You can’t get too much winter in the winter.
— Robert Frost
I usually wait for a day when temperatures are bearable but not too warm–25 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t bad–and when there is a fresh coating of snow. The fresh coat of snow helps identify trails, tracks, and scats which otherwise may have been obscured by weathered snow or melted away on a warm day. It is helpful to bring a pencil and paper to sketch tracks and a small measure stick so that the identification is accurate–most large dog prints are easily confused with coyote (it doesn’t help that both are fairly common in and around cities).
If I even begin to think about the cold then it pervades every thought and bothers me enough to be too distracting. Being prepared saves a lot of hassle with cold temperatures. I always wear layers. (In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I own a thick winter coat.) Layers trap warm air better than a puffy polyester fluff-filled coat, and when you get too warm, a layer can come off or if you get too cold, a layer can be added–this helps you to avoid sweating, which is not good in freezing temperatures. A scarf helps protect the face and neck, but I rarely care about that–beards are nice in winter. A winter hat and gloves or mittens are obvious necessities, but stay away from cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture and having any wet clothes only makes it colder. Wool is the best and polyester is nice as well. Footwear must be waterproof and consider thick socks. On days when all the snow in the yard is melted the ground will be sopping wet and shady and cool areas may still have plenty of snow. Sunglasses will help to avoid snow blindness. Also, bring a snack. I usually have some nuts on-hand for a winter walking snack and I still bring water as the risk of dehydration is still present in winter.
Aside from prints and scats, observing wildlife in the winter is a waiting game. Making a blind to observe from can increase your chances of seeing wildlife (use sticks and dead leaves/fern fronds to conceal your image). I usually walk a distance, maybe a quarter-mile or more, and then pause for a while. Not only does this allow my body to cool and avoid sweating when tackling tough terrain, but also the loud sound of my feet cracking ice and crunching snow is cause for alarm for any creature and I may not see anything at all if I continuously tromp around in this blatant manner. Look for any movement in the trees and on the ground, get down on knees and hands or squat to change perspective, and listen for chirps, crunching snow, low hums and grunts. If I stop and hear or see nothing then next time I pause longer. This is also a good way to practice patience. Often I will become lost in thought and lose track of how long I stopped when a pileated woodpecker glides through the trees, or a gang of turkeys heads straight my way, foraging as they go, or I get a rare glimpse of a red fox sneaking behind logs and brush to avoid being spotted while hunting. Birds are easier to view in the winter without summer’s foliage to hide in, so I often listen and look for them.
For the lover of plants as well as animals, winter presents a few unique opportunities. Of course, plants are now dormant and identification is tricky, but now is a good time to learn to identify trees by their bark alone. This type of identification will remain valuable even in summer as some trees grow leaves far too high in the canopy to discern with the naked eye. Certain trees present unique marks and traits in their bark that make them easy to identify without question, while others are less obvious and the differences are subtle between species in a genus. For example, sycamores have scales of varying color from dark brown to green to white unlike any other native tree species in the east. In contrast, red oaks–such as pin, scarlet, black, and northern red–all have grayish to dark gray bark with shallow vertical fissures revealing rusty red-brown inner bark. Identifying each species of red oak from one another by bark alone is a challenge and takes much practice.
A rewarding opportunity for the naturalist with a green thumb is starting an indoor terrarium. All that is needed is a glass jar with a lid, a piece of nylon window screen, pea gravel or small stones, potting soil and a few plants. With pea gravel or small stones on the bottom of the jar, place a round, cut section of window screen on top to prevent soil from washing into the gravel. Put some soil–an inch and a half should do–on top of the screen and wet with a spray bottle. Add a stone or two for looks and then add plants. Moss is easiest to grow in terrariums and offers a chance to closely observe mosses everyday without straining the neck or back. Small ferns and relatives–spleenworts, clubmoss, etc.–can also thrive in a terrarium, but stick with smaller ferns. Not all plants will enjoy the terrarium. Look for plants that enjoy high humidity, wet soil, and plenty of shade. It is very important to keep the terrarium out of full sun to avoid cooking the plants inside. The terrarium is not only a nice way to enjoy and observe plants over the winter, but it is also a fine piece of decor for the home.
Note: It is important to remember that when removing plants from outdoors we are also changing the environment. Be considerate of this and: choose plants that you know will survive; choose plants that are not threatened, endangered, or rare/scarce; and/or take a few cuttings or clippings to propagate instead of whole plants. Make sure that plant species has a more than adequate chance of survival in its original habitat. If removing plants from field, stream, forest, or rocky ledge do not do so without proper permits or authorization.
Wintertime may be unpleasant and the cold difficult to enjoy, but nature takes no pause. Before the full onset of Spring, observe the living world around you. Notice the arrival of migratory birds and listen as they sing impatiently before the mating season. Watch the leaf and flower buds on trees and shrubs grow fat or even burst prematurely. Find the mottled green and purple skunk cabbage flower melting the snow around it (and give it a smell, why not?) Maybe even hear the call of a wood frog who waited out the winter frozen among the leaves. All life is anxious for Spring.