Turkeycock Wildlife Area a 'jewel' of outdoor adventure

Turkeycock Mountain Wildlife Area offers the chance “to hunt, hike, and view wildlife from some of the highest elevations in the vicinity,” according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) website. Scout Pond is shown above. (Bulletin photos by Paul Collins)

The Turkeycock Mountain Wildlife Management Area is a “jewel” that some people may not know about.

“If it’s a mountain top outdoor experience you seek, Turkeycock Wildlife Management Area (WMA) can provide it. This rugged, forested area, named for the mountain on which it is located, offers the opportunity to hunt, hike and view wildlife from some of the highest elevations in the vicinity,” according to the description of the area on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) website.

But few people use it, except during hunting season, according to Jason Gibson, longtime member and past president of the Virginia Herpetological Society and a biology teacher at Galileo Magnet High School in Danville.

Gibson will lead what’s called a herp blitz to Turkeycock Mountain Wildlife Management Area on Friday, looking for as many species of reptiles and amphibians as possible. Herpetology is the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians.

A group from the 2012 Virginia Master Naturalist Statewide Volunteer Conference will go on the herp blitz, according to an online schedule of the conference. The conference will be based at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Gibson called the WMA “a jewel, tremendous for walking, hiking, maybe horseback riding, hunting in season, (and) fishing in a pond.”

The area is significant, he said, because it is “very biodiverse” being as far west as the Piedmont extends and as far east as the mountains extend. He also pointed out that little public land in Virginia is ridge land.

The area lies along the ridge of Turkeycock Mountain northwest of Martinsville.

“Here, the mountain's ridge also forms the boundary between Franklin and Henry counties, and the management area’s 2,679 acres extend into both counties,” the DGIF website states. “The area is predominantly a forested landscape with several wildlife openings located throughout the WMA. Elevations range from 1,100 to over 1,700 feet. There are a number of small streams that drain the area and Scout Pond is located near the area’s southwestern corner. Efforts to improve timber quality and create habitat diversity through the sale of timber, as market conditions allow, are the most efficient wildlife management options on this area.”

Turkeycock Mountain WMA is on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. Turkeys, deer, raccoons and squirrels primarily are hunted, and the black bear population is expanding slowly, the website states.

There are several miles of rough gravel roads and a number of paths into this relatively dense hardwood forest. The dense forests sometimes make wildlife somewhat difficult to see. Larger species such as wild turkey and white-tailed deer are visible only when they come in to the open along the roadsides or larger paths.

Bird species found in the area include eastern wood-pewee, great-crested flycatcher, blue jay, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, blue-gray gnatcatcher, wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, scarlet tanager, eastern towhee and American goldfinch. The edges of the pond on the western end of the WMA are worth checking for sunning eastern painted turtles or skulking ebony jewelwings. Spicebush swallowtails can often be found in sunspots scattered along the road.

Jim Bowman, a wildlife biologist with VDGIF, said there were some limited timber sales at Turkeycock Mountain WMA three or four years ago to help create habitat diversity. By and large, the WMA has mature timber except for those cuts, he said.

The WMA had a history of some abuse years ago when it was overrun by ATV traffic and trail bikes, Bowman said. In recent years, much of the uncontrolled activity has subsided.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has tried to control access to Turkeycock Mountain WMA. There is one primary access road now. Some side roads up either side of the mountain have been closed off. There also has been more law enforcement attention, which has helped control abuse, Bowman said.

The WMA gets a fair amount of public use, considering it is in an out-of-the-way area, but “there’s no way to do a head count,” he said.

The WMA is a good area for hiking, he said. The primary trail is the main access road, and there are some former logging roads, he added.

“We feel like it’s (Turkeycock Mountain WMA) an asset to the community. We hope the public does take the opportunity to visit the area and use and enjoy the area,” Bowman said.

Brian Williams, program manager for the Dan River Basin Association, said he has hiked most of the Turkeycock Mountain WMA. “The hiking is good. I enjoy it. It’s pretty strenuous. You’re going uphill the whole way (to the ridge),” he said. He added that on the ridge, looking east you can see flat land and looking west you can see mountains.

The WMA is a great place for nature photography because there is a wide variety of environments, plants and animals, Williams said. For instance, rhododendron, mountain laurel and wildflowers can be seen.

He said he has fished at the pond, which has bass, brim, catfish and maybe some crappy. He also has hiked with a herpetologist looking for salamanders, and there may be a subspecies of salamander there, dusky salamander.

Williams said a lot of anecdotal information indicates there are timber rattlesnakes at the WMA, but there have been three “blo blitzes” and not one timber rattlesnake has been found. A bio blitz is an intense period of biological surveying.

One of the “cool” reptiles at Turkeycock Mountain WMA is the hog-nosed snake, Gibson said.

“This is a stout, medium-sized snake that grows to lengths of 20-33 (inches),” the DGIF website states. “The upturned nose is characteristic. This docile snake is also identifiable by its tendency to inflate its head and neck, coil, hiss and strike when initially disturbed. It does not bite, however, and if this display does not scare away the predator, the snake will writhe and feign death. It is quite variable in color, but usually tan to dark brown, and sometimes yellowish.”

Hikers at Turkeycock Mountain WMA also may see old tobacco barn foundations, rock fences and ridge-line structures, Williams said, adding, “I don’t know what they are.”

There are no amenities such as portable toilets, he noted.

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