State College Bird Club

26 October 2011

The State College Bird Club met at Foxdale Village on 26 October 2011.  Forty-three members and guests attended; Nick Kerlin presided.



Upcoming events


Our speaker this month was Margaret Brittingham, who gave a presentation on the effects of Marcellus Shale drilling on forest bird habitat.   The number of permits issued and wells drilled has increased at an exponential pace since 2008; approximately 3000 wells have been drilled so far.  Many of these are located in the north-central and the extreme south-west part of the state. 

The former area is of particular concern, since much of Pennsylvania’s core forests are there.  The core forests are areas with very low levels of forest fragmentation and are key breeding areas for a variety of neotropical migrant songbirds.  They also have the highest levels of mammal diversity in the state. 

Gas and oil drilling have a long history in the state; however, the shallow wells have a fairly low footprint in the forest. Well pads are small, and the roads are narrow.  On the other hand, Marcellus Shale pads are much larger and more massively constructed, with a mean size of about 5 acres and most in the 5-10 acre range.  Larger pads tend to have on-site water storage, while the smaller ones are generally for test wells.  Although the larger pads are capable of holding multiple wells, 77% have only 1-2 wells per pad. 

Of even greater concern are the linear corridors created by new roads and pipelines.  These tend to be wider than those created to support shallow drilling, and because the roads are supporting heavier traffic and loads, they are much more substantial than the older roads.  Both greatly increase the risk of habitat fragmentation.  Primary areas of concern caused by these features include a spread of invasive species into new areas, core forest fragmentation due to an increase in edge (boundaries between core forest and other habitats), disturbance of sensitive habitats such as vernal pools and seeps, and creating barriers to dispersal of some species.

Other concerns involve seismic testing, and an increase in light and noise pollution.  Some sources of these are of relatively short duration, being related to exploration and drilling operations.  However, others are long-term, such as the noise levels caused by pipeline compressor stations. 

As a result of all of these factors, many species are considered to be at risk.  These tend to fall into three categories: those that are intolerant of disturbance, such as Northern Goshawk and Broadwing Hawk; those with limited abilities to disperse, such as frogs and salamanders; and species with small populations or that have a limited distribution, such as Timber Rattlesnakes. 

Brittingham and her students have been studying the effects of drilling on avian species in core forests that are being impacted by Marcellus Shale drilling.  Baseline data include data collected by the first and second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas projects and are being compared with data collected after drilling began.  So far they show a 4% decline in core forest habitat, and 84% of the drill pads have not undergone reclamation.  Much of the remaining 16% of reclaimed pads have been planted in a grassy cover rather than something closer to the original habitat. 

Preliminary results of their research show that 10 avian species are more abundant in the core forests away from the drilling pads than near them.  These include Ovenbird and Blue-headed Vireo.  American Robins were more abundant near the drilling pads.  A few species, such as Mourning Dove, Common Grackle, and Indigo Bunting, were not found in the core forests but were present only around the well pads.  Other species, such as Wood Thrush and Magnolia Warbler, were absent near the drill pads and were only located in the core forests.  Their initial data suggest that local changes are occurring, but they don’t know yet if these will translate into large-scale changes. 

Minutes taken by Nan Butkovich, Secretary