Wooing in the Winter

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 term “dead of winter” sounds appropriate right about now, nature is anything but dead. While many animals sleep the winter away, some of our favorite Wintergreen animals are about to get very busy. Many species of wildlife see the beginning of the new year as prime time to find a mate and begin the process of producing the next generation. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist details the many wildlife species that use the cold winter months as their mating season.

The noisiest of winter mating culprits is the great horned owl. Hooting season begins in December and will continue through the mating period. Since great horned owls are monogamous these calls are usually duetting, where the female gives a 6-7 note call and the male answers with a 5-note call. Younger owls will use this period to hoot in search of a mate. The mating season begins early for most owl species due to their large size. In order to grow large enough to fly and learn to hunt when prey is abundant, the process begins early. Great horned owls generally usurp nests from other large birds such as hawks, herons or eagles and rarely add to its size or quality. Generally, 1-4 eggs are laid and are incubated for 25-36 days before hatching.

 

 

Coyotes are another animal that picks up the activity level as the weather gets worse. Coyotes are also monogamous and stay together in breeding pairs for several years so these canines are not scouring the landscape in search of a mate. Primarily only the dominant pair will breed during the mating season which begins in late December and extends to early March. Pups are born by mid-April and generally average 4-6 per litter.

 

 

Winter is also the time for stinky love. Skunks begin the breeding season near the most romantic of holidays, Valentines Day. The process is not for those with sensitive noses. Males spray each other in the fight for love and females are not afraid to spray males who they don’t want to mate with. This is the time of year many homeowners are aware of the presence of skunks due to the noises and the spray. Skunk litters range from 4-6 babies that arrive in May-June.

 

 

The oddest of winter breeders at Wintergreen is undoubtably the opossum. The opossum is the only marsupial in Virginia and has quite a unique breeding season. The time for mating begins in December and can continue for several months. The female is a spontaneous ovulator and is in estrus for up to 36 hours. 11-13 days after mating a litter averaging 8-9 infant opossum are born. This is the shortest gestation of any mammal in Virginia. The newborns weigh approximately .13 grams at birth. The tiny infants must make the long difficult journey from the birth canal to the pouch, latch on to a teat and continue developing. The young stay in the pouch for 2.5 months and open their eyes between 55-70 days. The maturing opossum will be left on their own at 4-5 months at approximately 7-9 inches in length. Despite this long process, Virginia opossum can have multiple litters every year.

The list of species increasing their winter activity in Virginia is quite extensive. Add in the bald eagle, raven, beaver, river otter and mink to the list of winter breeders and the outdoor enthusiast at Wintergreen has plenty to watch for in the “dead of winter”.

The Evergreens of Wintergreen

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 winter belongs to the evergreens. The deciduous trees have shed their greenery and our environment is a duller place for it. The saving grace of color are the evergreens dispersed throughout our landscape. Whether we hike by a solitary white pine or bypass a thicket of red cedar, evergreens offer a much-needed visual respite in the long winter. While the Blue Ridge offers amazing diversity of deciduous trees, the evergreen options are much fewer and easier to learn. This Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the differences of the evergreens strewn through our wonderful Wintergreen.

This evergreen tour begins at our highest elevations and works its way to the valley floor. The most stately of our pine trees at Wintergreen is the eastern white pine. This tree is the largest pine in our upper elevations and can exceed 100ft in height. Often rising above the deciduous canopy as a solitary tree, the attentive hiker can see young trees growing throughout the understory dispersed 200 to 700 feet from the solitary adult pine. It is easily identified since it is the only pine with 5 needles per bundle and the branches grow in a “wagon wheel” formation around the trunk of the tree.

 

Eastern white pine

 

The next species to search for amongst our high elevations is the pitch pine. This beautiful conifer can be found from our rocky ridgelines down to our low elevation wetlands but is most commonly found higher on the mountain. It is identified by its red-brown, thick, blocky bark and its three needle bundles. This tree has a variable form ranging from tall and straight in rich soils to short and poorly formed on poor soils.

 

Pitchpine

 

My favorite of all mountain evergreens is the table mountain pine. This tree belongs to the gnarliest of terrains at Wintergreen and flourishes amongst disturbance, heat and light. It is identified by a couple key features. The first is the two twisted, stout needle bundle and the second is the heavily spiked pine cones. One hasty grab of this pine cone and the hiker will always have a memory from the encounter with a table mountain pine. Another interesting fact is the cones are serotinous, meaning they require heat (usually fire) to melt the resin allowing it to open and disperse seeds. Thus, these trees are usually found on dry, rocky ridges prone to fires from lightning strikes.

 

Table mountain pine

 

The eastern red cedar is my favorite evergreen species found in the lower elevations at Wintergreen. This member of the juniper family thrives in abandoned fields and is an early successional forest species. This species is identified by its fibrous bark, dark green-blue needle-like leaves (which are quite prickly) and its light green to dark blue fruit on the tree from spring to fall. It acts as a wonderful wildlife attractant.

One of the most common conifers at lower elevations is the Virginia pine. This short lived, quick growing pine is another example of early succession. When fields are abandoned, which happened in Stoney Creek from when the Boy Scouts owned the land, species such as eastern red cedar and Virginia pine are adapted at filling the canopy through the grasses. Virginia pine is excellent at that role and grows into thick stands of trees. When these stands are broken up for development, they become prone to windthrow as many valley residents will attest. They are identified best by their thin orange-brown scaly bark, their three needle bundles and their scrubby appearance due to sparse canopies.

Loblolly pine is a species native to the piedmont and occasionally found growing wildly in a variety of places at Wintergreen. This key species to the commercial timber industry is planted throughout the southeastern United States. Their 6 to 9-inch needles in groups of three (usually) and tall straight growth are the best ways to identify this pine.

I have saved the beloved eastern hemlock for last. This bastion of our waterways was once abundant in all the “hollows” and ravines at Wintergreen but has mostly been overcome by the persistent hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native aphid-like insect. This evergreen is best identified by their flat, ½-inch long needles that taper to a dull point.

There are a few primary trails at Wintergreen to practice your conifer ID skills. At the overlook on Cedar Cliffs Main Trail both table mountain pine and pitch pine can be spotted close together. At the beginning of Pond Hollow Trail near Fortunes Ridge Road there are quite a few pines you can attempt to identify. The best trail for evergreen identification is the Stoney Creek Park Trail. From the main park entrance off of Stoney Creek West, you will find quite a few options in a very short period of time. Now is the time to get out on these trails and work on your evergreen identification skill set!

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.

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.