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by Evie Toland
I’ve always considered winter to be the “dead time.” The leaves are gone, the birds have flown south, and the animals are tucked away in hibernation. It was definitely not the time to start learning about nature as there just wasn’t that much to see. However, when I started working as an outdoor educator, I discovered that, in fact, the opposite is true: Winter is the best time to become a naturalist.
Three areas of study in particular become much easier to start learning in winter: animals, birds, and plants. Below I describe how to get started on your journey to becoming a backyard naturalist.
When winter arrives, we are given the most perfect substrate to follow, learn, and identify animal tracks: snow. Snow is like a fresh canvas for the wild world to paint their stories upon. Especially in depths of 1-4 inches, individual tracks are clear and visible, which allows for easy identification. After a fresh snowfall last December, I went walking in the small patch of woods between Nyack High School and the Mountainview Condominiums and I found deer, fox, gray squirrel, rabbit, bird, and coyote tracks all within an hour. Snow also provides opportunity to follow or trail animals over long distances. That same day, I was able to follow a red fox trail for about a mile and discovered this fox’s watering hole, preferred hunting habitat, and interactions with other animals. I even saw a flurry of activity that looked like the fox rolling its back in the snow, possibly to mark its territory. This kind of window into a fox’s world would have been impossible in any other season.
So when the snow comes, do yourself a favor and take a walk in the woods scanning the ground for tiny footprints. See if you can count the number of toes, identify nail marks and palm pads, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, follow them for a while. You might even catch up to the animal and see them firsthand. There is a whole world of animal stories happening all the time in our backyards, and winter is the best time to read them.
For resources on identifying animal tracks, visit:
Bird Identification and Behavior
Winter is also the most opportune time to start learning about your feathered neighbors. Trying to learn about and identify birds in the spring is completely overwhelming. It’s like walking into a room filled with people speaking different languages and talking all at once. In the winter, however, the birds that stick around are less in number and oftentimes even hang out in flocks. Making things even easier, birds tend to only demonstrate what birders call “baseline behavior” in winter, or behavior that focuses solely on staying alive, which doesn’t include all the frenzied, aggressive behavior that comes in the spring when they are all trying to find a mate and nest.
Learning about birds in winter is actually vital for having any success in birding in the other seasons. Kristi Dranginis, a long time bird watcher and esteemed teacher based in Connecticut, offers mentoring for people on how to create deeper connections with birds through her business Bird Mentor. I interviewed her and asked about the benefits of birding in winter. “In winter, for the most part, you are only seeing the ‘residents’ of the area,” she said. “Getting to know, really deeply, just a handful of these birds–their size, shape, song, and behavior– will help tremendously once spring rolls around because you will then know when there is a ‘migrant,’ or newly arrived bird, in your area. You will be much more prepared to learn the new species arriving in the spring once you really know the resident species in your area.”
Dranginis has also recently made a video describing the 3 best birds to start with in the cold season: the Chickadee, Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpecker. These 3 are very common in New York woodlands and neighborhoods, and have very distinct calls, shapes, and behavior, which will help teach you what features to look for in bird identification. Dragoniis also calls these 3 birds the “tour guides” of the area because once you learn to identify them and learn their behavior, then they will start to clue you in to the other birds that live nearby.
Dranginis offers videos, lessons, and workshops focused on bird ID and bird song on her site, as well as an “Advanced Masters for Beginning Birders” course that takes people on a deep dive into the art of birding. She has also published a book called Identify Any Bird Anywhere: In 8 Easy Lessons, which is a great starting point for those new to birding.
Other resources for getting started include:
Plant Identification, Uses and Medicine
Similar to birding, winter is a great time to learn the local flora because there’s fewer starting points. A majority of the plants die, go dormant, or lose their leaves in winter, which is a key feature for identifying them. Thus, there is an obvious and easy place to begin: evergreens.
Evergreens are easy to identify, and many of them have medicinal, edible, and craft uses. For instance, Juniperus virginiana, or Eastern Red Cedar, is often used as decorative shrubs in Northeastern neighborhoods. You can identify it by its green, fern-like, aromatic, waxy leaves, reddish brown, shredding bark, and round, blue berries (only found on female trees; male trees have cones). As you can tell from its scientific name, this false “cedar” is actually part of the Juniper family, and, like others in this family, contains aromatic and cleansing oils in the leaves, medicinal benefits within the berries, and wood that is great for carving and friction fire as it is rot and mold resistant. Try finding an Eastern Red Cedar, or another evergreen in your neighborhood. Crush the needles in your fingers and see what it smells like. Visit that tree every day, or once a week, with curiosity: What animals also use this tree? Is it a male or female tree, or both? When does its cones open to release pollen? What is the tree’s personality? How old is it? The amount there is to learn about one plant species, or even just one individual tree, is truly endless.
Winter provides us with the opportunity not only to learn about plants, but also how to learn about plants, which is by cultivating relationships with them. If you can get to know just one species of plant or tree really well this winter–its size, shape, habitat, uses, benefits and hazards, or even personality–then you will be ready to start building relationships with all the other plants that sprout up in spring.
For more information, check out these plant-focused resources:
Fun Facts About Winter in the Wild:
- The Common Poor-will is the only bird known to hibernate! These birds are nocturnal and feed solely on insects. When their food source is basically eliminated in the winter, instead of migrating, these birds just climb up on the rocks in their native Southwestern US desert. They fall into torpor for several weeks, or even months. Their body temperature can drop as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit!
- Snowshoe Hares change their fur color from dark brown to bright white in the winter. They’ve figured out, through evolution, how to time the changing of their fur color perfectly with the coming of snow so that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb, and thus serve as easy prey to nearby lynx or coyotes. However, climate change is changing snowfall patterns and, therefore, might affect their ability to time their color changing correctly. Scientists are studying how this will affect their populations and behavior.
- Hibernating Arctic ground squirrels can drop their body temperature during hibernation to as low as -2.9 degrees C, the lowest body temperature ever measured in a mammal. They stop their body fluids from freezing through a process called supercooling. They heat themselves up every so often throughout hibernation to sleep properly. In other words, they wake themselves up to dream.
- Evergreens evolved to have thick, waxy coatings to their leaves to reduce water loss, which is the mechanism that enables them to keep their leaves all winter.
- Plants have a temperature memory. Scientists have found that plants can work out how cold it’s been and for how long by keeping track of the interactions between certain proteins.
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