Field Notes: What’s in the Woods? Cold Bullfrogs Don’t Jump 

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

For many of us who work in the natural resources arena, it is a joy to see school buses arrive for an outdoor field trip.

GLO school buses at Beaverdam
Throughout the state, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff partner with many school divisions and local, state and federal natural resource agencies to provide elements of meaningful watershed educational experiences, also called MWEEs, for students.

lunch in the woods

It is especially nice when schools are brave enough to chance a little bit of rain, as opposed to cancelling a field trip.  Sometimes overcast weather can provide better opportunities for viewing wildlife in action.

During a bit of early cold weather, Gloucester County students encountered a few frogs along a nature trail, and we watched them hop away.  However, when we came across an American Bullfrog close to the water’s edge, it refused to budge.  I don’t know if the frog was too cold to move or if it decided that staying frozen in place and camouflaged was the best strategy –  or a combination of both.  It was facing a line of 25 large predators, and all eyes were on the frog.  When I touched the bullfrog’s back with a fern, it surprised us by staying put and puffing its body up to be as large as it could.

When I returned to the same spot on the trail about 10 minutes later, the bullfrog had moved a few feet closer to the lake and seemed to be pressing its body against the warmer earth under the leaf litter.


This bullfrog may have been caught out in the cold, but wintertime can be a great time for people to get out and explore the outdoors.  Just be sure to check the latest weather forecast and wear blaze orange during hunting season.  My family recently found winter hiding in the mountains (below).

Make the winter season more exciting by visiting a forest near you!

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods? Best of Summer 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton

A Round-up of Interesting Moments & Encounters in the Woods from Summer 2019

When a local deadline for forest land use reports passed in late fall, I had time to share photos from the past few months. Note:  Land Use Assessment is available in many Virginia counties (but not all) for property owners with 20 or more acres of woods.  You can check with your local Commissioner of the Revenue to see if it is an option for your property.



lichenhopper 1

While walking with a landowner through a 23-year old loblolly pine stand to see if the stand could be commercially thinned, we encountered this grasshopper “shell” which appeared to be growing lichens.  Our forest health staff explained that this grasshopper died from an entomopathogenic fungus, sometimes referred to as zombie fungi.  A fungal spore infected this grasshopper, then consumed its body to grow a new fruiting body to release more spores.  So, what appeared to be lichen is actually the “mushroom” formed by the fungus.  The many species of “zombie” fungi are host specific, and serve as a natural control for many insect populations, such as our invasive gypsy moth.


IMG_3791 histerid ZOOMWhen we experience hot, drought-y periods, pine bark beetles can kill their host pine trees by girdling the trees with their tunnels.  The lack of soil moisture prevents the pines from being able to drown out the invading insects with tree sap.  While trying to identify which type of beetle had killed a yard tree in Middlesex County, we found a histeridae beetle (genus Platysoma) that was infested with mites.  Keep in mind that the total length of the host beetle in the microscope photograph above is 2 mm.  Platysoma beetles are predators that eat ips beetles, so while we did not find an ips beetle, it is a sign that an ips species helped kill this particular loblolly pine tree.


It is common in July and August for foresters to leave the woods covered with “seed” ticks, or clusters of the larval stage of various tick species that are as small as seeds. Each of the tiny dots on the pant leg in this photois a tick larva.

seed ticks

I am always glad to say “¡Hasta la vista!” to them at the end of the summer.  There is much more to the tick story but I will save it for next summer.





While the ticks are no fun, seeing wildflowers and shrubs in their natural setting is one of the joys of working in the woods.  This shrub is Viburnum nudum, also called possumhaw.  The berries start out pink and turn deep blue, and are eaten by songbirds, wild turkey, and squirrels.





flying saucer in woods


Summertime in Virginia provides the heat and moisture needed by all sorts of fungi in order to flourish. This appears to be a type of shelf fungi, possibly Oxyporus populinus. The mushrooms in the photo below had a fairy tale look on a particularly sweaty day.  A local expert identifies them as silky rosegill.

hollow tree mushrooms ZOOM


While many mushrooms thrive in the heat, these black vultures gathered around a sunken bathtub on an 80-degree morning.  After weeks of 90-degree temperatures, they were not bashful about seeking relief from the heat near a house.


