The thermometer may read 35 degrees, but when you step outside, the wind slices like a knife, and it feels at least ten degrees colder. On winter days like this, it’s easy to forego the walk to the mailbox. Besides, the leaves are gone, the grass is brown, and there doesn’t seem to be much going on outside while things are dormant for the winter.

Don’t be fooled by outward appearances!

As blogger Cindy West said in her “Nature Study in Winter” post recently, “This might seem like a silly time to suggest taking a nature walk, but creation doesn’t stop singing just because the temperatures are cold! In fact, winter is an awesome time for viewing things that we might miss other times of the year.”

Bundle up and get outside!

One of my favorite winter walks is up into our pine woods, especially when there’s snow on the ground. The crunch of the snow seems so loud I'm unaware of any other sounds in the quiet woods. As I stop and lean against the rough bark of a Virginia pine, however, I begin to acclimate to the sights and sounds of the piney woods.

First, I hear the soughing wind. Anyone who has grown up near pine trees remembers this sound with keen longing. It’s sometimes a soft murmuring, but it can become a rustling, and then a wild rushing when the wind picks up.

The pine needles, of course, are nature-made for surviving winter weather. There’s not too much flat surface area to be exposed to cold or snow, though a sticky snow or ice can accumulate on the needles and branches, causing terrible limb damage. As I look up into my tree, I see scars where ice-laden branches have broken off in the past. Way up in the top, a squirrel’s nest fits in the crotch between two branches, and not far away, its inhabitants are scolding me for invading their domain.

I’m not alone!

Continuing my examination of the trunk, I notice some fur stuck to a rough piece of bark. Looking around, I realize from a narrow track leading off into the underbrush that I’m on a deer trail. Undoubtedly one of them used the tree as a hide-scratcher. Not far away, I see another raw place where a buck has rubbed its antlers, trying to scrape off its fuzzy coating. We’ve seen as many as ten deer in the yard this winter. Where do they go when it’s dark and cold? A herd of deer

As I stay still, I notice the canopy is not quiet at all, but abuzz with flutter and chatter from a variety of birds. I occasionally glimpse the crimson of a male cardinal. The Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied woodpeckers are good at camouflage, but their distinctive drumming gives them away. I’ve recently learned to distinguish the caw of the blue jays. I call it “Crow Light” because of its similarity to the crow call without being so loud or raucous. The little Black-Capped Chickadees can scold with a sound far bigger than seems possible from those little bodies. The robins have stayed all winter in great numbers, and their melodious chirping is quite delightful.

Winter sleuthing

The fresh snow is tailor-made for the winter sleuth. Scratches, markings, and footprints are evidence of far more winter activity than we’re aware of from inside the house. I recognize the distinctive print of the rabbit’s foot. Over there, I can see where the neighbor’s dog came through to look for something to chase. Deer hooves make a clear pattern, but they also tear up my flower beds. Thinking of all these creatures scurrying about makes me realize how many little holes and hiding places are probably getting regular use. I wouldn’t dare poke my hand in any of them, but it’s tempting to follow some of the tracks and see where they go.

A whole new world

I’m getting cold from standing too long, so I’ll mosey inside for some hot chocolate. But now when I look out the kitchen window into the piney woods, I no longer just see a few trees bending in the wind. I now see it as a beautiful ecosystem filled with wonderful secrets to be discovered by those who venture outside to find them.

Have you taken a winter walk this year? What things do you see that you might not notice in the summer? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo credits: Pine cone: Galina Barskaya via BigStockPhoto; Deer grazing: John A. Cottrell, Jr., M.D.
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