Winter at the Sanctuary

The end of our busy baby season brings a much-needed respite to our staff but by no means brings the Sanctuary to a halt. Winter is a time to plan, prepare and get the facility ready to receive hundreds of next season’s patients! Ever-increasing patient numbers mean we need to have an ever-increasing supply of enclosures to handle them all. It also means that our current enclosures need to be kept in great shape despite the wear and tear of daily use and unpredictable weather.
Existing enclosures each get checked for loose lumber staples since the winter freeze-thaw cycles tend to push them out. Boards gnawed on by rodent patients – a natural part of rodent tooth care – get replaced. Wood that has warped over time to the point of hampering door use gets replaced too. On top of it all, each of our fifty outdoor enclosures undergoes deep cleaning and sanitation in preparation for the coming season.
We have some special projects happening at the Sanctuary this winter in particular. Because we care for over twenty orphaned striped skunk kits annually, we are re-designing our skunk enclosures to allow for more natural digging behavior. This includes excavating the enclosure floors and burying escape-proof mesh deeper so the stinky, adorable patients can dig and tunnel as they would in the wild. We are also expanding some of our fox enclosures to give growing red fox kits more room to roam around. We are even constructing one large, brand-new fox enclosure to meet the region’s high demand for fox rehabilitation! This endeavor requires extending our access road further into the woods because our fox enclosures are the farthest away from our main building. The distance from most activity allows the kits to grow in as much of a wild area as possible without being stressed by frequent human noises and interactions.
Because our enclosures are spaced throughout our rural 22-acre wooded property, we also must keep track of the condition of the forest that we inhabit. As the Sanctuary’s native trees grow and change, falling limbs and trunks present safety concerns for our enclosures and for our staff. This season, an arborist removed seven dead trees in danger of falling and harming our team. We left the dead trees on the property to ensure they could fulfill the next stage of a tree’s life cycle: providing a home and nutrition for ground-dwelling creatures, from natural bacteria and fungi to Virginia opossums.
While we tackle these many maintenance projects, we still care for our small squad of year-round residents. These are our education ambassador animals who live with us because they were medically or behaviorally non-releasable. We are also “overwintering” patients who arrived too late into the fall to be released safely before the start of winter. These wintertime patients include a nursery full of box turtles still recovering from car collisions, a few orphaned juvenile bats in our nursery’s makeshift hibernaculum, thirty eastern gray squirrels in outdoor enclosures, and a small litter of flying squirrels. Luckily, due to differing growth schedules, we can use our bat enclosure as a flying squirrel enclosure for the winter before their early spring release (and bat move-in). We’re all about adaptive reuse at RWS!

Each year at the sanctuary is vastly different, even though the majority of the animals that we deal with tend to remain the same. But the "firsts" each year always stand out, and this year is no different. This summer presented our rehabilitation team with two interesting "firsts" and two new learning experiences.
A not-so-great "first" was the North American outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). HPAI is a virus that occurs mainly in birds, is highly contagious among birds, and can be deadly, especially in domestic poultry. While most waterfowl are usually asymptomatic, not showing symptoms of the disease while infected, these species are the most likely to transmit the virus to other birds. The most susceptible are domestic poultry, raptors, avian scavengers (gulls, ravens, crows), and game birds (turkeys, grouse, quail). Most raptors and scavengers come in contact with this virus after eating one of the previously mentioned carriers of the virus. Due to the high concentration and proximity of birds in our sanctuary, we had to adopt protocols to lessen the risks of contagion to both the orphaned babies we take in and to our educational raptors. It was a stressful time, for should we have an outbreak the USDA could require us to euthanize our education raptors as a preventative measure. 
Our biosecurity protocols included setting up a quarantine shed for all new waterfowl intakes, and isolating them to prevent cross-contamination with the songbirds in our nursery. Additionally, each staff member working in any waterfowl enclosure was required to wear a full Tyvek suit, gloves, masks, and foot coverings along with stepping in a bleach solution before entering the enclosure. In the ninety-degree weather of summer, this made for hot work! It was also an added strain on our PPE budget for the year. But, knock on wood, we have made it through the summer with no outbreaks.
Our much more heartwarming "first" was the arrival of a baby Northern Bobwhite quail! The baby bobwhite came to the wildlife rehabilitation facility after repeatedly approaching a couple camping in Powhatan County. The tiny quail ran out of the woods by their campsite and sat on their feet. With no mother bobwhite or siblings in sight, this lone hatchling came to RWS for rehabilitation. It weighed only 6 grams at intake. Now, the adorable baby bird topples scales at 80 grams and chows down on a tasty selection of mealworms, chick starter, and native browse.
Dubbed “the prince of game birds,” the Northern Bobwhite has faced a steep decline across the South due to agricultural land use and the resulting loss of suitable nesting habitat. Their namesake “bob-white, bob-white” call is now hardly heard due to an estimated 70% population drop since the 1960s. Farmers and landowners interested in helping these unique birds make a comeback can implement practices that support bobwhite nesting, like creating field borders, hedgerows, filter strips, conservation cover, and carrying out prescribed burns where appropriate. 
In the meantime, the wildlife rehabilitators at RWS have spoken with the Department of Wildlife Resources quail experts about the best rehabilitation plan for this patient.
“Caring for a bobwhite quail has been a great learning opportunity for our staff,” says Sarah Cooperman, Interim Director at Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary. “These unique birds are in peril in Virginia, so we’re happy we can do our part to get this patient back to the wild where it belongs.” RWS aims to release the quail back to the wild by the end of September.

