Directions to Imperial Grasslands Submitted by Mike Fialkovich
This site is near the town of Imperial in Findlay Township in western Allegheny County. The area is a large reclaimed strip mine with extensive grassland, ponds, wetlands and dense shrub habitat. It is attractive to all the expected grassland sparrows, raptors, etc. Brush loving birds are numerous and the ponds have attracted a great variety of shorebirds and waterfowl.
From Pittsburgh take I-279 South / RT.22 / 30 West towards the Pittsburgh Airport (this road will be renamed I-376 in the future for clarity). Follow I-279 / RT.22 / 30 to the RT. 22 / 30 Exit (Route 60 North will continue to the airport and I-279 ends here).
Follow RT. 22/30 west towards Weirton, West Virginia, for 3.8 miles. Take the Imperial / RT. 30 West / RT. 978 South Exit. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto RT. 30 West. Travel for 1.4 miles through the small town of Imperial and turn left onto Imperial and Burgettstown Road (which is well marked with a large sign).
Follow this road for 1.6 miles to a "T" intersection. Note there is a sign identifying this road as Imperial and Burgettstown Road and a sign identifying it as Robinson Road. Turn left onto Burgettstown Road (no sign identifying it) and drive 0.8 miles to a four way intersection with Potato Garden Run Road (no sign identifying it). Continue straight through for 0.5 miles to the interchange for PA Turnpike 576 (Burgettstown Road goes off to the left just before the interchange and becomes Ridge Road described below). Continue straight past the interchange and the road becomes Bald Knob Road.
This tour will be described as a loop beginning and ending at the Potato Garden Run / Burgettstown Road Intersection (specific directions for each area continue below).
Descriptions of Key Areas:
Bald Knob Road:
There are extensive grasslands along this road, however recent construction of a new road to the Pittsburgh Airport has destroyed a major portion of the grasslands. This road is currently paved at the beginning then becomes gravel, but may be completely paved in the future.
Just after passing the turnpike overpasses, look for a large pond on the right that birders call the " Main Pond". This shallow pond attracts shorebirds in spring and fall. Spotted Sandpipers are common summer residents. A great variety of shorebirds have been recorded at this pond including common species such as yellowlegs, Dunlin, Solitary Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Wilson's Snipe. Baird's and White-rumped Sandpipers are uncommon to rare, but occur annually. Short-billed Dowitchers are sometimes seen in small numbers and Semipalmated Plovers may be found in August and September. Less common species recorded include Black-bellied and American Golden Plovers, and Stilt Sandpiper. Rare species include Snowy Plover (one record), American Avocet (one record), Upland Sandpiper (in the nearby grassland), Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling (one record), Western Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper (one record), Long-billed Dowitcher (one record), and all three phalaropes.
Other uncommon species recorded at the pond include Mute and Tundra Swan, Long-tailed Duck, Great Egret, Common Moorhen, Bonaparte's Gull, Common Tern, Forster's Tern, and Black Tern (including a flock of 20). A wide variety of waterfowl have been recorded during migration, and Allegheny County's first breeding record of Hooded Merganser was confirmed here (a female with young has been seen for the past several years). Blue-winged Teal were also confirmed breeding in the area and have been seen with young on this pond.
Continue on Bald Knob Road to a bend and another smaller, more vegetated pond is on the right. This pond also attracts shorebirds and waterfowl, but the variety is much less compared to the larger pond, however this pond is not without surprises. Sora, American Bittern, and even a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (all single records) have been found in the vegetation at the edge of the pond.
The surrounding grasslands provide habitat for open country birds including Savannah, Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows. Clay-colored Sparrows were found for a few years during May in the grassland between the two ponds. Vesper Sparrows and Field Sparrows favor the brush and small trees in this area. Eastern Meadowlarks and a few Bobolinks are easily seen and heard. From 1994-1997, Blue Grosbeaks bred along the road and were regularly seen, however they disappeared a few years ago and with the exception of a single bird in August 2006 have not been seen since. Brown Thrashers and Northern Mockingbirds are present. Northern Harriers are resident, and Short-eared Owls have been seen in winter and bred nearby. Rough-legged Hawks (both dark and light phases) are found almost every winter. American Pipits are often seen along the ponds or heard flying over during spring and fall migration.
Continue along Bald Knob Road past the ponds and the habitat becomes brushy on the right with a large pine and larch plantation on the left. Ruffed Grouse can be heard drumming from the evergreens in spring. Prairie Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats can be found in the thick brush. Both species of cuckoos are often encountered with black-billed the more common species.
Follow the road to an intersection with Country Hollow Road. You can turn around here and retrace your route to continue the loop. If you continue on Bald Knob Road past this intersection, you leave Allegheny and enter Washington County. You can drive a short distance to the entrance to the Greater Pittsburgh Gun Club listening for Ruffed Grouse, Hooded Warbler, Ovenbird, American Woodcock (on still evenings March - May), or even Purple Finches (in spring). The entrance to the Gun Club is 1.0 mile from the main pond.
Ridge Road and "Toy Airport":
Retrace your route on Bald Knob Road back to the intersection with Burgettstown Road. Turn right onto Burgettstown Road. Follow Burgettstown Road which becomes Ridge Road, but is not marked.
The brush along the road provided two sightings of Northern Shrike, both in December (2001 and 2002), but the birds were only seen for a short time and never relocated. Look and listen for White-eyed Vireos that have territories in the roadside brush. The left side of the road is wooded, and a Wood Thrush is usually on territory in the small woodlot. Eventually the woods end and brush takes over again. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler and other brush loving birds can be easily seen and heard. In winter, American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are numerous.
