Tracking the Wild Mammals of Pennsylvania

A white tail deer track (outlined in yellow) nestled amongst the leaves of native trees and stellaria media. The common name for this wild edible is chickweed. Chickweed is a great source of food for white tails throughout the winter as it can grow all winter long and survive underneath the snow.

Ever wonder who lives among us in the Pennsylvania Woods? We found this nifty project called “The Mammal Atlas” that will take place over a 10 year period, and is a  project that seeks to answer that very question.It is a living document that tracks  and records the wild mammals of our region as well as throughout the entire state.

The project is done in partnership with the PA Game Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the US Fish and Wildlife Service and many others. Additionally, some of the work and data collection is done by volunteers. 

On the home page there is a map that allows you to click on your county of interest and see what has been found to date.
There is even a check list which tells you if the animal is native, endangered and its ranking within the state.

They have this to say about using volunteers for their data collection,
“our best resource for collecting widespread data is you, the citizen scientists, submitting photographs and locations of the mammals you observe.”

Here is a cool info-graphic to get you started with identifying the mammals and birds of our region. Whether you volunteer with the Mammal Atlas or not, identifying wild animal tacks can be a great way to familiarize yourself with your local wildlife  and find out who is keeping you company on the trails or in your fields.

**As the snow begins to fall this is the perfect time to track and find who is out and about in the forests and fields of our regions. But be careful out there, if there are tracks near by, there could also be a critter nearby too. Always use caution when encountering wild animals and never provoke them or approach them.

Every Project Begins With a Story: The Kelley/New Garden Acquisition


Every project at NPC begins with a story. The story of family and community, and their connection to the land and waters of the region. But the story doesn’t begin and end there. With each project there is an arc. You know, the kind of arc your fourth grade English teacher taught you about, the arc of a narrative story…it kinda looks like a roller coasteror a mountain range… 


…kinda like a Pennsylvania mountain range 

But I digress…

A Classic Narrative

The story of how NPC conserves land is like a classic narrative in that it has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s never linear, and often it starts in the dark of night, on a Sunday afternoon, or in the middle of a rain storm.

There are many peaks and valleys, yes literally, but also figuratively. In the case of Kelley/New Garden, many players needed to play their part for the success of the acquisition. John Steinbeck couldn’t have made this stuff up!

A Cast of Characters

This story contains interesting characters whose paths cross and link through the acquisition of the land. County Commissioners, biologists, State Senators and Representatives, judges, lawyers and even a priest worked together to create communications and opportunities for the acquisition to move forward. Then there were the Kelley Estate heirs who had to agree to sell their portions of the estate in support of the partnership and conservation of the land, as well as the members of the West Keating Township community who used the land for generations to hunt, fish and at one time make their living. And last, but certainly not least, NPC’s director, Renee’ Carey and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s, Thom Woodruff, would work to partner with all of them to ensure the successful outcome of the project and the acquisition of the land. If I told you everyone who took part in the success of this acquisition, including NPC donors,  the list alone would be something like the opening of a JRR Tolkein saga!

The Climax

An aspect of the climax came when the Clinton County Courts deeded the property to NPC. The next step at year two in the acquisition project, was to transfer ownership of the property to the Bureau of Forestry and the PA Game Commission. The two state agencies would then work to decide how the property would be divided. Once these decision could be made the Conservancy and the Elk Foundation would begin to move forward with the sale. This would take another 2 years. Who knew where this story would end?!

A Happy Ending

For one week, in 1999, NPC was the proud owner of 4,200 acres of Clinton County Forest. A week later, the land was turned over to The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to help offset the insurance costs. Then in the summer of 2001, 3,100 acres were dedicated as State Game Lands 321, and 1,100 acres became part of the Sproul State Forest. A happy ending for a four year project.

Today the property is comprised of fields, woods, food plots, meandering runs, steep wooded side hills and 3 1/2 miles of river frontage along the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

There’s Always More to the Story

We hope you enjoyed this post, it is part of a series of pieces highlighting the stories of NPC’s work in the region. Until next time…


Firewood: Getting Ready for Winter 2019-2020! Part 2

” Winter is a season of recovery and preparation.” Paul Theroux

Part 2 of Firewood: Getting Ready for Winter 2019-2020!

