About the Bears|
(and Other Animals)
Hundreds of times in a summer season, a visitor will buttonhole a ranger and ask, "Are there any bears?"
Ranger: Well, yes, we have bears here.
Whatever the answer, the visitor will be vaguely discontented with it. Trouble is, he didn't ask the right questions. He doesn't really care how many bears there are; he wants to know whether he's likely to see a bear, and is it going to be dangerous, and if so what should he do about it, and if not where can he go to see one. This is a complicated subject. To sort it out, why don't you (Q) interview me (A) on the subject of bears.
Q: So, how many bears are in the Park?
Q: An estimate, then.
Q: What's your estimate based on?
Q: Tell about the study. Who made it?
Q: Why the tooth?
Q: And they kept on capturing bears until all the bears were tagged?
Q: What kind of bears do we have in Shenandoah?
Q: No grizzlies?
Q: And the bears that killed two young women in one of the western
parks a few year ago were...
Q: You said something about bears becoming dangerous.
Q: But they don't actually attack people. Do they?
Q: You suggested that some bears are more dangerous than others?
Q: If that happens to me, what should I do?
Q: There's nothing I can do to save my supper?
Q: Has anyone been injured by a bear in the Park?
Q: How about a strong metal ice chest?
Q: Any injuries other than getting stepped on?
Q: And the man's mistake was...
Q: Any more incidents?
Q: And his error was...
Q: What should I do if I meet a bear on the trail?
Q: If he keeps coming toward me on the trail, what then?
Q: Would you care to summarize your bear wisdom concisely?
Q: But let's say that I like bears, and want to watch them. Where can I go
to see bears?
Q: A bear in the backcountrywhat does he find to eat?
Q: You say they eat acorns in the winter. Don't they hibernate?
Q: Do bears have any natural enemies?
Q: Bears attack each other?
Q: You're kidding.
Q: How do you know a bear did it?
Q: You took pictures, of course?
|The Mountain Lion|
The mountain lion (or cougar) is thought to be extirpated in this area. In the Blue Ridge they were wiped out well before the Civil War. In the wilder parts of Virginia a few of them lasted into the twentieth century. but barely.
Nevertheless, reports of cougar sightings in the Park keep coming in. Several visitors each year report seeing a cougar on a trail or fire road. When asked to describe it, one of the first things they mention is the long, thick tail; which means for sure that it wasn't a bobcat they saw. Many of the observers have had enough training in zoology to make them reliable witnesses. A reliable witness has heard the scream of a mountain lion. Reliable witnesses have found and measured its tracks. I have twice found a deer kill that was almost surely the work of a mountain lion.
But no hunter in Virginia has shot a mountain lion; no one has found a dead
one; and no one has taken a recognizable picture of one. To me the evidence
that it lives in Shenandoah, or at least passes through from time to time, is
There are probably more than a thousand deer in the Park. and possibly two thousandall of the same species, the Virginia white-tail. The tail is broad, and white underneath; when held aloft it's a signal flag that means "follow me". A fawn can follow its mother at a fast pace through broken cover without getting lostby following the white flag. I once saw a couple of hound dogs chasing a buck and two does through Milam Gap, and all three were showing their white tails. Suddenly the two does veered off to one side and lowered their tails. The buck continued straight ahead, his "follow me" flag waving. And the hound dogs followed the buck.
Your chances of seeing a deer on the trail are good, especially in fairly open woods near the top of the mountain. If you walk slowly and quietly you may suddenly become aware that a deer is watching you. If you now stand still and make no sudden movements the deer will probably stay put, and may even resume feeding. If you move closer it will bound away, springing over brush and fallen trees with such grace that it almost seems to float slow motion through the air.
Deer like semi-open places, rather than meadows or deep woods. It's hard to drive any distance on Skyline Drive without seeing one, especially near the developed areas. When you see one ahead, beside the Drive, please slow down; the deer may become alarmed and bound away when your car gets close. and it will often choose to bound across the road in front of you.
