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Mountain Home Magazine

Spring's Emerging Colors

Feb 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By Chris Espenshade

Patience and persistence go hand in hand when it comes to birdwatching at the Muck. The payoff will be the species you miss if you give up too soon. Last January, after deciding to go home, I found myself discussing muskrat trapping with two guys in the parking lot. Right after I told them I had not seen a bird, a bald eagle glided past at tree-top level.

Returning to the Muck weekly allows the birder to capture changes in conditions, daily species count, number of birds, and the diversity of behaviors. Only through returning on a regular basis can one observe and photograph the changes encapsulated in March from frozen wasteland to verdant, avian nursery, from silence—except for a bitter wind—to red-wing blackbirds and Canada geese competing to be heard.

This theme of transition is appropriate to the Muck, a 640-acre state game land (State Game Lands 313), located about two and a half miles from downtown Wellsboro off Dresser Road.

When the first European settlers arrived in Tioga County, the Muck was a wetland formed from a series of beaver ponds, with a braided, meandering stream. Too wet for normal farming, in the 1890s, it was ditched and diked for use as celery fields. By 1970, the celery market had collapsed, and it was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain the field system. The abandoned celery fields were purchased as a state game land, and the area has reverted to various forms of emergent wetland habitat.

The Muck was designated an Important Bird Area by the Pennsylvania Audubon Society. And its presence contributed to Wellsboro being certified as one of thirty-four Bird Towns in Pennsylvania by the National Audubon Society. It features a tiny-house-sized blind with glassless windows on three sides. The blind is accessed from Route 287, taking Dresser Road to the parking area. It’s a short, easy walk leading onto a former dam from the celery-growing days, and looks out onto diverse habitats.

A combination of covid lockdowns and my first serious camera led my wife, Linda, and I to the Muck last year. We visited almost weekly through the winter so Linda could look for birds while I took photographs. It was an excellent escape in a time of self-isolation.

By the last week of February, you may see large flocks of geese begin to appear in Tioga County fields. Most are passing through, but there is one large flock that makes Tioga County home. Over the next few weeks, they separate into pairs and start to claim nesting locations throughout the Muck.

Last year by March 13, the wetlands were alive with goose calls, with multiple eagles aloft or on the ice. Hooded mergansers, already pair-bound, also arrived early. Kingfishers showed once the ice was gone.

Just a week later, we saw kildeer starting nests in the gravel at the southern end of the Muck. Geese were abundant, and mallard pairs were picking nest locations, often atop the plentiful muskrat mound-shaped lodges. Three swans were present, great blue herons were fishing, and we saw a beaver—there is a beaver lodge about sixty feet from the blind. Although we’d heard an occasional call the week before, the cattails were now covered with dozens of raucous, male, red-winged blackbirds claiming their territories and displaying their colors. We watched a pair of hooded mergansers, and we were surprised when a mink swam between them. Muskrats were out in force, even mid-day. Teal were flying about, and the first bluebird of the season could be seen in the walkway fringe. The day after the official beginning of spring, the Muck seemed to embrace the new season.

Other species waited until spring to return. For example, we did not see the marsh wrens, who make their nests in the top of cattail reeds, until May last year. Likewise, ring-necked and bufflehead ducks, swallows, swifts, and grebes were late arrivals. Ospreys could be seen a month or two after the eagles.

It is also spring to early summer before the rails, bitterns, and snipes are generally spotted. These are commonly seen from the walkway, so it pays to take your time approaching the blind.

Linda and I focused on the blind. In the thirty visits last year, we found the blind occupied only twice. There are a number of muddy paths along the western edge of the Muck, heading south from the parking lot, which provide alternative watching spots. Rubber boots are strongly recommended. In addition, the Muck can also be viewed on foot or from car on Muck Road, on its southern end. A number of ditches run perpendicular to the road, allowing good views of the interior wetlands.

For birding in any season of the year, the Muck is a grand asset for residents of our area. The month of March may start with thin pickings, but it ends with a dizzying array of birdlife. Patience and persistence. I hope to see you there soon.

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