While preparing for a talk on Forests and Climate Change, I ventured out to photograph a clearcut (below) on the water’s edge that has grown back in an invasive species, phragmites, or common reed.


I was surprised to encounter a covey of bobwhite quail in such dense vegetation.  According to the landowner, quail have inhabited this tidal area for several years.  I heard the young quail peeping in the reeds, then two adult quail leapt into the road — one acted like it had a broken wing for several seconds (a defensive mechanism meant to distract predators away from their more vulnerable young), then both adults charged towards me.

Field Notes: An Intern’s Day at Conway Robinson State Forest

By Intern Marissa Ardovino

As the summer comes to an end, I’ll recall one day I spent in Conway Robinson State Forest…

I walked quietly down the blue trail at Conway Robinson State Forest, rounding a bend in the path when suddenly a small branch shot backwards and retracted upon itself into the depths of a thorny blackberry bramble. I stopped and listened to soft rustling in the shadows of the leaves and quickly realized that the thin tree branch was actually a small reptile! The friendly little snake pictured below is none other than a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus). Had he not moved at the moment I rounded the trail bend, there is no way I would’ve seen him hidden within the countless shades of green foliage that perfectly matched his shimmering scales.


Camouflage is a form of cryptic coloration that allows animals to blend in with their surroundings, usually in order to avoid predation or to sneak up on prey. Camouflage comes in many different forms including background matching, mimicry, aposematism and disruptive coloration. When combined with behavioral traits, camouflage is essential to the survival of thousands of animals across the globe.

Reptiles are not the only critters to take advantage of this safety measure, however. Walking farther through the forest, I came across a species of Eastern Shieldback Katydid trudging through the leaf litter.


Were you able to see him at first glance? It definitely took my camera a long time to focus on him, but luckily he proved to be a terrific model before continuing with his day.

I think it can be pretty easy to view the forest as being relatively dichromatic. Everywhere you look, green and brown, brown and green. In reality, the forest contains many more colors than what initially meets the eye. Members of the animal kingdom are very familiar with this.


Take the small bump on this twig for example. This is a gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor), commonly known for being a favorite snack of many birds and reptiles in the woods. If you’re like me, you may think that there is no place for a silvery gray amphibian to disguise itself in a brown and green forest, but clearly there is a proper location for them. Hopefully this little tree frog’s hiding place will protect him from all of the larger animals who would quickly make a meal out of his less-camouflaged neighbors.

Now imagine if all of these animals swapped locations. They would likely stand out like sore thumbs and risk predation from other forest-dwellers. Organisms are adapted to match patterns and textures of their exact niche in an ecosystem. If a certain species does not use cryptic coloration, or a genetic abnormality represses camouflage in an organism, it is much less likely that they will reach reproductive maturity and pass those traits on to the next generation. Through this process camouflage slowly evolves, becoming more and more advanced. Next time you’re out in the woods, be sure to keep an eye out for the near invisible creatures that could be right beneath your feet!


About the author…

I am a rising junior majoring in Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. This summer, I have an internship through the Manassas branch of Virginia’s LEAF program. LEAF (Link to Education About Forests) is a partnership between Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Forestry and the National Park Service that focuses on teaching the public about natural, cultural and historical resources through outreach initiatives. I work primarily at the Manassas National Battlefield Park and Conway Robinson State Forest where I am working with local organizations to develop lessons about forestry and land management. I keep a weekly blog about the rest of my internship adventures here:

Field Notes: What’s In The Woods Today? August 7, 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton


August is spider month. If you have ever been the first person in line on a hiking trail, you have probably experienced the feeling of a spider web wrapping around your face. Just about the time you remove that web, another one lands in its place.

shell spider n web

By late summer, these “shell-backed” spiders (above), Micrathena gracilis, seem to have taken over the forest and cobwebs are everywhere (below).

spider webs 1

web stack

When morning dew falls, spider webs can be more visible (below).

web blankets

I once heard this described as “the spiders are hanging out their blankets to dry.”

