Wildlife Watching at Little Buffalo State Park
There are many opportunities to see wildlife, but please observe from a safe distance and do not feed wildlife.
Little Buffalo Creek Trail offers good opportunities for seeing white-tailed deer. The tracks of beaver, muskrat, and mink can be found in the stream beside the trail. Middle Ridge Trail is a good place to see turkey, grouse, and also large colonies of Allegheny mound ants.
Holman Lake provides habitat for many animals, including green herons, egrets, and beavers. The west finger of the lake is a good place to see wood ducks. Although not residents, bald eagles and ospreys are often seen near Holman Lake. Many waterfowl use the lake as a rest stop during migration, including Canada geese, mallards, blue-winged teal, mergansers, buffleheads, common loons, and ring-necked ducks.
Many species of warblers inhabit the forests of the park. Common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, and the blue-gray gnatcatcher are common. The blue-winged warbler can be seen by the power line along Millrace Trail and on the west side of the lake.
Nest boxes are scattered throughout the park, but the best place to see eastern bluebirds is along Exercise Trail. Please enjoy viewing the bluebirds, but do not disturb the nest boxes.
The Common Birds of Little Buffalo State Park (PDF) lists the birds most likely to be seen in the park and in which habitat.
Most of the Little Buffalo Valley is underlain by limey shale, which is the basis of the habitats of the park. Even though Little Buffalo State Park has reported record acid rainfall for the state, Holman Lake is full of life and is an excellent fishery. The limey shale neutralizes the acidic rain water which helps support a great amount of life in the lake and surrounding wetlands.
Natural History of Little Buffalo State Park
The shallow water of Little Buffalo Creek is easily warmed by the sun, making the lake a warm water fishery. Although trout tolerate the water, largemouth bass, black crappie, and sunfish thrive. Bass eat almost anything in the lake, including other fish, frogs, crayfish, and ducklings.
The most common fish in the lake is yellow perch. Somehow yellow perch was introduced into the lake in 1979 and the population skyrocketed. To keep the yellow perch population under control, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked walleye and channel catfish. Now, the lake is stocked with trout and muskellunge.
In addition to the many human anglers that use Holman Lake, there are many wild anglers. These natural fishers rarely take fish of legal size and so do not compete with human anglers. The most spectacular of these natural anglers are the bald eagle and the osprey.
Neither bird nests at Little Buffalo State Park, but they are frequent visitors. With its dark body, and white head and tail, the bald eagle is a regal hunter. The brown, black, and white osprey is less striking in appearance and can be overlooked, but this excellent hunter's "killi killi killi" call is almost as dramatic as its feet first dive into the water to catch fish.
The largest avian angler at the lake is the great blue heron. Reaching four feet tall, this bird is all neck and legs. The legs allow it to wade into deep water and the long neck is a lightning quick spear to snare fish, frogs, and crayfish. The little green heron is a cousin of its bigger relative and prefers to hunt perching on logs on the shore of the lake. Sometimes this bird uses its wings to create shade on the water. Small fish, particularly minnows and fry, go to the shade for safety only to be eaten by the heron.
A nocturnal mammal is also a clever angler. The mink, a relative of the weasel, hunts along streams and the edge of the lake. An excellent swimmer, the mink is often confused with its much larger relative the otter. A fierce predator, the mink eats anything it can kill, which is anything smaller than itself.
Many other lake residents do not fish, but eat plants. Arguably the prettiest bird in North America is the wood duck. The dazzling drake and the only slightly less attractive female are secretive lake dwellers. Unlike most ducks, these waterfowl nest in tree cavities instead of in a nest on the edge of water. When leaving the nest, the ducklings can drop 30 feet to the ground, then walk to the lake.
One of the most conspicuous lake dwellers is the red-spotted newt. This five inch long, green animal with red spots is often called a lizard, but it is an amphibian. Newts are often seen basking, floating near the top of the water. Many people wonder why fish do not eat these bold animals, but fish do-only once. Newts have a mild toxin in their skin which does not taste good and can cause irritation. Animals that eat a newt usually take it off of their menu.
Newts have odd life histories, even for amphibians. Adult newts live in water. In the winter they burrow into the mud to hibernate and breathe through their skin. In late spring, newts mate and the female lays gel covered eggs on aquatic plants, then leaves the young to fend for themselves. The eggs hatch into larvae which are tiny copies of their parents, except they have large feathery gills on the sides of their heads.
After a year or so as a larva, eating aquatic insects and crustaceans, the larva develops lungs and loses its gills. Its drab colors are replaced with a brilliant red, and the teenager newt leaves the water to spend several years living on the land and hibernating under rocks and logs.
These small brightly colored creatures called "red efts" are often caught by children in the streams around the park, particularly the channel below the dam. Be sure to wash your hands after handling red efts because their bright color advertises their mild skin toxin. At some unknown signal, the bright colors fade, the eft grows a little larger, its tail lengthens and flattens, and the newt returns to the water to become an adult. Depending on conditions this transformation can take from several years up to five years.
Plentiful, clean water not only supports many aquatic animals and plants, but encourages life on the land near the water. Many aquatic plants thrive in and near the water. A unique plant is jewelweed, also called touch-me-not and silverleaf. This succulent plants contains a salve in its juice.
Mosquito bites and poison ivy can be soothed with the juice of jewelweed plants. The odd-shaped orange flowers are pollinated by bees and turn into seed pods about an inch long. When ripe, the passing of an animal or even a slight wind is enough to cause the seed pod to explode and hurl the seeds up to five feet away.
Adjacent to Holman Lake are many old farm fields that are slowly changing from fields to forest, a process called succession. These fields are habitat for eastern bluebirds, fireflies, and many species of butterflies.
A relative of the American robin, the bluebird is a thrush and like its relatives has a beautiful singing voice. Male bluebirds have bright red breasts, white bellies, and a back, head and tail the color of the sky. Females and juvenile birds are muted colors.
Once a rare species due to the loss of tree cavities for nest sites, people have helped the bluebird by constructing houses of wood that mimic old woodpecker holes in trees. An insect eater, the bluebird usually sits on a fence post or low tree and flies out to catch flying insects.
Bluebirds also eat many caterpillars. The best place to see bluebirds at Little Buffalo State Park is on the Exercise Trail. The park has 30 boxes and usually fledges about 80 young birds a year.