Gone are the quiet days of only having a nursery full of overwintering turtles to care for. Our nursery has been packed now for two months! While this years baby season has followed the consistent admissions pattern of squirrels, followed by opossums and everything else, this year's arrivals began earlier than usual and came in greater quantity.
Our first intake of the year was a big brown bat, captured during a house remodel in January. The bat was followed closely by a Great Horned Owl and flying squirrels which arrived in February. Early March brought our first eastern grey squirrel, the first of many, some of whom are still awaiting release! Our "squirrel season" keeps starting earlier and continuing longer, indicating the local impact of climate change. They continue to flow through the sanctuary like the Rockfish River (our namesake).
Since March, we've had the following mammals come through our door: eastern cottontails, striped skunks, a North American river otter, woodchucks, raccoons, Virginia opossums, red fox kits, and deer mice. Our wide variety of mammal patients keeps us on our toes, but we have had an even more diverse pool of avian patients! Bird intakes for the season so far include Carolina wrens, a Black Vulture, a Northern Flicker, Eastern Bluebirds, House Finches, Carolina Chickadees, Common Mergansers, Canada Geese, American Crow, Mallards, Common Grackles, American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, a White-eyed Vireo, Mourning Doves, Wild Turkey, and more! Most of these bird patients are songbirds that must eat every 30 minutes, so the days fly by.
This season has also brought a new obstacle we have to deal with: a nationwide outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. Our waterfowl must quarantine, and it seems like we live in goofy-looking Tyvek suits and the accompanying Personal Protective Equipment to avoid spreading any illness between our patients or two staff. We've had to change our enclosure substrates to allow for the cleaning requirements and adjust waterfowl feeding schedules to avoid cross-contaminating enclosures. It's an ongoing process and we are consistently updating our biosecurity protocols. We hope that this wave of HPAI slows soon for the safety of our native birds, our ambassadors, and patients, and also for our budget - all of the PPE can become quite expensive.

