Nature Scavenger Hunt

Presenting our Nature Scavenger Hunt! Take this opportunity to learn about the nature around you and what The Nature Foundation does. We’re excited to have you play along, adults and children alike. We will drop two clues a week for four weeks. You have a chance to win a prize for each clue and there’s a grand prize if you complete the entire scavenger hunt.
You’ll need to like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram or be signed up for our emails to get the clues. Send your answers to specialevents@tnfw.org or post them in the comments on Facebook and Instagram.
At Wintergreen, we’re surrounded by nature everywhere we look. We have spectacular views, rock formations, and stunning wildflowers just starting to bloom. Let’s go outside and see what we can find. HINT – some clues can be found on the trails The Nature Foundation maintains!

 

 

Scavenger Hunt Clue #1

 

Our first clue drop. Take a picture of a Wintergreen trailhead. This could be a picture of your favorite trail, a trail you’ve seen but haven’t gotten a chance to do yet or a trail you’ve always wondered about. Do you have any questions about one of these trails? Did you know The Nature Foundation maintains more than 30 miles of hiking trails at Wintergreen? Email your answer to specialevents@tnfw.org or post them on Facebook.

 

 

Scavenger Hunt Clue #2

 

Our second clue drop. Send us a picture, drawing, poem or just a sentence of one thing you’ve seen while hiking one of Wintergreen’s trails. We take our searching seriously around here; Liz Fravel searched high and low for one her favorites. Let us know if you need help identifying something you saw. We’d love to help you learn all about the nature that surrounds us here at Wintergreen. Email your answer to specialevents@tnfw.orgor post them on Facebook. Share this post with your neighbors and friends so they can play too.

Bad Yet Beautiful

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!


It really is hard to dislike that which is beautiful. The exquisite trillium, the eye-popping bluebird and the stunning brook trout all hold a special place in my mind due to their beauty. A new invasive has made in-roads into Virginia over the past couple years that is certainly beautiful but will not hold that special place in my mind. The spotted lanternfly is quite gorgeous but is bad news for so many. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go into depth on the newest invasive force our environment will face.

 

Spotted lanternfly

 

The spotted lanternfly is a plant hopper insect native to China, Bangladesh and Vietnam. It was first found in the U.S. in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It was discovered in 2014 but is believed to have arrived via egg masses attached to a stone shipment in 2012. Despite a quick quarantine for the surrounding area, the invasive bug has spread to New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, Maryland and of course Virginia. They are not dynamic flyers but are adapt at hitchhiking their way around the east coast. Each egg mass is about one inch long, mud colored and can hold 30-50 eggs. They can stick to almost any solid surface and are the reason for the spread of this invasive. This pest found its way into Clarke County Virginia in 2018. The first spotted lanternfly was found in a train depot, having hitchhiked from the northeast. We went from 1 square mile of infestation in 2018 to 60 square miles in 2020.

 

Spotted lanternfly egg mass

 

The attractiveness of this pest makes it quite easy to identify. The adults are approximately 1 inch long and ½ inch wide at rest. The forewing is gray with black spots of varying sizes and the hind wings have patches of red and black with a white band. The abdomen is yellow with black bands. The early stages (1-3 instar) are black with white spots. The last immature stage is characterized by the development of red patches in addition to the black color with white spots. They are quite visually striking but you won’t be seduced by their beauty for long.

 

Spotted lanternfly: early stages

 

The spotted lanternfly is a serious threat to farmers. It shows a strong preference for grapevines, fruit trees such as peach, apple and cherry and hops. They also show an affinity for maple, birch, black walnut and willow. This pest uses its piercing-sucking mouthpart to feed on the sap from over 70 different species. As it feeds, it extracts honeydew which attracts bees, wasps and other insects as well as promotes the growth of sooty mold, which covers the plant, the forest floor, furniture, cars or anything else below the feeding insects. There is a unique link between the insect and another non-native, tree of heaven. Both species are native to China and have been reunited in the United States. Tree of heaven is the preferred host of spotted lanternfly and is commonly found near all the primary travel corridors.

The impact of this new invasive to the Wintergreen environment will be different from our last invasive, the emerald ash borer. Emerald ash borer is hardly seen but brings quick death to just ash trees. The spotted lanternfly attacks a wide variety of species but doesn’t tend to kill a tree outright. This species tends to be a stressor that can certainly bring about weakening for healthy trees and death for failing trees. The biggest impact we will have if this insect establishes at Wintergreen is from a nuisance level. These pests reproduce in volume and become a disgusting annoyance at the landowner level. Reports from Pennsylvania indicate the sudden increase in volume of bugs is very detrimental to enjoying your outdoor living space. Cars, patios and plants quickly get covered in honeydew and sooty mold making them loathsome to homeowners.

