Nature Connection: Winter Wonders

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration

There’s a Carolina wren hollering outside my window on this bright, sunny but freezing cold morning. For such small birds they sure make a lot of noise. Cardinals have been starting to call and a few chickadees have been trying out their “fee-beeeee” songs, usually reserved for later in the year. The sun and the light seem to be making everyone feel a little giddy, in spite of the frigid temperatures. It may be only February, but Daylight Savings is less than a month away

The ground is still covered with snow, icicles hang from tree branches and rooftops and for a few days, it looked like a winter wonderland around here. It’s been a while since we’ve had snow in measurable amounts on the Cape, and even longer since it has stuck around for a week.

Getting out walking can be tricky when the ground is icy and uneven. Parking lots at area beaches and conservation areas haven’t been plowed in many areas and have been icy and bumpy with ruts that could rival even the best of potholes for bone jarring bounciness. Sidewalks are cleared in some areas but not all, and woodland paths are either sheer ice or impassable due to fallen branches and trees. And yet, out some of us go, to walk anyway.

They say there is no bad weather, only bad clothes and over the years many of us who traipse about outdoors throughout the year have gathered a decent collection of boots, shoes, hats, gloves, jackets and even walking sticks to help us get around these would-be barriers.

Perhaps the most fun part of walking in snow-covered areas is watching for and following tracks. Wildlife you may not see in your normal travels leaves behind clues and stories in snow and mud for anyone who wants to explore and enjoy a bit of a mystery. Why did those tracks just end there? Did something happen to the rabbit, mouse, squirrel, or vole? Are there other tracks nearby? Wing marks in the snow? Any feathers or fur to be found? Sometimes that story is obvious with signs of both prey and predator, a little flurry of a struggle and perhaps even a few drops of blood. Sometimes, though, it is more mysterious than that. One can argue that the animal was taken by a hawk or owl but often there are signs of that. One of my friends insists that it is aliens that lift them straight up in the air, but that is highly unlikely. Not every story is laid out neatly for us.

Bird tracks on the beach are fun to try and figure out. Gull, duck and goose tracks all have webbed feet, but they are different sizes and weights. Crows leave tracks at the beach as do smaller birds such as sanderlings and dunlin. Small tracks in dune areas near rosa rugosa or bayberry shrubs may be song sparrows, horned larks or snow buntings depending on where they are. If you hang around long enough, you may spy the culprits.

Winter is a great time to sharpen your hawk-watching skills. Many hawks are more visible at this time of year than at any other time. Both peregrine falcons and their smaller cousins, merlins, are being seen on the Cape right now. Many of these are young birds and can be seen sitting out in rather public ways as they peruse their surroundings. They tend to be site faithful, so once you know they are in a particular area you may see them fairly often.

An easy hawk to identify is the northern harrier, formerly known as the marsh hawk. The females and immature birds have a brown or reddish-brown plumage and the males are gray with black wing tips. Both sexes have owl-like faces. The best identification mark is the white patch they all have on their rumps, just above the tail. Look for them over any marsh or dune area, large field areas, golf courses, etc. They tend to soar low over the area they are hunting in, and if you watch long enough you may witness a catch. On occasion you may see them hover before they go in for the kill.

Snowy owls are always fun to see but because so many people have been poorly behaved when trying to get the perfect photo, locations are no longer shared or announced to the general public. If you are lucky enough to spot one, please keep your distance. These birds are easily spooked and waste energy moving about, avoiding the attention. More than a few of these birds perish each year due to starvation. 

Fox, coyote and deer tracks are easy to find and follow in the snow. Rabbits, squirrels, otters, raccoons, and possums also leave easily identifiable tracks. There are a lot of good tracking guides to use, including many that are downloadable from online sources.

It’s time to pull on the boots and gloves and get outside to see what you can see. It’s beautiful, calm and uncrowded out there. Enjoy it while we can.