CAN YOU SPOT THESE CRITTERS?
Glimpsing wildlife is a high point of being in the Valley. Some creatures are easy to spot, but many are elusive, seeking shelter in thick cover by day and becoming active after nightfall. Much sighting depends on luck, but by learning more about these species you may increase your chances of seeing some of the wildlife for which the Shenandoah Valley is known.
The Valley is a mecca for birding. Over 200 species reside in the area. Some of the most popular are the Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle, the Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, the Belted Kingfisher, the Great Horned Owl, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Ring-necked Pheasant, the Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, and the Bald Eagle.
The Shenandoah community’s own osprey can be spotted flying above Lake Frederick. The community has owls as well, but they are generally nocturnal and are seldom spotted during daylight hours.
The best place to spot the turkeys and pheasants is in forested areas. Geese, swans, and several species of ducks are commonly seen on lakes like ours. Mallards and Canada geese are migratory, while wood ducks breed locally and remain throughout the year.
The Valley is also the year-round home to many colorful songbirds, including the Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Eastern Bluebird.
The Shenandoah Valley is home to fourteen species of salamanders and ten species of toads and frogs. The rare Shenandoah Salamander is the only animal in the Valley on the federal endangered species list.
Salamanders are abundant in the Valley and can be found in dark, damp places such as under rocks and fallen trees.
American Toads are common and Fowler’s Toads, although rare, are also found here. The Bullfrog, Wood Frog, Northern Cricket Frog, Gray Tree Frog, Spring Peeper, and Upland Chorus Frog all live in the Valley, but they are not common. The most abundant frog species are the Green and the Pickerel Frogs.
Thirty species of reptiles live in the Shenandoah Valley, including five turtle species, eighteen snake species, and one type of lizard. Since reptiles are cold-blooded, they are most easily spotted in warm weather.
Common Box Turtles are the most numerous turtle species in the Valley. Snapping Turtles, Wood Turtles, Spotted Turtles, and Painted Turtles all reside in the region but are not nearly as common.
Snakes include Ring-necked, Rat, Red-bellied, Garter, and the venomous Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnakes. Less seen are the Eastern Ribbon, Pine, Northern Water, Milk, Kingsnake, Mole Kingsnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Eastern Worm Snake, Racer, Corn Snake, and both Rough and Smooth Green Snakes.
The lone species of lizard found in the valley is the Eastern Fence Lizard. This small lizard is named for its habit of running along fence rails, fallen trees, and stumps. The lizards hibernate until March, but in warmer weather they are easy to find.
The Black Bear is the only bear species residing in the Valley, and most experts place their number at about 1,000. Aggressive habitat management has produced a bountiful acorn harvest that provides the bears with a favorite food source. Shenandoah bears also feed on fruit and grains grown on local farms.
Male Black Bears may reach 300 pounds and be six feet long, while sows are generally smaller. Most bears enter their dens by November and emerge full time in the spring, but Black Bears are not true hibernating animals, so they will often leave their winter dens on warmer days to search for food.
Thanks to hunting restrictions in the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia white-tailed deer now number in the thousands, and they are often seen in the Shenandoah community, grazing near Lake Frederick.
In summer, deer feed on grasses, plants, buds, tree shoots, aquatic plants, fungi, and leaves. In autumn, they rely on acorns, wild fruits, and grains grown on nearby farms. Food is scarcer in winter, and deer feed on twigs and dried oak leaves.
Deer are nocturnal, but they may be seen any time of day. They breed in late fall. Bucks active during this time often fight one another for dominance.
The doe gives birth to usually one or two fawns in late spring. Fawns are often seen in the Shenandoah Valley following closely behind their mother.
Gray Squirrels are often seen jumping from tree to tree or searching the forest floor for acorns. The best times to see them are early in the morning and at dusk. Red Squirrels and Fox Squirrels also live in the region, but are rarely seen. A fourth species of squirrel is the most entertaining: the Southern Flying Squirrel. The web-like skin between their front and hind legs allows them to glide from tree to tree and from a tree to the ground.