On the eastern side of Virginia, some of those eye-level webs are made by spiders that resemble crabs, called spiny orb weavers, Gasteracantha cancriformis (below).

spider 2

A day camp student found this black widow spider (below) in a hay bale on the edge of a trail. Luckily, black widows dwell in dark places and are not commonly encountered out in the open. [For more information on black widow and brown recluse spiders, see Spiders of Medical Concern in Virginia.]

black widow

I am forever grateful to the coworker who showed me how to carry a “spider stick” in front of me to collect cobwebs. Just pick up a dead stick with branches that spread about as wide as your shoulders, like the one below.

spider stick (1)

The spiders will collect on the branch instead of your face (below). Yay!

spider on stick

Technically, spiders are arachnids, not insects, and are generally considered beneficial because they eat so many nuisance bugs. Even pest control company websites urge us not to kill harmless spiders.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? May 15, 2019

Brush Piles and ‘Possums and Other Little Surprises

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton

20190503_114626 crop

As I was walking through a clearcut to help a landowner consider reforestation options, I saw an opossum cross a nearby dirt road. I thought to myself, “Surely I can outrun a ‘possum and take some photos.”

20190503_114641 crop

However, I had to hop over logging debris and briars, while the opossum followed its well-worn path through the vines and vegetation to a large pile of branches and tree tops. Opossums are nocturnal, so I kept a distance in case it was rabid.  Once the opossum was safe inside this pile of tree limbs, it stayed put.

possum entrance door circled

The opossum’s entrance hole to the brush pile is circled in the photo above.

As I walked around the pile, I discovered a number of entrance/exit holes. Another hole and path are marked in the photo below.

brush pile exit hole marked

Brush piles are, in fact, one of the wildlife habitat structures that our agency promotes.


Building a brush pile can be a good alternative to burning branches and other unwanted yard debris. Mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects can use brush piles for shelter from predators and weather, resting, feeding, and for nesting or den sites.

mouse nest

For example, in one week’s time, a mouse built the nest above in a fresh pile of firewood.


This little fawn was found in a brush pile by Joe Lehnen, forest utilization and marketing specialist.

Our agency’s brochure, Brush Piles for Wildlife, provides instructions for building a pile that is stable while also providing spaces for shelter and movement through the interior.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? April 22, 2019

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Two Snake Day!


Last week the sun was shining, and the fresh spring foliage and flowers were lovely.  The road in the photo above was a Gloucester County state road until Beaverdam Reservoir was built in 1989,  submerging a section of this road.


Pawpaw blooms (Asimina triloba)


Eastern redbud blooms can resemble tiny hummingbirds. (Cercis canadensis)

Then I almost stepped on a copperhead snake heading in my direction.  We both jumped backwards.  This is the first copperhead I have seen on the Middle Peninsula after four years of working here.   They are one of Virginia’s few species of venomous snakes.


As you can imagine, I was more alert after this snake encounter.  Yet, I was still surprised to come across one more snake as I was leaving the woods (below and cover photo).  I believe this one was a northern black racer, judging by the descriptions at the Virginia Herpetological Society website.  The snake retreated to this tree hollow and tapped its tail back and forth rapidly under some leaves to create a rattling sound.

It is not super common to see snakes while walking in the woods, but they seem to be less cautious and easier to find during the first few weeks of warm, 80-degree weather.


Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today ? December 21, 2018

by Forester Lisa Deaton


We expect to see Christmas trees at Christmas tree farms, but this decorated eastern red cedar is located on the edge of a 2-year old pine plantation.


On a recent rainy day, the bald eagle below appeared to be hunting in a clearcut.


