It sure has been a thrilling season for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and whatever else your outdoor winter activity of choice might be! And Northcentral PA was the place to be for outdoor recreation enthusiasts – not just for the snowfall – but for the access to trails and land available for the public to enjoy.
The Pine Creek Rail Trail, in particular, saw a lot of action this month. NPC members helped conserve several of the access points – like Cavanaugh and Tomb Flats – to this beloved trail. Now doesn’t that good feeling just warm you right up?!
But, as much as we enjoyed all the winter views, we did pass by a couple other NPC projects and properties in February that had us longing for springtime…
Northern Bayberry It has been a joy for me this snowy season to search out my favorite plants and trees in their winter garb in order to share them with you. Some lose leaves, some keep leaves, some have easily identified bark, some retain scent, some have recognizable fruits like seedpods or berries. Northern Bayberry, (Myrica pensylvanica), native to eastern North America, has leaves, scent and fruits! It is a member of the MYRICACEAE Family like Sweet Fern, last week’s post.
This bushy perennial shrub can be found growing in a wide range of soil conditions, especially relatively poor sandy ones, because of the beneficial symbiotic relationship with colonies of bacteria growing in its root nodules. The Bayberry provides sugars and a variety of minerals for the bacteria, while the bacteria uses its complex biochemical processes to transform atmospheric nitrogen (N2), unusable by the plant, into NH3, an ammonia that provides nutrition for it.
Look for it in open woods, old fields, especially around old homesteads, where early settlers who made their own candles could easily have sent their children out to pick large amounts of the wax-covered grayish-green berries. After boiling the berries in water to melt off the fragrant wax, it was cooled, removed from the water, and re-melted for pouring into candle molds or for the slow process of dipping wicks into it. The resulting candles were treasured for their scent when burning, particularly for holiday celebrations.
Sweet Fern Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a flowering shrub, not a fern at all! A member of the Bayberry Family, MYRICACEAE, and the only living species in its genus, it is a native of Eastern North America.
Because it is a nitrogen-fixer, I like to think that this plant may have been an important soil builder-upper of the glaciated areas of PA, following the retreating ice sheets of the Pleistocene Era. Its long, thin notched leaves have an exotic look about them, as well as an amazing spicy, aromatic scent when crushed. During winter, the leaves will turn from olive green to a coppery-brown color, but retain their scent. That is probably why American colonists used them to stuff mattresses…for sweet dreams and to repel pesky fleas and lice.
I have found colonies of Sweet fern in open woods, fields, and marsh edges, full sun to part shade. If you are out camping and bothered by flying insects, throw a handful of Sweet fern on your campfire coals for an instant and great smelling smudge.
The vibrant and active world of birds has long been a fascinating field of discovery. Bird watching offers a safe and enjoyable way to connect with nature and provides a sense of excitement when seeing something new. So, perhaps you too, like so many others this past year, found yourself entranced by the flittering feathers outside your window? Regardless of your experience, bird lovers from all over the world are invited to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count!
Participating is easy, fun to do alone, or with others, and can be done anywhere you find birds. Simply watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, February 12-15, 2021, and report back what you see!
To help get ready for the count this weekend, we’re reaching into the NPC blog vault to reshare some insight on some of our area’s more “popular” backyard birds, by former NPC Land Steward, Charlie Schwartz.
Northern cardinals are usually the most colorful birds to visit backyard feeders where they feast on sunflower and other seeds. Male cardinals are bright red beneath and brownish red on their backs; females are much more brown which offers better concealment when they incubate their eggs in an open nest in dense shrubbery. Cardinals prefer brushy habitat dominated by shrubs and small trees; that is why they are fairly common in residential neighborhoods containing many shrubs. Males sing loudly in spring and females also occasionally sing. Cardinals are crepuscular meaning that they are most active at dawn or dusk; they are often the last birds to visit a feeder in the evening. As the climate changes and winters get warmer, cardinals have been extending their range northward into northern New England and southern Canada.
