Underfoot: COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE (Chelydra serpentium)

By Susan Sprout

A surprising find, in the truck room of our local volunteer fire company – a baby snapping turtle! Coming back from a midnight fire call, my Safety Officer husband and the Assistant Chief saw a small dark shadow moving from the back wall of the station house toward the front doors. A lucky rescue for this silver-dollar-size hatchling that undoubtedly had been fending for itself from the minute it struggled out of its leathery, ping pong ball-shaped egg and began digging upward.

Baby snapper on mulch.

In the spring, female snapping turtles looking for suitable places to dig holes and lay twenty to eighty eggs, have been found up to a mile away from the water sources that were their homes. Nine to eighteen weeks later (depending on the temperature), the sand pile over the eggs erupts as hatchlings make a run for it toward the nearest stream, swamp, pond. They do not stick together, but go singly to learn about the world, instinctively heading for water. The firehouse snapper may have sensed wetness and entered to check it out. That got it a free ride to a local stream the next day where it crawled right in and swam away.

It did not have to learn hard lessons on the way to water: nest predators (minks, weasels, skunks, raccoons) nor wayside predators (dogs, crows, motor vehicles). In the water, other predators (bigger turtles, fish, and snakes, herons from above) will provide much needed life lessons.

Heading into the creek.

Snapping turtles spend most of their lives underwater – a nice muddy bottom to overwinter and lots of dense vegetation for hiding and eating. At least a third of their diet is made up of green plants. Since they are omnivores, they will start hunting smaller animals first (aquatic insects, spiders, worms, tadpoles, tiny fish) and work their way up to larger animals as they grow – grow into excellent ambush predators (birds, small mammals, other reptiles, faster amphibians) using the patience for waiting in stillness and lightning quick reflexes for grabbing their prey.

Beginning to submerge in its element, finally!

Our little firehouse snapper could grow up to two feet in length, weighing twenty-five to thirty-five pounds on average. In my mind, I try to picture a fully grown turtle with algae or moss growing on its carapace, or shell, hanging relaxed in a pond with only the nostrils on the tip of its snout protruding. The three small bumps on the top of its shell when younger, flattened by growth. And definitely not being the kind of turtle that retreats into a shell when frightened or maltreated. Heavens, no! It will snap and bite at the slightest excuse, make hissing noises and, perhaps, release a musty odor. With claws as sharp as bears’, strong hooked jaws, a large head with a longer neck, and powerfully-muscled legs of a body that just won’t all fit in the comparatively small shell, this turtle will do damage. Here, the only things snapping turtles have to fear are pollution, habitat destruction, food scarcity, and road mortality. 

Snapping turtles are native to the North American Continent from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. They are the largest of our freshwater turtles. If taken for food, their flesh may contain concentrations of toxic environmental pollutants. If found on a roadway, picking one up by the tail can severely injure its spinal column and pulling one could abrade its flesh possibly causing infection. Coaxed onto a blanket, tarp or sheet before dragging is a healthier (for it) and safer (for you) way to save a snapping turtle from road mortality.

Underfoot: INDIAN TOBACCO (Lobelia inflata)

By Susan Sprout

I have been looking for this plant. It can bloom from July to October, depending on where it grows. And depending on where I look since it is a native in North America all the way from Labrador to Georgia and Louisiana. According to a Pennsylvania native plant site on-line, it has been found growing in every county in our state. I finally found mine in disturbed soil under a shady Spruce tree in Lycoming County!

Indian Tobacco plant

Indian Tobacco is definitely not showy like its two-to-four-foot-tall bright red relative Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that decorates stream banks and wetlands. Or its three-to-four-foot-tall bright blue relative Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), a plant I wrote about in a previous post. All three are members of the Bellflower Family and have tube-type flowers with five thin, pointed lobes – two at the top resembling ears extending upward and three on the bottom edge sticking out like lower lips.

Check out the five-lobed flowers and the white dots on leaf edges

Indian Tobacco is a thinner and much less robust-looking plant at three feet tall with ½ inch pale lavender to white flowers. Each flower tube is cupped at the bottom by a green leafy calyx with five thin green points that extend out beyond the lobes of the flower. Here is the totally cool thing about the cup on the bottom of the flower tube – it is where the seeds develop after pollination has taken place AND it is where the species name, inflata, comes from. As the fruits grow and swell, they morph or inflate into round capsules measuring about 3/8th inch and look like tiny balloons tied on the stems. When mature and dried, the balloons will burst and give seeds to the wind!

