Wild Ideas: “Woods and Wildlife Conference,” and mysterious animals   

It’s time again for the annual “Woods and Wildlife Conference,” a one-stop (or first-stop) venue for owners and managers of woodland properties who want to learn more about woodland ecology and management from experts in a variety of related fields. (See sidebar on conference details.)

The conference, this year on Feb. 24, is organized and supported by a host of conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations. At the invitation of Adam Downing, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent who developed the event years ago, I attended last year’s. The talks were great, the speakers were knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking with them as well as with attendees. I also came home with lots of useful information and some additions to my network of nature experts.

My favorite talk was the capstone (last): “Ghosts of the Woods: Virginia’s Mystery Mammals.” It was given by David Kocka (pronounced “kotch-ka”), a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) wildlife biologist. He often fields calls from residents about wildlife issues, particularly bears, which is how I met him. Since last year’s conference, Kocka wrote a book, “Bear with Me, My Deer: Tails of a Virginia Wildlife Biologist,” about his experiences with two of his favorite mammals; it will be on sale at this year’s conference and is also available online.

In his talk, Kocka covered several species that are rarely seen, if at all, but have been reported to be in Virginia. Merely noting that only 58 percent of respondents to a VDGIF survey knew Virginia only had black bears, he moved on to the species listed below. Recently, I contacted Kocka for an update, and also included any changes below.

Cougar: Also known as mountain lion, or, as many scientists prefer, puma, for its Latin name (Puma concolor), this big cat can inspire great passion in people who think they’ve sighted one. Kocka Acknowledged this by pausing to put on a bulletproof vest before starting his talk, getting a good laugh from the audience. “The reason I’m putting this on,” he said, “is because, when I talk about this . . . someone is going to take a fair exception to what I say.”

Although records show the eastern cougar was extirpated from Virginia in the late 19th century, reports of sightings keep coming in. But are cougars, in fact, here now? The short answer is “no,” Kocka said, pointing to the lack of hard evidence. He also shared a quote attributed to Harley Shaw, a retired mountain lion biologist who spent decades studying the big cats for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish: “After years of chasing UFOs — unidentified furry objects — I now discount out-of-hand any sightings of lions, even from professional biologists. The human mind is a strange and wonderful thing, and it’s totally unreliable.”

While no sighting or other evidence of cougars has yet to be been confirmed, mountain lions are heading our way — albeit slowly. (See more on this in an upcoming column.)

Porcupines: Historically found only in the North and West, this prickly species was confirmed to be in Virginia, mostly in western counties, in the 1950s. While VDGIF can’t confirm the numbers, Kocka said, “We know we have them.” He noted damage from them in Shenandoah National Park (2015) and elsewhere and showed a confirmed photo of an adult with young (Frederick County, 2011) and of a dog with quills sticking out of him (Augusta County, 2016).

How did this slow-moving species get here? Porcupines are known to crawl under tractor trailers and hitch rides, Kocka said, which would disperse a few. But they’ve also been moving down slowly from the North, with sightings for some time in Pennsylvania.

Evidence has confirmed that porcupines have been in Virginia since at least the 1950s. By National Park Service
The fisher, in the weasel family, have mostly been spotted in Virginia’s western counties. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Fishers: Historically ranging further north, these members of the weasel family “were probably extirpated because of their beautiful pelt,” Kocka said. He noted that fishers have the amazing ability to attack and kill a porcupine by turning it over and biting its face while avoiding the quills. Five fishers were sighted between 1972 and 1991. Some states, including West Virginia, restocked fishers in the 1970s, and these populations may have spilled over into neighboring states, including Maryland. Confirmed sightings in Virginia in the last 10 years or so have come from Page, Shenandoah and Frederick Counties, and on U.S. Forest Service land.

Spotted skunk: While more of a Midwestern species, some Eastern states have had small populations of this mysterious species. Few have been seen in recent years, causing growing concern that they may be declining. Their habits are unusual, so they are hard to track.

Golden eagles are known to winter in Virginia. By Michael Gäbler via Wikimedia

Golden eagle: Moving from mammals to golden eagles, Kocka said VDGIF has attracted some of these birds by setting out bait. A project is underway some Eastern states to photograph the and use computer software to identify individual eagles. (The goldens are most likely to show up here in winter, according to most sources I checked.)

To report evidence of mystery animals, particularly those listed above, contact Kocka’s office at 540-248-9360.

Thanks to Adam Downing, I’ll be attending the conference again this year. I’m especially interested in the capstone talk — on coyotes. I should have asked Kocka if he’s going to lend his bulletproof vest to Mike Fies, the “fur-bearing-animal guy” at VDGIF who is giving the talk.

© 2018 Pam Owen

2018 “Woods and Wildlife Conference”

Learn about woodlands and how to manage them at the conference, Feb. 24, 8:30-4:30, at Germanna College in Culpeper. Cost is $45 per person; $80 per couple. Preregister by Feb. 14 to ensure getting in to this popular event. For more information or to register (online or by mail), go to forestupdate.frec.vt.edu or contact Adam Downing at 540-948-6881 or adowning@vt.edu.

Talks and breakout sessions at this year’s conference:

  • The legacy of timber harvesting on private land and its scientific repercussions
  • Early-succession habitat
  • Forest-pest update
  • Forest pollinators
  • 2016 Rocky Mount Fire in Shenandoah National Park
  • Selling timber
  • The value of snags (standing dead trees)
  • Farm-pond management
  • Pine savannas
  • Habitat triage and cognitive mapping
  • Native plants for wildlife habitats
  • Coyotes in Virginia
Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”