VOLANT, Pa. — The Black and Pennsy swamps in Lawrence and Mercer counties are unique places for wildlife to live because of the intersection of forest, water, and grassland habitats. Because of this, many different species of birds can coexist. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have plenty of trees. Mallards and American Coots have water to swim, feed, and breed. The Red-winged Blackbirds have open grassland areas for the wide open spaces.
One species that utilizes both the grassland and wetland habitat in these swamps is the Sandhill Crane. What makes it interesting is that the Sandhill Crane is a species that shouldn’t necessarily be in this area. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, Sandhill Cranes’ range does not reach this far east. That clearly isn’t the case anymore.
On the second day of spring, we observed cranes in the Volant Flats near the Black and Pennsy Swamps. We counted nine Sandhill Cranes standing in an open field. Because of their large stature and red head, they are quite easy to spot and identify.
Their range is expanding to include Pennsylvania, since they have been sighted many times over the past 20 years, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It is interesting that the birds have not only arrived in Pennsylvania, but have continued to come back. The evidence is clear, their appearance is not just a stopover for migration.
According to eBird, there were sporadic sightings of the cranes in Pennsylvania in the 1980s and the earliest breeding record was in 1993.
In comparison to the rest of their range, the state population is small, but extremely significant. The Game Commission is currently tracking the Sandhill population to study the trends. Over the years there will be more accurate information regarding the eastern population, but that still doesn’t answer why they made a home in this part of western Pennsylvania in the first place.
Game biologist suggest the cranes started arriving in Pennsylvania due to their migratory patterns, but stayed because of the ideal habitat. Wetland conservation of both public and private lands aided in the crane population. Some of the sites we birded on were state game lands, featuring thick marshes perfect for waterfowl. It shows the necessity and benefit of wildlife and habitat conservation.
Changing climate would also contribute to the move. Weather patterns, temperatures, and habitat degradation in other regions could influence the situation. I predict that more species that share the crane’s habitats in other regions will discover places like the Black Swamp. Though we can’t say for sure it was because of climate change, we shouldn’t ignore that factor. Continuing to protect wetland and grassland habitat allows for more birds to find their home.
Though Sandhills are fairly new to the area, the Black and Pennsy Swamp provide an ideal habitat for them. The Sandhill Cranes are here to stay, so keep an eye out for them!