BirdLife International, a consortium of conservation groups worldwide, created the Important Bird Area program in 1985, initially at the request of the European Union. Globally, such locations currently number over 13,000, now called “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas” in order to recognize the value of non-bird species. The acronym, IBA, remained the same. Hang around bird watchers awhile and you’ll hear sentences like, “Have you been to that IBA? It’s awesome!” and “Have you looked into IBAs to visit on your vacation?” Of course, IBA could stand for other things like “International Bar Association” or “Institute of Business Appraisers,” but if the speaker has binoculars around their neck, you can count on the meaning we’ll discuss here.

In the U.S., the National Audubon Society coordinates the IBA program. But much work is done at state levels to identify, monitor, and preserve these remarkable places. Pennsylvania, in fact, developed the very first statewide IBA program in 1996. Here’s how the process works:

A location is nominated and then reviewed by state ornithologists. It’s chosen as an IBA if it meets at least one of these criteria:

It has an exceptional concentration or diversity of birdlife.
It has a significant population of bird species in decline.
It contains representative, rare, threatened or unique habitats, with birds characteristic of those habitats.
Long-term avian research is ongoing at the site.

There are currently 86 IBAs in Pennsylvania. Of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, only six have no IBA, but they all border counties that do.

Each IBA is categorized as having state, continental, or global “priority,” which means importance and therefore priority for preservation. Eighteen of our counties contain all or part of an IBA designated as having global priority—a place that is extraordinarily special and important for bird life. Pennsylvania has six of these county-crossing, globally important IBAs, scattered across the state as seen in the stars on this map:

Top left, next to Erie, Presque Isle State Park; Left-center, Mount Zion (Piney Tract); Center, The Barrens at Scotia – State Game Lands Tract # 176; Just north of Lancaster, Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area; Just west of Allentown, Hawk Mountain within the Kittatinny Ridge (which is 185 miles long!); Just south of Philadelphia, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

We’ll take a brief look at each of those six here, along with a beloved bird from each one. Since the theme for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day is “Protect Birds, Protect Insects,” we’ll note how every single one of these birds needs insects in order to survive.

Barrens at Scotia – State Game Lands Tract # 176

Centre County

This IBA’s rare habitat consists of scrub oaks, shrubs, old fields, a large pond, sandy soils, and a few tall trees. It is the best place in the state to see Golden-Winged Warblers; American Woodcocks and Whip-Poor-Wills also breed here. Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: RUFFED GROUSE, Pennsylvania’s official State Bird

Well camouflaged, during mating season the male Ruffed Grouse announces his presence with a deep, thrumming sound from his wings. The sound can travel up to a quarter mile! If you’re lucky enough to see a male in courtship display, you’ll notice a black puffed-out ring of feathers around his neck—his ruff.

Although insects make up only a small part of an adult grouse’s diet, chicks 2 to 4 weeks old require insect meals to give them protein for their growth. No insects = no more Ruffed Grouse.

Ruffed grouse don’t migrate much, but they sometimes move short distances to seek food or safe roosting sites.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

Philadelphia and Delaware Counties

This IBA has a diversity of habitats, including freshwater tidal marsh, open waters, mudflats, and woodlands, where over 300 species of birds have been identified. Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER

Black-Throated Blues are typical warblers; except when asleep, they rarely sit still for more than a split second. They keep bird watchers challenged, but the male is so beautiful he’s worth the effort. More than some other warblers, this species is very thorough and methodical in its search for food, and it does its searching in shrubs and lower branches of a forest.

Black-throated Blues eat spiders, flies, and caterpillars. Insects and arachnids are their whole diet.

They migrate through the eastern and far western parts of Pennsylvania; they breed in central PA as well as north into Canada. Pennsylvania’s Black-throated Blues winter in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Because they’re travelers, protecting their living spaces is important not only in PA, but also in those other regions. Canada has nearly 600 IBAs to preserve. The Bahamas have 31 IBAs. The Caribbean region has 283 IBAs.