Seed “balloons”

The simple leaves of Indian Tobacco can be hairy on both sides. They grow alternately on the plant stem that can be hairy, too. They are oval and range from 1 to 2 1/2 inches in length. Another feature that may catch your eye is the leaves’ toothed edges that have white dots on them. Surprise! I do not know, maybe it is the plant’s milky sap oozing out the tips.

The common name, Indian Tobacco, comes from native populations’ documented use of the leaves for smoking as a tobacco, by itself or mixed with other dried plants. Chewed leaves were also used for internal cleansing as an emetic, a practice that gave the plant another common name – Puke Plant! This plant and others in the same genus contain moderately poisonous alkaloids like lobeline. Nausea, vomiting, sweating, heart palpitations can result from its use. Beware!

Underfoot: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti *

(A mnemonic for remembering Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

By Susan Sprout

Remember learning this sentence in Life Science class? It was used to help students remember the various steps in the Linnaean Classification System developed in the 18th century and used to group organisms together based on the body structures they shared. Wow, has this system evolved since then as advanced knowledge and technology became available to help biologists do a better job of it!

Let us look at the “Phillip” word – PHYLUM. It is the name given to a major group of animals or plants that share important characteristics which set them apart from all the other plants and animals. For example, Phylum Mollusca. Mollusks are soft-bodied animals without backbones. Two unique body parts are their radula, a flexible toothed “tongue” used to rasp (like a file) food into their digestive tracts and their mantles, organs that create protective shells of calcium carbonate. There are roughly 80,000 different kinds of mollusks living today. We need to add 100,000 to that total if we count all the mollusk fossils that have lived and died out for the last 500 million years.

We do not need to visit a sandy beach near the ocean to find mollusks because we have them right here in Pennsylvania! I was able to photograph two different kinds of mollusks – a snail, having a shell, and a slug, that does not grow a shell on the outside of its body. Pennsylvania has over 100 SPECIES (“Spaghetti” word) of land snails and slugs and 63 species of freshwater snails at last count. Biologists have completed population samples of snails and slugs in some of the wild places in this state.

Snail on the sidewalk measured about an inch across its shell

Land snails and slugs make short work of dead and alive (sadly, for gardeners) plant matter. Their bodies return nutrients in the items they eat to the environment quickly, recycling them for others to absorb and use. The muscular body part that gets them around is called a “foot.” Its cells exhude mucus that smooths their travels over the sharp or scratchy things they encounter and helps them stick fast as they climb. Dried, it becomes a shiny trail used to locate other snails and slugs. It was a shiny trail that called my attention to the comings and goings of the snail I photographed and simply followed to find where it was hiding under a leaf. On their heads, snails and slugs have four tentacles, two longer ones that have eyes at their tips and two shorter ones under them for catching scent. Their eye parts, like ours (retina, lens, optic nerve), help them respond to light or movement as well as see in front of them. They have both male and female reproductive organs in their bodies and, according to some resources, can lay 500 eggs per year.

Slug on a piece of wet paper. They can elongate their bodies to slip through tiny holes. Notice the mucus behind its tail.

Snails and slugs can play roles as pollinators when the fragrant smell of flowers lures them in. When they eat fungus, they dispense spores. They provide food sources for predators – birds, raccoons, insects, voles.  They are decomposers that provide nutrients through their scat and their bodies when they die. Their shells are an important source of calcium for other animals. They are considered important environmental indicators and biodiversity predictors that may well play a role in monitoring the changing climate.

*Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

102 Acres Conserved in Plunketts Creek Township, Lycoming County

Conservation happens at varying speeds. Some projects take years, if not decades to navigate and complete, and other projects happen in weeks. The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy’s members invest in both slow and fast conservation. Providing the support to build trust over time and work through questions and contemplations as well as supplying the resources to act when an opportunity presents itself.

Back in March 2023 there was a need for fast conservation. The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy was contacted about 2 parcels adjacent to State Game Lands 134 being sold by auction about 3 weeks later. The parcels lay side by side. One shares its western boundary with existing State Game Lands and they both share their northern boundary with existing State Game Lands.

It didn’t take long to find out the Pennsylvania Game Commission was interested in the parcels. The parcels would provide management access into an area of the existing State Game Lands that doesn’t have that access now. Access for management allows projects to improve habitat for wildlife and support and improve the ecosystem services the property provides.

Within a matter of days of finding out about the auction, we looked at maps and plans to understand how these parcels fit into the bigger conservation picture.

In addition to being adjacent to the existing State Game Lands, the property is also close to a block of the Loyalsock State Forest and near an existing conservation easement held by NPC.