Continue to a pulloff on the left (at 1.0 miles) where you can see into the open grasslands. This is just over the border in Washington County. The entrance is blocked with a rope and a No Trespassing Sign. Local birders call this the "Toy Airport" because people fly remote control planes here.
The shallow valley to the left is in Allegheny County and was the site where Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers were confirmed nesting in 1997. The owls appeared to continue to breed to 2001. There is a small pond visible in the distance where shorebirds and waterfowl can be found in migration. It is particularly good for Green-winged Teal. Another pond that is not visible provided a resting area for a Sandhill Crane in the spring of 2006. A Lark Sparrow was found in 1994 and a Dickcissel in 1996 in the grassland (when birders could walk on the property). Although Short-eared Owls do not appear to breed here any longer, this is one of the best places to see them in winter just as the sun is setting. Northern Harriers continue as residents. This is also the best location for wintering Rough-legged Hawks. Up to eight have been noted here including both color phases. Eastern Bluebirds, Horned Larks, and all the grassland sparrows can be heard and seen here. In the winter of 2004 a flock of Snow Buntings were regularly seen from this location, and in May 2005 two Upland Sandpipers were observed in flight and calling for a day. An Eastern Phoebe nests on the small structure near the road.
Old Stubenville Pike and "Truck Stop":
Continue on what is now Ridge Road for 0.7 miles to an intersection with Old Stubenville Pike. A bridge over RT. 22 will be ahead of you. Turn left and drive 0.8 miles to an open area on the left where there is usually a large pile of gravel for road construction and perhaps some construction vehicles. Local birders call this the "Truck Stop". Park here and look over the large grassland. With binoculars you can see the location you just left (Toy Airport) across the rolling hills. You are standing in Allegheny County. The small pond to the left is in Washington County. Check the pond for shorebirds and waterfowl. Nothing unusual has been seen here, but it is worth checking. The hilltops are good places to see Bobolinks which seem to favor this site above all others in the area. In spring (March and April) there are usually flocks of Wilson's Snipe among the small pools in the shallow valley below. Sometimes the flocks can total over 30 birds.
Continue a short distance to a "T" intersection. Route 22 is to the right. You can turn right and access RT. 22 East to return to Pittsburgh (this is the RT. 980 South / McDonald / Midway Exit). To continue the loop, turn left onto Potato Garden Run Road (which is not signed).
NOTE: If time is limited you can skip Bald Knob Road, "Toy Airport" and Ridge Road and go directly to "Truck Stop". This site can be reached by continuing on RT. 22 West past the Imperial Exit for 3.3 miles to the RT. 980 South / McDonald / Midway Exit. At the end of the exit ramp, turn left and make another immediate left onto Old Stubenville Pike and the "Truck Stop" is on the right.
Potato Garden Run Road:
Continue on Potato Garden Run Road passing Boggs Road on the right at 0.5 miles which leads to the Imperial Landfill and the Montour Bike Trail (you can turn right here passing the entrance to the Imperial Landfill and bear right onto Bugay Lane to park in the bike trail parking lot. The trail goes through more grassland if you want to hike along it for additional birding).
Eventually, you will see marsh on the right side of the road. Willow Flycatchers, Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, Swamp Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds nest around the marsh. This marsh runs the length of the road and although it is polluted with mine drainage, there are a series of beaver dams throughout the marsh. Many birders searched for rails over the years without success, however a migrant American Bittern was found in the spring of 2006. Warbling Vireos and Scarlet Tanagers can be found in the tall trees here. Orchard and Baltimore Orioles can be found in good numbers on the left side of the road, opposite the marsh. Eventually the road intersects with Burgesttown Road (at 1.7 miles) where the tour began. The area around this intersection is a good place to listen for American Woodcocks and Great Horned Owls in early spring. White-eyed Vireos can be found in the roadside brush along with numerous Yellow Warblers. Large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles stage in the marsh in late summer and fall. In February and March, small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds roost in the marsh. They gather at dusk and the flocks sometimes contain a few Brown-headed Cowbirds and Rusty Blackbirds. The flocks are worth checking for a possible Brewer's Blackbird. The field across the marsh is a good place to look for flocks of Wild Turkeys. Turkeys can be found almost anywhere in the area at all times of the year.
To leave the area, turn right and travel for 0.8 miles to Imperial and Burgettstown Road. Turn right and the road will end at RT. 30. Turn right onto RT. 30 to return to the RT. 22 interchange.
Using maps, many of the roads in the area can be explored further for similar birds and similar habitats. The Imperial area continually offers surprises and species not found anywhere else in Allegheny County.
Ticks are numerous in the tall grasses.
The strip mines and all other areas are privately owned and patrolled. The landowner has made it clear to stay off the land when birding (note you may see dog trainers and hunters off the road they have permission to use the land. That permission is not extended to birders). Most of the area is posted, but signs are not everywhere. Stay on the road while birding and you won't have any issues.
Be aware the area is used for hunting, particularly for turkey, deer and rabbits. Hunters are usually visible from the road in their florescent orange, but may be out of site due to vegetation, the contour of the land, etc.. Also be aware that you will hear shooting along Bald Knob Road at any time of the year from the Greater Pittsburgh Gun Club.
The entire area is subject to development now that the new toll road (I-576) to the airport is complete. Drainage is currently in the process of installation along Burgettstown Road (Summer 2008) and there are proposals to build industrial parks, etc. in the area.