A grove of ancient pecan trees draws a large number of gray squirrels to the farm. These industrious mammals are scatter hoarders. They hide thousands of caches every year and feed on the stored nuts and seeds during times of scarcity. Gray squirrels primarily nest in collections of sticks and leaves called dreys or hollow tree trunks. They also do not hibernate. Instead they often share their nests with other squirrels on cold winter nights. Crepuscular by nature, gray squirrels are most active in the early morning and evenings.
Up until about a year ago I never expected to see a bald eagle on the farm. Due to excessive hunting by humans and the insecticide DDT, bald eagles were considered endangered or threatened for much of my childhood. Combined with the fact that they are sea eagles and principally eat fish, it was absurd to think I would ever see one in this part of Virginia. Yet here they are. Incredibly, it might even be a breeding pair that’s been visiting the farm over the past several days.
Their resurgence is the result of an amazing conservation effort. In the 1950s there were only 412 known nesting pairs. With the banning of DDT and severe restrictions on hunting, the birds are no longer listed as endangered or even threatened. Their increased numbers means that they are starting to re-occupy territory in parts of the United States where they have not been seen in living memory. Extremely cagey and hyper-alert, I have yet to get close enough for a decent photo of these amazing birds of prey. Even so, it is always inspiring to see this massive eagle – their average wing span can be 7-1/2 feet wide – take flight and soar over the family farm.
Found commonly over much of the east coast and as far west as Texas, the pickerel frog lives happily in Virginia’s Piedmont. While it looks similar to the leopard frog, the pickerel’s distinctive rectangular spots are an easy way to tell the two species apart. As you would expect of any frog, the pickerel is often found near streams and ponds. The lack of webbing between its toes also suggests that it spends more time on land than other frogs.
Amazingly, the pickerel frog is the only poisonous frog native to North America. Similar to eastern American toads, the toxin it secretes through its skin is only mildly irritating to humans if rubbed in the eyes or mucus membranes. However, its poison is more potent to smaller animals and even deadly to amphibians.