Pine cones and long, graceful pine needles

The Winter Seasonal Nature Journal

Pine cones - Eastern White Pine tree
Pine cones – Eastern White Pine tree

The winter seasonal journal is special. It records the surprising things that happen in this quiet, sleepy season.

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.

The winter is a 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.

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. It covers galls, abandoned birds nest, tracks in the snow, identifying bare tree branches, dead weeds and interesting natural history facts.

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, 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.

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 ponds 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 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.

snow covered driveway on my Philadelphia street
snow covered driveway on my Philadelphia street

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.

Here 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.

Plants in Winter

Plants go dormant during the cold winter. 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 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 phenology.

Animals 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. These birds can 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.

cardinal at my feeder in winter
cardinal at my feeder 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.

  • 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

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.

Winter is a quiet season without the flash and constant action of summer. But it is wondrous in its own right. Nature in winter has many mysteries to unravel. Winter is the perfect time to start a nature journal or naturalist’s notebook. And there are many winter nature activities and journal topics that are just right for the season.

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