A network of wetlands in Middle Creek will get a makeover to help all kinds of wildlife [column] | Outside
Speaking above the din of vigorous spring thugs and American toads, Steve Ferreri stands on the shore of a 2-acre grass-filled wetland out of sight of visitors to the popular area Middle Creek Wildlife Management Center in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.
Ferreri, the Game Commission’s Regional Land Management Supervisor, speaks enthusiastically about how recent repairs to this small but important created wetland have allowed for seasonal drops in water levels, prompting the vegetation to grow. Now these plants are inundated, creating an assortment of food and nutrients for the eggs of shorebirds migrating from South and Central America to breeding grounds in Canada.
“They stop on these mudflats to have a bite to eat, refuel and relax,” says Ferreri.
This wetland, created in the 1970s, had not seen a fluctuating water level system for 50 years and was eroding until a collapsing wing wall was repaired and the structure pond water control is replaced.
Now those kinds of overdue repairs are coming to more than two dozen other wetlands in Middle Creek, the largest group of such waterways in Lancaster County.
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It’s part of a $6 million partnership between the Game Commission and the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited to repair dilapidated infrastructure and improve existing wetlands at playgrounds in 31 Pennsylvania counties where areas wetlands have been allowed to stagnate due to a lack of funds.
“A lot of band-aids have been put on these places for years,” Ferreri says.
“This will be an unprecedented facelift for wetlands across the state,” says Jim Feaga, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, the nation’s largest nonprofit group dedicated to preserving waterfowl habitat.
“Most of them are late successional pond type habitats. It was the old way of thinking – ducks like water so let’s fill them in and let them go.
But the renovation will emphasize partial drawdowns to allow plants to grow and expose the mudflats, then flooding to release seeds and insects from the vegetation.
Middle Creek is a focal point for the statewide Pennsylvania Wetland Habitat Initiative, with about two dozen wetlands slated for repair over the next three years, as long as the money holds out. Calvary Pond on nearby Furnace Hills Game Lands 145 north of Manheim could also be improved.
One would think that given Middle Creek’s renowned reputation as a tourist attraction for migrating snow geese and tundra swans, and its goose hunting opportunities, wetland improvements are intended solely to aid the waterfowl.
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But while the embellishments will certainly benefit ducks and geese, the habitat improvements have expanded the mission to create habitat for a variety of wildlife. Think of species such as migratory shorebirds, unusual birds that are attracted to wetlands like the American Bittern and Black-crowned Night Heron, and amphibians like frogs and salamanders. Add muskrats, beavers and mink to the mix.
“What concerns us is that we put wildlife first in the decisions we make here,” says Ferreri of Middle Creek. “Leisure opportunities, they come second. Wildlife First is our driving force when it comes to managing habitats and infrastructure here.
The statewide Wetland Game Range Project is made possible in large part because more and more people are buying guns and ammunition in the United States. The Federal Wildlife Restoration Assistance, formerly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, imposes an excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Revenues go to national wildlife agencies across the country to fund wildlife conservation.
Even before the new initiative, the Gaming Commission had begun repairing the distressed wetlands of Middle Creek, which has 31 separate bodies of water, including the 369-acre Middle Creek Lake. Most wetlands are between 2 and 10 acres.
About three years ago, land managers began partially lowering the lake to allow vegetation to grow along the shores. Waterfowl and migrating shorebirds are attracted to exposed mudflats and eat insects and seeds from submerged vegetation. Decaying vegetation also adds nutrients to the wetland.
The fluctuating water levels in the other much smaller wetlands created at Middle Creek are essential in providing attractive and varied seasonal habitat for a variety of wildlife.
“We want to do a waterfowl grocery store,” is a common refrain from Jim Feaga, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited and resident of East Petersburg.
Initially, not everyone may be happy with the modification of the many wetlands in the state’s hunting grounds. In some cases, the absence of fluctuating water levels has allowed ever-changing healthy and diverse wetlands to become stagnant and turn into fish ponds. Here and there, paddlers may no longer be able to bring canoes and kayaks onto bodies of water when these are temporarily lowered.
Anglers and paddlers may have to adapt, but birdwatchers should be thrilled with the increased possibilities. There are plans to alert the public online to fluctuating water levels on state game grounds so they can enjoy wildlife viewing.
And hunters could see an increase in the number of waterfowl. Specific projects will aim to increase black duck populations, a species in decline. Others will help wood ducks and mallards. Pennsylvania has one of the largest breeding populations of waterfowl in the Atlantic Flyway, an important north-south air highway for migrating birds in North America.
In addition to increasing water levels, water-safe pesticides and controlled burning can be used to get rid of invasive plants that can choke out native plants and fill in wetlands.
“Some of them are just little postage stamp waters on the landscape, but especially in Pennsylvania, they’re really unique wetlands. We don’t have a lot of them,” says Nate Huck, program specialist at waterfowl at the Game Commission.
Ad Crable is a LNL | Freelance Writer LancasterOnline. Email him at [email protected]
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