Written by Jim Finley, Professor Emeritus, Forest Resources Management, Center for Private Forests at Penn State

University Park, PA – November 20, 2018

Leave the Deadwood

Interestingly many firewood gatherers focus on taking dead trees out of the forest. Research has repeatedly found that many of Pennsylvania’s privately-held forests could benefit from leaving more dead wood in place. Standing dead trees contribute important habitat for many wildlife species. Standing dead trees (snags) and dead parts of live trees offer both room and board for many kinds of wildlife. Tree cavities in live or dead trees are used by 35 species of birds and 20 species of mammals in Pennsylvania. Rotting and decaying wood on the forest floor provides cover and protection to many salamanders. At least 19 kinds of salamanders and 26 species of reptiles make some use of logs, stumps, bark, and slash piles in Pennsylvania’s forests. Ecologists believe dead wood is one of the greatest resources for animal species in the forest. (For more information on Dead Wood and Wildlife, visit

Cutting Live Trees

If deadwood is so important to wildlife, what makes good firewood? If you are thinking ahead and preparing firewood for next year, cutting live trees is really the way to go. By cutting live trees there is the opportunity to improve growing conditions for trees that remain. Individual trees in a forest compete for growing space to expand their leaf area. When tree crowns are “tight” up against each other and they move in the wind, they collide and, in the process, physically define their space – some trees gain more space and others lose. Understanding this, a firewood cutter can choose to provide space to a tree they want to improve by cutting a competing live tree.

Making decisions about which trees to leave involves many considerations. Note the point is which tree to leave, not which to cut. The tree left will continue to grow by increasing its crown area. A firewood cutter can “take the worst first;” leaving the best to grow. The tree cut might be selected by: crown condition, stem quality, defects, and species. Species is purposely last. A quick web search will find plenty of listings showing heat value per cord by tree species. Interestingly, all hardwood tree species have about the same number of BTUs per pound of wood – about 8,600. The important variable is pounds of wood per cubic foot, which can vary a lot. For comparison, a cubic foot of dry sugar maple weighs 44 pounds and basswood is 26 pounds. A pound of sugar maple has as much heat as a pound of basswood – you will need a larger volume of basswood.

Improving Your Woodlot

To learn more about how cutting firewood can improve our forests the US Forest Service has a very helpful guide titled “Improve your Woodlot by Cutting Firewood.” You can download a copy by visiting

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

[1] Epidemiology of Chain Saw Related Injuries, United States: 2009 through 2013. Advances in Emergency Medicine

Volume 2015, Article ID 459697, 4 pages.

Firewood: Getting Ready for Winter 2019-2020! Part 1

 “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln

Yes, we know this article is mostly handy for next year, and won’t help you get your wood pile in shape this year, but there are actually things you can start doing this winter that will make next winter warm and toasty!

Written by Jim Finley, Professor Emeritus, Forest Resources Management, Center for Private Forests at Penn State

University Park, PA – November 20, 2018 – After a long, hot, and, in some places, a wetter than normal summer, it seems autumn has finally arrived. Perhaps your thoughts are turning toward evenings warming in front of the fireplace or cozying up to the woodstove. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that about three percent of all Pennsylvania households depend on wood as a primary heat resource. Updated census data in 2017 found that there are nearly six million households in the state, meaning that about 170,000 homes use wood for heating; however, very likely many more use some wood to supplement their heating demands.

Preparing Firewood

Those folks who burn wood for heat know the mantra that it should be cut to length, split, stacked off the ground, and covered for at least nine months to be dry and ready to burn. Preparing firewood well in advance ensures that its moisture content will approach 20 percent. At this level of dryness, there are fewer issues with creosote formation in the flue, and this certainly reduces risks of chimney fires. As well, the heat gained by burning dry wood over uncured wood is significant. Clearly, there are advantages to thinking a year out if you gather your own firewood.

An important part of firewood preparation involves cutting to length and splitting. Doing this exposes more surface area, which enhances water loss from wood cells. Stacking is also important, as it promotes air movement across the exposed surfaces. Finally, covering, so air is free to move through the stack, keeps precipitation (think rain and snow) from continually wetting the wood.

