Underfoot: Life on a Rock

By: Susan Sprout

 A huge bolder standing in a rather flat area of woods caught my eye on our Earth Day rambles. I knew it was a glacial erratic because there were no other big rocks nearby. Ripped out of its bed and plucked up by a moving ice sheet, it was unceremoniously dumped there as the glacier melted.

Glacial Erratic

Thousands of years later, it has become a microcosm of lichens, mosses, grasses and trees. The non-living environment of the rock was a stable platform or substrate for lichens, typically the first organisms to colonize bare rock. Their physical and chemical processes dissolved minerals and built up soil as they lived and died. Mosses began living on the rock next when sufficient soil was available. Then came grasses and shrubs. Living and dying there, they provided more humus and soil to the rocky top.

Moss and lichen thrive on the rock’s surface.

OK, confession time…what really caught my attention as I passed by the rock… were the American Beech trees growing on top of it, like candles on a cake! Happy B-Earth Day! May all of the ecosystems on earth keep working for all of the organisms that share the planet and make it livable for each other! Humans, take note.

Catch up on past issues of Underfoot!

It’s About Time

By: Susan Sprout

How do you personally mark the passage of time? By the day, week, or month? By the seasons? By special family projects, events, or birthdays? From one Earth Day to another? No matter how you measured, Spring 2020 to Spring 2021 was an unusual year. For me, the time this year swelled and compressed from periods of inactivity to hyperactivity as it passed, slowing down indoors and speeding up near a deadline. Besides making music with my friends, one thing that kept me functioning and moderately sane, were  plants…those super wonderful plants that grabbed my attention on walks and hikes and forest rambles…the ones I photographed, researched and shared with you weekly. Now, many of them are already popping forth from their winter quarters and beginning to bloom! Wow! That was a quick year!

OK, maybe looking backwards!

A collection of some of the plant’s from the Underfoot series shared throughout the past year!

However, looking forward, please think about using native plants and trees in your yard and garden. Did you know that they have evolved over millions of years here and have specific habitat niches? Many have specific mycorrhizal partners in the soil that can more easily take minerals from underground and make them available to plants’ roots. They can then pass on the energy created in their leaves to the insects with which they share an evolutionary history. These insects are food for other native insects, spiders, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals. Feed our native wildlife with food plants that they can metabolize. Recharge the food web in your yard! We will all be glad you did!

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout!

Underfoot Directory
Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common RagweedPokeweed & Blue ChicoryPrickly Cucumber & WintergreenBeech Drops & Partridge BerryPipsissewa & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress TreeGalls & BittersweetAmerican Beech & BagwormSeedpods & American ChestnutNorthern Bayberry & Sweet FernBroom-sedge & Common Motherswort, Snow Drops.

The Worlds End Challenge

Last year NPC had planned to lead a group hike on the Butternut Trail at Worlds End State Park to celebrate the 30th anniversary.  Portions of the Butternut Trail traverse NPC’s ‘Flynn’ partnered acquisition.  NPC purchased the ‘Flynn’ property, over 600 acres of prime forest land, in 1993 to form the northern and eastern boundaries of Worlds End State Park.  While planning the hike, we realized the Endless Mountains Heritage Region (EMHR) was planning a similar hike on the same weekend as part of their Sullivan County Hikes and Bikers series:  The Worlds End Challenge.  So, naturally, we teamed up! 

Of course, the event was postponed last year due to COVID-19. Recently, EMHR reached out and asked if we’d lead the hike this year as part of The Worlds End Challenge. Their two-day event, May 22 – May 23, challenges hikers to visit every Worlds End State Park vista/overlook over the course of the weekend. 

Due to COVID-19 guidelines and current restrictions on EMHR/DCNR events, the event is limited to 50 people, so sign up fast! All guidelines, including masks and social distancing, will be applied where necessary.

Registration is $10. For more information and how to register, please visit:  www.emheritage.org/events.

Butternut Vista

For more information and how to register, please visit:  www.emheritage.org/events.

It’s official! NPC adds 112 Acres to the Loyalsock State Forest

It’s official!  The Bureau of Forestry has taken over ownership of the ‘Bar Bottom’ property.  This 112-acre addition to the Loyalsock State Forest has not only expanded public access to Bar Bottom Hollow and the surrounding public land, but also helped conserve the overall natural beauty of the Loyalsock Valley!

When the bidding started at the auction for the ‘Bar Bottom’ property last summer, THIS is the moment that Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) Executive Director, Renee’ Carey, was holding her breath for.  This full circle moment, from recognizing the community value and conservation significance of a piece of land, to ensuring that it will be cared for and available for generations to come.  And members of NPC made it all possible!  THANK YOU!

The banks of ‘Bar Bottom’ bordering the Loyalsock Creek. Photo credit: Ellen Shultzabarger

The incorporation of this land into the Loyalsock State Forest is significant because it makes it easier for outdoor recreationalists to access Bar Bottom Hollow and will help with management of this block of State Forest Land.  Located east of Jacoby Falls (another popular hiking destination that NPC helped conserve access to), Bar Bottom Hollow boasts several spectacular waterfalls throughout the gorge. Hikers can access the Hollow by hiking in from Jacoby Falls or Wallis Run (please note that there is no public way to access the property from the Route 87 side of the Creek).