Scientists have discovered that Black-throated Blues are even more likely than other birds to think that the reflection of trees in a window is just more habitat. So they mistakenly fly into the glass and die. Click here to learn how to protect birds from window strikes.

Kittatinny Ridge

Pennsylvania’s largest IBA, spread across many counties: Franklin, Perry, Monroe, Fulton, Cumberland, Carbon, Northampton, Schuylkill, Lehigh, Berks, Dauphin, and Lebanon

This IBA is world-famous for viewing migrating birds of prey. The ridge forms a biodiverse superhighway that, as the Nature Conservancy explains, “has been identified by scientists as critical to the future of hundreds of animal and bird species amid a changing climate.” Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: MERLIN

Merlins sometimes eat large insects such as dragonflies. Many of the birds that Merlins eat need, in turn, to eat insects. If there are no insects for songbirds to eat, there will be far fewer songbirds, and if there aren’t enough songbirds, the Merlins won’t survive.

Hundreds of Merlins migrate through Pennsylvania, using thermal columns of air near mountain ridges to help them. They breed in Canada and winter in the southern U.S. and Latin America, sometimes as far south as Ecuador. Ecuador has impressively varied habitats with 107 IBAs.

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

Lancaster and Lebanon Counties

This IBA is a haven for waterfowl and nesting grassland birds. Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: SNOW GOOSE

Snow Geese migrate through this IBA in enormous flocks of up to 200,000 individuals. Cornell University aptly says that “Watching huge flocks of Snow Geese swirl down from the sky, amid a cacophony of honking, is a little like standing inside a snow globe”—a spectacle not to be missed.

Snow Geese adults are vegetarians, but the goslings at times eat fly larvae for protein. Yum!

Snow Geese migrate north to Canada and to Greenland. Greenland has 55 IBAs to protect.

Mount Zion (Piney Tract)

Clarion County

A breeding site for the short-eared owl, this IBA features grasslands, ponds, and brushy or forested stream bottoms. Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: HENSLOW’S SPARROW

This secretive little bird is camouflaged well in grasslands, has hardly any song at all, and is declining in population. It’s easy to miss, but this IBA supports the largest breeding colony in Pennsylvania. Henslow’s Sparrows don’t like flying much, preferring to make an escape by running through the grass.

They eat mostly grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars in the summer. Summer bugs make for happy Henslows!

They migrate to the southern U.S., to states like Georgia. Georgia has 35 IBAs.

Presque Isle State Park

Erie County

More than 339 bird species have been identified on this IBA’s peninsula: migrating waterfowl in March and during late November through December, peak shorebird migration in April and September, and warbler migration in May and September. Visit the website here.

FEATURED BIRD: RED KNOT

This shorebird is one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom. In the eastern U.S. it’s in serious decline because of over-harvesting of horseshoe crab eggs on the Delaware Bay, a crucial stopover food during its huge journey.

Small chicks consume insects for protein, especially midges.

In the Western Hemisphere, red knots travel from the High Arctic to South American countries such as Argentina, where they winter in an IBA. Argentina has 273 other IBAs.

Check out our review of two charming children’s books about Red Knots.

We Are All Connected
The survival of birds depends on the protection of IBAs in many different places.
The survival of birds also depends on the protection of insects.
Healthy land, air, and water for all creatures, including humans, depends on protecting IBAs and other habitats.
A special kind of joy and wonder for humans depends on the survival of birds.
It’s all connected!

Explore a Nearby IBA
By county, click here for information about some other terrific IBAs to fall in love with.
You can also click here for a complete list of all 86 IBAs in Pennsylvania.

Christine M. Du Bois, Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town and editor of Bird Beat

Image Credits:

Map generated on Google Maps.

Ruffed Grouse, by Lindsay Stedman/USFWS, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Black-throated blue warbler, by lwolfartist, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Photo of the Week – Merlin (RI), by Bill Thompson/USFWS, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Middle_Creek (Snow Geese at Middle Creek WMA), by Concord, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Henslow’s sparrow, by Andrew C, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Calidris canutus (summer) (Red Knot), by Hans Hillewaert, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0