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Backwoods Beauty,
Worldly Science

Powdermill’s rustic 2,200 acres give scientists from around the world a protected outdoor laboratory to do the work they love.




“You know that whatever you do is protected,” says visiting scientist Dr. Walter Meshaka. Here, Meshaka checks out a snake at Powdermill’s 2004 Bioforay, as Director Dave Smith looks on.

Dr. David Norman continues to be amazed by his delightful discovery.

“Why on earth should a little Englishman and amateur birding person like me get to know a
little backwoods place in the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands?” Norman asks with bemused
wonder in his voice.

The “little backwoods place” Norman refers to is Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s biological field station near Ligonier, Pa. Back-woods, it is; little it is not. With 2,200 rolling acres, 249 species of birds, and 847 species of plants, the reserve is a gold mine of research, educational programs, and preservation efforts. It attracts birds who fly the earth on their migrations—and international researchers who do the same pursuing their passions.

Norman still recalls with amazement how the Internet introduced him to Powdermill in 2002—and how it has allowed him to remain part of the reserve’s extended volunteer team ever since. Based in Cheshire, England, Norman is a retired physicist and amateur bird watcher who has visited Powdermill four times over the past two years. He stays for three to four weeks at a time, studying his main avian passion—the molting process of birds, when they shed every feather of their body and grow new ones. Norman assists Powdermill’s resident avian researchers in their projects when he is Stateside. And when he returns to England, he crunches and analyzes computer data on bird molting collected by Powdermill Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill.

While there are many bird reserves throughout the world, Norman says Powdermill is special. “It’s an integrated study program that is unique. And it’s certainly up there among the top ones in the world in terms of the amount of studies that have been done there,” he explains. The preserve has been banding birds and gathering scientific data for the past 43 years. Research currently in the works includes the data gathering and anaylsis for the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas and the six-volume Photographic Guide to North American Birds.

But it isn’t just Powdermill’s treetops, skies, and bird-catching nets that attract researchers from afar. For Dr. Walter Meshaka Jr., it is the reserve’s grasslands, snakes, and turtles that are his siren’s song.

Meshaka is a zoologist and herpetologist who is senior curator of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pa. He works on two projects when he comes to Powder-mill—collecting long-term information on reptiles and two types of turtles. His goal is to learn all there is to know about the snakes and wood and box turtles: how long they live, how fast they grow, how far they wander, when they breed.

“The reason I chose Powdermill is simple. It’s large and protected, and it has a culture of research that is strongly supported by Carnegie Museums,” Meshaka says.

“There is a beauty to a place like Powdermill,” he adds. “No one is going to mess with your animals and a road isn’t suddenly going to be cut through there. You know that whatever you do is protected for the foreseeable future. For people in this field, that’s relatively hard to find.”

Powdermill was created in 1956 with a gift of 1,160 acres of land from Gen. and Mrs. Richard K. Mellon and Mr. and Mrs. Alan M. Scaife. Generous gifts added
additional acres over the years, and the reserve’s woodlands, streams, open fields, ponds, and thickets have remained pristine and vital to all types of scientific research.

“This is a special place, with a dedicated staff who love their work,” says Dr. David A. Smith, Powdermill’s director since the fall of 2003. A former mortgage banking executive, Smith is now Powdermill’s biggest fan. “It’s especially rewarding to us when scientists from around the world discover Powdermill and become partners in our work.”

Smith hopes to welcome even more scientists in the future, as Powdermill works to renovate the five cabins located throughout its scenic woods, where visiting scientists stay. For the second year, proceeds of its spring Garden Themes & Birdhouse Dreams Auction will help fund the renovations.

David Norman says that while many birds pass through Powdermill as they migrate, others breed and rest there, discovering “that it provides most of what they need.” Norman, Meshaka, and other local and international nature enthusiasts no doubt feel the same way: Powdermill, tucked away in the Laurel Valley’s rolling hills, provides most of what they need to feed their hobbies and passions.

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