Keeping a Winter Nature Journal with Writing Prompts

white oak twig from my nature journal
a white oak twig from my winter nature journal

The winter nature journal records the surprising things that happen in this quiet, sleepy season. Winter is the season we have to think harder about what we can do to continue to keep our nature journals and observe life outdoors. There are fewer birds, fewer trees with leaves, just less going on.

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. (More about nature in winter)

But, a foot or two beneath the surface, plant roots are still growing and contracting, moving toward water and nutrients. Animals are still about. The stars in the sky move in their annual cycles. Life goes on.


Citizen Science Events to Participate In During Winter

We can still participate in citizen science projects like Cornell Ornithology Institute’s  Project FeederWatch or the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. 

  • Journey North
  • Project FeederWatch
  • Christmas Bird Count
  • Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey (January – March) in New York
  • Project Budburst (year-round)

So, don’t put those journals away. What follows are many ways to keep journaling in this coldest of seasons.

Seasons: Earth Natural Rhythms Explained

Winter in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Virigina.USFWS/public domain.
Winter in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Virginia.USFWS/public domain.

Tips for Working in the Cold

Hand and foot warmers can make you comfortable enough that you can spend longer amounts of time outside. You can buy foot and hand warmers at outdoor equipment stores, like REI or Dick’s sporting goods.

Keep your camera close to your body. Sometimes the batteries stop working when it is very cold. I keep my camera inside my coat when I am not snapping photographs. See Winter Photography Tips.

Use a pocket-sized field notebook to jot down notes and quick sketches. Transfer your notes to your winter nature journal once you are back inside.

The ink in pens may stop working. A pencil is more reliable. A mechanical pencil that contains lead you can advance will eliminate the need for sharpening.

On mild winter days, we don’t mind taking walks out in the cold. We may even sit in our backyard habitats for short spans of time. But when it is bitter cold, observing from inside a warm house maybe all we want to do.


shadbush twig from my winter nature journal
shadbush twig from my nature journal

Inside Winter Nature Journal Activities

  • Research topics that you don’t have time for in the warmer months.
  • Read and watch videos on a particular species of animals. Learn its lifeways, behavior, calls, and songs in depth.
  • Draw items collected while outside.
  • Visit Natural History Museums. Check with the museums for days and times with the least visitors. This will enable you to sit or draw in peace.
  • Attend lectures of birding, nature, and gardening clubs.
  • Plan your field trips for the coming warm months. See Nature Places in the Philadelphia Area.

In the Winter Sky

The Winter Solstice signals the mid-point or beginning of the winter season, depending on your viewpoint. 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.

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.

The two big constellation attractions in the night sky are Orion, the great 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.

The Pleiades are a star cluster located in the Taurus the Bull constellation. The are a natural calendar to the seasons here on Earth. See the Pleiades as a Natural Calendar.

Stars in the Winter Sky

Circumpolar Constellations – from latitude 40 degree north – these constellations are always in the sky revolving around the North Star: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Draco, Cepheus, and Camelopaedalis. link to post

Winter Constellations – As the Earth revolves around the Sun, the star constellations visible change. The stars are therefor visible during different seasons.

Facing north in the Evening Sky in Northern Hemisphere: Pegasus, Lacerta, Andromeda, Pisces, Triangulum, Aries, Perseus, Auriga, Gemini, and Cancer.

Facing south in Evening Sky in the Northern Hemisphere: Cetus, Taurus, the Pleiades, Orion, Eridanus, Lepus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Hydra, and Monocerces.

In Winter you can:

  • Learn the circumpolar stars. These are the stars that are always in the sky since they circle the North or South pole.
  • Record the activity in the night sky such as constellations and meteor showers.
  • Practice night sky photography
  • Draw the moon phases, or the locations of the setting or rising sun
  • Map the positions of the rising Sun and Moon. Draw the horizon and include houses. Mark the position of the rising Sun or Moon each day or night. Take special note of the positions on the solstice, equinoxes,  and cross-quarter days.
  • Record the location and position of the Pleiades.

ice covered tree branches
Ice and snow-covered deciduous tree with a blue sky background


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 ponds and lakes freeze. And ice crystals form on the water surface and freeze downward. The top layer of ice serves as a protective barrier 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 rarely receive big heavy snows. Just a lot of snow flurries. 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  major snowstorm and the Delaware Valley Region shuts down.

In the Northeast and Mid Atlantic, 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 accidents.

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.

A plume of grass blowing in a cold winter wind.
A plume of grass blowing in a cold winter wind.

Plants in Winter

Plants go dormant during the cold winter. But the roots re still alive underground. It is a good time 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 a human building has disturbed the natural ecosystems. The winter standing plants are often tough customers like thistle, burdock, and chicory. Now is a great time to go out and quickly sketch or snap pictures of these roadside “weeds”.