The property includes a seasonal stream that flows into a tributary of Plunketts Creek. This is just upstream from where NPC facilitated work in 2020 and 2021 (the project where the Army Reserve Unit removed the earthen berm). Keeping these properties forested and improving the health of the forest through management will help improve the water quality in Plunketts Creek, building on work we’ve done in the past.

We scheduled a site visit and walked the parcels to understand the habitat on site and understand what we would be bidding on. NPC’s Conservation Committee recommended the Board agree to purchase the properties with the intent to work with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to transfer the properties into the State Game Land system. The Board voted to bid on the properties.

The day of the auction came. While it was a damp, overcast April day NPC was the high bidder!!!

We closed on the properties in late June and now own just over 102 acres in Plunketts Creek Township, Lycoming County!

The acquisition was acted on by the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Commissioners at their July 7, 2023 meeting. They voted to approve the acquisition and we are now working on the paperwork for that phase of the project.

Thank you to all of our members and donors who make it possible to be ready when an opportunity presents itself!! We never know when that might be.

The properties were enrolled in the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Hunter Access Program. Anyone who wishes to hunt the properties during archery or firearms season should contact the NPC office with your name and phone number 570-323-6222; office@npcweb.org).


By Susan Sprout

What a joy to get outside and see what is happening, after being cooped up for days by rain showers! I am not complaining because we do need the rain to recharge above-ground and underground water resources. I would like to share some of the things we saw during our lovely time outside.

The rain must have really been pelting down to clear out a ditch on the road’s edge and reveal what appeared to be fresh wave-like mud bumps alongside it. Wow! On closer inspection, those riffle marks I photographed were not laid down recently. They are ancient rock-hard shale built up over millions of years and lifted high by collisions of the continental plates to create our endless mountains.

Ancient riffle marks resemble a stream running downhill.

We saw hordes of fresh orange daylilies blooming everywhere. They will continue to provide us with new flowers until all their buds are used up. Here today, mostly gone tomorrow – droopy heads shriveled up and falling off.

Orange Daylilies on a hillside

Aaaah! It was definitely “Spa Day” for the Green Frog we carefully passed. The spa puddle took up most of the road, but he or she did not flinch a bit as the waves of our passing went by. It was a good, wet day in the neighborhood there! The green upper lip, the large eardrum, and the prominent ridges on the side of its back give hints of the species even though it stayed submerged.

Spa Day for a Green Frog

Deptford Pinks, small, pinkish-purple flowers with skinny leaves lent a bit of color to the fresh green of happily watered plants. This flower may have originally been found growing in Deptford, SE London! It has since been extirpated in England.

Deptford Pink flowers have spotted petals and ragged edges.

Cattails in a roadside ditch! I like seeing them all dressed out with both types of flowers showing. The top, staminate ones, provide the pollen for the lower pistillate ones that will make the seeds – lots of seeds. I bet you have seen them as they ”fluffed out” during the fall and wintertime, sending their seeds in furry bunches to waiting wet areas. 

Looking more like the tails of cats with the full complement of flowers extending the entire length of the tall stem.


By Susan Sprout

Purpleleaf Willowherb is a perennial native plant in the Evening Primrose Family, Onagraceae, that can grow up to four feet tall. I love its scientific name, Epilobium coloratum, which means “colored flower upon a pod” in Greek. Very tiny pink to white flowers appear to be perched atop a long stem, except that the long tube-like stems are actually their ovaries where seeds will develop! This unusual configuration is the main characteristic of willowherbs.

The blooms of Purpleleaf Willowherb look like fireworks spreading out in flight.

Seven species of them live in Pennsylvania. Their traits are variable from one species to another and sometimes difficult to see. I had to make a second photo trip to check and recheck characteristics I missed the first time, including some with a magnifier: curled hairs in lines on the stems below leaves and on new growth, purple splotches on older leaves growing opposite each other, upper leaves with alternate leaf arrangements.

Buds are pink before they open.

The flowers of this species of willowherb are only about a quarter to a third of an inch across. Each petal is notched in the middle on its outside edge and has thin colored lines extending out from its center. The flowers attract bees and small flies seeking nectar and pollen. Once pollinated, the thin tube of ovaries   will elongate to about three inches as it matures, drying to a brownish color. Splitting open lengthwise, the pod will disgorge tiny seeds, each with tuft of reddish-brown hair to carry it high in the air and off to a nice disturbed area where it can germinate immediately or within two years. Those reddish-brown hairs are responsible for another common name for this plant – Cinnamon Willowherb.

A small straight pin helps show the small size of the flowers and ovary tube.

