Time to Go to Bed

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


While the symbol of the resort and The Nature Foundation is a lovely wintergreen plant, our mascot would undoubtably be the black bear. Despite being a constant presence around our homes and on the trails, the black bear is about to make itself scarce. As cold weather begins to bombard us from the cold north, black bears are about to begin their winter rest. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will examine the hibernation of the black bear.

 

 

The word hibernation often causes confusion when in reference to black bears. True hibernators have a specialized reduction in their metabolism along with several other bodily changes such as lower heart rates, constriction of blood vessels, reduced breathing and lower oxygen consumption. Many true hibernators will drop their body temperatures to near freezing. Black bears, which are not true hibernators, only reduce their body temperature 10-15 degrees during their period of torpor. As a result, they are much more wakeful hibernators and will leave den sites if disturbed or if there is a prolonged stretch of warm weather. No matter if it is referred to hibernation or torpor, bears do enter a period of prolonged physical inactivity.

A period of preparation is vital for every black bear. In order to prepare for a long torpor, the black bear must store fat in volume. Bears will seek to gain 1-2 lbs per day during the fall in order to prepare of the winter. The key attribute for successfully making it through the food drought of winter is acorns. During heavy acorn mast years, bears will gain up to 100lbs in the fall. When acorn production is light, black bears will seek other sources such as apples, cherries, peaches and cultivated corn. As the food supply dwindles and the cold weather arrives, bears begin to head to den sites.

The preferred den sites tend to be hollow trees, rock cavities, brush piles and ground dens. Black bears in the western portion of Virginia prefer large, hollow trees and have been found as high as 95 feet off the ground. Dens are entered from November to early January depending on food supply and arrival of winter weather. Once the den site is entered, black bears are able to go the entire time in den without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating. Bears may lose up to 30% of their body weight over the winter. The unique ability of bears to awake from a torpor state allows for females to give birth while in den. Newborn cubs do not hibernate but instead nurse and sleep while the mother is in the torpor state. The mother bear will not leave the den until spring when the cubs are able to walk and follow their mother to food.

 

 

The hibernation period comes to an end for males from mid-March to mid-April and in early May for female bears with cubs. When bears emerge from their den, quenching hunger is their main focus. Spring is not the ideal time to be starving and it causes the bears to frantically search for food. Insects and grubs are a preferred protein source in early spring. Bears will feed heavily on emerging shoots of grasses, leaf buds, and skunk cabbage. Spring is also a time they will be active predators. Baby deer fawns make a desired meal if they can be found. It is also a prime time for bear human interaction. It is essential to monitor your behavior around your house by mid-March. Once bears leave the den they are looking for whatever they can eat and your house is as good a source as any other. Make sure bird feeders are put away by April 1, but it may need to happen sooner depending on your location and the weather.

The time is coming for bears to go to bed for the winter. While this allows for homeowners in bear country to be less diligent with food sources, keep in mind that bears are not beholden to set times or parameters. The bears’ inactivity can end at any time, and we need to be prepared to alter our behavior in response.

Turkey Talk

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


November is rushing by and quickly approaching the time of year our minds and stomachs dwell on the wonderful wild turkey. Once Ben Franklin’s preferred symbol for America, the turkey is a respected and important part of our ecosystem. This Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on the life and history of this unique bird that gracefully moves about the Wintergreen landscape.

The eastern wild turkey has been an important aspect to all people groups occupying the eastern forests of North America. Native Americans used turkey as a food source and relied on the feathers for cloaks and religious attire/rituals. Evidence shows Native Americans domesticated the bird to allow for an easy source of protein and feathers. The forest management by Native Americans, consisting of frequent fires to control the understory, allowed for the robust turkey population encountered by Europeans upon landing on the shores of North America.

 

 

The first European settlers included wild turkey as primary food source. As colonization increased, wild turkey became a commercial food source. This abundant pressure, along with land use change from forest to farming, caused wild turkeys’ populations to hit an all time low in the early 20th century. This prompted laws in Virginia outlawing the commercial sale of wild turkey in 1912. The game department of Virginia was created in 1916 to manage the game species in peril throughout Virginia. From 1929 to 1993, restocking measures were introduced to assist the recovery of wild turkey. There are now healthy turkey populations in all parts of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The eastern wild turkey is ideally suited for life in the oak-hickory forests that dominate the landscape at Wintergreen. This large, ground bird spends its day walking the forest in search of acorns of all sorts, beech and hickory nuts, seeds from a variety of other sources such as grass, berries and other supplemental options such as salamanders, insects and snails. At night, groups of turkey take to the air to roost in the branches of mature trees, preferably pine trees. A mature turkey has few natural predators due to its many advantages. The eyesight of turkey is three times better than a human and can even see into the UV light spectrum. Combine this with a 270-degree field of view and you have an animal very hard to sneak up on. When trouble is spotted, they have the option to take off via foot or feather. They can run up to 25 mph and fly up to 55 mph.

