species, are also beneficial insect eaters.
Boxes should be cleaned in February or March in preparation for their new occupants. A vigilant period follows, as good bird box caretakers watch for house sparrows, which will take over the box or even evict bluebirds if they have begun to nest. The Escalets actively remove house sparrow nests and discourage the alien sparrows any way that they can. Bluebirds will nest two or three times a year if given the chance.
According to Deb, “You just can’t put out a bluebird box and be done with it.”
A poorly placed nesting box or one that isn’t cared for can just produce more competing house sparrows. Or worse yet, said Deb, “The box could just be a trap that leads to the death of the bluebirds.”
Bluebird Society
Of Pennsylvania
Interested parties can join the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania by contacting Deb Escalet at 238-3552. Dues are $10 per year, and anyone who joins gets a free bluebird nesting box with instructions. The Escalets would also be happy to answer any questions about bluebirds or the upcoming society conference.
Final Note
In light of our recent cold weather, if any bluebird migrating northward is reading this column, I strongly suggest that you plan a visit to the Escalet’s house (I promise that you’ll be well taken care of) or stop off in a Virginia bed & breakfast until our Pennsylvania weather improves.
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

Categories
Sports

Naturally Speaking

What if the Fish & Boat Commission Took Over the Management of Hunting and Trapping?

This week our outdoor columnist studies his “tea leaves” and predicts what hunting might be like if it were controlled by the Fish and Boat Commission.
In light of Representative Bruce Smith’s Resolution 15, which was approved by the State House on February 11, it might be good to consider what hunting and trapping might be like if they were controlled by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
The Fish and Boat Commission and agency employees would bring their own philosophies and style to the arena of game management. While I admit that the tea leaves have yet to totally settle in the bottom of my cup, I see some big changes in store for hunters and trappers. After studying past and present PFBC practices and philosophies, here is my tongue-in-cheek view of what might happen if we managed game using the fish-and-boat thinking.
2004 – The newly merged Fish and Game Commissions, under the direction of Peter Colangelo (with Dennis Guise at his side), set out to tackle the problems facing the new agency. Using all of the lessons that they have learned from managing fish, the commissioners decide that a massive and very costly stocking program should be undertaken to increase license sales.
What are deemed to be “game lands of lesser value” are sold (Hey, who needs habitat anyway?) to finance the construction of pheasant and grouse hatcheries all across the state. Special white stocking trucks, nicknamed the “Great White Fleet,” are purchased to distribute the pen-raised birds. The birds are used on a put-and-take basis, with foxes, hawks and owls getting most of the take.
The stocking program grows as increasing numbers of birds are raised and released. A new program, called Pheasant Coops, gets sportsmen’s clubs into pheasant raising and still more birds are stocked. In a cost-cutting measure, the former PGC food & cover crews are reduced to one small department with five employees. (Hey, who needs improved habitat, anyway?)
The raising and stocking of turkeys, snowshoe hares, deer, beavers and other animals is undertaken. Hunters and trappers are conditioned to think that all animals come from white trucks. The trapping license is eliminated, but all beaver trappers must now wear Type V “personal flotation devices.”
Biologists at the Penn State Deer Research Center discover a genetic freak deer with a hot pink-colored fur. Wildlife managers of the new combined agency jump on this like teenagers on a steaming pepperoni pizza. The new pink deer, nicknamed “palomino deer,” are bred and raised along with trophy bucks in the new deer factories. All deer are stocked near parking lots or bridges on the night before the opening day.
A study shows that stocking trophy bucks costs the commission 1.2 million dollars annually, but increases license sales by $2,400. The practice continues. “After all,” they reason, “Where would we get big-racked bucks if we didn’t raise them?”
Stocking costs escalate. A new pheasant stamp, costing hunters $10, is proposed and passed. The new stamp only pays for 31 percent of the massive pheasant hatchery program. Claiming poor management practices, Chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee Rep. Bruce Smith asks Colangelo and Guise to resign.
2010 – In a moment of great forward thought, the Commission sets forth a bold new plan called Operation Future. All wildlife habitats across the state will be systematically studied and classified. Demonstrating the IQ of a cucumber, the president of the Unified Hunters of Pennsylvania calls the plan “Operation Failure.” The UHP campaigns for no doe hunting and increased stocking.
Wild pheasants and grouse are actually discovered breeding in isolated pockets of habitat. To protect these special populations, this “Class A” habitat is managed under “normal” statewide regulations and harvest. A list of all of these special places is published on the Internet.
Turkey regulations are changed to allow “chumming” with cracked corn. Hunting over chummed areas is permitted, but hunters are limited to two guns each.
Due to pressure from certain user groups, 15 percent of the remaining game lands will be anointed as “Heritage Game Lands” HGL regulations will allow only “primitive” weapons, such as in-line muzzleloaders with scopes, crossbows, and compound bows with sights and mechanical releases. This will preserve the rich heritage of primitive hunting and give the participants the feeling that they have stepped back 150 years into the past … well, sort of.
Based on the success of their trout program, another 15 percent of game lands will be regulated as Delayed Harvest Areas. Catch & release trapping will be permitted with box traps only. Hunting and dog training will be allowed earlier on these areas, but only blank ammunition may be used until January 15, when regular harvest will be permitted, but with a reduced bag limit.
All other game lands will be divided up into special programs such as: All Tackle Trophy Turkey, The Big Muskrat Program, and the ever-popular Miscellaneous Special Regulations. Please consult your hunting and trapping digest for details.
In the future, pheasants will be stocked based on a complicated formula including the number of birds already present, the length & width of the property, how many parking spaces are available, and how many hunters complain to their elected officials. Areas near parking lots will be stocked with the most birds. This will concentrate the hunters and provide a better outdoor experience for all.
2015 – Increasing mountains of pheasant and grouse manure accumulate outside the game farms, causing health concerns. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection warns and then fines the commission for not addressing their smelly piles of poop. In a heated exchange, the president of Pheasants Unlimited likens the current pheasant hatcheries to chicken farms. One chicken farm, … err, I mean state hatchery, near Carlisle is forced to close, but nobody watches the poop at the Pheasant Coops.
Stocking is reduced by 25 percent as license sales drop. Claiming poor management practices, Chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee Rep. Bruce Smith again asks Colangelo and Guise to resign.
Declining sales of pheasant stamps and hunting licenses stimulate the combined commission to hold Pheasant Summit 2020 – a gathering of about 100 pheasant hunting enthusiasts from around the state. It should be no surprise that members of Pheasants Unlimited make up a large portion of those in attendance.
Hunters at Pheasant Summit 2020 overwhelmingly support stocking fewer but larger and wilder pheasants. At their next meeting, the commissioners vote to stock more but smaller domesticated birds. “This should keep the hunters happy,” they reason. The executive director remarks, “We know that dense populations of pen-raised animals are necessary to sell licenses.” At some later date it will be shown that hindsight is always 20-20.
Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com