The Risks of Gathering

Undoubtedly, many Pennsylvanians gather their own firewood on privately held forests or on state forests with appropriate permits. This is arduous work; but at the same time can be enjoyable. However, firewood gathering involves risks. A research paper published in Advances in Emergency Medicine analyzed nearly 116,000 chainsaw injures requiring emergency room visits between 2009 and 2013 in the United States[1]. They found that, “Most injury visits occurred among males (95%) and persons aged 30–59 years and during the months of September through November. The main body sites injured were the hand/fingers and knee.” If you are going to cut and move firewood, please make sure you understand how to use the necessary tools, always wear appropriate and approved safety equipment, and understand your personal limits and skills.

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

[1] Epidemiology of Chain Saw Related Injuries, United States: 2009 through 2013. Advances in Emergency Medicine

Volume 2015, Article ID 459697, 4 pages.

Biochar, A New Take on an Old Friend in Conservation

“If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years.”   Bill McKibben, Professor, Middlebury College


What is biochar?

The short answer is charcoal. However, it is the creation of charcoal through a process called pyrolisis,  the slow burning of matter, such as hard wood waste, coconut hulls, or rice hulls under high heat. This charcoal applied to depleted soils increases topsoil nutrients for plant growth. This biochar becomes especially helpful in regions where soils have become depleted or toxic due to run off.   

Creating char is an ancient process found in large deposits in the Amazon Basin dating back at least 2,500 years. In its modern use, biochar not only has the advantage of cleaning soil and water, but also limiting, and perhaps reversing soil or water damage.   

According to the International Biochar Initiative, “biochar can convert agricultural waste into a powerful soil enhancer making soil, especially in at-risk regions, more fertile and thereby boosting food security, discouraging deforestation and preserving crop diversity.  Biochar is a very stable form of carbon and can last 100-1000 years in the soil. For each pound of biochar in the soil, 3 pounds of carbon dioxide are filtered out of the air.”  

Biochar’s Potential

Biochar might not sound like a very exciting term, but for Gary Gilmore, Woodland Stewardship Coordinator of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry, it is something to get excited about, as biochar has the potential to:  

  • Capture toxins and excess nitrogen protecting our waterways and groundwater quality  
  • Create an alternative energy source for generating heat and power, and valuable by-products of synthetic and bio-fuels  
  • Reduce the need for (and use of) fossil-fuels and fossil-fuel based fertilizers  
  •  Turn bio-waste into value-added products while creating jobs  
  •  Isolate CO2 safely for thousands of years  

Not a fertilizer

However, biochar is not a fertilizer, but a “soil amendment,” meaning that added to soil it allows nutrients to remain in the soil over longer periods. The porous nature of the biochar can hold up to 6 times its weight in water and beneficial soil bacteria. Application of biochar to soil creates more sustainable soil management and decreases nutrient loss.   

In addition to the way biochar builds up soil, it also has the capability of binding soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This binding prevents nutrients from becoming run off into our waterways. According to the USBI, United States Biochar Initiative, “Biochar also holds gasses; recent research has proven biochar-enriched soils reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions by 50-80%.”   

As an ancient soil amendment, biochar is gaining traction in the study of soil maintenance around the world. Recently, the impact of this soil amendment has gained a foothold here at home as a part of Penn State’s short courses offered this fall.  As the study of biochar grows, we discover new knowledge about ancient wisdom that can address multiple environmental impacts on a local and global scale.   

 To learn more about what DCNR is doing with Biochar click here.


Raise Up Land Conservation

Beginning at 6:00pm on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania’s Raise the Region 2017 will allow you to make a donation and have your donation “stretched.” By using their online portal, you’ll make a donation to FCFPP earmarked for NPC. The Foundation will then “stretch” your donation using funds from the Alexander Family of Dealerships and others.

To make a donation during the event visit our online giving page at “Raise the Region.”  Please note, the link won’t work until 6:00pm on March 8, 2017 and will stop working at 11:59pm on March 9, 2017.