One of the most popular birds is the black-capped chickadee, which some people call “the little boy of the woods” for their constant motion and apparent joie di vivre. Black-capped chickadees are found from southern Pennsylvania to the northern limit of trees in Canada and frequent a multitude of habitats from old growth forests to reverting brushy fields. They nest in tree cavities, old woodpecker holes and in nest boxes; they spend winter nights in similar locations. It has been reported that chickadees have about two hours to find food each morning before lack of nourishment proves fatal. At feeders they prefer sunflower seeds but will also eat corn, suet and peanut butter; they frequently cache surplus food for use later. Remarkably, their brains actually produce new cells and grow by about 30% in fall so they can remember all those cache sites (up to 100,000) and then shrink in the spring.
Downy woodpeckers are our smallest woodpecker and like chickadees are found in a wide variety of habitats. They are common in residential neighborhoods that contain fairly large trees where they nest in small cavities that they excavate in soft or decaying wood. Also like chickadees, they spend winter nights in cavities where they are protected from cold temperatures and chilling winds. Downy woodpeckers will visit feeders to feast on suet and peanut butter and will even eat corn and sunflower seeds by wedging them in bark crevices and pounding them open. Along with chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and brown creepers, downy woodpeckers will form a feeding cohort that travels through woodland. Each species in the cohort has a different feeding strategy and thus does not compete against the others. Male downy woodpeckers have a small red spot on the back of their heads, which females lack.
Fifty years ago it was an unusual occurrence to have a number of tufted titmice visiting a feeder in northcentral Pennsylvania every day. Following a hard winter they might disappear for a year or more until young birds wandering into territories unoccupied since the death of the previous residents re-established a population. As winters have warmed over the last few decades the tufted titmouse, generally considered a southern species, have become permanent and common residents of woodlands, fencerows, brushy fields and suburban areas in northcentral Pennsylvania. Titmice frequently are members of feeding cohorts which include chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers – each species feeds on similar food items but has a different method of foraging and thus don’t actually compete for food.
But, if we think of bird feeders as the avian
equivalent of a fancy restaurant it should be readily apparent that feeders are
not the be-all and end-all of what these birds need. They also need a place to
live – correctly called habitat. That habitat must include winter roosting
sites and nesting site, both being tree hollows or similar cavities, as well as
other sources of food including insects and cover in which to escape inclement
weather and predators.
Seedpods: Spreading Dogbane & Indian Hemp On your winter rambles – especially near wet or disturbed old fields or cindery ground near limestone outcrops – look for the unusual seedpods of these plants.
They look like wishbones hanging down against the snow. We have two native species in our area identifiable in summer by different colored blooms and both attracting bees, moths, and butterflies. They are members of the APOCYNACEAE or Dogbane Family, perennials found throughout North America.
The common name “dogbane” because the white milky sap is toxic to dogs, livestock, us; although it was used as a heart medicine in times past. The common name “Indian Hemp” because its tough fibers were used to make nets and cordage. Surprise! Both names have been used for both plants! See why I like to use scientific names for plants?
Anyway, the one mostly called Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)is taller, up to four feet, and has longer pods, five to eight inches long. The one mostly called Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is shorter at about two feet with two inch long pods. And the scientific names are the reason why people use common names! Right?
Just look for the pods and think about summer… when these plants’ flowers each put out a pair of long, tapered pods that release fluffy parachutes of seeds into the warm, sunny sky.
American Chestnut Tree The American chestnut tree and my recent post, the American beech tree, are both members of the same family, FAGACEAE, or Beech Family. Our native chestnut, Castanea dentata, was a very large tree, up to 100 feet tall with a massive trunk and a broad crown. These trees provided strong, straight-grained wood for building and lots of sweet, meaty chestnuts for humans and wildlife to enjoy.
Sadly, an airborne Asian bark fungus was accidently imported in 1904 and spread so rapidly in forty years, it wiped out this once abundant species which had made up a quarter of the Eastern Hardwood forests from Maine to Mississippi. Some say as many as four billion trees were infected, girdled, and killed. Fortunately, their underground roots can survive and put up stump sprouts that may grow long enough to reproduce before succumbing to the blight.
The American Chestnut Foundation is one of many organizations dedicated to creating a blight-resistant American chestnut that can be reintroduced to our forests. Until then, we have stump sprouts which can grow up to thirty feet tall and be identified during the winter because they retain their leaves, like American beech. On your walks or skiing, look back through the woods for brown leaves, five to eight inches long with hooked teeth at the end of each parallel vein and check to see if the tree they are on is part of a group of trunks, coming up from an old tree stump.
