Cedar Waxwing

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!


The bleak winter landscape magnifies any burst of color, movement or noise. A cardinal flying overhead, the evergreen pine stand and the red fox scampering by are a few that make the Wintergreen winter landscape special. My favorite flash of color and movement comes from the onslaught of cedar waxwings descending on the rare plants still bearing fruit in the winter. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the world of my favorite bird, the cedar waxwing.

The cedar waxwing displays distinct plumage that makes identification easy for novice birders. This handsome bird has a black mask surrounding its eyes with a peachy brown head and chest, a yellow belly, and yellow-tipped tail feathers. They also have bright red tips on their secondary tail feathers. This unique and colorful plumage stands out greatly amongst a winter landscape. This bird is a gregarious creature especially in the migration period into the winter months. Winter flocks can range from hundreds to thousands and form nomadic groups in search of winter food sources. These enormous noisy flocks grow, shrink, divide, and rejoin in flight similar to starling movements.

 

 

The cedar waxwing derives its name from its love for a particular woody plant, the cedar or in our particular area the eastern red cedar. More specifically it is named for its love of the cedar berries that form a prominent part of its diet. The preferred food of cedar waxwings is berries of any sort. They descend in mass upon a fruit bearing tree or plant and stirp it bare and depart in search of their next food source. Their preferred fruits in our area are cedar, holly, serviceberry, choke cherry, mulberry, hawthorn and persimmon. They are also prolific spreaders of invasive species due to their feeding on autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle fruit. They will also prey on insects, especially in summer. Their love for berries can cause a unique problem…drunk birds. Berries in late winter often undergo fermentation which causes problems to small creatures such as cedar waxwings and robins that gorge on overripe fruit. The resulting compromised behavior causes them to behave in a confused manner that results in them flying into cars and windows at a disturbing rate.

Cedar waxwings live in open wooded areas, along forest edges, open fields and are increasingly found in towns and cities. In winter, flocks are most commonly found in open woodlands, parks, gardens, and second growth forests in search of berries to meet their dietary needs. This is the time period they are easiest to find, as they stray from closed forest environments into our patchwork of developments seeking any offerings of fruit.

Their voice is also very distinctive and aids in the identification process. They have two common calls: a high-pitched zeeee and a longer, high pure seeee. Cedar waxwings call often, especially in flight. Unlike the roughly 5000 other songbird species, cedar waxwings have no song.

Of all the birds seen at Wintergreen in winter, none are a more welcome sight than a flock of cedar waxwings descending onto a fruit-laden tree like a persimmon. Their distinct plumage, sound and movement are a welcome break in the drab winter landscape. If you have plants or trees still holding onto fruit this winter, keep vigilant to catch a flock of gorgeous cedar waxwing feasting on your fruit offering.

Wacky Weather

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!


As I sit and listen to ice bouncing off my roof wishing instead for idyllic snowfall, I ponder the oddity that is Virginia winter weather. Virginia climate gradients are fascinating as you head from west to east or north to south. Few states can match the diversity of weather found in the great commonwealth. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the dynamics of the climate in Virginia.

Virginia is made up of six different climate regions: Tidewater, Eastern Piedmont, Western Piedmont, Northern, Central Mountain, and the Southwestern Mountain region. The uniqueness of Wintergreen is that it straddles two regions, the Western Piedmont and the Central Mountain regions. The Piedmont features long growing seasons with few dips into the subzero range while the Central Mountain region features the driest areas in the state (portions of the Shenandoah Valley) and the snowiest (Highland County) and thus features a harsher climate overall.

 

 

Three primary factors control the overall climate of Virginia: the Gulf Stream, the high relief of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, and the complex system of river and streams. The Gulf Stream plays a dominant role in our precipitation climate. Winter storms generally track from west to east and begin a northeastern movement paralleling the boundary between the cold land and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Blue Ridge Mountains are often the recipient of a bounty of snow dumping when these two forces meet. The three biggest snow events in Virginia recorded history occurred in Madison, Warren and Page County, all three counties abutting or straddling the Blue Ridge. The biggest snow event was a 3-day 49-inch dumping at Big Meadows in 1996. That same snow event dumped 30 inches of snow at Montebello in 1996.

