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. I hope you enjoy!
Unlike October, which arrives with flamboyant colors and ideal weather, November arrives in a more subtle manner. While many feel forlorn to flip the calendar from October to November, the eleventh month offers nature lovers much to anticipate. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the nuances of November that you need to pay attention to as autumn begins to wane.
The most obvious, as well as my favorite change, that arrives in November is that of leaf fall. Gone are the robust colorful leaves but left in their place is a new view shed. Trails that before were walks in a closed forest are now ripe with views of the Blue Ridge. While we are not lacking in lovely vistas, hiking the trails at Wintergreen looks much different when the decorative leaves of October blanket the forest floor. Devils Knob trail is one that changes dramatically when the leaves fall. Southern views galore await the hiker willing to traverse the rocky Devils Knob Trail. Both the Old Appalachian Trail and the Blackrock Trails also offer constant vistas once the calendar has been turned.
Another benefit of falling leaves comes in the form of hidden flowers. When the leaves of witch hazel fall, left behind are lovely yellow flowers set to remind us that spring and summer are not the only seasons for pollination. The flowers are amongst the hardiest of flowers, blooming for approximately eight weeks. When the temperature dips low, the flowers curl up and look ready to fall off. When warmer days return, the ribbon like petals unfurl again as if to mock the winter weather. The fragrance of the flower is minimal in cold weather but a few sprigs cut from the shrub and placed in a vase of water in the warmth of a home reveals a surprisingly fragrant scent. This dynamic shrub is found on almost every trail at Wintergreen.
Another nuanced change is the subtle disappearance of many “friends”. November marks the final push to add fat to prepare for a long dormant winter for many of the species that we have become accustomed to seeing almost daily at Wintergreen. Bats, groundhogs, chipmunks and black bears are species that spend the early stages of November preparing for a prolonged siesta. Bats have two methods to prepare for hibernation. Some such as the eastern red bats will migrate to warmer climates while the vast majority will eat themselves into fat winter form. This feeding frenzy will last until the flying insect population is too small to sustain them, which usually coincides with hard frosts and temperatures averaging below 40 degrees. Chipmunks and groundhogs seem to be in a constant state of winter preparation at all times of year. Groundhogs are one of the true hibernators in Virginia. They fatten themselves up to prepare to drop their body temperature from 99 to 37 degrees and slow their heart rate from 80 to 5 beats per minute. Chipmunks and black bears enter a state of torpor, which means they will sleep for prolonged periods where they will greatly decrease body temperature and heart beat rate, but can come awake from time to time to feed or give birth to young. Chipmunks cannot build adequate fat reserves so they store food in their winter dens to supply their winter needs. Black bears visually appear fatter as the fall goes along. Mama bears with sufficient fat reserves will enter the den toward the end of November to rest during their short gestation period and male bears will follow when either the weather or the food supply dictates.
One last phenomenon to pay attention to is the gathering of the starlings. This gathering that begins in late October and peaks in December and January is called starling murmuration. This gathering of non-native European starlings represents some of the largest flocks on record. Gatherings are estimated at 750,000 birds upward but the striking aspect is the movement, not just the size of the flock. This special flocking is named for the low murmur caused by beating wings and soft flight calls. Murmurations form about an hour before nightfall. After approximately 30 minutes of spectacular aerial display, the birds settle into roost. While this display is not common on top of Wintergreen, these murmurations are common occurrences in the valley on both sides of the mountain.
Most months seem inferior in the wake of the colors of October. November should be approached with a different lens and seen for the many highlights occurring during this lovely month. Get out and appreciate this different stage of Wintergreen.