It may be a while before Wintergreen becomes home to the spotted lanternfly but there are couple things you can do. First, be diligent to know what to look for and alert me of any potential sightings (forestmanage@tnfw.org). The other precaution would be to remove their favorite host tree of heaven. If you have any on your property, it is a good idea to make them disappear over the next couple years. Eliminating one non-native so you don’t encourage another non-native is a win/win for our environment.

Spring Melodies

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 noises of nature rise precipitously as we enter the spring season. At Wintergreen, our rise in acoustics can be largely attributed to our frog population. Our woods, streams and ponds are loaded with these noisy amphibians that give such character to the Wintergreen woods in spring. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the species responsible for the cacophony of calls we hear during our spring rebirth.  

The sound of some animals is synonymous with a season. The spring peeper is just that animal. They declare the end of winter with a shrill high pitch note that can reach 100 decibels. Once joined by hundreds of their friends, this sound makes the idea of a “peaceful” woodland obsolete. They are among the first animals to call and breed each spring. They tend to be found in moist woodland areas adjacent to wetlands. At Wintergreen, a great place to listen to this onslaught of noise is along the golf course and the numerous ponds adjacent to woodlands. These small woodland ponds are ideal breeding habitat for spring peepers and tend to be loaded with them from March to June. Here is a link to their distinctive sounds.

 

Spring peeper

 

Another common frog that will provide ample auditory evidence of their presence is the gray treefrog. The gray treefrog begins its calling in April at Wintergreen. The distinctive short fluty trill call is memorable and can be heard starting at dusk and continuing for a few hours each evening. This boreal species seeks habitat containing trees and a water source. They remain near the forest floor when young but ascend to the canopy with age. Eggs are laid in the water. Gray treefrogs can change their skin color based on time of day and surrounding temperature. The skin becomes lighter at night and darker during the day. Here is a link to their lovely call.

The pickerel frog is not quite as common as the spring peeper or gray tree frog but the unique call makes it an easy one to pinpoint in the midst of many other sounds. The garbled, throaty song of the pickerel frog starts in April and lasts until early June. They are usually found in Wintergreen’s cool, clean streams but will lay their eggs in any temporary pond. They can be identified by their chocolate brown spots in two rows between the folds in their back. They have a look-a-like, the leopard frog, that will have irregular brown spots. Careful if you choose to pick one up as they produce a toxic skin secretion that is irritating to humans. Here is a link to their throaty call.

 

Pickerel frog

 

The American bullfrog is common at Wintergreen, especially at our lower elevations. They emit a deep bellow that sounds like “jug-a-rum”. This amphibian is almost exclusively aquatic and can be found at any of our ponds at Wintergreen. They are extremely territorial and use their call to announce their presence to rivals and for mates. They are the largest frogs in North America, growing up to 8 inches and 1.5 pounds. Here is a call you may find familiar.

The spring is the time to familiarize yourself with the calls of these amphibians that make Wintergreen home. We have entered the season where your peace and quiet will not exist and instead replaced with a mismatch of melodies that make our environment unique. The time is now to find your favorite location to learn about Wintergreen frogs.

The Cougar Conundrum

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 wilds of Wintergreen are home to an assortment of rarely seen wildlife. Species such as mink, spotted skunk, and flying squirrel are rarely spotted by hikers, hunters or any other outdoor recreationist, but we can verify their habitation of the land through camera traps and live traps. So how can so many people have “encountered” a mountain lion (also known as cougar, puma, panther) when no hard evidence exists for their making Wintergreen and our surrounding mountains their home? This issue of the Nine Minute Naturalist will tackle the much-debated topic of cougars in the Blue Ridge.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (previously the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) maintains the stance that a wild population of eastern cougar does not exist in Virginia. This stance is in direct contrast to loads of phone calls, emails and social media posts about sightings of the elusive mountain lion. At Wintergreen, we average 2-5 reports a year of claims of mountain lion with the majority coming from mountain top guests and residents. The problem lies with the lack of hard evidence. None of the reports to the DWR have been substantiated by photo, carcass or track.

This is also the problem I encounter when determining if a population exists at Wintergreen. The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen has had the honor of being a part of a couple camera trapping surveys since 2013. The first was the eMammal wildlife species survey that deployed over 20 cameras at various locations around the property for many months. The second was with Virginia Tech studying spotted skunks using baited camera locations to study populations at Wintergreen every winter for 4 years. These two photo caches alone constitute well over 50 GB of wildlife photos from the past 8 years. Not one photo contained any animal that may be considered a cougar. In fact, Bill McShea, the professor overseeing the eMammal project, stated that at more than 2,200 locations not one camera captured an image of a mountain lion.