Winter is here at RWS, which means turtles are too! While woodland box turtles are an unusual sight outdoors this time of year, they’re our most abundant rehabilitation patient through the winter. 
Ordinarily, healthy turtles and other reptiles enter brumation, which is a hibernation-like state in which their metabolic rates sharply decrease. These cold-blooded critters typically bury themselves to wait out the coldest part of the year and re-emerge once their favorite foods (bugs, slugs, and greens) are abundant again in the warm springtime. But humans often derail these plans. Vehicles, pesticides, and family pets can cause injury or illness for unlucky native box turtles across Virginia. If they don’t have enough time to fully heal and bulk up on energy reserves before the temperatures drop, they must be “overwintered.” In Virginia, that means any reptilian patient still in care on October 1st must be kept until May 1st. That’s where RWS comes in! 
This winter, we are caring for eight woodland box turtle guests who have all come to RWS after being struck by cars or lawnmowers. They are sure getting the royal rehab treatment! Each turtle has an ultraviolet light to simulate the daily light cycle as well as a heat lamp for basking. Every day, we provide a colorful meal consisting of fresh greens, chopped fruit, and plentiful protein choices including egg, soaked kibble, mealworms, or mouse. We’ve installed a humidifier in our nursery to keep the room at an optimal humidity level for our scaley guests, and their individual enclosures are misted daily as well. On top of these daily treatments, each turtle is soaked in a shallow tub of warm water three times per week to keep their skin hydrated. Only the finest accommodations at the RWS Spa! 
While our woodland box turtles are resting and healing up indoors, our staff is hard at work prepping the rest of our Sanctuary for the upcoming baby season. This has included multiple maintenance projects among our 52 outdoor enclosures, and we are currently installing a water line that will reach our farthest structures: three red fox enclosures. That way, we’ll be able to use a hose to refill water troughs and clean enclosures and we’ll no longer need to haul buckets of freshwater. While this will improve the efficiency of our care for the nearly twenty red fox kits we intake annually, our rehabbers will have to find another way to get their bicep workouts in. 
We anticipate our first baby of 2022 any day now. When you read our next GlobalGiving report, we’ll have likely admitted over 300 patients!

It has been a busy baby season at Rockfish. In fact, we’ve already broken our record number of patients (841 and counting) We’ve seen our fair share of critters, from Killdeer to Barn Owls to plenty of raccoons and Virginia opossums. That being said, we did have some especially exciting new patients at RWS this summer: big brown bats! Bats are fascinating flyers, but we have never had the ability to rehabilitate them due to our lack of a bat flight enclosure. Bats require a highly specialized enclosure to accommodate their unique adaptations and behaviors. The space must be octagonal or circular, with fine mesh walls and soft hanging obstacles to allow them to safely practice flying, roosting, and occasionally falling - especially when pups are clumsily figuring out this whole “flying” thing. We were lucky to have our proposal for a bat flight enclosure funded by the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation in late 2019. We excavated a footprint and built the enclosure’s platform. Spring 2020 then rolled around, and we all know what that means: Covid. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a pause in our batty plans. Bat rehabilitation in Virginia was prohibited as we were not yet sure how transmissible Covid would be between humans and our bat populations.
Flash forward to early summer 2021 when that ban was reversed – just weeks before pup season would normally start in the wild - our first pup patients were coming to RWS. Our rehab staff and summer interns got to work in our nursery, feeding our young pups every three to four hours around the clock – yep, that included overnight as well. Once they began to grow teeth, we introduced a mealworm “smoothie” to their diets. While we much prefer a mixed berry smoothie, making mealworm smoothies allowed our bat patients to get acquainted with their primary food source in the wild: insects. Bottoms up! Soon our pups were practicing flapping and needed an upgrade. Director Brie to the rescue! She brought in an old camping tent which we pitched in our nursery. We attached heat pads to the outside of the tent and suspended soft fleeces inside so our pups could crawl, climb, and hang upside down. It worked out perfectly. As Director Brie said, “This is what happens when you regularly camp and backpack but don’t regularly rehab bats.” Our pups were soon completely eating on their own in their tent enclosure and ready to head outdoors. We put the finishing touches on our new flight enclosure just in time. The structure was designed for bat rehabilitation from the bottom up – from its round shape to the springy turf lining the floor to the pool noodles hanging from the ceiling to act as soft obstacles mid-flight. Lastly, we installed two UV lights on the ceiling to attract bugs for the bats to hunt. Two years and one global pandemic later, our orphaned bat pups had a new home where they could practice flying and foraging safely before being released back to the wild. The bats quickly learned that hunting for themselves was way more fun than a bunch of humans giving them food by hand. Ironically, one of the best parts of wildlife rehabilitation is when your patients want nothing to do with you anymore. We even stuck around after dark one night to see them in action and assess their hunting ability. They did not disappoint – our once tiny, helpless orphaned pups deftly navigated the nighttime air and used echolocation to catch flying insects in their enclosure. After a month of living in our brand-new enclosure, our inaugural bat patients were ready for release. We let them go using the release doors built into their enclosure.
From mealworm smoothies to pup tents to pool noodles, bat rehabilitation has been quite a wonderful and successful adventure at RWS this summer. We look forward to rehabilitating bats for many years to come!
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