American Beech Our native beech trees are a standout in the woods around here, with or without leaves! Several references use the phrase “elephant-legged beeches” to describe the smooth, silvery-gray bark of mature trees, as well as the diameter of their trunks. Not elephant trunks, silly!
During winter months, young beeches are excellent examples of marcescence, the retention of dried, dead leaves. Their dull, greenish-blue leaves grow up to five inches long during the growing season. In fall, they turn yellow and brown and remain attached to gracefully slender twigs bearing new, pointy buds for spring. Look for their leafy groupings along forest roadsides.
They are shade tolerant, but slow growing, taking ten years to grow two feet tall in northern PA. They compensate for slow growth-rate with longevity: three lucky beech trees are listed in the PA section of Monumental Trees, all over 200 years old.
When colonists arrived here, they recognized our species as being related to their European beech back home and knew they typically grew on moist, well-drained slopes and rich bottomlands – perfect places to make their new farm fields. Many of our older and taller beeches, which can grow up to eighty feet, fell to their axes.
Bagworm An intriguing find on deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees during the winter months is the cocoon of the Bagworm moth. For you fly fishermen and women, it resembles a much larger 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inch version of the camouflaged caddisfly case, except attached to tree branches instead of creek rocks!
Bagworm Moth Cocoon This species of caterpillar is a serious pest that can cause defoliation and death of shrubs and trees.
The cocoon pictured was located on a small Japanese maple and shows a hideaway covered with leaf stems and tiny branches looking like a little pinecone. The tiny, just-hatched caterpillars of this moth species will balloon out of the bag on silky cords and begin making their own protection in late May or early June, crawling along with just their heads and first pair of legs exposed. They will feed and expand the length and thickness of their bag by adding fresh green plant material near the head-end for about three months until they have matured.
The bags will look different depending on the host plant. At that time, the larvae pupate for 7 to 10 days. Females will never leave their bags because, as adults, they lack wings and legs. All they do before dying is develop from 300 to 1,000 eggs, laying them inside or retaining them in their bodies for overwintering. Adult male moths do have wings, and thither may they fly to female bags insuring the next generation (one per year in PA).
This species of caterpillar is a serious pest that can cause defoliation and death of shrubs and trees, depending on the severity of the infestation. It is best to detach found examples and place them in soapy water.
The goldenrod stem has a lump. The willow twig sprouted a bump. Some rumor a tumor But I think I’d sooner Believe it some kind of a mump!
I cannot take credit for this poem. I used it years ago while teaching and have since lost the book source and poet’s name. I will credit the poet when I find a name. But, WOW! How perfect is it as an introduction to galls? This is a great time of year to be looking for these abnormal plant growths on twigs and branches that have lost their leaves. They really stick out!
Most galls are caused by insects like aphids, midges, wasps, or mites. They eat or lay eggs which causes irritation that stimulates plant cells to reorganize and accelerate their growth in bizarre ways. Viruses, fungi and bacteria can also invade plants and trees to create galls. Galls can act as protective habitat from predators as well as a food source for larvae.
There are over 2,000 American plant galls caused by insects and mites! You can sometimes identify the insect or mite responsible by identifying the plant and where on the plant it has been invaded.
The willow pinecone gall grows at the tips of branches and is caused by gall gnat larvae. The swollen ball gall is caused by a goldenrod gall fly and is found on the stem. The following spring or summer, a small hole in the gall will be evidence that the larva has matured and gone its own way…to another lovely green goldenrod stem.
The bushy cabbage gall on goldenrod growth tips stop growth in that direction, causing the leaves to fluff out and send stems growing outward under it.
A bonus while I searched for galls was a preying mantis egg case, resembling beige expansion foam, like the kind used for filling cracks and insulating. Bet it works great for the mantis babies!
