A Winter's Walk
By Nanci Bross-Fregonara
When the temperature drops and a stillness spreads into the Mountain State's forests, it's the perfect time to gather up the warm woolen mittens and enter a woody wonderland. Although many may think the woods become desolate after the leaves fall, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many mammals and non-migrating birds are constantly searching for food, leaving clues to their activities in plain sight whether on newly fallen snow or in the open canopies of trees.
The best equipment you can have while on a hike (besides hot cocoa and trail mix) is a good set of eyes and ears. Listening for burrowing movements in the underbrush or the tlock-tlock-tlock of woodpeckers in the trees makes for a fascinating field experience.
While fresh tracks of mammals and birds are obvious signs of life, they may also be subtle clues to animal behavior. The tracks of a fox may run close to a road edge as he carefully follows a scent. The gliding footprints of a rabbit may mysteriously be replaced by the wing impressions of a successful avian predator. A tree may bear the newly made rubs of a deer's antlers as it marks its territory.
The best time to go on a winter walk is in the early dawn and early dusk hours, when deer are foraging and owls, especially the great-horned owl, are very active. At dusk you may be able to hear the hooting of the male owl as he establishes his territory or begins to attract a female. She may respond back with higher pitched and shorter hoots. Great-horned owls, that take over nests made by hawks or eagles in high trees or cliffs, often begin their month-long incubation period in late winter. Listen for male owls hooting as they return to nests to take over incubation duties from the female in early evening.
“We try to use all our senses when I go out on walks with my kids,” says DNR biologist Jack Wallace. “When it is damp or humid in the fall or winter, you can smell everything in the woods so much better.” The scent of distant wood fires or coal stoves add to odoriferous discoveries. Even weed, flower and tree identification can be assisted by the sense of smell. Slightly crush a dried leaf and take a whiff. Is it spicy or minty? Yarrow is aromatic and garlic mustard, not surprisingly, has the slight odor of garlic. Crush the head of sweet everlasting and it will smell of tobacco.
“One of my favorite things to do is teach about tree identification by using tree shapes which are much more visible after all the leaves have fallen,” Wallace says. “If leaves are still on the trees, that helps to identify them as well.” From the slightly upturned branches of the flowering dogwood to the shaggy bark of the shagbark hickory, trees have many distinctive marks that help with identification. The locust tree may have leftover, dried-up seedpods hanging from its branches, as well as thorny spikes on its trunk. A red maple tree, often found in pure stands, will have twigs with a reddish-cast. Oaks often have dried leaves still hanging on the branches. In West Virginia, one of the most lovely tree trunks is that of the towering sycamore. Its white, sinewy trunk often provides a stark contrast to the deep blue of a winter sky.
Look carefully at the branches of trees and you will see the homes of many creatures hanging or clinging to its branches. While a high elevation squirrel nest may be easy to spot, the Tom Thumb homes of insects are more challenging to see. For example, bagworm moths overwinter in small, two-inch bags made by their parents. These two-inch bags are made of leaves and twigs wrapped together with silk, which is also used to carefully attach the bag to a branch. If the bag material is constructed in a vertical pattern the bag is that of an evergreen bagworm. If the material is constructed in a horizontal pattern it is of an Abbott's bagworm.
In among the towering spikes of goldenrod, look for goldenrod ball galls, the winter home of the goldenrod gall fly. It is a round swelling about an inch in size. If you pass by cattails, look very carefully at the cattail's seed head. Inside a very fluffy-topped seedhead may be the larva of the cattail moth. Although the head may seem intact and undisturbed from a distance, it is actually carefully knitted together with silk, seed and larva. Spider egg cases can also be observed nestled in tree bark or attached to tall weeds.
From the close-up focus of the insect world to stepping back to observe the sky, there are wintry signs everywhere. Wallace often takes the time to point out different cloud formations to his children. “They help determine future weather patterns,” he adds. “The halo that you sometimes see around the sun or the moon are formed by ice crystals and indicate a front will be coming through within the next 24-48 hours. ‘Mare's tails' or high elevation cirrus clouds can mean the same thing,” he says. Those fronts don't necessarily mean a noticeable change in temperature, but are often associated with precipitation.
Listen for the “caw-caw-caw” of crows as they gather in large flocks, often in farm fields scavenging for food or near a stand of trees seeking a roost for the evening. Often they are confused with their larger relative, the raven. But the raven's deep “wonk-wonk” call distinguishes it from the crow. Ravens are also more wary of humans and are more at home in wilderness areas in the central and eastern mountains in West Virginia.
“The woodlot visited in summer is much different in winter,” adds Wallace. “The change of seasons causes the woods to look ‘bigger', as our perception of space changes when the leaves fall and the woods open up.” Take a winter walk; it will make you appreciate all the cycles of nature.
Nanci Bross-Fregonara is a publications specialist in Elkins.
Enjoying the great outdoors during the winter can be more meaningful when armed with a few of the following informative publications.
The Stokes Nature Guides series written by Donald Stokes has two excellent books that can enhance an outdoor experience: A Guide to Observing Insect Lives , which includes a section on insects in the winter and A Guide to Nature in Winter which has wonderful illustrations of the plants, tracks and insect cases that one would come across on a winter walk.
Mammals of West Virginia, A Field Checklist, published by the WVDNR is available at most DNR offices or by calling (304)637-0245.
Peterson Field Guides, Animal Tracks, by Olaus J. Murie. This book is filled with illustrations of tracks in the snow, scat, as well as descriptions of animal behavior and personal anecdotes.
Also, A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter by Carol Levine and Weeds in Winter by Lauren Brown are both good sources of information and illustrations. Both use odor as a feature for plant identification.