These gliders feed on insects, flowers, buds, fungi, seeds, nuts, and acorns. They often nest in tree holes made by woodpeckers. Although the Southern Flying Squirrel is fascinating and cute, it’s best to avoid contact with these animals. They sometimes are carriers of typhus and can infect humans via fleas.
Gray and Red foxes both reside in the Shenandoah Valley, but they are rarely seen. Foxes are mostly nocturnal, hunting at twilight and at night. They feed on rabbits, rodents, fish, birds, and fruits. During the day, foxes burrow in hollow trees or rocky crevices.
The Red fox prefers hills, woods, and streams, and is the species most likely to be seen locally.
Eastern Cottontails are abundant in the Shenandoah Valley, while the subspecies, the Appalachian Cottontail, is not as common.
Cottontails eat grasses, clover, vegetables, and fruits during the spring and summer, and in the colder months they feed on twigs, buds, and bark. They are largely nocturnal but are occasionally seen at dawn and at dusk.
The Virginia Opossum, also called the North American Opossum, is common in the Shenandoah Valley. The opossum, a marsupial, is largely nocturnal.
Opossums are opportunistic feeders and will consume plants, insects, fruits, and mice. When threatened, opossums go into a coma-like state that can last several hours, “playing possum” to discourage predators. While you might not see an opossum on your visit to the Valley, you might see its tracks. Their paw prints look like tiny hands, because they have opposable thumbs.
Raccoons are seen in the valley during daylight hours, even though they are most active at night. Raccoons are omnivorous and eat insects, worms, fish, frogs, salamanders, fruit, nuts, acorns, and grains. They are not picky eaters and prefer easy meals.
Raccoons do not hibernate, but in the coldest part of winter, they might remain in their dens for days or even weeks. Raccoons prefer dens in hollow trees, rocky crevices, underground burrows, or dense underbrush. Lake Frederick’s shore is a good place to spot the masked mammals as they search for food, since the animals like to be near a water source.
Two species of skunks live in the Shenandoah Valley: the Striped Skunk and the Spotted Skunk. Sightings of either species are rare. The Striped Skunk is about the size of a housecat and has two horizontal white stripes down its back. It feeds at dawn and again at dusk, preferring insects, mice, eggs, and fruit. Skunks sleep during the day under rocks, in rocky crevices, or in underground burrows.
The Spotted Skunk is smaller than the Striped Skunk, and instead of having two horizontal back stripes, its fur more closely resembles the markings of a tortoise-shell domestic house cat. Both species of skunks are armed with the ability to emit a strong, unpleasant odor when they are threatened. If you get too close to a skunk, he might give you a warning by performing a hand-stand. This is you cue to quickly retreat.
Beavers are rare in the Valley. Large rodents, beavers sometimes weigh as much as 50 pounds. They build lodges of sticks and saplings that often create dams on streams and rivers.
Beavers eat aquatic plants, tree bark, berries, and twigs. They do not hibernate in winter, but they fill their lodge with twigs and saplings in preparation for the cold months.
If you are in search of beaver, their signs are easy to spot. Look for a small tree gnawed to a point or beaver lodges and dams along streams and creeks.
Bobcats are only occasionally seen in the Shenandoah Valley, and they are elusive creatures. A grown male is usually about fifteen inches tall at the shoulder and weighs up to thirty pounds. Females are generally a little smaller.
The best time to view bobcats is in the early morning and at dusk, when they are on the prowl for food. Their diet in the Shenandoah consists largely of rabbits, mice, rats, insects, fish, quail, and pheasant. Bobcats have been known to kill larger animals like deer. Opportunistic feeders, they will eat leftovers from another predator’s kill.
Bobcats prefer living in rugged wooded areas near farms, but they will sometimes inhabit swampy and marshy areas. Bobcat signs include scratch marks on tree trunks and their paw prints, which look like larger versions of tracks made by house cats.
While you’re in the Shenandoah Valley, please remember that you’re a visitor in the animals’ home. Many of the Valley’s animals are accustomed to humans and might seem almost tame, but they are not. They are wild animals. Do not attempt to feed them. Virginia has an aggressive wildlife protection system and their habitat supplies all their needs. With proper management and respect, the Shenandoah’s wildlife populations will be around for your grandchildren to enjoy!