Why not learn the difference between evergreen trees? Evergreens (or conifers) are trees that keep their thick green leaves throughout winter. Evergreens are trees like spruce, pine, and fir. Perhaps, you can study them to learn the differences between them. 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 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? This is called phenology.

Plant Observations for Winter:

  • Identify winter grasses and plants
  • Learn the difference between evergreen (or conifer) trees
  • Look for winter seed heads and berries. Which are eaten last by birds and other animals?
  • Study the difference between evergreen plants.
  • Which plants stay green in winter?
  • Study twigs
  • Identify “wolf trees
  • Sketch or photograph trees silhouettes.
  • Record the different types of pine cones
  • Photograph the colors of frost-bitten leaves.
A squirrel-eat-and-dash

Animals in Winter

Winter is the time of sleep for many animals. Turtles, wood frogs, and spotted salamanders burrow deep into the mud to hibernate. Woodchucks and voles sleep the winter away snug in their burrows. As do earthworms and insects such as moths, woolly caterpillars, and bumblebees. 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. Animals active in winter include:

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

Winter Animal Activity to Observe

        • What are the animals eating? Storing Food for the Winter
        • Look for signs of winter animal activity – tunnels, trails, and tracks.
        • Sketch or photograph animals tracks in the mud and snow.
        • Search for signs of winter insects – galls, leaf miners and leaf rollers
        • Dream up and describe a fantasy animal. What would it look like/ What would it eat? What would it do in winter?

How Can Moose Stand in Snow and their Feet Not Freeze?


Bluebird in birch tree at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Ed. in March 2016.
Bluebird in birch tree at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Ed. in March 2016.

Birds in Winter

Most birds flew to warmer regions. But, there are about 30 who stay throughout the winter. Many of these birds will come to your winter feeding stations. Winter hardy birds live off the food 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.

Other birds irrupt into areas when conditions up north become to harsh for them to stay. Watch for new species appearing in winter.

Attract birds and other animals to your backyard habitat by providing for their needs of food, water, and shelter. Providing energy-rich food and if you can manage it, unfrozen water will bring many animals to you.

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Winter Bird Activity to Observe

      • Identify winter birds – with so few around they are easy to learn
      • Who are the birds live near you all year-round?
      • Which birds move into your neighborhood and are just for the winter? Where did they come from? winter Bird Irruptions 
      • What are the birds eating?
      • Search for old birds nests in trees, shrubs and under house eaves
      • What sounds are they making?
      • Do you see mixed flocks of birds foraging together?
      • Are birds using holes in trees for protection from cold temperatures? Watch for signs and comings and goings are tree holes.
      • What species of raptors are still around in winter?
human tracks in the snow
human tracks in the snow

Humans in Winter

After the glorious riot of color in autumn with its clear, brisk days, the quiet of winter sneaks upon us. It is a time of 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 light snow covering the trees and cars. I like eating winter foods like stews and soups and hearty bread.

But, winter is also the time of aching joints and bad colds. We live seasonally without even thinking about it.

Human Winter Activity to Observe

      • Learn about how cold weather affects humans?
      • How do humans adapt to the cold?
      • What are human winter activities? Celebrations?
      • Seasonal and local foods. What foods do humans eat in winter?

Wrapping Up Your Winter Nature Journal

If your nature journal spans a calendar year, you may want to spend some time in the winter organizing your journal. It can help tremendously when you want to find something you drew or wrote down.

Organizing your journal’s information can be done while listening to the radio, podcasts, or audiobooks. Doing a little organizing each day breaks up the task. Reading over the happenings of the past year can remind us of the great things we forgot.

How to Organize Your Winter Nature Journal

      • You can create an index in the back of the journal. Perhaps, just list the year’s highlights.
      • Are your journal pages numbered? Now is a good time to do this tedious chore.
      • Are your sketches of various species identified with scientific names?
      • Have you forgotten to include photos that you took?
      • Did you catalog all the natural items you collected?
      • Maps. Do you need to include a map of the areas you visited?
      • How did you get to the places you visited? Did you write down directions to special places included in the journal?
      • Do you want to make an attractive cover?
      • Use a permanent marker to record the dates covered by the journal. I like to write the year vertically on the book’s spine.

Tips for Nature Journal Keepers and Naturalists

Nature Activities for Kids and Other Beginners

Simplicity: Basic Equipment for the Naturalist

Choosing a Hand Lens for Nature Study

Choosing Binoculars for Nature Study 

Best Books for Nature Journaling and Drawing 

The Grinnell Scientific Nature Journal 

Share Your Winter Nature Journal Questions, Tips, and Ideas

So, there are many activities we can do to keep up our nature journals. It may take more thought than what to do doing warmer months. if there is an activity or tip you would like to share on keeping a winter nature journal please share with ou in the comments below.


    • Thank you, Anne – I wrote it in the hope that you and others would find it useful.

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