Willowherbs are considered pioneer plants and are close relatives of Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium. It was one of the first plants to colonize the heavy ash deposits of Mount St. Helens. You see, pioneer species are hardy plants and animals that are the first to colonize barren environments or ecosystems that have been disrupted, like after a fire, or a construction site or road cuttings.

Purpleleaf Willowherbs are native to the eastern part of North America and much of Canada. You may find them in wetter open areas next to swamps and riverbanks and ditches, too. The photos I took were of volunteer plants that showed up growing in a garden at church! There are wetland areas across the street.


By Susan Sprout

On the march, a three-inch-long millipede was crossing a dirt road in Ravensburg Park, going from the dry forest towards a creek bank. Its journey may well have been ended as a car came zooming towards it. My quick intervention moved this leggy critter, placing it in the roadside ditch that it appeared to be travelling toward. Millipedes are one of the first and largest air-breathing invertebrates (without a backbone) to walk on land some 420 million years ago and growing to six and a half feet long and a foot and a half wide. That fast car would surely have wrecked if it had run over one of those. What a speed-bump that would have been!

On a long trek crossing the forest road

The species of millipede I saw was probably Narceus americanus AKA American Giant Millipede, Worm Millepede, Iron Worm. It is not a worm and certainly not made of iron, but an arthropod more closely related to shrimp, crayfish, and lobsters. The outer covering of its segmented body is made up of plates of chiton (like your fingernails) and has two pairs of jointed-legs per segment. “Millepede” means thousand-legged, but this type only has between150 and 200 legs total.

Close up of the American Giant Millipede

Why am I writing about a millipede? Well, it was underfoot (almost undercar) and found in the woods where I find so many great plants! Actually, millipedes are considered a beneficial species for all of us, plants and animals, because they decompose decaying plant matter. They, and thousands of species worldwide, live by breaking down and recycling nutrients back into the soil much faster than plants decompose naturally. Bacteria, algae, fungus, critters in the soil, as well as the more obvious green plants and trees on top of it, will uptake their rich body byproducts to keep on growing.

Millipedes breathe using spiracles on their segments – small openings that deliver oxygen into a trachea and their body tissues. Most arthropods can regulate (open and close) these openings. Millipedes cannot and must live in a moist or humid environment or they will desiccate and die. Eyes on both sides of their heads can detect light and movement. Their amazing antennae have the ability to taste food, smell odors like pheromones for sensing mates, feel their way as they dig or perambulate across a road, tell differences in temperature and find water. My guess is, the millipede I was lucky to find, was on its way to moister ground near a stream. Although blessed with remarkable senses for use in its habitat, it could not detect a moving car. So, drive slowly through the woods, save these guys when you can, and then wash your hands. Their defensive secretions, though they show promise as sources for new medicines, can make you itch!

Check out National Wildlife Federation and Animal Diversity Web for lots more interesting info on Millipedes.


By Susan Sprout

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata) is a spring-blooming, native plant growing from Pennsylvania to Georgia and west to Oklahoma. A member of the Iridaceae or Iris Family, which is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, it is considered an herbaceous perennial. “Herbaceous” because its soft, green stem does not become woody and dies back after the growing season. “Perennial” because it has a life cycle longer than two years. These plants grow from underground rhizomes and keep spreading to form dense colonies. Listed as “Endangered” in Maryland and Pennsylvania, it is a wonderful plant to find growing wild or in a good friend’s wild garden, having been purchased from a native plant nursery several years before!

This bud is ready to open and reveal a Dwarf Crested Iris.

The pale blue to violet flowers, even white occasionally, may resemble those of the tall Bearded Iris, but low to the ground, only four to six inches tall or even a little taller under the right growing conditions. Their choice of natural growing conditions where they have been found growing seem rather eclectic – oak woodlands, rocky hillsides, mountain ledges, wooded ravines, near streambanks, well-drained slopes, rich humus, peaty acid soil, alkaline soil, partial sun to partial shade. See what I mean about eclectic? These little beauties appear to like living everywhere, but just not with too much of a good thing! They are heat-tolerant if our climate gets hotter here. Several resources cited that this iris is even deer-tolerant. Hmmm, and several did not.

Part of a naturalized patch of tiny iris beginning to bloom.

The lovely flowers of Dwarf Crested Iris bloom locally during April and May, usually with one per stalk. They are only about three inches wide. Three downward-curved sepals each have a yellowish-white band of hairs called a beard at their center from the middle to the base. That is the “crest” you find in its common name and the species name cristata. About six to eight weeks after flowering, a three-sided seed capsule will appear. It will take two to three years for seedlings to have stored enough energy in order to bloom. This iris seems to spread faster vegetatively with its rhizomes.

