What is small, gray, black and yellow and disappearing?
It is the golden-winged warbler, a migratory bird that each year travels north from the equator to summer in cooler climates. Once, its high-pitched song echoed throughout the Appalachian forests, but, in the last 10 years, its population has declined steeply, causing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to list it as an "at-risk" species in Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday night, conservationists discussed reasons for the population decline of the bird and outlined an initiative they hope will encourage landowners to participate in core conservation practices meant to naturally produce the very specific type of habitat where they thrive.
According to Mario Giazzon, a biologist with the state Game Commission, golden-winged warblers prefer a "young forest" habitat. Because the species nests on the ground, they require an area that contains 70-percent woody shrubbery, which contains sparse groupings of trees and plenty of open canopy.
"One of the main reasons for this habitat loss is simply maturing forests," Giazzon said.
"When we start building more habitat, we have to look at how to rotate the landscape around so that we're always creating young forests somewhere," he added.
As part of this goal, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has set aside funding to offset the cost of implementing better management practices which will benefit the bird. Some of these practices include removing invasive species, cutting down trees to increase sunlight and generate regrowth, and planting proper ground cover.
People who own land in Sullivan County, upper Lycoming and Clinton counties and southern Tioga County may qualify for the program. However, grants may not cover the entire cost of the project.
"While we are attempting to offset the cost of implementing these practices, landowners should plan some financial commitment to the project as well. It could be as little as a few dollars all the way up to 25 percent of the cost," said Ryan Koch, a conservationist with the service.
Koch also recommended that anyone applying for the program shop around for contractors.
"Once you get a forest management plan together and understand what type of work you're looking at, I would really suggest shopping around for the best prices. We have a list in the office of contractors available if you're having problems finding companies, but we also encourage people to ask around," Koch said.
For those who implement the practices, the benefit include the opportunity to create ecological, biological and aesthetic diversity. This type of young forest habitat is attractive to a wide variety of wildlife, including deer, bear, fox and ruffed grouse.
"Hunters, this is definitely something that could benefit you," said Kevin Yoder, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Yoder explained that the federation recently received a grant allowing it to send a biologist out to assess property at no cost to the landowner.
"I can go out, look over your land, then meet with you and try to address your concerns and goals. We can work together to create the type of forest management plan necessary to participate in the program," Yoder said.
Applications for the program are available at www.pa.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/whip. Once an application is submitted, it is valid for two years.