Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge Is Open For Business

The following article appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Wildlife Activist:

by Robert E. Hoopes

As spring 2003 arrived, struggling to break the long cold grasp of winter, our first as caretakers of the new Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, we expected “spring things” to happen but we were not sure what. Like children waiting for Christmas morning, we impatiently wished “snow be gone and migration begin.”  We wanted to enjoy the presents hidden for us around the refuge.  And disappointed we were not!!

Jeff Frantz led the wildlife surveys, along with Jeff Hopkins, Ed & Judy Wanamaker and others.  Their refuge sightings were added to the logbook at the Osprey House or tabulated on bird survey field cards.  Through mid-June, 113 bird species were recorded at the refuge.  This is a great start for our “yard list,” but we know there are many more species to be recorded. In addition to the birds, we saw Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, five types of turtles, four frog species, four snakes , two salamanders and a weasel.  There are also at least five species of fish in the Osprey House pond.  At the end of this article is our current wildlife list for the refuge.  If you note additional species while visiting, let us know.  If the Osprey House is open, you are welcome to stop in and add your sightings to the logbook.  If not, you can send them to us via email, regular post, or by leaving a telephone message at the Center (610-760-8889).

An exciting aspect of the refuge is the varied habitats that attract many bird species and other wildlife.  Near the Osprey House there is the riparian area along the river and scrub habitat on the hillside above.  The scrub gives way to hemlocks and hardwoods further up the mountain.  As you move north from the Osprey House through the gap and west along the river there is more riparian habitat below and the barren landscape up on the mountainside.  As this barren area recovers with the help of warm season grasses currently being seeded, we expect the savanna type grassland habitat will become attractive to many additional bird species.  Past the barren area, as you walk west along the upper railroad bed, you reach the hardwood forest typical of the Blue Mountain in our area.  Below the three communications towers in this area, down at the river level, there are three irregular shaped ponds (dubbed the Kittatinny Ponds) connected by marshy type wetlands.  The wet areas make it impossible to walk completely around each pond, affording protection to the natural residents.  This pond area separates the hardwood slopes from the riparian area along the river.  There is also a beautiful flood plain next to the river in this location, where you can easily explore the river’s edge.

Road access to the refuge is from both the east and west ends of the property.  In the east, the Osprey House area in the Lehigh Gap is accessible to the public via Paint Mill Road off Route 873. From the Osprey House you can hike north towards the three electrical towers to reach the upper railroad bed.  In the west, near the PA Turnpike tunnel, access is via the Bowmanstown exit from Route 248, across the bridge over the Lehigh River, turning left onto Riverview Road.  After about a half mile the road bends sharply to the right.  At this bend is a parking area and access to the lower railroad bed, which runs along the river from the Osprey House to this spot.  You can park here and walk east along the railroad bed for a short distance to reach the Kittatinny Ponds.  You can also continue on Riverview Road for a short distance to Sunset Road and make a left and a quick right, to drive up to the upper railroad bed and park.

During our spring explorations, we found the birding excellent in all habitats on the refuge.  Even the recovering degraded areas held Indigo Buntings, Field and Chipping Sparrows and Rufous-sided Towhees.  Five Killdeer chicks were successfully hatched in the most barren area of the mountain.  Warblers were present in good numbers in the areas with extensive tree foliage, as you would expect.  This includes the riparian area by the Osprey House, the hardwood areas, and the Kittatinny Ponds area.  We were also pleasantly surprised to find several singing Prairie Warblers in the scrub area above the Osprey House.  I spotted a female with one of the males in June so we think the Prairies are breeding in this area, making it perhaps the only known nesting location for this species in Lehigh County.