A cold-water stream in which trout reproduce naturally also winds through the land before entering the Loyalsock Creek.  As part of the State Forest system, this water resource will be stewarded for the benefit of the wildlife that need it and the people that enjoy it.

To date, NPC has purchased over 6,400 acres to contribute to public land in northcentral Pennsylvania. In addition, NPC holds 47 conservation easements and 1 facade easement on over 4,735 acres.  Learn more about these projects.

Controlled Burn at Cavanaugh Access

The area of the Cavanaugh Access that now has a nature trail on it was once a marshy wetland that was changed to allow farming (celery and maybe lettuce), and further changed when a railroad was constructed down through the middle of it. Some of the vegetation that is there now is native, but some of it isn’t native. It isn’t native to Pennsylvania or perhaps even North America, but it’s sure there now!

One way to try to control and in some cases eliminate non-native vegetation is through controlled burns. These are not wildfires, but fires set during specific weather conditions in specific times of the year to add fire back into an ecosystem. This fire can allow native vegetation to re-set and possibly remove non-native vegetation. Fire was part of the ecosystem in Pennsylvania for thousands of years and isn’t as common as it once was.

As humans we have built things (houses, communities, etc.) and changed land cover (there’s a lot less forest cover than there used to be) so that fires are extinguished. In some places and in some instances a controlled fire can help an ecosystem re-start and help plants do what they are naturally designed to do.

The fire at the Cavanaugh Access earlier this week was a controlled burn conducted by the Bureau of Forestry and their trained staff. They train their staff to both use fire to manage land and fight fires when it’s accidentally started (lightening strikes, wayward campfire, etc.). One of the major causes of forest fires in Pennsylvania, however, is debris burning. A careless person burning trash or yard waste can be responsible for causing wildfires that burn thousands of acres of valuable Pennsylvania forests.

As you travel the Pine Creek Trail past the property, make it a point to watch how the property changes. Pay attention to when the property starts to get green and compare it to other areas along that stretch of the trail. Watch what vegetation comes back in, and what doesn’t. Enjoy watching nature do what it does best.

The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy Unveils New Logo

Season of Change

Spring.  A season of change, growth, and opportunity.  It brings with it the hope that from a small seedling can grow the tallest hemlock in the forest.  As its roots strengthen and its limbs stretch wide, its role in the forest evolves too.  Now it can provide shade, stability, nourishment, habitat, and help others grow as well.

Much like the seedling, the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) started as an idea and grew. 

From that very first town hall meeting to NPC’s first “official member” (a posthumous ‘thank you’, again, to Spencer Kraybill for paving the way!). 

From creating and enhancing public access to places like the beloved Pine Creek Rail Trail, to improving our local water quality through numerous streambank stabilization projects. 

From growing a conservation easement program responsible for stewarding over 4,700 acres across Northcentral PA, to most recently adding 112-acres of publicly owned land to the Loyalsock State Forest with the ‘Bar Bottom’ acquisition. Over the past 31 years, NPC’s legacy and conservation impact have continued to grow. 

Why the Change

Members and supporters of NPC, have helped do some amazing things over the years!  And just as NPC’s membership grew, so did NPC’s programs and ability to conserve our region’s natural resources for the well-being of our communities and generations to come. 

For the past several months, NPC’s board and staff have been working to create a new logo for the organization that is a more comprehensive visual representation of NPC’s mission and scope of projects. 

The original logo of the singular tree has served NPC well, and we are grateful for the roots that it helped NPC establish.  The new logo tells the story of everything NPC has grown to be.

A Message from NPC Board Chair, Tiffani Kase

“The Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy (NPC) logo has a new look, although the hard-working organization remains the same!  The new logo represents the expanded scope of NPC’s conservation impact across the region, and we are so grateful for the ongoing support of our membership.  Because of you, we are able to continue taking on projects, and conserving lands that support the environmental well-being, and recreational needs of, our communities.  Thank you so much for all of your support, and we hope that you enjoy the new logo as much as we do!”

Tiffani Kase, NPC Board Chair

NPC Today

From generational family farms, to working forests, and landscapes rich with history – NPC’s robust conservation easement program and partnered acquisitions help ensure that our natural resources are cared for and stewarded for many years to come. 

As a founding member of the Northcentral Stream Partnership, NPC is helping to bring the region’s local water resources back to health while maintaining a working agricultural landscape.  The Partnership’s success is currently being used as a model across the state as part of the ongoing efforts to improve the water quality throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay.

Food. Water.  Jobs.  Education. Heritage. Recreation. Nature nourishes our communities in so many ways.  This past year has demonstrated to all of us just how vital having access to the outdoors is for our mental and physical wellbeing.  NPC remains committed to creating and enhancing access to the hiking and water trails, fishing holes, vistas, and other recreational opportunities that make Northcentral PA such a special place to live, work, play, and visit. 