 

 

This eMammal project also illuminated human failings. The eMammal project was not created just to find wildlife but also to study how good “citizen scientists” are at identifying what they are seeing in still digital form. My natural conclusion before starting the project was identification was the easy part. I was proven wrong. On average, the project achieved an 82% accuracy at identifying photos of animals in a still digital photograph (Wintergreen “guinea pigs” scored closer to 75%). That means given all the time in the world and all the identification resources available, we were wrong on our identification 18% of the time. Photos can be tricky to analyze and thus come under scrutiny. If our identification of still imagery is hard to trust, that begs the question how trustworthy is a sighting we saw for less than 5 seconds?

The second data set I possess that leads to being skeptical of sightings by golfers on the Devils Knob golf course or by drivers cruising down Wintergreen Drive is my years supervising hunting on our open space at Wintergreen. Hunting as a management tool provides data such as what is harvested and what is seen in our backcountry. Not one survey in the past decade came back with a recorded puma sighting. If hunters sitting silently in scent proof clothing with scopes and binoculars have never seen a cougar moving through 4000 acres of open space, it seems unlikely to me that a mountain lion is hanging out on a crowded golf course. The other key is the use of hunting dogs by bear hunters. When chased by dogs in legal hunts in western states, cougars usually climb trees making easy targets by cameras, which everyone carries these days in the shape of phones. Not one hunter has reported or photographed a treed mountain lion at Wintergreen or in the entire state. It is conceivable that hunters sitting quietly would miss the stealthy cougar, but it seems much less likely the keen noses of a pack of hound dogs would miss the scent of this apex predator.

My last resource that leads me to doubt the presence of cougars is myself. Having spent 15 years covering hundreds of miles per year of Blue Ridge forest, I have had zero sightings, come across zero questionable carcasses, seen zero tracks, and found zero scat that might be attributed to an eastern cougar roaming the woods at Wintergreen. When I am not present in the woods, I make sure to have trail cameras distributed over the landscape to ensure I see what is moving through our forest. I currently have four cameras in obscure locations hoping to get the shot of whatever may come past.

Now to the scientific reasoning of a possible mountain lion encounter. Cougars have a giant home range of up to 370 square miles. They have also been known to make staggering treks. A cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. The genetic study of the animal led scientists to believe it came from South Dakota which meant it travelled 1500 miles. That is amazing and opens the door to Virginia being the home for juvenile males pushed out of other males’ range. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency confirmed reports in 2015 of sightings in western Tennessee. It is believed that one of the confirmed photos was of a female mountain lion. That is the key to having a population – the presence of mates. A breeding population moves very slowly due to the natural hindrance of having cubs. The young cougars stay with mom for 1-2 years and slows down all migration to the east. Mountain lions are definitely coming to Virginia. It is the timeline that is in dispute.

I am skeptical of each sighting of mountain lion when no physical evidence is present. When identifying animals, you must first rule out the common before considering the rare. There will be a day when the rare appears, but until evidence clearly points to the apex predator of North America at our doorsteps, I will declare Wintergreen a mountain lion free zone.

The Early Invaders

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!


Late winter at Wintergreen is a time of anticipation, looking forward to the wave of plants about to erupt from the soil. It just so happens that the first vegetation to begin their growth towards the sun are a couple nasty invasive plants, garlic mustard and coltsfoot. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go into depth on the unique life cycle of two non-native plants that call Wintergreen home.

 

Garlic mustard

 

Garlic mustard is the bane of the Wintergreen forest, covering acres of our deepest forest where few invasive plants can compete. This plant comes to us from Europe, brought over due to its value in cooking and in seed form as hitchhikers. This plant is a biennial (it has a two-year life cycle) giving it a competition advantage. Garlic mustard reproduces only via seed, which can be viable in the soil bank for up to 10 years. Seeds germinate in early spring and form rosettes, a low growing clump of dark purple to green scalloped shaped leaves. Rosettes survive the first-year over-winter in a green (chlorophyll rich) form, which enables it to grow and habitat space well before most native species can emerge. Second year leaves are more triangular and begin to grow in early spring up to 3-4 inches per week. Flowering will occur in second year plants from late April to June. Plants grow up to 4 feet in height and produce 400-7000 seeds per plant. A dense stand of garlic mustard will produce up to 12,000 seeds per yard that will be dispersed via wind or attached to animals and humans. To add to their advantages, researchers have found chemicals are released that inhibit growth of plants in their immediate area. Once established, garlic mustard is near impossible to eliminate. On a site-by-site basis, garlic mustard can be controlled by mechanical removal or chemical application. Applying chemicals such as Roundup needs to be done with extreme caution at the height of plant growth to ensure you are not spraying desirable native plants.

