A Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) eats peanuts at a feeder in Fort Washington State Park. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Nature in Winter: An Overview

Pine cones and long, graceful pine needles
Pine cones and long, graceful pine needles

Nature in winter is a time of struggle and beauty. Winter signals the end of a long productive year. Plants shut down. making food, animals migrate to warmer climates and humans snuggle up and stay indoors.

After the glorious riot of color in autumn with its clear, brisk days, the quiet of winter sneaks up on us. It is a time for introspection and long quiet evenings spent at home.  I like the feeling of being insulated and protected in my snug house. I like waking up to cold frosty mornings and seeing a light snow covering the trees and cars.

But, winter is also the time of aching joints and bad colds. We live seasonally without even thinking about it. The winter is perfect time to start closely studying nature. It is easier simply because there is less stuff around. Fewer birds, fewer trees with leaves, just less going on.

In the Winter Sky

The Winter Solstice signals the beginning of the winter season. It occurs every year on December 21 or 22. It is the time when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky.

Two fascinating meteor showers occur this season. The Ursids Meteor Shower occurs on Dec. 22. The Quadrantids Shower occurs every January 3rd.

The two big constellation attractions in the night sky are Orion, thegreat hunter and Sirius the Dog Star. Orion is a magnificent star group that is easy to find. Sirius is the night sky’s most brilliant star.

Winter is a perfect time to learn about the circumpolar star constellations. Circumpolar stars are any star that appears to circle around the Earth’s North or South Pole without either rising or setting, as a result of the motion of the Earth.

Winter Weather

Winter weather has the most dramatic changes.It seems one week is filled with the last balmy days of autumn to be replaced overnight with bone-chilling cold. The wind picks up and trees creak and sway in the wind. The water in pond and lakes freeze. And ice crystals form on the water surface and freeze downward. The top layer of ice serves as a protective coating for the animals in the depths below.

When people think of nature in winter they mostly think of snow. In my neck of the woods, the Mid-Atlantic Delaware Valley, we receive big heavy snows just a couple of times every few years. Just alot of snow flurries or maybe a couple of inches. But when we are hit with Nor’easters and blizzards, the region is paralyzed. Here in Philadelphia we don’t handle snow very well.  At the mere threat of a major snowstorm, supermarkets shelved are cleared of eggs, milk, bread and other food in anticipation of being snowed in for several days. A couple inches of snow is the “big news story” for the next couple of days.

Here in the North East and Mid Atlantic region, a beautiful but very dangerous phenomena know as ice storms fall upon us in winter. This occurs when rain falls on cold surfaces and freezes as a sheet of ice. Everything is covered with ice, such as trees, cars, houses, etc. The ice covered tree limbs look like a winter wonderland, but birds, animals and humans have a hard time getting around. Ice freezes on streets and can look black like asphalt. This is the dangerous “black ice” that has caused many a accident.

Heavy accumulations of ice can topple trees, communications towers and  snap power lines. It can take several days for power and communications to be restored. Bridges and overpasses will freeze before other surfaces making for slippery road conditions.

Milkweed pods and winter berries
Milkweed pods and winter berries

Plants in Winter

Plants go dormant  during the cold winter. It is a good time to  to identify tree twigs and winter seed heads.Some plants remain standing during winter. These plants are most often alien invaders that thrive in areas where human building has disturbed the natural ecosystems. The winter standing plants are often tough customers like thistle, burdock, chicory and goldenrod. Now is a great time to go out and quickly sketch or snap pictures of these roadside “weeds”. The Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald and Lillian Stokes is my all-time favorite ecology and identification guide to nature study in winter.

Why not learn the difference between evergreen trees? Evergreens (or conifers) are trees which keep their thick green leaves throughout winter. Evergreens are trees like spruce, pine and fir. If you have a Christmas tree during this season it is a good place to start.

In late winter, tree sap rises and the maple sugaring harvest begins. Late winter is also the time that tree buds begin to swell. Take of notice of which trees buds swell first and all the other conditions that coincide. What is the air temperature? And what else is happening at the same time?

Chickadee
Chickadee

Animals in Winter

Most birds flew to warmer regions. But, there are about 30 which stay through out the winter. Many of these birds will come to your winter feeding stations. These birds can live off the foods sources that are available. They tend to eat insects eggs, hibernating insects and seeds. The scavengers, like crows, pigeons and gulls eat anything they can stomach. The hunters, hawks and owls, of course eat their prey.

Winter is a good time to look for abandoned nests of birds, squirrels and other animals. Learning bird vocalizations and calls during the winter months is easier with so few birds around.

Winter is the time of sleep for many animals. Turtles, wood frogs and spotted salamanders burrow deep into the mud to hibernate.  Woodchucks and chipmunks sleep the winter away snug in their burrows  As do  earthworms and insects such cecropia moths, woolly caterpillars and bumble bees. Bears sleep, but awaken easily during winter. Their body temperature doesn’t drop like other animals which are considered true hibernators.

During hibernation, animals are in a state of suspended animation.

Many mammals stay active throughout the winter. Winter animal signs are evidence of their activity.

  • some fish are active all winter.
  • muskrats, otters and beavers
  • weasels, ermines and
  • deer
  • snowshoe hares and  rabbits,
  • skunks, raccoons and porcupines
  • foxes
  • mice
  • red and gray squirrels – they stay  in nests during bad weather and feed on  buried stores of food
Winter in the city
Winter in the city

Winter is a quiet season without the flash and constant action of summer. But is wondrous in its own right. Nature in winter has many mysteries to unravel. Winter is the perfect time to start nature study or a winter nature journal. And fill that winter nature journal with photos using winter photography tips.

Books on Winter

Learn more about winter ecology with these fine books. Follow the links to see a full description on Amazon.com.

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in Winter (Eastern US) (Nature Study Guides)

Winter Weed Finder: A Guide to Dry Plants in Winter (Nature Study Guides)

Winter: An Ecological Handbook

Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology

Stokes Guide to Nature in Winter

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