Bittersweet It’s a vine that’s not divine! A bittersweet tale on my part because I unknowingly became an accessory to the spread of this prolific and invasive plant. By using large sprays of its berries for fall and winter decorations, I have helped the spread of its seeds…just like birds, in whose stomachs the seeds can remain for weeks allowing them to be deposited long distances away. No, I didn’t eat them because they are poisonous to humans. What I did do was to transport berries from where the Bittersweet was growing to my home, dropping seeds here and there and everywhere. I’m still uprooting little sprouts.
There are two species of Bittersweet in Pennsylvania, both members of the Staff-tree Family: one is native (Celastrus scandens)and in decline because of the other, a non-native (Celastrus orbiculatus) from Eastern Asia. They are difficult to differentiate: the native has skinnier leaves and puts out blooms and seed capsules terminally while the non-native one has rounder leaves and puts it blossoms and seed capsules near the leaf axils. Unfortunately, they can hybridize. Another reason they are hard to identify.
Golly, they look sooo pretty when the fruit capsules the size of peas split open, revealing the bright orangish-red fleshy aril that covers the seeds. That’s really sweet. But, the sad, bitter facts are that Bittersweet vines grow rapidly, climbing and twining up to ninety feet in taller trees. They have detrimental effects on any plant or tree they use for support because they can literally choke or girdle it, especially if it is young. The huge weight of these smothering vines can actually break down and uproot trees. Bittersweet, well-named.
Wild Bergamot Poking through the recent snow on skinny stems are the spent seed heads of Wild Bergamot.
During the growing season, its two-lipped lavender flowers are held in readiness for blooming by pinkish tubular calyxes. Starting in the center, the flowers bloom outwardly until they form a wreath, then drop off leaving their calyxes. Wild Bergamot, or Monarda fistulosa, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae)…square stem and all!
It is a native perennial with several common names that are also used to identify other plants in the same genus. So, we’ll stick with Wild Bergamot. Its species name comes from a Latin word for tube or pipe. Looking at the dried seed head, you can see why! All of the little tubes that held the individual flowers are visible. If you locate the remains of this plant on your rambles or skiing, take a moment to gently stroke the seed heads with your hand underneath them. You may be rewarded with a look at some remaining seeds.
They are tiny, brown, smooth and may take off if its breezy out. Squeeze the seed heads and sniff your fingers to check for any lingering scent. During the bright summer days, so long ago, the whole plant, including its opposite gray-green leaves exuded, a spicy, minty odor which some say resembles oregano, another member of the mint family.
Bald Cypress Tree An outstanding tree in parks, forests, and yards this time of year is Bald Cypress…because it really does stand out among all the luscious colors of our wintery evergreens. It has lost its leaves, being a deciduous conifer, and appears underdressed!
The stabilizing buttressed trunk looks like thick cords run under its peeling orange and brown bark. Its rather thin branches protrude, creating indents under them like long armpits. O.K. Weird, but that’s how I remember the difference between defoliated Bald Cypress and a defoliated Dawn Redwood which lacks that particular (or peculiar) anthropomorphic body part.
Bald Cypress or Taxodium distichum can grow to 120 feet tall and is a member of the Cupressaceae Family which is found worldwide from Arctic Norway to Southern Chile, except for Antarctica. Its ancient ancestors were living on the supercontinent Pangea when it broke apart about 150 million years ago. Its descended lineages were separated and evolved in isolation from each other creating over 130 different species.
This tree is native to southeastern U.S. and is adaptable to a wide range of soils and amounts of moisture. On stream banks, it can soak up flood waters and prevent erosion. Bald Cypress is the oldest known wetland tree species on earth! For the last fifty years, I have loved looking at and keeping track of the one that is growing about a block away from my house near Muncy Creek.
Black Jetbead There has been a case of mistaken identity…and I did it! The story begins in April when I passed by a brushy, unkempt-looking shrub blooming gloriously with single, white flowers. One quick look, and I thought “Mock Orange” and kept right on walking.
Cut to December. Same walk, same shrub without leaves and flowers, same unenlightened me. Then I saw them – small bunches of shiny black, beadlike fruits, surrounded by brittle, sharply-pointed little leaves or sepals. How interesting! How gorgeous! How NOT Mock Orange! After photographing them, I kept right on walking – straight back to my resource books. I had discovered Black Jetbead, Rhodotypos scandens, a member of the Rosaceae or Rose family. My April mistakes were many and obvious – petal number, leaf stem and shape, seed amounts in each fruit or capsule, bloom time and arrangement on stalks, wrong family!