While garlic mustard is quite the pain in the Wintergreen landscape, it is quite the useful edible plant. The greens are laden with vitamins A, C, E and some of the B vitamins. It also contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, manganese as well as omega-3 fatty acids. The flowers, leaves, roots and seeds are all edible but become bitter as they age. It is bad for the environment but quite good for the heart!

 

Coltsfoot flower

 

Coltsfoot is another introduced species from Europe. It is unique in that its flower appears before the leaves are formed, usually in March and April. The small 1-inch flowers are on tall stalks with reddish scales. The flowers are a bright yellow color and stand out in the drab backdrop of late winter. They appear similar to dandelion flowers from a distance. By May the flowers give way to white seed heads that look like fluffy cotton balls. When the leaves finally appear, you will understand the common name coltsfoot. They grow up to six inches across in the shape of a colt’s foot print. Unlike garlic mustard which can grow in the dense shade of our forest floor, coltsfoot will be found along our roadways or any other full sun environment. They are particularly fond of any disturbed site. The sides of the road at Wintergreen provide the perfect home for this invasive plant. Once established, coltsfoot is hard to remove. Hand pulling is effective in wet soil conditions so that you can get the whole root. Any piece of root left can grow into a new plant. Herbicide application is most effective. Application of Roundup needs to be done in a careful manner if the infestation is amongst plants you desire to keep.

Coltsfoot is also beloved as a medicinal plant. The plant contains mucilage, bitter glycosides and tannins which are thought to give the plant anti-inflammatory properties and act as a cough treatment. The flowers can be eaten in salad or combined with honey and added to tea to calm a cough. Although the leaves are bitter, they have been used in salads or as an aromatic tea. Another name it goes by is coughwort due to its implied medicinal qualities.

Despite my dislike for these two early emerging plants, it is good to see green life peaking out through the forest leaf litter. Once you take a second to be excited over green plants returning to our landscape, sharpen your identification skills. Now is the time to be able to identify and eliminate these undesirable plants before they can establish themselves alongside those plants we love.

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.

The Smell of Spring

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 harbingers of spring come in a variety of forms. From migrating birds to budding trees, few are ready when one of the earliest signs of spring emerges from its wet soil home. This omen of spring is the well named skunk cabbage that appears in late winter in wetland soils across the Piedmont. This Nine Minute Naturalist goes in depth on one of Wintergreen’s earliest flowering species, skunk cabbage.

Few expect to walk the woods in February and see flowers marking the beginning of a wonderfully long bloom season at Wintergreen. If you walk Allen Creek Nature Preserve or pay good attention as you drive along wet portions of Monacan Drive, you will begin to see flowers emerge from waterlogged soils. Skunk cabbage is a wetland obligate species that is found in wet meadows, swampy woods and adjacent hillsides just so their roots can find the water table. Skunk cabbage starts its life cycle by sending up its flower first. As early as late January, the brownish-red flower emerges from the cold soil. The emergence, despite winter weather conditions, is possible due to it being thermogenic meaning it generates metabolic heat.

 

Skunk cabbage flower

 

The unique skunk cabbage flower is made up of two parts. The spathe is the curved, pear shaped exterior portions that ranges in size up to about 6 inches in height. The color pattern consists of irregular spots and lines in shades of green, maroon and purple. The second part of the flower is a minute cluster shaped in a ball-like group called a spadix. By April the flower gives way to a rosette of leaves in bright green. The leaves grow to about 1-2 ft and a grouping of skunk cabbage can be seen from quite a distance.

The plant earns its name due to its odorous nature. Beginning once the spathe emerges from the soil, the unagreeable smell is used as a means to attract carrion loving insects that will serve a pollinator for skunk cabbage. The smell, reminiscent of decomposing flesh, attracts the insect species active even in winter months such as carrion and dung flies, as well as beetles, bees and mosquitos.

 

Skunk cabbage leaves

 

Sometime in June, the leaves dissolve away and the fruit heads emerge. The fruit is roundish balls, about two inches in diameter. By mid-August the fruiting body falls apart and leaves seed to be eaten, decompose or to germinate.

The uses for skunk cabbage are minimal at best. The leaves have calcium oxalate crystals which are irritating and a bit toxic to the stomach. Most animals avoid eating them as should the standard Wintergreen hiker. The roots are considered toxic, but Native Americans reportedly used them on wounds and for toothaches, convulsions and cramps. They can be used in a garden setting given the proper soggy soils as it does add a nice aesthetic.

While this plant will never illicit love and devotion afforded species such as trillium or ladyslippers, skunk cabbage has quite the important place as a herald of the coming spring. So, get out into the woods of Stoney Creek or any other wet woodlands and catch a glimpse or a whiff of the first bastion of spring, skunk cabbage.