Underfoot: Broom-sedge & Common Motherswort

By: Susan Sprout

Broom-sedge is a clump-forming bluestem grass – it’s not a sedge at all! Native to southeastern United States, it can survive northward to the Great Lakes. Growing two to three feet tall in a narrow, upright vase-shape, its withered vegetation which has withstood the winter is more obvious and frequently more striking than in summer.

Member of the Grass Family, POACEAE, the genus of bluestem grasses is Andropogon, the Greek names for “man’s beard”. Seed earlets with a long hairy bristle and feathery stalks give these grasses a soft whitish color when the sun shines on them. Their hairy appearance diminishes as winds and small birds remove seeds.

You can find clumps of this perennial grass scattered here and there across sunny pastures, in old fields ,and along open woods. They are invaders of disturbed land and have dense fibrous roots helpful against erosion, but may also be an indicator of poor, infertile soils.

In Australia, our broom-sedge is known as “whiskey grass” because it was used as packaging around bottles of American whiskey and accidentally introduced there!

Common Motherswort
Keep your gloves on when you reach out to touch this plant’s burr-like seed pods whirled around its stem! Common Motherswort has a prickly quality about it, both during its growing season and as an attractive addition to the winter snowscape.

Its square stem appears to be interrupted with clusters of small tubes, working their way to the top of an almost five foot flower spike. If you look closely, you can see the tiny, but determined, prickles surrounding each tube that had originally held seeds. Identified as a medicine plant since the time of the ancient Greeks, Motherswort was moved around a lot in Europe and Asia. It came to America with colonists as a useful plant for female disorders, hence the name. The “Wort” part comes from an Old English word meaning root or plant.

A member of the Mint Family, LAMIACEAE, Motherswort has the required square stem, opposite leaves, and scented leaves. Its scientific name, Leonurus cardiaca, indicates that some folks thought its tall, leafy stem resembled a lion’s tail. Think of that if you go to pull this plant from its preferred habitat of stream banks and roadsides, old fields and railroad cinders!

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common RagweedPokeweed & Blue ChicoryPrickly Cucumber & WintergreenBeech Drops & Partridge BerryPipsissewa & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress TreeGalls & BittersweetAmerican Beech & BagwormSeedpods & American Chestnut, Northern Bayberry & Sweet Fern.

Melting Snow on the Mind

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…

The cold weather didn’t stop someone from enjoying a stroll along Sechler Run! We’re sure looking forward to comparing this snowy scene to blooming wildflowers at this streambank stabilization project site!
Daydreaming about splashing around in this local watering hole and paddling Pine Creek. We can’t wait until the snow melts so that you can take advantage of the new parking area and access improvements that were installed at the canoe launch in Avis last fall!

With the warmer temperatures today and subsequent melting snow, we’re not just daydreaming about spring blooms and paddles, but also taking a moment to appreciate the importance of snow and forests to Pennsylvania’s stream and groundwater.

The melting snow also means we’ll be able to resume more in-stream project work with the Northcentral Stream Partnership, in the coming weeks!

What does melting snow mean to you?!

Underfoot: Northern Bayberry & Sweet Fern

By: Susan Sprout

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.

Northern Bayberry

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.

Northern Bayberry branch

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.

Sweet Fern in winter.

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.

October leaves of Sweet Fern.

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.

Find out what’s underfoot with NPC member and environmental educator, Susan Sprout! Catch up on past issues of Underfoot: Introduction & BloodrootTrout Lily & ColtsfootBlue Cohosh & Dutchman’s BreechesGround Ivy & Forget-Me-NotsGoldthread & Wild GingerCommon Mullein & Sweet WoodruffAniseroot & Butterfly WeedMyself Jewelweed & SoapwortAmerican Pennyroyal & Great LobeliaBoneset & Common RagweedPokeweed & Blue ChicoryPrickly Cucumber & WintergreenBeech Drops & Partridge BerryPipsissewa & NostocWitch HazelPlantsgivingBlack Jetbead & Decorating with WinterberryWild Bergamot & Bald Cypress TreeGalls & BittersweetAmerican Beech & Bagworm, Seedpods & American Chestnut.

Get Ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count!

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!

Learn more about how to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count!

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 Cardinal
Northern Cardinal

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.

Audubon and National Geographic both have some great information on the Northern Cardinal and its range.  You can also visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s YouTube channel to hear the Northern Cardinal’s song.

Black-Capped Chickadee
Black-capped chickadee
Photo: John Pizniur Audubon Photography Award

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.

For information on black-capped chickadee habitat, bird’s song and more, visit these additional resources: Cornell Lab of OrnithologyNational Geographic, and Birdzilla

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

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.

For information on downy woodpecker habitat, bird’s song and more, visit these additional resources: Cornell Ornithology Lab, National Geographic’s website or Audubon.

Tufted Titmice
Tufted titmice

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.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a recording of the tufted titmouse’s song on their website.  If you visit National Geographic’s website you’ll see drawings of a juvenile and adult as well as a map showing their range.