In the developed areas deer are sometimes surprisingly tame, especially
those in the Loft Mountain campground. But it's better to keep your
distance. Making wild animals dependent and trusting is not doing them a
favor. Besides, any food you might have to offer is, for a deer, junk food.
Two kinds, red and gray. The red fox is uncommon in the Park, It prefers
open spaces and, apparently, lower altitudes. The gray fox, which does well
in the woods, is common. In my opinion the gray is the more attractive of the
two, with delicate shadings of gray, white, and rusty red. They're shy, and
move about mostly at night, so that seeing one requires a little luck, But in
many places, such as the Big Meadows area, if you're out just before dark
and watching the road or trail well ahead, you may be lucky.
Two species, striped and spotted. The striped skunk is larger and much more commonthe one you're probably familiar with. You may occasionally see a skunk in the daytime, but they prefer darkness. You're most likely to see one in the light of your headlights on the Drive, or in the campgrounds. Skunks are not at all shy, for several reasons: they're nearsighted, they're moderately stupid, and they're formidably armed.
But skunks are inoffensive and slow to anger. Several times, as a test, I've walked to within a foot or two (slowly, of course) of a feeding skunk; every time, he ignored me completely. A skunk will spray only if a larger animal actually seizes it or seems about to do so, or if it's hit by a car. But a skunk will often threaten a possible enemy, and that's sometimes as effective as spraying. There are four ways to threaten. First, by snapping the teeth, like a terrier. Second, repeatedly striking the ground with both front feet. Third, flicking the tail. Finally, raising the tail, spinning around, and backing toward the enemy.
Here are some incidents that I've observed, most of them dozens of times, that tell something about the character of the striped skunk.
In none of the encounters that I've observed has the spray been released. If you're camping at Big Meadows in late winter you may hear squeals in the night, often followed by a strong smell of skunk. Late winter is the mating season. When two males meet, they may engage in a good rough-and-tumble fight, snapping and biting, and squealing with anger. But what you smell, I'm convinced, is just leakage due to excitement, rather than deliberate spraying.
The spotted skunk is rather uncommon, and much smallerabout the size of a large squirrelblack, irregularly spotted with white, and irresistibly attractive. (I'm tempted to say "cute", but I won't.) It can spray, and it gets as much respect from foxes as the larger striped skunk. Its threatening gesture consists of a handstand; it actually balances on its two front paws, and can hold that position for some time. The spotted skunk is a southern animal; the Park is the northern limit of its range. (The Park is the southern limit for other things. If you show me a picture of a spotted skunk under a gray birch tree, I'll tell you where you took it. Big Meadows. It couldn't happen anywhere else.)
Inoffensive though skunks may be, I suggest that you keep your distance.
Fifteen feet is close enough. If you watch through binoculars from fifteen
feet, it's like having a skunk in your lap. On the other hand, if you find
yourself unexpectedly very close to a skunk, don't be alarmed. Just hold
still, and wait for it to go away.
|And Other Mammals|
Bobcat. Fairly common, but shy. You may see one from your car at night. They are sometimes seen on the trails, especially in later winter; that's mating season, and they get bolder.
Raccoon. Fairly common. The best place to see one is beside the Drive after dark. They sometimes pass through the campgrounds during the night.
Beaver, I'd call this a rare species in the Park.
Groundhog (or Woodchuck). Quite common in clearings and beside the Drive. They often eat within a few feet of the pavement, and pay no attention to passing cars. (As long as they keep moving, that is. If you slow down or stop, the groundhog will disappear down its hole.)
Chipmunk. Very common. On a long summer hike you'll probably see
dozens of them; they'll scold you with a Chittering sound that could be
mistaken for a bird call. In late summer you may hear a slow, steady "chock,
chock, chock .... " at some distance in the woods. That, too, is a chipmunk.
|More About Mammals|
If you'd like to know more about the mammals, check the sales literature at either Visitor Center.
