Wildlife Watching at Kings Gap Environmental Education Center
Rising in elevation from 700 feet to 1400 feet above sea level, Kings Gap straddles South Mountain. This dramatic elevation change gives Kings Gap two distinct forest habitats.
On the lower slopes of South Mountain is a forest habitat of white oak, red oak, and tulip trees, and sparse undergrowth. In the tree canopy, birds like scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, and vireos hunt for insects to feed their young.
Ovenbirds, eastern towhees, and wood thrushes scour the ground for insects. Sharp-shinned hawks hunt for songbirds, reptiles, and amphibians.
These woods are also wet with spring seeps, small natural ponds, and vernal pools found after the spring thaw and rains. Wood frogs and spotted salamanders journey to the fish-free waters to mate and lay their eggs to hatch and grow in relative safety. Summer brings on the blooms of fly poison and white snakeroot.
The dry ridge tops of South Mountain are a forest habitat of chestnut oak trees, with an understory of mountain laurel, blueberry, and black huckleberry. Pileated woodpeckers, eastern wood-peewees, brown creepers, and kinglets thrive in the dry forest. The showy blooms of pink lady slipper and the tiny flowers of trailing arbutus show briefly in the spring.
White-tailed deer, turkey, and fox squirrel feast on the acorn crop each fall. The ridge tops are excellent sites to view both black and turkey vultures soaring on warm updrafts from the valley.
The Pine Plantation at the foot of the mountain was planted in the 1950s. It is home to animals that prefer coniferous forests. The chatter of a red squirrel often breaks the silence of the pine forest.
In winter, red-breasted nuthatches scour the tree bark for food. Although impacted by invasive plants, the understory is also home to spicebush, a good food for mockingbirds, catbirds, and bluebirds. Barred owls nest here.
Kings Gap is great habitat for a variety of reptiles, including box turtles, five-lined skinks, northern copperheads, and timber rattlesnakes. Snake sightings are not uncommon in the summer months. If left alone, snakes are usually not aggressive.
The timber rattlesnakes of South Mountain are an isolated population whose numbers have dramatically declined in recent years. For this reason it is unlawful to hunt, take, catch, or kill timber rattlesnakes in the South Mountain region. For additional information on these reptiles, contact the center office.
The Irishtown Gap Access and Pine Brook Access areas are gateways into an undeveloped section of the center grounds. This tract is crisscrossed with existing old trails and logging roads which are not blazed or marked. Many of the trails can be impassable due to wet conditions which support abundant moisture-loving plants like royal fern.
For the adventurous, wildlife abounds. Black bear, coyote, and fox are sometimes sighted in this area. The calls of the common flicker and black-capped chickadee breaks the silence of the woodlands.
Mansion Use Area
The center’s offices and the Mansion Day Use Area are located on the mountaintop, four miles from the entrance of Kings Gap. The patio of the mansion provides a sweeping view of the Cumberland Valley. Turkey vultures are a common site at this vista as they catch the air currents created by the gap.
Kings Gap is suitable habitat for a variety of reptiles, including the box turtle, the five-lined skink (one of Pennsylvania’s few lizards), the northern copperhead, and the timber rattlesnake. Sightings of these reptiles are not uncommon in the summer months. In the Mansion Day Use Area, copperheads and rattlesnakes are sometimes seen hunting rodents along the stone walls of the mansion patio and garden.
Although these snakes are venomous and should be respected, in their natural habitats they retreat when threatened. Remember it is unlawful to hunt, take, catch, or kill a rattlesnake in the South Mountain Region. For additional information on these reptiles, contact the center office.
Chestnut oak dominates the forest while blueberries, huckleberries, and mountain laurel make up the shrub layer of the Mansion Day Use area. The Woodland Ecology Trail is a signed interpretive trail that explores this oak forest habitat.
The garden, surrounded by a low stone wall, was used by the original owners of Kings Gap to raise vegetables. Restoration of this site began in January 1992 by the Master Gardeners of Cumberland County. The goal of this project is to establish an educational garden that will inspire and teach about the benefits of plants.
The garden is divided into three educational areas. The herb garden displays beds of coloring, cooking, fragrant, and healing herbs. The wildlife habitat garden uses native plants in a meadow, pond, woodland, and shrub border habitat to demonstrate how a wildlife habitat can be created in a “backyard.” Finally, a compost demonstration garden provides examples of several different composting methods.
Pine Plantation Use Area
In contrast to the deciduous forest that covers most of the center grounds, the Pine Plantation lets you experience the shaded environment of a coniferous forest. The plantation of white pine, Douglas fir and larch is located near the entrance of Kings Gap. The C.H. Masland and Sons Carpet Company of Carlisle planted this forest as an experimental tree farm during the 1950s.
During the winters of 1995-97 with assistance from DCNR's Bureau of Forestry, the plantation was thinned to insure its continued health. The removal of excess trees has reduced the competition for sunlight, water and nutrients, lessening the stress on the remaining trees.
The paved Whispering Pines Trail winds through the plantation.
The pine plantation is home to many animals that prefer a coniferous habitat. The silence of the pine forest is often broken by the chatter of a red squirrel as it announces your presence. In the winter months, you may catch sight of a red-breasted nuthatch as it searches the bark of a nearby pine for food.
In the spring, several vernal ponds dot the landscape. Vernal ponds are temporary ponds that fill up with water in the spring as a result of snowmelt, spring rains, and/or elevated ground water tables. These important wetland habitats provide a breeding area for a variety of amphibians including spotted salamanders, spring peepers, and wood frogs. Each spring participants in the program, “Experiencing a Spring Night,” brave the darkness looking for a very small but very noisy tree frog, the spring peeper.
Pond Day Use Area
Located two miles from the entrance of Kings Gap, the Kings Gap Hollow Use Area features a scenic pond and mountain stream. This area is used extensively for environmental education programming because of its diversity of habitats.
Kings Gap Hollow Run is a spring-fed stream that periodically dries up and reveals a stony bottom. However, in the spring when the water flow is at its peak, this stony bottom is home for many aquatic animals. Pick a stone out of the stream and observe the larva of the black fly as they cling to the stone and filter food from the water. Although the adult black fly is considered a pest, the presence of its larva in the stream is an indicator of good water quality.
The black fly larva and the diversity of the other aquatic life found in the stream indicate good water quality, but the stream is vulnerable. Chemical tests reveal low pH and alkalinity levels due to the geology and vegetation of the area. Low levels of alkalinity indicate the stream has a limited capacity to “buffer” any acid that may enter in the form of acid rain or snow. Without this ability to neutralize additional acid, the pH level can drop. A low pH level means a high acid content. When the acid content becomes too high, the stream no longer supports life.
The deciduous forest that brackets the stream features wetland areas categorized by sphagnum moss, cinnamon ferns, skunk cabbage, and tulip trees. In late spring and early summer, hikers may chance upon the clump of grass-like leaves with a white to pale green bloom of the lily of the wildflower fly poison.
The pond supports a wealth of aquatic animals adapted to slower water. It includes frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, and various aquatic insects. A small, floating platform anchored in the pond provides a safe haven for “basking” painted turtles and water snakes. The pond also serves as an aquatic study area for students participating in field learning experiences.
The paved White Oaks Trail winds through an oak forest.