One of my favorite things about this time of year on the Middle Peninsula is hearing the tundra swans fly overhead.   A bald eagle’s call is quite the contrast.  Listen here.

The bald eagle population has made a notable recovery since DDT was banned [Richmond Times article], and we see them quite often in the Chesapeake Bay region.  With 272 breeding pairs along the James River in 2017, that eagle population appears to be reaching carrying capacity.  The next time you hear that unique bird call, look up and you may see a bald eagle.

Several years ago, as I was driving along Route 30 towards West Point, I saw an eagle steal a dead opossum from a group of vultures on the side of the road.  Much to my surprise, it tried to make its getaway straight towards my car.  At the last minute, it dropped the opossum on the road directly in front of me in order to clear the roof of my car.  I was very relieved that I did not hit the eagle or the opossum.

Field Notes: Whats in the Woods Today? November 27, 2018

It’s Deer Time Again

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

It is autumn in Virginia, so white-tailed deer are on the move again.  You may have noticed buck rubs on small trees similar to the one above and below.


Bucks rub against trees to remove the velvet from their antlers when the antlers finish growing in September.  They continue to rub against trees and shrubs to mark their territory with scent from glands on their forehead.  I consider this one (below) the Picasso of buck rubs:


I don’t know if bucks have a preference for American beech trees in our area, or if I just notice their artwork more often against the smooth bark.


Auto insurance companies would probably agree that deer are a major driving hazard in the fall.


The driver of this brand new pickup truck hit a 4-point buck around 8 p.m. about a week ago.   The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers advice on how to avoid deer collisions here:

It never hurts to drive below the speed limit, especially at dusk, use your bright headlights whenever possible at night, and keep an eye out for wildlife on both sides of the road.

Field Notes: Quail on the Comeback?

by Forester Travis Tindell

All photos courtesy of Dwight Dyle, DGIF

Imagine a quiet morning. You stop and listen, the trees swaying gently as a breeze rolls through. The birds have been calling since before you woke up. The birdsong continues as you tune in, and then you hear it: the three-part whistle of the northern bobwhite. This bird is elusive and more often heard than seen. They call to each other in the springtime with the distinctive “Bob…WHITE!” song. These small red-brown birds are treasured by many, and many organizations are uniting to assist in their recovery.

Bobwhite Quail
colinus virginiaus

Northern bobwhite (colinus virginiaus) populations have decreased significantly in the past half-century. Many biologists attribute this to the reduction of suitable habitat. Virginia is one of 25 states that is the focus for rehabilitation of the population by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

Bobwhite Quail
colinus virginiaus
Bobwhite Quail
colinus virginiaus

Northern bobwhite has specific habitat requirements that in the past two centuries have decreased due to modern land use practices. Quails’ needs include a variety of native grasses and forbs for food, areas of brush for cover and nesting and openness in the forest. This type of environment is found in arid parts of the U.S., such as Kansas, or in the fertile early successional environments of the Coastal Plain, including Virginia.

Good Quail Habitat
Good Quail Habitat

Historically, quail were found in areas of Virginia where burning occurred frequently, an event that opened the woods while prompting the growth of the fresh grasses and forbs quail depend on.

Bobwhite Quail
colinus virginiaus

In June 2018, I assisted the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in a survey of northern bobwhite populations on public and private lands. The survey took place in Sussex County in the Big Woods State Forest, as well as in the neighboring Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and the Piney Grove Preserve (owned by TNC). This area is of national interest for quail conservation and unique in that three agencies are involved with the management of the 7,574 acre property.

In this study the surveyor listened for four different species of birds in addition to the northern bobwhite: field sparrow, indigo bunting, eastern towhee, and prairie warbler. The presence of all these species is an important indicator that the habitat is suitable for bobwhite.

Bobwhite Quail
colinus virginiaus

Northern bobwhite used to be a very widespread species in America. As many agencies continue efforts to rebuild population numbers of this and other birds, I was proud to do a small part to better understand a unique treasure of our American landscape.