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In The Country

Life in the winter forest

Kay Deardorff
Naturalist, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(1/2014) With the holidays in the past and anticipation of what the New Year may hold, the outside world seems barren and quiet.

But humor me as I ask you to put on your imagination cap and take a journey with me into the forest. You lie deep in the mud in your cozy bed. Itís so nice and quiet. No need to worry about predators. No bills to pay; no laundry to do; no snow to shovel. Winter is not such a bad time after all. For months all you need to do is sleep, dreaming of warm summer ponds filled with lily pads and tasty flies to eat. Who says itís tough being a frog?

To the mere human the forest appears to be empty of life. But on a closer look, there are many exciting discoveries to be made by the nature adventurer. The most exciting "gifts" arenít delivered by Santa and placed under the tree. (Besides, there are no fireplaces for Santa to make his appearance deep in the forest!) There are a lot of interesting things to discover in the winter that indicate to us the evidence of wildlife.

Winter is the best time of year to engage in the practice of animal tracking. When snow blankets the forest floor, the animals leave many clues behind that tell of their presence. Even though the animals themselves may not be seen, by following their tracks left in the snow, the careful nature detective can learn much about the woodland denizens. Often, an entire story unfolds before your eyes. For example, the tiny paw prints of a mouse closely followed by fox tracks and ending abruptly with a few drops of blood informs us of how the animals themselves track each other.

Even without snow, the passageways of many animals can be found by examining the winter weeds and shrubs. Be alert for weeds that have been trampled or pushed aside. Look for tunnels through the shrubs and vines. Most animals have regular territories with favored foraging and sleeping places. It is much easier to spot such places in the winter.

Aside from animal tracks, be on the lookout for other signs of life such as feathers, pieces of fur snagged on thorns and shed antlers from deer. Best of all, animal scat (their poop) is especially well preserved at this time of year!

Bird life is very interesting to observe in winter. While a number of local birds have flown south to warmer climates, many others remain with us all year. Winter also brings some new bird species to Strawberry Hill. The Dark Eyed Junco, commonly known as the "Snowbird", flies south in the winter, but to this bird, Adams County is south. After spending the summer nesting as far north as Canada, the Junco spends the colder months in our area.

At night, the winter forest is anything but dull. Many of our larger animals such as deer, raccoon, bobcat and coyote are still very active. In fact, for our common barred owl this is the busiest time of the year. The courtship activity of owls begins in the winter months. Owls start nesting earlier than other birds, because their young take much longer to develop. When the owlets finally do head out on their own, springtime has arrived, making it much easier for them to find food.

Many other animals, such as frogs, toads, turtles and snakes, spend the winter hibernating. When you walk by a frozen wetland in winter, you are walking above literally thousands of creatures. Many rocks or old logs shelter a hibernating salamander as well as the cocoon of a caterpillar. Some butterflies hibernate under pieces of tree bark. So even in the winter, animal life is all around us.

If you donít have a forest in your backyard that you can explore, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve is a fabulous place to come and make discoveries noted in this article. Instead of spending the winter indoors, bundle up (because you donít have a fur coat to keep you warm like the coyote or fox) and venture into the woods. Even the honey bees that are huddled together in their hives will come out on a warmer winter day and do a cleansing flight before returning to their home to wait for spring to arrive.

Similar to the animals, some plants are active and others are dormant in this season. Signs of life include swelling tree buds and sap running in the sugar maples. Keep your eyes open for announcements about our Maple Sugaring programs that will begin mid-February through early March.

For these and any of the nature programs offered at Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, check the calendar on our website at or call the office at 717-642-5840 for further information. Remember the trails are open dawn until dusk everyday with the exception of hunting season. Come out and see what you can discover in our forest in the winter.

Read other articles by Kay Deardorff