After moving temporarily into a cabin at the top of Briar Ridge, south of Sperryville, I’ve been enjoying the abundant wildlife here, including regular visits from three of the most iconic, sexiest species in the region: wild turkey, whitetail deer and black bear.
Mature native trees, including oaks and other nut or fruit producers, are everywhere around the property, offering a bumper crop of food for wildlife most of the year. The oaks’ acorns are especially important to the three marquee species I’ve singled out here, as well as to a host of other smaller birds and rodents, as winter approaches and other foods dwindle.
Most of the oak trees around the yards are black oak, which have produced a healthy crop of acorns this year. While acorns from black oaks are more nutritious than those from white oaks, the latter nuts are preferred by most acorn-eating wildlife because they are sweeter, having less tannic acid (tannins), which give the black-oak acorns a bitter taste.
As I’m writing this, at the end of September, a flock of about a dozen turkeys — a mix of adult hens and almost-grown poults — have regularly been visiting the yards and surrounding forest on the property. While they do love acorns, they have also recently been visiting the backyard frequently to eat the seeds of unmown grass there. A trio of toms also show up on the property from time to time.
The backyard is also full of mature dogwoods. Their crowns are broad and thick with foliage, thanks to their location on a south-facing hill that’s sunny most of the day. By late summer, their leaves had already started turning color and most are now shades of gold to red, providing a gorgeous preview of the fall color that should soon sweep across the region. They are now also loaded with bright red berries, which not only add to their color but also have been attracting numerous bird species, including scarlet tanagers, goldfinch, chickadees, eastern wood-pewee and other songbirds. Songbirds are not the only avian consumers of this crop. One day I saw a fat turkey hen continually jumping up to glean the berries from a low-hanging branch.
Several deer have also often visited the yards and forest around them since I arrived here. When the acorns started to come down, I’d often hear the deer before I’d see them, munching away on the hundreds of acorns that now litter the yards. The most frequent deer to visit are a trio of a mature doe and her fawn, whose spots are almost gone, and a smaller doe that is probably the larger doe’s fawn from last year. Now mature enough to be on her own, the younger doe often wanders off on her own.
I’ve only seen one bear up here so far — a yearling battling mange. While it likely also had been chowing down on acorns, I mostly saw it foraging for fruits in one native tree or another. One day, Mollie alerted me to the bear’s presence up in a small black cherry tree about 50 feet away from the cabin’s deck. Mollie hadn’t barked yet, so I got her inside and made her lie down and stay quiet, then grabbed my binoculars and camera and sat on the deck to observe and try to photograph the bear foraging.
I’ve always been impressed by how dexterous a bear’s lips are, able to delicately pull off the smallest fruit from thorny bushes without getting a scratch. This bear had its lips in full gear as it quickly stripped the tree of most of its tiny cherries, with others showering down to the ground. While a few small branches were sacrificed as it bent them to harvest their fruit, no larger limbs came down.
Unfortunately, as usual, thick foliage obscured most of the bear’s efforts, so I only got a few marginal photos through small gaps in the foliage. After about an hour, the bear came down the tree and disappeared back into the woods, leaving behind a pile of cherry seeds packaged in the bear’s personal brand of fertilizer.
While Mollie would occasionally chase off these three visiting species from what she now considers her territory, they would soon return to carry on with their foraging. Then, in early September, the remnants of Hurricane Ida blew through, and all of them suddenly disappeared.
That surprised me, because beyond some impressive gusts of wind, Ida didn’t amount to much up here — not nearly as dramatic as the deluges of rain, paired with lightning and thunder that seemed to be going off just over my head, that had poured down frequently. Perhaps these visitors were just enjoying the food Ida’s winds blew down elsewhere.
A week or so after that storm came through, the turkeys did come back and continued to forage in the yards. They were soon followed by the deer trio. Although I’ve only gotten a brief glimpse of them one time, they’ve left signs and made sounds in the night that let me know they were back. No sign of the bear yet. I’m hoping it just moved on rather than succumbing to the mange that had been spreading across its body or becoming the victim of some misadventure during Ida’s visit.
© 2021 Pam Owen