Students research Goddard State Park habitats


american woodcock

SRU park and resource management students researched the breeding population of the American Woodcock, pictured above, as part of a semester-long project at Maurice K. Goddard State Park.

May 2, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The environmentalist John Muir said, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

Twenty-one Slippery Rock University park and resource management students have taken Muir's principle to heart during their semester-long research in Maurice K. Goddard State Park. The 2,800-acre park with a lake, wetlands, mature forests and a variety of waterfowl is 30 miles north of SRU.

Working in teams, students compiled data on migratory songbirds, ducks, frogs, salamanders and other critters. They researched the breeding population of the American Woodcock, which they learned to identify by the sound of its call. They mapped the location of water pools harboring life, documented the presence of amphibian eggs and other indicators of ecosystem structure.

Students did not handle or work with animals directly; they studied their environments with an eye to habitat conservation.

Together, students developed a written report and presented their findings to conservationists April 28 at the McKeever Environmental Learning Center, which SRU administers. The report will be shared with Goddard State Park in the hope of impacting conservation efforts and communicating conservation strategies to surrounding landowners and the public.

"It is important to educate the public on managing land correctly to provide essential habitat for species such as the American Woodcock that are on the verge of becoming endangered or possibly extinct," said Jacob Smith, a park and resource management major from Pittsburgh.

"This project has enabled us to take initiative to develop an approach to addressing real world research needs," said Rebecca Thomas, assistant professor of parks and recreation, who led the project "In doing so, we have learned to look deeper beyond the obvious to better understand the world in which we live.

"Through this experience, we were empowered to work toward a common goal in collaboration with professionals in the field to improve land management through monitoring and evaluation," she said.

Each student team worked directly with a local conservation professional to complete their portion of the project. Partnering professionals included William Wasser, Goddard State Park manager; Linda Ordiway, a wildlife biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society; and Jake Scheib from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry.

Smith said his team logged 10 hours in the park conducting male American Woodcock singing-ground surveys. The American Woodcock is a migratory game species that has been declining in the Eastern United States for several decades due to habitat loss.

Students studied whether land management has worked to provide the essential habitat for the bird. The park is currently engaging in active habitat management to support woodcock populations, he said.

Students' work showed a general upward trend in woodcock populations at Goddard throughout the past 10 years.

Smith said students learned to identify the woodcock by the sound of its call and the whistling sound created by its wing feathers when it performs a distinct circular flight pattern to attract a mate.

"During the surveys, we heard birds within all areas of the park," he said. "Comparing this to previous years, we found that the management plans of creating early successional habitat for the bird has been working."

Students said they hope to spark more awareness among landowners and the public about the big picture of nature and conservation. Knowing that many species depend on habits in the park, students hope the park will continue its commitment to conservation and communicate with visitors.

"I am passionate about conservation because this is not only our planet that we live on but it is also home to millions of other species that are essential for our lifestyle," Smith said. "With the way that land is becoming developed today, many species are disappearing at fast rate. It is exciting to discover whether a land wildlife management plan is working to save a species."

Thomas said the project was part of her "Wildlife Field Methods" class.

"This project provided students with the opportunity to develop their skills in working as part of a large collaborative team, learn about land management in a hands-on way and also meet a need in the local community," Thomas said. "Monitoring and evaluation often takes a back burner in natural resource management due to personnel and funding constraints. Working on this project at Goddard has been a deeply meaningful experience for the students and for me."

She said students unearthed a significant amount of information that will benefit the park overall.

The group's finding will help to justify the need for American Woodcock habitat preservation because "our findings clearly indicate that land management efforts benefit this species directly," Thomas said.

Students learned about conserving habitat for wood ducks by maintaining nest boxes. They cleaned and documented the use of 13 nest boxes. This can lead to a broader understanding of both wood ducks and other mature forest species.

"Understanding the preferred habitat for the nesting wood ducks can help us locate other areas for wood duck boxes," Thomas said. "This will help promote an increase in the wood duck population."

Connor Mayes, a park and resource management major from Mill Hall, said he helped clean out wood duck nesting boxes and refilled them with fresh wood chips.

"The wood duck uses cavities in trees to nest," he said. "The cavity needs to be near a stream that flows into an open body of water or near an open body of water itself. If they don't have a cavity, they will use the nesting boxes provided around the park. We want the public to know the importance of the habitat the wood duck uses and that when they see a tree with a cavity in it that it may be home to a species that needs it."

Students located, mapped and identified species in 12 vernal pools, which are temporary pools of water that support plant and wildlife. Students found that pools that form in the spring from rain and snow melt and dry up in summer.

"Vernal pools within the mature forest also provide critical habitat to frogs and salamanders," Thomas said. "Because they do not exist year-round, frogs and salamanders can lay their eggs there in the absence of predators like fish."

Thomas said there are several broader implications for the project.

"Through this process of conducting our project, we have learned about several management and monitoring techniques, ranging from the benefits of controlled burns or prescribed cutting to the conservation of wood duck habitat and vernal pools in mature forest," she said.

Learning these techniques in a hands-on way has improved students' knowledge of land management practices, she said.

"This opportunity has also heightened our sense of stewardship of one local state park, thus promoting the conservation of the diverse habitats within it," Thomas said. "Given these impacts, this project has the potential to promote similar collaborative models between universities and local, state and national parks."

Dakota Buckingham, a park and resource management major from York, said he collected GPS coordinate points of vernal pools, inputting findings into Google Map Maker.

"The types of species I studied were woodland amphibians which use the vernal pools as a breeding area. These species include: spotted salamanders, wood frogs, spring peepers and fairy shrimp," he said. "From the vernal pool group, we hope to show the importance of these seasonal habitats in forested areas, and we hope through our research landowners and land managers will want to preserve these vernal pools on their property."

"This group of students was extremely well prepared and asked questions pertinent not only to how to band birds but the management concepts behind the project," Ordiway said. "For SRU to have a professor and the administrative support for programs that provide students opportunities to work directly with professionals in their chosen fields is admirable. "

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