Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge: 1st Anniversary

It’s hard to believe a whole year has gone by since I started “Wood and Field,” and what an incredible year it’s been! Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I’ve made many blogging friends who have shared what’s happening in their woods and fields – as far away as Finland! I remember how excited I was to get my first follower (okay, it was my husband, but you have to start somewhere, right?). Then I got more followers and the comments started to come in, and from then on, I was hooked!

I thought a lot about what I’ve learned over the past year. The first thing that came to mind is that storms in the mountains can come on fast and furious as temperatures fluctuate. I once exclaimed to my husband in exasperation after several weeks of high winds, an ice storm, a tornado, and torrential downpours that transformed the front field into a river and swept away parts of our gravel lane, “How come we don’t ever get any regular weather?”) What I’ve learned is that when you live in the mountains, changes in the weather can be sudden and severe.

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

The harsh turns in the weather have made me admire the resilience of wildlife all the more. The plants and animals that call the hills and valleys of the Blue Ridge home have evolved to cope with whatever nature throws at them. The lesson for me? I have to adapt, as well. I need to be more like the animals that carry out their routine despite adversity and remember that, eventually, normalcy will return. Of course, we might need to bring in a backhoe when that happens.

I’ve learned to watch the bird activity at the feeders for signs of significant changes in the weather. A special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, can sense changes in barometric pressure. When I see the birds jockeying for position at the feeders and more gathered on the ground and in the trees, I know it’s time to get out the batteries and candles because Mother Nature is on a tear again!

Dozens of birds

Fueling up for a long winter’s night.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that although we share our space with coyotes, bears, and bobcats, we can co-exist in peace. I have to admit the first time I heard the high-pitched “yipping” of coyotes in the woods, a chill went up my spine, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. We hear them from time to time early in the morning or at dusk, but they cover a wide territory and eventually move on. We seem to have reached an agreement that they leave us alone and we leave them alone.

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven't caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven’t caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Finally, it’s been six years since we stopped mowing the fields and the regeneration is incredible. What used to be a hay field is now full of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and tree saplings. We saw an American Kestrel for the first time this year on the farm, a species that is on the decline in Virginia. The kestrel and other birds of prey benefit directly from the overgrown fields that provide habitat for mice, voles, and other small animals.

I am looking forward to sharing many more vignettes of what’s happening in the natural world as I begin my second year of “Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge.”

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Protected Travel Corridors are Important to Wildlife

On my walks around the farm, I often notice places where the ground is soft and spongy. The softness of the turf is caused by underground mole burrows running between the mole’s den and their hunting grounds. Most of the runway system is made up of shallow tunnels one to five inches below the ground surface. This maze provides protective cover and a travel corridor for not only the moles, but also other species such as voles, white-footed mice, and house mice that move through the runways, helping themselves to grains, seeds, and tubers along the way.

Other wildlife species living on our farm also have a relatively small range. Box turtles, for instance, generally live within an area of less than 200 meters in diameter as they move around to find a mate, lay their eggs, and find food. We came across this Eastern box turtle several times last summer within an area about half the size of a football field. I knew it was the same turtle by the pattern on the carapace as each one is different.
Easternbox turtle
Similarly, rabbits live out their lives on just a few acres, moving between shrubs, briars, and fencerows to avoid detection by predators. A fox, on the other hand, claims a territory of from one to five square miles, traveling through wooded areas and hedgerows that provide protective cover.

Larger mammals such as the Eastern coyote travel longer distances as they go about searching for food and finding a mate. The size of their home range depends on the food and cover resources available and the number of other coyotes in an area, but it generally averages between 8 and 12 square miles. Black bears, which are fairly common in the Blue Ridge, have even larger territories. Females have a home range of up to 50 square miles, while males who often roam large distances to find a female can have a home range of up to 290 square miles. Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

I’m lucky to live in a state that is proactive in wildlife conservation. The Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, a non-profit organization, is developing a new conservation project seeking enhanced awareness of and protection for a critical wildlife corridor in western Virginia. The project will determine where corridors exist within the Buffalo Creek watershed that provide cover and forage for large mammals as they move between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. These linkages will provide safe passage for them to move through the watershed and under Interstate 81.

Landowners within the boundaries of the corridor that volunteer to participate will be considered by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation for purchase or donation of a perpetual conservation easement. In return for a donated easement, landowners receive a tax deduction for some or all of the value of the easement, reduce their property taxes, and sell some or all of the tax credit for cash.

Protected wildlife corridors are important to the survival of our largest mammals, often forced to travel great distances in order to find food and survive in a human-dominated world. These natural linkages will help keep motorists and wildlife alike safe.

bear tracks at our front door

Black bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This morning Bill and I went for a walk down our lane. Even though it’s not exactly what you’d call a big adventure, the dogs enjoy these walks and taking in the smells of the deer, racoon, opossum, and all the other critters that roam the woods and fields under the cloak of darkness.

Somehow we missed seeing them on our way out, but on our return, we noticed paw prints in the mud…big paw prints. As we got closer, we could tell the tracks were those of a black bear. February in Virginia has been unseasonably warm, so the bears have come out of hibernation and are searching for food. Naturally, I didn’t have my camera with me so I couldn’t take a picture of the paw prints, and now they’re covered with snow. Arghh!

To see something different in nature, take the same path you took yesterday. — John Muir