What we wait for each spring, the blue flower with its fancy crests.

It is spring planting time. Think about getting some of these little beauties. They would make great groundcover, perhaps in the shaded area of a rock garden or naturalizing under a tree somewhere on your property.


By Susan Sprout

Virginia Bluebells, or Virginia Cowslips, are ephemeral – here in the spring and gone during summer. Look for them blooming now with nodding but showy, blue trumpet-shaped flowers. They arrive early, eager for the higher amounts of unhampered sunlight before the trees above them leaf out to block it. As the name suggests, their bright blue flowers hang in loose clusters like bells, their trumpets shaped by the fusing of five petals. The buds, which usually start out pink, bloom blue. They grow quickly to their eight-to-twenty-four-inch height before dying back and reverting to just underground parts. Considered dormant because they are not photosynthesizing, I will bet the woody roots that we do not see are still busy getting nutrients and water during the summer and fall. With all of their stored resources, they are ready to go when it is spring!

Virginia Bluebells – notice larger leaves nearer the bottom of the plant

Virginia Bluebells have oval leaves ranging in length from two inches at the top of the plant where they almost clasp on to the stem, then downward to the lower parts where they are eight inches long and tapered. Situated alternately on the stems, the leaves do not shade each other out – more sun for all. Another reason they can grow upwards in such a hurry. Seeds develop at the base of the flowers after they are pollinated by bees, especially bumblebees that look for pollen and nectar early in spring. The bumpy, roundish seed pod turns from green to tan to brown as it and the four seeds in each one mature.

Trumpet-shaped blossoms of five fused petals

These native perennials tend to grow in masses when water is near, in bottom lands and riverwoods, where the soil is rich and the land occasionally gets flooded. Once established, they will bloom year after year. Their seedlings will flower in their second year. They can be found from E. Canada south to North Carolina and west to Arkansas and Minnesota (lots of lakes there for bluebells to grow near).  The native people in those areas used the plant as a treatment for tuberculosis and whooping cough. And, guess what? Deer do not like to eat it!

Roundish, brown seed pods contain four seeds

Underfoot:  HOBBLEBUSH

By Susan Sprout

Ever been hiking off trail in the woods and get your foot caught by a shrub with drooping branches that had become rooted in the ground? You may have had a run-in with Hobblebush AKA Tangle-legs! If you can remember where you got entangled, hike back in for positive identification now because Hobblebush is in bloom from late April into May with flowers that are very distinctive and easy to recognize.

Across the creek and up the bank are more Hobblebushes.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), a native perennial shrub, is found in what Thoreau called “the under-woods” – the understory of woods. It was cool and moist there, and down a ravine that I simply could not negotiate. I sat on the ground at the top of the ridge and scooted down as far as I could, without sliding to the bottom on my bottom. I leaned forward and got some photos. What lovely white flowers greeted me! Looking down from the trail above, I had spied some bushes with white on them, but could not distinguish if it was the flash of sunlight on shiny leaves or white flowers. Yeah, flowers! Elegantly arranged on sparse branches, the blossoms are made up of two kinds of flowers –small fertile ones in the center and larger, five-petaled infertile ones on the outer edges. I get the feeling that those bigger flowers are there to get the attention of pollinators who will service the inner cluster. When pollinated, those inner flowers will make red berries that change to a bluish-black as they mature in the early fall. The bright green leaves of Hobblebush grow opposite each other on the twigs. They were wrinkled and not yet fully extended when I found them. When fully grown, they are heart-shaped with a bumpy or irregularly-textured surface.

Blossoms with central clumps of tiny flowers surrounded by fewer large ones.

Hobblebush is listed as “occasional” in my PA plant reference, declining due to over-browsing by deer. The ecological importance of this shrub is without doubt. Gamebirds, songbirds, small mammals, butterflies, browsers – all make use of its bounty. Humans, too, have eaten the berries or made them into jam. Rubbing the head with its crushed leaves was a medicinal use of this plant by Native Americans who suffered from migraines. So, if you have a run-in with Hobblebush while hiking, extract your foot carefully so you do not pull the roots out. If you accidently do, tamp them back down into the dirt and duff gently.  We need them for the health of our woods and its inhabitants.

Sun and shadows highlight the bumpy nature of the unfurling leaves.

Editor’s note: Thank you Sue!! As someone who frequently trips while walking in the woods, I feel better now knowing I have a native shrub to blame.