Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”

― Sinclair Lewis

A piece of birch bark on the forest floor

In the otherwise drab winter landscape here in New England there are still things of interest to be found when we tramp around outdoors. Whether in your own backyard, woods, on nature trails there will be something of interest to see. I especially like the woods in winter, whether there is snow cover or not, because something will always turn up that will keep it worth tolerating the cold.

Animal tracks in the snow often tell a story

Owls and woodpeckers are among the most common birds we come across in the woods or in backyards with trees, especially during the winter when trees have lost their leaves and the birds are easier to see. A barred owl flew by as I stood in the woods recently and landed in a tree nearby. It must have been its usual roosting spot as owl pellets were on the ground under this tree. Owls cannot chew and swallow prey whole or in chunks, regurgitating pellets of undigestible material. Pulling pellets apart may help identify what animal or bird was eaten.

Owl pellet, likely from a barred owl
Cooper’s hawk

Pileated wood[peckers often are noisy and when heard, can be easy to spot. They often visit the same trees frequently where they have drilled holes for extraction of insects living inside the tree. Characteristic features of these holes are a rectangular shape. Often they are made on white pines where borers are feeding within trunks and branches, or on dead or dying trees with carpenter ants living inside.

Pileated woodpecker hunting for insects
Pileated holes in a white pine

A little winter visitor that may be found foraging in the winter woods is the golden crowned kinglet. This tiny song bird can be found in mixed coniferous and deciduous woods. Listen for its high- pitched see- see-see call on one note as it hunts for insects on tree branches and twigs. It flutters and hovers as it looks for morsels in tree tops or nearer the ground. It has wing bars and a golden crown of feathers capping the head in females, while males have a bright orange cap. Kinglets may flash these feathers if they are alarmed.

Golden crowned kinglets are acrobats while searching for insects

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start early staking out a suitable nesting site. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Often house finches or tree swallows use bluebird houses.

Bird's nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bird’s nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bluebird nest was cleaned out of a box in November. This nest was on top of another nest that had 5 eggs in it.

Just before sunset or sunrise, check the skies for interesting and sometimes spectacular color shows. There may also be sundogs or 22 degree halos if atmospheric conditions are right.

If you go to the woods on a fairly warm winter day, a Mourning Cloak butterfly may flutter by. These  butterflies overwinter in “ cryo-preservation” mode in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may venture out on warm, sunny days in winter, but return to their protective spots before dusk.

Mourning cloak out basking in winter

There are numerous fungi and ferns that are interesting to find in the winter. A favorite fern is the diminutive polypody ferns that are usually found on rocks rather than on the surface of the ground. They are often found on woodland edges where there is some sun. Partridgeberry is a creeping groundcover that can still have its red berries in the winter. Used with polypody ferns and moss, partridgeberry makes a wonderful indoor dish garden.

Polypody ferns growing on a rock
Aptly named turkey tail wood decay fungus

Also visible in the winter landscape are wasp nests, cocoons and eggs casings of mantids. Mantid egg casings can be easily identified during the winter. They look like tannish foam blobs attached to twigs on trees or shrubs or stems of herbaceous plants such as goldenrod. Inside are hundreds of eggs that will hatch in mid to late May the following spring.

Mantid egg case
Promethea moth cocoon

The days are getting a little bit longer and, not soon enough for me, landscapes will be warming up and once more will be full of color.  But even when it is not so bright and cheery outside, as Charles Dickens wrote- ‘ Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”

Pamm Cooper