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Eagle-Watching in Pymatuning Reservoir, Crawford County

A Pymatuning Reservoir Snapshot

Facilities: Pennsylvania and Ohio Pymatuning State Park offices. Restrooms.

Driving Directions: To the Pymatuning State Park Office: From Interstate 79, take exit 147 to Route 322 West toward Conneaut Lake. Continue following Route 322 West to West Lake Road and the park office.

Best Eagle Viewing Season: Year-round

Activities at the site: Boating, hunting, fishing, birding, hiking and snowmobiling in designated areas.

Other Wildlife: Songbirds, waterfowl, mammals and birds of prey.

Where to go, what to look for

As many as six pairs of bald eagles nest in the Pymatuning Reservoir area. This vast lake, Pennsylvania's largest lake, was once a boreal swamp teeming with a diverse array of plants and animals. A flood-control dam, completed in 1934, flooded the fertile swamp creating this large, horseshoe-shaped lake. Swamps and open marshes still surround portions of the complex and contribute to the area's abundant wildlife. Pymatuning is a Pennsylvania Important Bird Area, not only because of its eagle population, but also because of its great importance as a stopover for waterfowl during migration. This is one of the state's biggest waterfowl congregations.

Eagles utilize Pymatuning throughout the year, foraging for fish and sometimes water-fowl or carrion as the opportunity arises. Eagles feed on the abundant fish population during the nesting season and broaden their diet to other prey in the non-nesting sea-son. During winter, eagles often congregate at the dam, which is at the southern end of the west branch of the lake, also called the "Lower Lake." Eagles perch in trees near the dam or at the edge of the islands at this end of the lake. Such roost sites are important for eagle conservation. These large birds of prey also may be seen standing out on the ice. Several pull-off roadways along West Lake Road near the Pymatuning State Park Office provide a view of the dam area. A portion of the westernmost crescent of the lake lies in Ohio, but three-fourths of the lake is within Pennsylvania.

In February, eagle pairs begin nesting behavior by frequenting a nest site and possibly adding new sticks to the mass of branches and twigs. The harsh winters of Northwest Pennsylvania with its lake-effect snows are particularly damaging to the bulky eagle nests. Eagles are seen most days throughout the year here, although, early spring is best for watching nesting activity. By mid-May, foliage conceals nests. The nest may be hidden as the trees leaf out, however, nest activity continues through spring and into summer with adult eagles flying to and from the nest and perching on nearby limbs. 

Another site to view eagles on the nest is from the spillway parking lot along Hartstown Road. The lot gives a panoramic view of the sanctuary lake. A spotting scope or a pair of binoculars is necessary for viewing nests. The water and wetlands east of the spill-way are part of a 3,670-acre restricted wildlife management area for breeding and migrating waterfowl.

West of the spillway and propagation area, the lake broadens, reaches its peak at Black Jack Swamp Natural Area, and then bends south. Much of the shoreline within Pennsylvania is part of Pymatuning State Park. This area of the lake receives high recreational use during summer. Toward the northern end sits Clark Island Natural Area, a large, sporadically-shaped island with many deep coves and protruding shorelines. The hardwood tree-covered island is a good place to spot eagles fishing or perched on a shoreline snag during summer. The Wilson Boat Launch provides access to both natural areas. This launch also offers a good chance at spotting eagles during summer.

The Pymatuning area has remained a stronghold for bald eagles. When eagle numbers plummeted in the 20th century, primarily from DDT contamination and lead poisoning, Pymatuning became Pennsylvania's last stand for bald eagles sheltering the state's last three nests. Today, the lake and wetlands support a stable population of bald eagles and a myriad of wildlife species. The bald eagle has made a remarkable recovery.

The open water, wetlands and grain fields at Pymatuning lure migrating birds during spring and fall flights. Between 25,000 and 30,000 ducks and geese stop at Pymatuning to rest and feed along their northbound and southbound routes. Autumn migration brings thousands of common goldeneye, Canada geese and hooded mergansers. American wigeons, gadwalls, northern shovelers, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and ruddy ducks are regular fall migrants as well. Occasionally sandhill cranes and great egrets are found along the water's edge.

In late winter and spring, flocks of tundra swans stop to feed in State Game Land 214's grain fields and to rest on the open water and wetlands. Also arriving in spring are redheads, red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads, common loons, northern pintails and possibly snow geese. Spring also brings hundreds of shorebirds to Py-matuning including species such as killdeer, American golden plover, spotted sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper and least sandpiper. The wetlands are great places to find swamp sparrows and red-winged blackbirds. The parking lot area on Ford Island is an easy place to view red-bellied woodpeckers, northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats and indigo buntings.

Good birding spots for waterfowl and shorebirds include Ford Island, the spillway parking area and the Game Commission Administration Office parking lot. Route 285 and adjacent roadways to its north pass by grain fields and several ponds with marshy edges. On the lower lake, points along West Lake Road offer good birding spots. Cormorants, herons, gulls and terns can be viewed from several lookouts along the edge of the lake when they are migrating through.

Although more difficult to observe, several uncommon birds and birds of conservation concern inhabit the marshes at Pymatuning. Among the cattails, grasses and bulrushes it is possible to spot the American bittern, least bittern, Virginia rail, sora, common moorhen, marsh wren and black tern.

During migration and winter, it is possible to see a northern harrier, rough-legged hawk or short-eared owl hunting over the open grasslands, fields and marshes throughout the area. Occasionally, snowy owls and snow buntings also are found in the causeway area. This and other wetlands in northwestern Pennsylvania are potentially important for migrating songbirds associated with wetlands, especially the rusty blackbird. Pymatuning is a great place for birding in all seasons. It is worth a visit.

For additional information, contact:

Pennsylvania Game Commission, Northwest Region, P. O. Box 31, 1509 Pittsburgh Rd., Franklin, PA 16323. Telephone: 814-432-3188.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pymatuning State Park, 2660 Williamsfield Road, Jamestown, PA 16134. Telephone: 724-932-3141

By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross