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Protecting the Tamarack Swamp
by Charles Bier
Director of WPC's Natural Heritage Program and Zoologist


Draw a dot on what appears to be the center of Pennsylvania, and you would come very close to marking Tamarack Swamp. This Clinton County ancient boreal wetland is a biologically rich place that has, for the most part, escaped the markings of time and progress.

Bug-eating plants, uncommon dragonflies and black spruce and balsam fir dot the soggy soils, while birds like Virginia rail, swamp sparrow and northern saw-whet owls mingle with black bear, red-spotted newt and an abundance of other species.
Work to protect Tamarack Swamp began in 1975 when the Pa. Bureau of Forestry established the Tamarack Swamp Natural Area on public state forest lands that comprised only about a quarter of the wetland. In the mid-1980s, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) designed conservation objectives for the swamp and its watershed.

Today, Tamarack Swamp is continuing to recover from earlier logging. It has suffered some damage from other activities -- largely natural gas development. Nonetheless, inherent ecological qualities remain. That's why early in the 1990s, WPC conveyed 9,425 acres to the Bureau of Forestry to protect part of Sproul State Forest. This generally protected forests in the area and not the swamp. In 1998, WPC specifically purchased another 351 acres identified in the conservation plan for the swamp, and in 2002, we acquired an additional 134-acre tract to add more protection.

The area is named for the unusual presence of tamarack (Larix laricina), the only native deciduous (annually shedding) conifer tree in Pennsylvania. Tamarack swamp survived as a Canadian environment after a post-glacial shift in climate, while other similar areas disappeared. When Pennsylvania's last glacial period ended, most other boreal habitats retreated northward, while this unique wetland remained intact and today serves as one of the few examples of a black spruce, balsam fir and tamarack bog in north central Pennsylvania. The swamp forms the headwaters of Drury Run, an Exceptional Value, high-gradient clearwater stream.

Birds have long been studied at Tamarack Swamp, and reference to that is found as early as 1902, as evidenced in an article by F.R. Cope, Jr. Historically, Tamarack Swamp contained boreal forest and wetland habitats that supported nesting avifauna considered "Canadian elements" such as: olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, olive-backed thrush, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren and purple finch. These were confirmed or highly suspected as breeding by the early biologists a century ago.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History ornithologist W.E. Clyde Todd also traveled to this remote part of the Allegheny High Plateaus region as early as 1894 for his first visit to the site. Later he wrote an intriguing description of the wetland in Birds of Western Pennsylvania (1940): "Tamarack Swamp, Clinton County, at the head of Drury Run, a wooded bog of sphagnum-tamarack type, with an outer fringe of spruce and balsam fir, and this surrounded in its turn by hemlock."
E. J. Reimann was perceptive regarding the need to monitor habitats and their associated birdlife over time. He went to Tamarack Swamp in June 1947 to collect comparative observations nearly a half-century after Cope's work. His article, titled "Summer Birds of Tamarack Swamp 1900 and 1947," compiled much of the data on birds for this site, but he lamented the condition of the swamp, which had been altered by logging and road building since Cope's time, and he found missing several of the northern birds Cope had documented.

The site is considered to be one of the most important for biodiversity in north central Pennsylvania. It is recognized as a conservation site of the highest importance as reported in the Clinton County Natural Heritage Inventory, due to the unique wetland communities and several rare species of plants and insects. The swamp was selected by National Audubon Society and the Pennsylvania Biological Survey as one of the first Important Bird Areas in the state. This selection was made based on the significance of the boreal swamp habitat, and the continuing recovery potential it represents now that portions of the swamp are under protection. Although a repeat of Cope and Reimann's work has not been undertaken to date, the site continues to be inventoried for specific species in the region, for example, the yellow-bellied flycatcher (PA Threatened), which is likely to return to the site in the future.

WPC was able to obtain a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's North American Wetlands Conservation Act program to assist in the latest protection effort. Given the size of the swamp and its watershed (approximately 1,300 acres) much of the area still remains unprotected, so there is considerable conservation work that remains.

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