I now know a new shrub to look for during fall and
winter. With its leaves and four-petaled flowers gone, its one-third inch long
black fruits are visible and easily identified as belonging to Black Jetbead, a
non-native shrub from Eastern Asia. It was brought to the U.S. in 1866 as an
ornamental and has escaped into the wilds, dispersed by birds. To many, it is
considered invasive, displacing native plants with its dense, arching branches
that restrict tree seedling establishment.
My sincere apologies, Mock Orange. I will try to make it up to you in print during your May bloom time when I see your beautiful five-petaled white flowers on my walks.
Decorating with Winterberry The week after PlantsGiving is PlantsDecorating! That’s what I have been doing this week. Whether using living or man-made lookalikes, we do put up a lot of plant, shrub, and tree parts to “spruce up” our homes and businesses, inside and out, for the December/January Holiday Season. Garlands of pine, cedar, juniper surround the doors while their circular counterparts are placed on doors in colorful welcome. As welcome as we can be, considering the pandemic.
You are probably familiar with the prickly Japanese holly commonly used in landscaping. Many people, myself included, use its cut evergreen branches with berries on as decorations. There is another rather common native plant you may find in marshy spots that is not an evergreen like Japanese holly, but has the bright red berries just like it. Both are in the same family AQUIFOLIACEAE. It is known as Winterberry.
Another common name for it is Black Alder. It is not really a true Alder because true Black Alders are members of the Birch family and have little cones, not red berries. Forty years ago, I dug up a Winterberry sapling and planted it near my house. Although it wasn’t in its happy place with wet feet, it has matured and grown to about ten feet in height and provides us with enough lovely red berries for winter decorations.
NPS pollution comes from many different sources, like sediment from eroding streambanks and excess fertilizer on agricultural lands. NPS pollution is caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters.
Throughout the video series, they’ll explain more about NPS pollution and its sources, and how they effect both the aquatic life and the people that live within the watershed.
Together, with the rest of the Northcentral Stream Partnership, NPC is working to reduce NPS pollution throughout our watersheds. This virtual field trip introduces those partners and covers the process, implementation, and assessment involved in completing two stream improvement projects!
NPC is very proud to share that your Executive Director, Renee’ Carey, was recently presented the 2020 Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock Conservationist of the Year Award by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association (PFA).
Renee’, has served PFA in many capacities as a board member and volunteer supporting forest, land, and water conservation. In 2019 Renee’ celebrated 25 years with the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy where she is currently the executive director. She is widely respected for her work ethic, passion for conservation, and leadership in the conservation community. The plaque she received read, “Renee’ consistently demonstrates her commitment to conservation of land, forests, and water and the communities that depend on wise resource use. She actively seeks partnerships with state agencies, county conservation districts, non-profit organizations, and landowners to protect and conserve natural resources for recreation and jobs today and to allow future generations similar opportunities. She is known for encouraging and guiding people to steward natural resources with the vision to nourish communities. Her passion for this work clearly emulates the values she shares with Dr. Rothrock’s concern for natural resource stewardship.
The Pennsylvania Forestry Association
the Association recognizes an individual, organization or group’s significant
contributions to the public recognition of the importance of Pennsylvania’s
forest resources in the same tradition and spirit of Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock.
served as the first president of PFA and earned the title, “Father of Forestry
in Pennsylvania,” through his untiring efforts to promote the forest
conservation movement in Pennsylvania.
Nominees for the Award were evaluated on the following three criteria:
Value of contributions to the continued conservation of Pennsylvania’s forest resource;
Public recognition and stature of the individual in the field of resource conservation; and
Other Unique or special considerations which demonstrate a long term commitment to conservation.
Renee’ was nominated by Dennis Ringling, Marc Lewis, and Roy Siefert. Renee’ would like to thank these individuals for their nomination and the PFA for honoring her with this award.
I am both humbled and honored to receive the Rothrock Conservationist of the Year Award. I have been so proud to serve our communities and help champion the conservation efforts of NPC for the past 26 years. I look forward to many more years to come!