Winter has set in. The warm colors of autumn have been replaced with the browns, grays, and tans of the winter landscape. Evergreens, outdressed most of the year by more flamboyant vegetation, feed eyes hungry for color. The skies are quiet. The migrating raptors, waterfowl, and songbirds have reached their wintering grounds.
Chesapeake Bay waters are dark and foreboding. Odd sculptures of driftwood, deposited by winter storms, adorn the barren shorelines. The dry, brown marsh grasses that glisten with morning frost accent meandering wetland streams. For many, it is the season to stay indoors and sit in front of a warm fire. But in this winter starkness, nature reveals itself to us.
Trees bare of leaves may look lifeless but, like other living creatures, they are merely in a dormant state. Twigs hold tightly packed buds that contain next spring’s foliage. The buds of each tree species are distinctive and, like the bark, can be used as an identification tool. Trees in winter no longer hide wildlife from our view. A red-tailed hawk perched on a bare branch is easily spotted.
Naked trees also unveil last year’s nests. A clump of leaves in an oak is the treetop nest for a gray squirrel. The vacated nest of wasps hangs delicately from the end of a tree branch looking like an inverted top. Bird nests, woven from grasses, leaves, twigs, feathers, string, and other debris, tell much about their inhabitants.
You can identify who your avian neighbors were by the distinct design of the nest. A loose nest of thorny branches with an inner layer of moss and grass may be that of a mockingbird. A deeply cupped, neatly lined nest in a thicket probably belonged to a catbird. The small drooping pouch of soft plant fibers is the handiwork of the northern (Baltimore) oriole. If you see what looks like a small mossy knot on a tree branch, look again, it may be the tiny nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird.
Quiet and still as the winter months may be, wildlife still abounds. Anyone with a passion for feeding birds is treated to a daily performance as sparrows, chickadees, finches, nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers, crows, and blue jays vie for space at a feeding station. Squirrels busily search for their buried nuts or, if unsuccessful, raid the bird feeder.
Most of the more familiar mammals in this region do not actually hibernate. Deer, mice, foxes, squirrels, and rabbits are active throughout the winter. Beavers, too, are active but will spend most of their time in their lodges. When water freezes, the beavers feed on the bark of branches they stashed at the bottom of the pond during the fall. Only the groundhog, or woodchuck, truly hibernates. Others, like the chipmunk, raccoon, and skunk go into a semi-hibernating stage. They may sleep for days or weeks at a time and then emerge for food or during an unusually warm winter day.
Many of us do not realize what wildlife lives nears us until a light snow blankets the ground. Take a quiet walk immediately after the snowfall. Look down for clues and telltale tracks in the snow. Begin by looking at familiar tracks. A dog’s track is different from a cat’s track in that the dog’s prints show claws while the cat’s do not because of its retractable claws. This is true for wild and domestic canines and felines. Because of the way a fox walks, its tracks form a single line while a dog’s gait leaves two pairs of tracks. A rabbit’s tracks, with its pair of large hind feet and smaller fore feet, are distinctive and easily identified.
A field guide that includes animal tracks is helpful to both the novice and experienced tracker. A careful study of tracks can identify the animal that made them and what direction it went. Tracking also includes trying to deduce why this animal was moving and what may have occurred during its journey. Soon one will discover that there is indeed an abundance of winter activity. An exploration will lead to questions which, in turn, will lead to more exploration.
So when winter brings the blues and cabin fever abounds, look to the outdoors for a new experience. Quietly wander alone and look. Look up, down, and inward. The winter air is silent; snow muffles sounds. Listen hard for the rustling of birds and other wildlife seeking food and cover. Listen as the trees sway and groan in the wind. Train your eyes to see the beautiful patterns created by icicles, cracks on a frozen pond, and tracks in the snow. The coming of spring won’t seem so far away and maybe it won’t even matter.