 

 

The high relief of the mountains of Virginia has a huge influence on precipitation throughout the state. When air flows from the west, the Shenandoah and New River valleys are in the rain shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. When the air flows from the east, they are in the rain shadow of the Blue Ridge. The result is these two valleys are the driest areas in the state. This high relief played a large role in the 1969 record rainfall of 27+ inches from Hurricane Camille being slowed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The third climate control is the complex pattern of rivers and streams that modify the pattern of moist airflow. The river systems drain the commonwealth in all four geographic directions. The Clinch and Holsten drain the Southwest to the south, the New River drains to the west, the Shenandoah drains to the north and the James, York, Rappahannock, and Roanoke all drain to the east. Air that flows through Virginia will go up a certain river valley and crest over the ridge down into another river system. It will generally dump its precipitation on the upward charge and be depleted by the time it surges down into the next river valley.

These factors lead to the havoc that is a winter storm at Wintergreen. Being at the edge of two climate regions as distinct as the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont, along with sitting on two different river drainages (the northwest portion of Wintergreen drains into the Potomac basin while the rest drains into the James River basin), makes the winter storm options fascinating. Add an elevation change of approximately 3000 feet from Devils Knob to Stoney Creek, and the resulting temperature gradient means different conditions within the same storm. The beauty of living at Wintergreen is that if you don’t like the conditions feel free to journey to another part of the property and you are bound to find conditions more suitable to your liking.

Bark Damage Phenomenon

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!


Quite often I get sent pictures to identify, ranging from birds, trees, bugs and everything in between. I got one last week that had me stumped for a bit but the answer was quite interesting. The picture was of squares cut or chewed into the bark on a small tree. This Nine Minute Naturalist will unwrap the mystery of this particular bark damage phenomena.

 

Bark damage

 

The series of squares cut into the bark of the tree were a result of two different attacks on the bark. The initial wound in the bark is a result of a wary feathered friend of ours the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This migratory bird, that spends its winter in Virginia, feeds primarily on sap from over 1000 variety of woody plants. Their search for sap results in an organized line of sapwells easily recognized from a distance. The sapsucker licks the sap and feeds on the cambium of the tree as well. They sometimes create rectangular holes which must be maintained continually to use as a food source. Their preferred trees are maples and birches. Their sapwells rarely cause long-term damage but have been known to girdle smaller woody plants.

 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

 

The second source of damage is attracted to the flowing sap. The wound in the tree attracts hornets that enlarge the holes in search of cellulose to increase their nests. The common culprit in our area is the European hornet, which was introduced in North America around 200 years ago. This large hornet is primarily nocturnal and is rarely seen causing damage in the daylight. Once night falls, the workers emerge from their hidden nests to collect cellulose or food such as crickets, grasshoppers, bees, flies and caterpillars. Another culprit is the bald-faced hornet. These large paper wasps create giant cardboard nests in trees and can be aggressive protectors of their nest area. This black and white patterned wasp is active in the daytime hours and can be seen actively stripping bark to get at the cambium layer for nesting materials.

 

Bald-faced hornet

 

Many problems such as this bark damage or diseases such as beech bark disease are complexes, meaning it is a combination of factors that cause the particular problem. So often in the natural world factors work together for good or bad results. In this case we have different species attacking two different parts of the tree to cause damage. The next time you wander the woods at Wintergreen make sure you impress your hiking partner with your knowledge of the natural world.

Winter Vistas

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!


Once the winter winds arrive and rid the trees of their leaves, hiking season has officially changed. This does not mean the time has arrived to put your boots away for the season. It means familiar trails get a makeover of sorts and almost every mountainside trail now features winter vistas. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on familiar trails that improve with the arrival of winter.

The Wintergreen trail system offers some lovely options for winter vistas. My favorite winter improved trail is the Devils Knob Trail. This trail is the highest elevation trailhead at Wintergreen and has multiple outcrops that become prominent without foliage. This trail can be combined with either White Oak Trail or Pond Hollow Trail to increase your vista count. Plan accordingly if you continue downhill on White Oak or Pond Hollow or you will have a long uphill walk back to your vehicle. This trail is difficult and becomes even trickier when wet so take precautions. Another winter favorite of mine is the Blackrock/Brimstone “loop”. I like to start this hike by parking at the Pedlars Edge Access trailhead. Descend the access trail and proceed up the Blackrock Trail at the trail intersection. Follow the trail as it rollercoasters over the rocks along these difficult trails. The effort is rewarded with constant views into the Rockfish Valley. After a magnificent vista on Brimstone, you will shortly enter a mt. laurel thicket which leads you to the Fortune’s Ridge Access. Take a right onto the yellow blazed portion of this trail and it brings you to Blackrock Drive. Take a right and walk a short distance down Blackrock Drive to your vehicle. This trail is very difficult but you are handsomely rewarded for your time and effort.

