“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
“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
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
“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.