The courtship period for turkeys is late March to early April in Virginia. The strutting male turkey is a fun encounter for any lucky outdoorsman. The adult male display is accomplished by puffing out of the feathers, fanning out their tail feathers and dragging their wings. The dominant male breeds with multiple mates. Egg laying begins in mid-April to early May and hatching occurs 28 days later. Chicks are raised by the mother, following her around eating seeds, berries and insects. During this period of their life, turkeys are most vulnerable to predation. Bobcats, coyotes, fox, raccoons and hawks are the primary predators of turkey poults.

 

 

Getting a glimpse of turkeys in the wilds of Wintergreen is not a simple task. The key is to first find evidence of their activity. The best clues left in the backcountry will be areas scratched by a flock of turkey. Turkey will find a promising area for mast or insects and scrap the leaves off the ground in search of food. Finding a freshly scratched area is a great clue to turkeys in the vicinity. A few trails to find turkey on are Cedar Cliff Main, Lower Shamokin Falls and Pedlars Edge. These trails take you through varied terrain that has great scratch locations for turkey to frequent in their search for a meal.

When you sit to feast with family or friends this Thanksgiving, dwell on the uniqueness that is the eastern wild turkey. When the meal is complete, burn off all those calories on our trail system in search of this elusive creature in the wilds of Wintergreen.

The Snake Den

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


There are few autumnal phenomena that are more fascinating, in a creepy, crawly way, than the movement of serpents into communal snake dens. The Appalachian Mountain chain, especially in the Central Virginia region, is home to many interspecies snake dens that are sure to increase the anxiety level in even the most ardent woodsmen. This Nine Minute Naturalist will explore the fall migration of snakes into snake dens.

As are most seasonal phenomena, the changing day length signals the need for snakes to move towards winter abodes, while weather conditions will trigger the actual entrance into the snake den for the winter.  Due to snakes being ectotherms, animals that depend on external heat sources, they are in a race against the first hard frost of the year. Being caught by a sudden cold snap can prove fatal if not within the reach of a suitable den or secondary den. Snakes do not hibernate but instead become much less active, a state called brumation. Brumation is an extreme slowdown of the metabolism. In preparation for brumation, snakes use pre-frost fall to actively feed to prepare their bodies for the long fast of winter. A snake insufficiently fattened for winter will struggle to survive. Snake brumation in the Blue Ridge lasts for half the year. Snakes tend to enter dens by early October and emerge in April.

 

Rattlesnake

 

The timber rattlesnake is known for its tendency to form large groups in winter den sites.  These den sites act as the central focus in the life history of timber rattlesnakes. These ancestral dens tend to meet certain characteristics. They are usually south facing near forest openings to maximize sun exposure. Dens tend to be found in rock caves or crevices that are deep enough to be protected from frost. Most den sites studied average about 30 snakes but can be as large as 120-200 in extreme cases. These dens host not only rattlesnakes but occasionally black rat, black racers, northern copperhead, and eastern garter snakes. Studies have shown these dens tend to be well spaced about our landscape averaging about 1.1 miles apart.

 

Snake den

 

The brumation period, like all good things, must come to an end. The warming, longer days trigger the process of returning to their hunting grounds. Once days begin to average 60 F, the community of snakes begin to go their separate ways. The average distance rattlesnakes migrate away from dens is .5 to 1 mile. Males tend to expand their range most significantly and can travel up to 5 miles in search of a mate.

Wintergreen and our surrounding portion of the Blue Ridge range are home to numerous denning sites. Years ago, we hosted William “Marty” Martin, a renowned biologist specializing in rattlesnakes, for a Spring Wildflower Symposium. He toured with a small group of adventurous participants to nearby sites in search of den sites. Years of experience hunting for snake dens has given him a sixth sense for snakes, and within a short time we found multiple locations brimming with timber rattlesnakes.

While the idea of a mass gathering of rattlesnakes makes the majority of people squeamish, these population centers are vital to sustaining the population of timber rattlesnakes throughout their range. Disturbance of den sites or killing of rattlesnakes on sight were major causes of population crash from 1940s-1990s. While the population in Virginia is stable, the majority of the northeast state’s population levels are critically low. If you come across a snake den at Wintergreen or even a lone rattlesnake (where it could be a danger to humans) contact The Nature Foundation, and we will be sure to check it out quickly.

