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Eagle-Watching in Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, Lebanon and Lancaster counties


A Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area Snapshot

Facilities: Visitors Center, restrooms, exhibits, picnic areas.

Driving Directions: From Interstate 78: Take Route 501 South to Schaefferstown. Then take Route 897 South and proceed 2.4 miles to the village of Kleinfeltersville. Turn right onto Hopeland Road and follow two miles to the Visitors Center on the right.

From Pennsylvania Turnpike Exit 286 - Take Route 272 North for three miles, and at the traffic light, turn left on Route 897. Follow Route 897 North for about 14 miles into the village of Kleinfeltersville. In Kleinfeltersville, make the first left after the stop sign (Hopeland Road). The Visitors Center driveway will be on the right about two miles down Hopeland Road. Watch for the sign after you pass by the main impoundment and a small dam.

Viewing Directions: The best chance to view eagles on or near the nest is along the wildlife driving tour beyond Stop #3 and at Stop #4. Driving Tour opens March 1 and continues through mid-September.

Property Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Visitors Center: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays. Closed from Thanksgiving to January 31.

Best Eagle Viewing Season: Late winter into spring, but eagles can been seen in all seasons.

Activities at the site: Auto tour (March 1 through mid September, weather permitting), birding, hiking, bicycling (also seasonal and only on open roadways), hunting.

Other Wildlife: Migrating tundra swans and snow geese, hawks, shorebirds, song-birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Where to go, what to look for

Since 1998, bald eagles have been full-time residents at the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. The sizable stick nest, characteristic of bald eagles, sits in the forked branches of a sturdy red oak along the south shore of the lake. The nest is secure within the restricted Propagation Area, where entry is prohibited. The eagle pair guards its territory and shows little tolerance for other eagles in the area, particularly other adult eagles.

Between late winter and early spring, the eagle nest is visible from several locations around the lake. Just north of the Visitors Center, a parking lot on the east side of Hopeland Road provides access to Willow Point, an observation area with a panoramic view of the upper end of the lake. The enjoyable hike to Willow Point takes about 10 minutes and is an easy, mostly level walk. From Willow Point, the distant nest is visible to the east with a spotting scope or binoculars. A flooded stand of dead trees protrudes from the water across the lake. Eagles often perch in the snags, particularly in the largest of the stand.

After March 1, when the wildlife driving tour opens, visitors can follow the auto route past Stop #3, which leads to the opposite side of the snag area and nest site. Driving past this tour stop and just beyond the gated crossroads there is a good vantage point along the road to view the nest. A little farther on the tour, Stop #4 provides another location to spot eagles and the nest, probably the closest view. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope enhances eagle watching at Middle Creek, and late April is probably the best time to watch nesting activity. At this time, the nest is bustling with the adult eagles feeding and tending to the growing eaglets and deciduous trees have not leafed-out yet. Once trees attain their spring foliage, the eagle nest becomes concealed in the dense canopy. Check with Visitors Center staff for where-to-go details for eagles and other wildlife.

The bald eagle pair inhabits Middle Creek throughout the year, fishing the shallow lake and surrounding ponds in all seasons. As open water diminishes with the frigid temperatures of winter and as opportunity presents itself, the eagles sometimes switch their diet from fish to waterfowl, which is almost always available here. The eagles most often prey on weak and injured ducks, geese and swans.

The 360-acre main impoundment and about 70 additional acres of marsh-lined ponds, puddles and potholes along with the surrounding land provide vital food, cover and protected space for many wildlife species. More than 275 species of birds have been spotted throughout the seasons, including 23 species of ducks, five species of geese, loons, cormorants and grebes. Many of the birds pass through during spring and fall migrations, but 109 species breed and nest at Middle Creek. This property is designated as an Important Bird Area in Pennsylvania and recognized as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area because a large percent of the world's population of tundra swans and snow geese utilize Middle Creek as a staging ground during the northbound migration in late winter and early spring.

Each February and March, at least 5,000 tundra swans come to Middle Creek to rest and feed. Numbers vary yearly and up to 15,000 swans may stop here on their way northward. Large whistling strings of swans descend out of the late winter skies over the complex and surrounding landscape. Depending on weather, the stay may be brief or last for weeks. With the loss of many southern wetlands, tundra swans have switched somewhat to agricultural areas for winter foraging. As their name indicates, these swans are bound for the great northern boreal wetlands. In North America, tundra swans are often called whistling swans.

Snow geese numbers may exceed 170,000 birds, an unimaginable spectacle that attracts many human visitors. This staging along the Atlantic Flyway is marked by seemingly endless formations of white geese filling the skyline, flying to and from the surrounding agricultural fields. The massive flocks settle on the lake and periodically rise by the tens of thousands in a deafening cacophony. Like the swans, their stay is unpredictable and the birds may leave and continue north toward arctic breeding grounds at any time.

In front of the Visitors Center, Hopeland Road passes between the main impoundment and a pond. A variety of ducks frequent this end of the lake and the pond. It is a good location to spot mallards, black ducks, green-winged teal, northern pintails, northern shovelers, gadwalls, American wigeon, ring-necked ducks and common mergansers during spring migration. Many of these ducks also migrate through in autumn. Some of the harder-to-spot ducks include buffleheads, ruddy ducks, lesser scaup, hooded mergansers, blue-winged teal and wood ducks. The best location to find wood ducks is at the series of ponds at the dead end road just before turning right to reach Stop #4 on the driving tour. Canada geese are commonly found year-round throughout the fields surrounding the lake and ponds. The ponds and streams that attract waterfowl also provide viewing opportunities for belted kingfishers and other smaller water birds. Ospreys often are seen in spring and fall during migration.

As the driving tour leaves Hopeland Road, the tour passes through a small section of woodland and then opens to grasslands and crop fields as it meets Chapel Road. A right- or left-hand turn on Chapel Road will provide opportunities to encounter grassland birds, such as grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds and eastern meadowlarks. American kestrels, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers hunt these fields for voles, mice and other prey. Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows are common near the bird boxes throughout the complex. Killdeer, spotted sandpipers and least sandpipers are common at the muddy edges of the ponds and puddles while lesser and greater yellowlegs may be found wading in the shallow waters. The pools also are a place to find blue-winged teal, Wilson's snipe, green herons, solitary sandpipers and rusty blackbirds in migration.

Songbirds like the gray catbird, northern cardinal, willow flycatcher, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, eastern towhee and brown thrasher may be seen in the shrubby areas bordering the woodlands and fields. Both Baltimore and orchard orioles can be found in the tall trees at Middle Creek. The woodlands and their edges are good places to find the eastern wood-pewee, great crested flycatcher, wood thrush, veery and ovenbird. Hedgerows and open areas give you a chance to see tail-wagging eastern phoebe, the indominatible eastern kingbird, as well as the ever-popular and colorful indigo bunting and American goldfinch.

In winter, the open fields of Middle Creek can be good places to spot rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, or, perhaps, short-eared owls, in addition to the resident red-tailed hawks. Horned larks, American pipits and snow buntings are among the prized open field birds that can be spotted on snowy fields.

For additional information, contact:

Pennsylvania Game Commission, Southeast Region, 448 Snyder Rd., Reading, PA 19605-9254. Telephone: 610-926-3136. Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area Visitors Center Telephone: 717-733-1512 (Closed Mondays.)

By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross