Seeking Sheds

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!


Antlers are fascinating to me. They are the fastest growing mammal tissue on earth and they come in all sort of shapes and sizes. A fun activity I pursue every March is the search for antlers or “sheds”. Each winter, male white-tailed deer drop their antlers in the woods and I take it as a challenge to try to find them. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will take you on a deep dive into the world of shed hunting.

The antler process begins in April when male white-tailed deer begin rapidly growing tissue on top of their heads. Growth is completed by late summer. During this time the antlers are covered in “velvet”, a soft skin containing blood vessels and nervous tissues that supply oxygen and nutrients to the fast-growing tissue. Once growth is completed, this velvet dries up and is rubbed off by the deer on any small woody plant in their path. The mating season is what the antlers are needed for as they aid in determining hierarchy and securing a mate. Once the mating season is a distant memory, the antlers have lost purpose and are just a cumbersome drain on energy. Cells called osteoclasts destroy the connection between the antlers and the skull and the deer will shed the antlers. Antlers are rarely dropped at the same time but are usually dropped within the same week. Bucks will use hard objects such as trees or rocks to detach the antlers. Antlers are shed from late December through March depending on the particular buck. When the calendar turns to March the hunt for antlers begins.

 

 

The search for sheds, in a forest such as Wintergreen, is not for the faint of heart. Difficult terrain and dense foliage make the search extra challenging. Naturally, bucks that have escaped the fall deer harvest are a wary reclusive bunch that prefer the hermit life once mating season is over. This means they will spend the majority of their time during the shedding season in tough to find locals. Here are my tips for seeking sheds.

First, go slow. This is not a fast process but instead a process requiring plenty of patience and willingness to explore. Plan to cover plenty of acreage and make sure you stop frequently and canvas the terrain visually.

Target south and southeast facing slopes at Wintergreen. Deer prefer to rest and digest where the sun will warm them naturally. The aspect is important and will also lead you to more of their bedding areas.

The bedding areas are my favorite and most successful spots to find sheds. At Wintergreen, the majority of buck bedding areas tend to be the thickest, gnarliest areas on the mountain. I key in on mt. laurel stands on ridges. Bucks like to hang out on ridge lines because it offers multiple escape options that can be deployed quickly. The mt. laurel stands offer the cover they often seek in bedding sites. Try to find trails on a ridge leading into mt. laurel thickets. This edge of thicket territory is a great spot to locate antlers. If you are feeling extra adventurous, don’t shy away from entering a thicket in search of sheds.

 

 

 

A primary technique I use in searching for sheds is just finding a deer trail (a well-worn path in the woods with deer poop on it is the best clue) and walking it for a long way. This will give you either clues on where to look or will lead you to the occasional antler.

Don’t be afraid to use winter weather to your advantage. Snow, while making walking in mountainous terrain difficult, shows you all the deer movements you could hope for. When the snow melts, go back to locations that looked promising and you will increase your chances to find an antler or two.

My last piece of advice is to get out and search for sheds before the greenery erupts out of the soil. Our landscape becomes incredibly thick by summer and the time to hunt sheds will have closed quickly.

Seeking sheds is a lovely way to welcome the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It welcomes a slow, thoughtful walk through the woods and the payoff is tangible. Enjoy!

Winter Wonders

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!


Nature seems to constantly throw curveballs. The other day while walking through the snow I looked down to investigate a little black object and was shocked to find an insect crawling atop the snow. This Nine Minute Naturalist will explore insects and arachnids defying freezing temperatures to be active in the winter months.

Most insects and arachnids survive winter in a state of suspended animation that breaks when stable warmer weather arrives. They survive buried in the leaf litter, in egg form or in a variety of other methods to best exploit their environment for survival. Some, such as the monarch butterfly, flee toward more suitable locations. Some annoying species, such as the Asian lady beetle, or the brown marmorated stink bug, find your house the ideal winter abode. Then there are the few creepy crawlies that are adapted to being active in freezing conditions. These insects or arachnids that actively survive in sub-freezing temperatures produce antifreeze-like compounds such as glycerol, proteins and sugars that allow their body fluids to resist temperatures well below their freezing point.

 

Winter stonefly

 

One of the most common to find at Wintergreen, especially near our waterways, is the winter stonefly. The immature stages of the winter stonefly live in water, but the adult stage emerges from the water in winter and begins to walk the frozen landscape in search of a mate. Although they have wings, winter stoneflies rarely fly due to the temperatures and can accomplish their mission on the ground. Due to their being much fewer predators in the winter, their sluggish movements have fewer dire consequences in the colder months.

Snow fleas are quite the sight when they emerge onto the snow in masse. Although not terribly common at Wintergreen, the unique finding of hordes of tiny black specks moving on top of the snow is quite memorable. These hexapods are not fleas but instead fall into the insect order Collembola commonly called springtails. They will emerge from the soil litter on warm sunny winter days and become easily found in snow cover. They are thought to be eating algae on the surface of the snow.

Snow flies are a wingless insect related to the crane fly that can be found atop the snow-covered countryside at Wintergreen. They are not believed to feed during their stay atop the winter landscape but have been seen using their proboscis to obtain water from the snow.

 

Dwarf spider

 

One predator that also uses anti-freeze techniques is the spider. While up to 85% of spiders go dormant in the winter, some species such as the dwarf spider or red sheetweaver spider will thrive in the winter on insect species mentioned above. There is very little competition for food in the winter months and thus a diet of springtails, stoneflies and snow flies is sufficient to keep these arachnids alive in sub-freezing conditions.

A walk in the woods at Wintergreen is always bound to provide something of interest. Few things are more unexpected and intriguing than insects walking atop a field of snow. Make sure the next time you are in the snow-covered woods to keep your eyes peeled for the unexpected.

Roadside Raptors

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 my wife can attest, I have a bad habit of trying to identify wildlife surrounding every roadside I drive. Few sights take my attention from the road, where it should be, to the roadside faster than a raptor perched on a telephone wire or hovering over a field. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will discuss the common raptors found along our roadsides and the characteristics you can use to identify them.

The bird most often seen in my travels along the roadsides of Nelson and Augusta counties is the red-tailed hawk. This stout predator is not shy and can often be found very close to the roadside as they perch on adjacent tree limbs, wires or fence posts in search of their next meal. The easiest identification tool is the distinct red tail feathers and dark band across the belly. The juveniles do not have a red tail and will have much more dark streaking across the white underside of the wings and body. They will frequent roadsides seeking small mammals and reptiles that frequent roadside vegetation.

 

American kestrel

 

My absolute favorite species to spot as I traverse the roads is the American kestrel. This small falcon offers many easy identification tools. They tend to be about the size of a large blue jay and have reddish-brown back and tail, bluish wings and a black face. This color scheme really stands out perched on a roadside telephone line. The characteristic to look for as they hunt in flight is their ability to hover. As one of the few raptors able to hover before descending on its prey, the kestrel makes an easy target to identify even as you are cruising up Route 151.

Another distinctive raptor that allows for easy roadside ID is the red-shouldered hawk. This medium-sized hawk, while slightly less common than the previous two species, has a couple defining characteristics that makes it an easy mark to ID even at 60 mph. While perched, the distinct reddish-brown chest is prominent and draws the eye. In flight, it is identified by the reddish-brown chest and upper wings as well as its broad wings with somewhat square wingtips. The tail will be banded in black and white. They tend to be found near wet woodlands or alongside streams.

The most numerous raptor in our area, especially during migration season, is the broad-winged hawk. These small brown hawks are best identified by the heavy black and white banding on the tail feathers and the dark outline on the bottom of the wings. These characteristics are easy to see in flight. While perched, look for the heavy brown and white barring across the chest and the mostly brown head. During the fall migration, 8000-10,000 birds per day will pass by our area during the peak September rush. The roadside sightings are quite prolific during this mass movement.

 

Northern harrier

 

One of the most unique birds to identify in flight is the northern harrier. The first characteristic to note is the type of flight. Northern harriers tend to fly really low over open fields and wetlands and will use an intermittent flapping cadence. They will make sharp turns and hover a bit before attacking prey. They have long, broad wings and a long tail with a white rump patch that can be seen from quite a distance. While perched, the dominant feature is the owl-like face with a predominately brown body.

There are many more raptor options to catch your eye as you drive along the roads around Wintergreen. The species covered in the Nine Minute Naturalist offer the most distinct visual clues to help you identify your sighting. Remember, as my wife often reminds me while driving, keep your vehicle in your lane and on the road as you play the game of roadside raptors.

Hoarding at Its Best

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!


Hoarding amongst humans is often a term with negative connotations especially in reference to recent toilet paper shortages. Amongst the animal kingdom, different species have well-defined hoarding strategies that enable them to survive the long barren winter months. This Nine Minute Naturalist will analyze different strategies species take to ensure ample food throughout winter.

The worlds most renowned hoarder is the squirrel. The eastern gray squirrel is our native variety that can be seen spending countless hours in the fall hoarding a variety of food sources such acorns, hickory nuts, berries, tree buds and pinecones. Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders. This means they gather food and scatter their hoards across their home range. This range is usually close to their home or den but can be as large as a 7-acre area. These caches are buried underground to keep thieves away from their much-needed food source. They have even been known to engage in deceptive caching, meaning they dig a hole and pretend to bury food in it to trick nosy neighbor squirrels. Another interesting fact about squirrel hoarding is the evidence of “spatial chunking”. This is the act of placing specific types of nuts in specific locations. One cache for acorns, one cache for hickory nuts and so on. These caches become the food sources once the fall bounty is exhausted and the winter doldrums begin.

One of the most interesting hoarders in the animal kingdom is the shrew. The shrew has one of the fastest metabolisms of any animal and must eat every three hours to survive. The energy to stay warm in the winter increases their dietary needs and thus they are fanatic hoarders. How does an animal that relies on insects, spiders, slugs, earthworms, and mice stay well fed in the winter when those species are hard to find? Some shrews have a fascinating and disturbing technique. Shrews such as the short-tailed shrews have toxins in their saliva. They use this toxin to incapacitate their prey which will then be stored in mole tunnels. This allows for fresh meals at the ready throughout the winter. If the soon to be food awakes, they are simply re-paralyzed.

 

 

Red fox and bobcats are two well known food hoarders. While squirrels and shrew cache for future shortages they know are coming, a red fox will cache prey based on the unknown. Without a guarantee of a successful hunt, fox like to ensure a future meal is ensured. A great example of this comes from anyone raising chickens for eggs or meat. A fox in the chicken coop won’t be content with one meal. The fox wants future meals. All the chickens will be killed and removed to a cache to guarantee future meals. Bobcats are not known as prolific diggers so their hoarding looks a bit different. When they kill a meal that is too large to eat at one sitting, they will cache the food by hiding it under leaves or snow. They will often rest near or on top of the cache in order to keep other keen-nosed scavengers away.

 

 

Another species that must plan well for the coming winter is the beaver. Beavers in northern, colder climate will spend a portion of the winter living under frozen ponds/lakes. Knowing this is coming, beavers build a food cache near their lodges. They will assemble all their preferred trees and shrubs and stick them into the bottom of the pond in soft mud. They will then weave additional layers of woody plant material into the cache. The top layer of the cache will be heavier items of a less preferred variety that will be at ice level or above. They will plan to live in the lodge and feed off the cache once artic winds invade.

So many species have unique ways to survive winter. Hoarding did not originate with Sam’s Club or Costco but with species like the squirrel or the shrew. They know more is better and that they had best get to work to prepare for the snowy winter months.