One day in May, Grant White reported a flock of approximately 60 Blackpoll Warblers in the hardwood area along the upper railroad bed.  The Blackpolls were seen in good numbers on other days in May also, including nice flocks located by the author near the Osprey House on two different days.  This is exciting news considering the tiny Blackpolls are returning from their wintering grounds in South America via a non-stop flight over the western Atlantic Ocean lasting 80 to 90 hours.  They are only temporary visitors, though, as they rest and restore body fat for the remainder of their migration to northern Canada.  Grant also reported seeing 18 male Scarlet Tanagers on the same day.  Most of us are delighted to see one or two of these beautiful spring and early summer residents on a morning bird walk!!

In total this spring, 21 species of wood warblers were tallied, many by Jeff Frantz and Jeff Hopkins, including a tough to find Mourning Warbler spotted by Frantz.  Other interesting bird sightings included a female hummingbird building her nest (Judy & Ed Wanamaker), numerous Baltimore Orioles by the Kittatinny Ponds, Oriole nests (J. Frantz and G. White), Fox Sparrow, Wild Turkey flying across the river, Swainson’s Thrush (J. Frantz), and a pair of nesting Hairy Woodpeckers.  I watched them excavate the nest hole over two Saturdays in early April.  The most unusual bird sighting occurred in April when I was conducting a beginner’s birding workshop, and we watched a pair of Common Mergansers flying towards the roof of the Osprey House, as if preparing to land on the roof.  The male pulled away and turned towards the river as the female dove into the chimney! Several days later Ed Wanamaker and Dave Reitz saw the female emerge from the chimney.  Also, during our members’ open house in early May, a number of members saw the female again fly into the chimney.  We think the chimney is blocked and being used as a nest site for the Merganser pair.  In late May, Ed Wanamaker reported seeing a female Common Merganser with 10 young on the Lehigh River about a mile south of the Osprey House. Could these be “our” fledglings?

As we already knew, the Osprey House located in the Lehigh Gap is on the Kittatinny Ridge spring migration route of northbound raptors.  This means frequent sightings of Osprey, Red-tailed Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks in April and May. Several Bald Eagles were also sighted, along with a rare spring Golden Eagle recorded by Ed and Judy Wanamaker and Dan Kunkle in April.  All three accipiters were recorded in April (Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s and Goshawk) along with the American Kestrel.  An Osprey delighted visitors at the members’ open house by flying to a tree above the Osprey House carrying a fish, which it devoured in view of the members.  I also spotted two adult Bald Eagles from the Osprey House flying north along the river one evening in early June and a few days earlier another Osprey eating a fish on a nearby electrical tower.  Perhaps someday in our future these two magnificent species will select nesting sites on the refuge…a solid indicator of the recovery of both species and the Lehigh River!

In contrast to the spring bird life on the refuge that sings and actively displays as part of the breeding process, other wildlife species are more difficult to locate.  We are sure to find many additional species as visitors spend more time at the refuge.  Some interesting sightings this spring include a Black Bear that destroyed the Osprey House bird feeder and tried to pry open the garage door to get to the birdseed stored within.  Three White-tailed Deer walked down the hill above the Osprey House in June and crossed the access road towards the river.  A beautifully spotted fawn was seen by Jeff Frantz. Klare Kubic caught and displayed a Green Frog at the Osprey House pond before releasing it back to the pond.  Her Dad, Michal, picked up a coiled Northern Water Snake found at the side of this same pond.  After a minute or two, when the warmth from Michal’s hand transferred to the snake’s body, it came alive and had to be quickly released into the pond.  A very large Bull Frog was located by Dan Kunkle as he lead a beginner’s bird walk at the Kittatinny Ponds.  The young ecologists at our summer camp also caught and released a Pickerel Frog at the Osprey House pond, and a Common Musk Turtle at Kittatinny Ponds, where they also saw a Northern Water Snake.

So, as the title of this article indicates, the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge is open for business! Come for a visit and enjoy! Let us know what you see and we will keep you posted via future Activists and our website on all of the wildlife activity on the refuge.  It is a great place to spend an hour or the whole day.  See you at the refuge!!

List of Wildlife Sightings