A Field Guide to the Mammals, by William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 284 pages. Color plates and range maps. Useful.
A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie. (Peterson Field Guide
Series); 376 pages, pen-and-ink drawings. Tracks are less interesting than
the animals that make them, but they're sometimes a lot easier to find
especially when there's snow on the ground.
Shenandoah National Park is a moderately rewarding place for bird- watchers; we have about 200 species. You can buy a checklist of birds at either of the Visitor Centers. For serious birdwatching you'll need a field book, a pair of binoculars, and, if possible, a tendency to get up early in the morning. I can help you with only the first of these requirements. The sales outlets have a number of books on birds, including the following:
Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the National. Geographic Society. 463 pages of color illustrations, descriptions, and maps. Comprehensive and useful.
Birds of North America, by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brunn, and Herbert S. Zim. (A Golden Field Guide.) 360 pages. Range maps and color illustrations. For each bird, the description and the picture are on facing pages, which makes the book easy to use.
A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 384 pages. This book covers all the birds of eastern and central North America, and all of them are illustrated in color. The illustrations have distinguishing field marks indicated, which makes identification easier.
Following are some brief notes, from my personal observation, on a few
birds that might come to your attention here even if you're not a serious
|The Soaring Birds|
The soaring birds float on currents of air, rarely flapping their wings. You're sure to see them if you climb to a peak or a cliff and then sit quietly for a while. Hightop and Stony Man are especially good. Vultures and ravens sail by in front of you, sometimes surprisingly close. Here's how to tell them apart:
Turkey vulture (or "buzzard"). Wingspan up to six feet; tail rather long and narrow. The wings, as seen from below, are two-toned: black and dark gray. When an adult flies close you'll see its red head. (The head of the young is black.) It has two habits that distinguish it from other soaring birds in the Park. First, it soars with its wings forming a flattened "V", rather than straight out from the body. Second, it rocks and tilts as it soars, as if trying to keep its balance.
Black vulture. Less common than the turkey vulture, and a little smaller and heavier, so that it flaps more and soars less. And whereas the flapping of the turkey vulture seems slow and easy, that of the black vulture seems quick and labored. Its tail is rather short and square. Its best distinguishing mark is a whitish patch on the underside of each wing, near the tip.
Both vultures are useful scavengers, and contrary to superstition they do not spread disease. Neither vulture, as far as I know, makes any vocal sound except a grunting noise when it's disturbed. Some day, when you're hiking after a rain, you may be treated to an unforgettable sighta flock of vultures perched in a tree with wings spread out to dry.
Raven. Smaller than the vultures, and pure black; its tail, as seen from below, is large and wedge-shaped. Its soaring ability is limited: it alternately soars and flaps. Except, that is, near the steep western slopes of the mountain, where strong updrafts are common. There, all three birds can soar for long minutes without a single flap.
From a distance, a raven looks very much like a crow. When you see the
two together it's obvious that the raven is nearly twice as big; when you see
only one, there's room for doubt. The call of the crow is a high-pitched caw
or cah. The raven has a lower-pitched call, a hoarse croak: cr-r-r-uck, or
possibly gr-r-ronk. That's an early warning call; you're not likely to hear it
on the cliffs where the birds are soaring. But as you hike through the
woods, a raven may fly over so low that you can hear the air whistling
through its wingtips, and it will croak to spread the word of your presence.
(The raven language has at least a dozen words, but the early warning call
is the only one you're likely to hear.)
|The Wild Turkey|
This is by far the largest bird in the Park. Except for a few minor details it looks just like the domestic turkey. Although it's fairly common in all parts of the Park, it's reported most often from the North Section. The turkey is not very good at flying, and except when it's in immediate danger it prefers to walk or run. You may occasionally see a single turkey, or a flock of them, on the trails. If you hold still you'll be able to watch them for quite a while as they run, or walk, away from danger. They are said to travel in flocks of from six to fifteen birds. But I've often seen single birds, and twice I've seen a flock of more than thirty.