Ephemeral Forest Pools a.k.a. Vernal Pools

Vernal ponds are temporary wetlands that fill with water each Spring. They are seasonal breeding and feeding grounds for many amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds, and mammals. Some of these animals need the pools for breeding while others rely on them for food.

The word “vernal” comes from the Latin word for spring, vernalis.

Vernal ponds are formed each year in the late winter or early spring. A shallow ground depression fills with spring snowmelt, precipitation, and the rising water table. They are generally less than 40 yards in diameter and no more than 4 feet deep.

Feeding Birds Month is Wrapping Up

Feeding birds month is wrapping up. The last thing to think about is when to stop feeding birds. Dr. Brittingham notes that feeding into spring may allow you to see some migratory birds on their fly through, and the birds that are normal “PA residents” in the spring and summer, but leave for the winter.

She suggests you keep an eye on the area you’re using and if you start to see mold or mildew, to stop feeding, or change your feeding area. Typically in the spring there’s more moisture from melting snow and spring rain. Things might get moldy, and you’ll want to prevent it from becoming a problem.

She also states that if a bear visits your feeders, you need to stop feeding. Bears coming out of their winter hibernation are really hungry and your bird feeder is an easy source of yummy calories.

Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Game Commission both have resources to review about bears in general, with some information about bears and bird feeders.

Who Eats What?

Penn State Extension provides the following chart to help you understand, who eats what, and what kind of feeder you need for that food source:

Species – Food Preference -Feeder Preference

Mourning dove – Cracked corn, millet, sunflower seeds – Ground, platform feeder
Red-bellied woodpecker – Suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts – Suet feeder, hanging feeder
Downy and hairy woodpeckers – Suet, sunflower seeds, peanuts – Suet feeder, hanging feeder
Blue jay – Sunflower seeds,  suet, peanuts – Platform feeder
Black-capped chickadee – Sunflower seeds,  suet, peanuts – Almost all feeders
Tufted titmouse – Sunflower seeds,  suet, peanuts – Hanging feeder, suet feeder
White-breasted nuthatch – Sunflower seeds,  suet – Almost all feeders
Red-breasted nuthatch – Sunflower seeds,  suet – Suet feeder, hanging feeder
Carolina wren – Peanut butter, suet – Suet feeder
European starling – Peanut butter, suet, sunflower seeds – Suet feeder, platform feeder
White-throated sparrow – Sunflower seeds, millet – Ground, platform feeder
Song sparrow – Sunflower seeds, millet – Ground, platform feeder
Dark-eyed junco – Sunflower seeds, millet – Ground, platform feeder
Northern cardinal – Sunflower seeds, seed mixes – Ground, platform feeder, tube feeder with tray
Common grackle – Cracked corn, sunflower seeds – Platform feeder, tube feeder with tray
Brown-headed cowbird – Millet – Platform feeder
Purple finch – Niger, sunflower seeds, millet – Niger feeder, hanging tube feeder
House finch – Niger, sunflower seeds, millet – Niger feeder, hanging tube feeder, ground
American goldfinch – Niger, sunflower seeds – Niger feeder, hanging tube feeder, ground
House sparrow – Niger, sunflower seeds – Platform feeder, tube feeder with tray

Location, Location, Location

Where you place your bird feeder will impact who visits your bird feeder. Birds like cover. You’ll want the feeder to be within 10 feet of some trees or shrubs. This will allow the birds to check things out before venturing to the feeder.

You should also think about a water source for the birds visiting your bird feeder. In the winter, water can be especially hard to find. A birdbath, or other shallow container can work well for birds needing a drink or a bath.

Something to keep in mind with both your bird feeder and birdbath is while you want some shrubs nearby, if there’s too much cover, your cat (or your neighbor’s) will find the shrubbery a great place to hide and wait for birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that between 1,400,000 and 3,700,000,000 birds are killed annually by cats. That’s a really big number. So, keep cats in mind when placing your feeders.

A problem at bird feeders is squirrels. There are a lot of theories on how to keep squirrels out of your feeder, but Dr. Margaret Brittingham at Penn State University notes, “You are trying to attract birds to your feeder, but inevitably the squirrels will come too. Some people enjoy watching squirrels, while others consider them pests.”