 

My Nature Foundation at Wintergreen 2020 Summer Internship
by Sarah Leopard, Environmental Science Major – University of Virginia

 

For many, the summer of 2020 will be remembered as a time of uncertainty and fear amid an impending pandemic. Yet seemingly more so than ever before, people are returning to nature as a source of peace and reassurance during these unpredictable times. A hike in the outdoors is not only a refuge for those who have become exceedingly antsy during the months of quarantine, but an opportunity to reconsider our values, including how we treat the natural world around us. As an intern at the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen, this idea of finding tranquility in nature arose as a recurring theme throughout the summer. The concept of returning to nature initially inspired Kathie Driscoll – our Education Director here at the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen – and I to design an outdoor kids activity at the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve, the Detective Challenge Course. We designed this scavenger hunt to be an entertaining and easy way for kids to explore our trails, hiding clues along the trail that when pieced together, form a secret code. For those who were able to crack the code, not only did they enjoy an exciting outdoor adventure, but they were also rewarded with a prize. I was eager to play a part in encouraging outdoor exploration by aiding in the design and creation of the challenge course and associated brochure. Our hopes were to inspire a sense of not only adventure, but an appreciation for the outdoors as a place of consistency during these tumultuous times.

Seeing others share the same appreciation for the natural world is every environmentalist’s dream. As an intern of Kathie’s, I often assisted in educational efforts, such as the design of our upcoming Crystal Structure display. Once the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen is once again open to the public, visitors can enjoy a display that showcases the varying molecular structures that crystals may take shape to, as well as the key aspects of the rock cycle. For this display, I created wooden crystal structure models and with the help of Kathie, found crystal examples from each structure type. Hopefully others will share my love for geology and enjoy this new exhibit! The crystal structure display isn’t the only new display in the Robin’s Nook, Kathie and I started on creating educational materials on honey bees as well. This display will include games, a brood box outlining developmental stages, as well as specimens, such as beeswax. However, as school systems transitioned to online learning formats, here at the Nature Foundation we too have had to adapt our educational programs. To help with efforts to provide educational materials for the Nelson County Public Schools’s science curriculum, Kathie and I recorded a series of virtual lectures. I was happy to be of help to teaching staff during this difficult time and enjoyed aiding in video-lectures that covered topics from matter to animal and plant cell classifications. In addition, Kathie and I were thrilled to provide an online lecture on gravity to Amherst Library’s Summer Reading Program as part of an effort to keep kids engaged with science reading materials. Presenting and educating in an online format may be a new skill for many, but if anything the pandemic has shown us how willing and empowering our ability to adapt to the most unforeseen changes can be.

While much of the world began to find solace in nature, I too expanded my knowledge of and appreciation for the natural world. Weekly training sessions with Josh Palumbo – our Forest Manager – and nature enthusiast and volunteer, Chip, sharpened my plant-identification skills and appreciation for the diversity of wildlife at Wintergreen. Training topics included: botany, fern identification, geology of Wintergreen, as well as identification of woody species. Along with the wonderful scenery of Wintergreen, I enjoyed the atmosphere of shared curiosity in sustainability and environmental matters. As an opportunity to practice my public speaking skills, I was asked to present to a group of nature-enthusiasts via zoom on sustainability in agriculture. This presentation included a discussion of my experience in sustainable agriculture, having interned in the past at Morven Kitchen Garden – a primarily student-run garden in Charlottesville-as well as topics of innovation in agriculture and ways to support sustainable gardening practices. Not only was I excited to share my experience with student-run gardening, but I was delighted to have this presentation be so warmly accepted by its audience. One can assuredly find a sense of community up here on the mountain, with many sharing a love for and interest in its unique ecological diversity.

This has been a busy summer, from aiding with the planning of educational programs and materials to sharpening my plant-identification skills. From this internship here at The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen I have not only learned about the wildlife around me, but have gained crucial skills in regards to promotion and coordination of events. Additionally, I have learned to cultivate my skills with presenting and sharing knowledge on environmental matters. Some unanticipated skills have also been acquired, such as adapting to an educational format that is primarily virtual. Throughout the internship I have experienced countless adventures including participating in a deer survey, joining on weekly hikes, and even a canoe trip. This will undoubtedly be a memorable summer for many, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but I am grateful that this experience was as adventurous and educational as it was. With great enthusiasm, I will be sure to visit Wintergreen and its unique beauty in the near future!