 

 

A great local option for winter hike is the White Rock Falls/Slacks Trail loop. This hike is accessed off the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can park at either the White Rock Gap (MM 18.5) or Slacks Overlook parking area (MM 19.9). I like to descend on the yellow blazed White Rock Falls trail from either parking area. This trail will feature waterfalls and winter vistas. Follow this across the Blue Ridge Parkway and connect with the blue blazed Slacks Trail. This portion of the Slacks Trail has great winter views and will lead you back to your car.

 

 

The trail I believe improves the most in the winter is Fortune’s Cove Preserve. This property, owned by The Nature Conservancy, has good views during full foliage but is spectacular when the leaves hit the ground. To get to the trailhead use Rt. 651 off of Rt. 29 in Lovingston. The hike features two loops, the inner and the outer loops. I prefer the outer loop which is more difficult but gets the hiker to much higher elevations thus providing almost constant viewsheds as you walk. I suggest going counterclockwise around the loop but be prepared to climb quickly. Once you near the northern portion of the trail you will get wonderful views of The Priest, Three Ridges and Wintergreen. Make sure to spend a bit of time at the American chestnut experimental plantation adjacent to the parking area. Dogs are not permitted in the preserve.

 

 

Do not be daunted by cold weather and bleak forests but instead seek the opportunities that the winter brings. Winter hiking is bug free, less crowded and best of all, offers unique vistas not available for large portions of the year. Get out and find your winter vista!

Choosing the Right Tree

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!


Turkey day is past and next comes the Christmas holiday. My family is fascinatingly quick to turn their attention to finding the perfect tree to add that holiday feel and smell to the house. Being a lover of trees, few things interest me more about the holidays than scouring a scenic farm searching through the numerous options. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will feature all you would ever need to know about Christmas trees.

While we are not in the true heart of Christmas tree country, Virginia is a major producer of quality trees that get shipped across the nation. The biggest Christmas tree producing county in the state is Grayson County, in the southwest portion of the state. Grayson County borders the number one tree producing county in the nation, Ashe County, North Carolina. Ashe County harvests over 2 million trees per year edging Clackamas County, Oregon for the top spot in the country. The other major producing states are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine. All these states share some similarities that make them prime locations for production. They all have certain climate, topographical and soil factors that make them ideal for certain species of trees. A few factors are similar for all variety of trees. Generally, they prefer well drained soil on a moderate slope with soils having a 5.5 to 6.5 ph. Once these site requirements are met then any variety is an option.

 

Fraser fir

 

Fir trees are the number one type of tree produced in the United States. They are identified by their flat, soft needles that run singly along the twigs and branches. They are also preferred by tree growers because of their strong branches that are perfect for holding ornaments. The most coveted fir is the Fraser fir. This species is native to the highlands of North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia from 4000 to 6000 ft in elevation. This tree is adored by the Christmas tree industry due to its hardy nature which allows it to be shipped around the country. It also has excellent needle retention and a lovely fragrance. Balsam fir is native to the eastern U.S. and can be found at the highest elevations of Virginia and West Virginia. Balsam firs prefer cooler climates than Fraser fir. Balsam is known for its green color and pleasant smell. Douglas fir is the most commonly planted tree in the western portion of the U.S. and is adored due to its lovely scent. Another western species that can be found at tree farms across Virginia is concolor fir. This species prefers a warmer climate that makes Virginia a good growing area. It distinguishes itself from the other firs by its silvery blue color and longer needles (1.5-2.5 in).

 

Whitepine

 

Pine trees are commonly planted in Virginia due to their superior growth rates and ability to be established in a wide variety of soil types and elevations. They have great needle retention and a pleasing scent. The most common pine used in the Christmas tree trade is the eastern white pine. They have a lovely silver-green color, soft needles and good needle retention. Those that love bushy, full trees tend to gravitate to white pines. Scotch pines, native to Europe, have been commonly planted in the U.S. for the past century. They are hardy and can withstand a variety of climates. It is a preferred pine species because of its stiff branches and water retention after being cut. It also has a long lingering scent that lasts through the holiday season.

For those that like to enter their wood lot and cut a naturally grown tree, there are a few preferred varieties. Eastern red-cedar are a good choice in the southern U.S. It has a good shape, strong fragrance and a shiny green color with prickly needles. Eastern white pine can be found in some wood lots in Virginia but is more common as you head north. For the perfect “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree look, I recommend our native Virginia pine. It is found abundantly through our area and has good green-gray color and stiff branches.

You are now prepared to head to your favorite Christmas tree lot or cut-your-own farm and be a discerning buyer. We are blessed to be laden with good farms to explore in Nelson County so get your mug of cocoa and head out to the countryside and find the perfect tree to makes your holiday decorating complete.