Blue Ridge Naturalist: DGIF Wildlife Guides

Once the author discovered by chance that box turtles liked cherry tomatoes, she placed overripe ones outside the garden fence for them to find. Here, a male (it has red eyes) enjoys its treat! (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

For thirteen years, I gave monthly talks during prime tourist season in Shenandoah National Park. Following the program, if there were not too many questions from folks, I would go outside to climb the stairs to the balcony on the west side of Big Meadows Lodge.

The Sun would be going down and often there were lovely sunsets to watch. But while most visitors would be looking west, towards the Shenandoah Valley, I would be facing the lodge, waiting for a wonderful show to begin.

Before it was too dark to see, large bats would begin to emerge from along the roofline of the historical structure. As I stood against the railing that ran along the edge of the balcony, these winged mammals would fly right over my head towards the forest below.

I could never quite figure out where those bats were roosting on or within the building. They appeared so suddenly and moved so quickly that it was impossible in the fading light to pinpoint the crevices that hid them all day.

But I did figure out what kind of bats they were, thanks to “A Guide to the Bats of Virginia”, which was published by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF). The dark-colored bats were very big, and our largest species in Virginia is the Big Brown.

Once I read the description of this bat’s behavior—that it has a strong affinity for manmade structures—I felt sure of my identification. It is very important to pay attention to size and behavior in order to identify bats because you will not often get a chance to watch them during daylight hours when coloration can be used.

It is obviously far more difficult to discover what kinds of bats are around your home, or at your favorite Virginia vacation spot, than it is to see and identify most other kinds of animals. But if you keep an eye out for bats at the right time of day and in the right seasons, you will probably be able to spot these animals (the only mammals capable of sustained flight).

Rarely, you may get to see a bat up close, which makes it far easier to identify with the DGIF booklet. (NOTE: You should never handle a bat because, although most bats are healthy, the one you are viewing could carry the rabies virus, which is deadly).

My very first experience with seeing a bat up close was a sad one. I may have been as young as six or seven when I found a dead bat in the woods where I was exploring (my all-time favorite thing to do for as long as I can remember).

The animal was hanging from a branch only a few feet off the ground. Although I would have preferred that the bat be alive, I was thrilled to get to see one so well. Unfortunately, I did not have the means way back then to identify it.

If you are interested in learning more about our bats, many of which are severely diminishing in number, then you will definitely want to have a copy of the DGIF’s booklet, which is available for $6.95 at

The DGIF has also published “A Guide to the Turtles of Virginia.” It is chock full of fascinating information about these reptiles that almost everyone, from children to adults, enjoys seeing. For example, did you know that turtles have been on the Earth since the age of the dinosaurs, and that they have not changed much at all since that time?

The box turtle may be the species you are most likely to view in our area. One June day almost seventeen years ago, I visited my larger pond to find a male box turtle cooling off on what was a terribly hot, humid day. As I had never before seen one of these animals in water, nor ever heard mention of them going into water, I was very surprised—and even concerned. At first, I wondered if it had somehow fallen in and could not get out.

Thus you can imagine my surprise to find out in this new booklet that “it is not uncommon to find a box turtle swimming around in a flooded forest or attempting to cross a stream or river.” Goodness! Who knew? I certainly did not know until that hot summer day that our terrestrial turtle is not afraid to venture into water.

I was curious as to whether the booklet would mention that box turtles eat carrion, something I discovered, again on a June day (this time twenty-three years ago) on a tour of my yard. (I typically walk all around the yard at least three times per day to see what kinds of critters are out and about.)

I was shocked that day in 1994 to come upon a box turtle eating a dead common mole! Until then, I’d had no idea that these land turtles were scavengers. Upon turning to the Box Turtle species account when my booklet arrived in the mail, I found that these animals are, indeed, known to feed upon dead animals.

Since turtles have no teeth (a fun fact from the booklet), a box turtle feeds—whether on a piece of fruit or a dead animal—by simply tearing off a bite and swallowing it.

If you find this kind of information fascinating, you can purchase a copy of the turtle booklet for $7.95. If you are enthralled, as I am, by all aspects of the natural world, you might even want to purchase a complete set of the wonderful wildlife guides put out by the DGIF. There is one on snakes and another on frogs and toads (I did a Gazette review of this one in February 2012). You can purchase the guides individually (the prices vary) or as a set for $19.95.


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