During breeding seasonearly springa flock consists of the dominant
male in the area plus his harem. In April, in the early morning, you may hear
the male turkey gobble to assemble his flock, just before or just after he
leaves the roost for the day.
|The Ruffed Grouse|
The grouse is a large, reddish-brown relative of the chicken. And it looks like one, especially when you see it crossing the Skyline Drive, where it tends to be a rather careless pedestrian. In the woods, it usually stays under cover. When a grouse is hidden near the trail it will wait till you get close, then take off suddenly with a loud whir of wings that can be truly startling. In late spring and early summer, when the chicks are still small, the mother puts on a skillful "broken wing" act; as you approach she flops pitifully ahead, hoping to lead you away from the chicks.
Some day, as you walk a mountain trail in spring, you may suddenly become aware
of your own heartbeat, and note with mild alarm that it's
beating faster and faster. But it isn't your heart, it's the drumming of a male
grouse. He drums to attract a female, or to announce possession of
territory, or both. The grouse mounts some favorite low perch, grasps it
firmly so as not to fly away, and then beats the air with his wings, faster and
faster; thump ..... thump .... thump... thump.. thump, thump thump-
The woodcock, a relative of the snipe, is one of the first migratory birds to return to Shenandoah in the spring. It has a chunky body, a large head, short neck and legs; and a ridiculously long beak, which it thrusts into soft moist earth in search of worms. The tip of the upper mandible moves independently, so that the woodcock can grasp a worm under ground and pull it out. The plumage is barred and mottled with buff, brown, gray, and blackthe color of leaves and duff of the forest floor. The bird is so well camouflaged that he seems to think he's invisible. You can sometimes get close enough to touch him before he will fly.
From mid-March to the end of April, in the partly open places such as Big Meadows, the woodcock does his sky dance, a courtship ritual. The light has to be just right. When the sun is down, and the evening star first appears, that's the time to start. The dance will go on for half an hour, until it gets too dark. (Unless there's a full moon, when it may go on all night.)
The dance begins with the male woodcock on the ground, where he will
periodically give a call that's been variously represented as peent, or beezp,
or "a Bronx cheer under water". I'd call it a loudly-voiced bzzzzp. Then the
woodcock springs into the air and spirals upward, the wind whistling
through his wings, his windsong getting louder and shriller as he reaches
the top of his flight, some 300 feet above the ground. A pause; then he
dives, darts, and zig-zags quickly downward, now with a clear warbling
whistle added to the windsong. Then silence, and you know he's on the
ground. Then bzzzzp again, in preparation for another flight.
"Herps" is a slang term for reptiles and amphibianswhich is to say lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, and salamandersthe subject matter of the science of herpetology. Among the books available at the Visitor Centers is:
A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America,
by Roger Conant and Joseph Collins. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 450 pages.
Description of 595 species with 656 color illustrations.
Invertebrates other than insects are of interest to so few people that I won't discuss them here. Shenandoah is not rich in insect species, compared with the more varied habitats in the Valley. Nevertheless there's enough here to keep you busy if entomology is your hobby. Among the books available at the Visitor Centers is:
A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico, by Donald J.
Borrer and Richard E. White. (Peterson Field Guide Series.) 404 pages, with
black-and-white drawings and color plates. A good, useful introduction to
|A Note on Collecting|
The Park rule against collecting applies to everythingincluding insects. An exception might be made for a professional entomologist associated with a university or a government agency. If that describes you, write to Headquarters for information about a collecting permit.
I recommend that you collect insects as I doon Kodachrome film, using
a 35 mm camera and macro lens. Chasing butterflies with a net may be
good exercise for your legs; getting closeup pictures of them is a perfect
exercise for your patience.