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


sunset henry Park Fall 2012

Sunset at Henry Park, Vernon, Ct. in October 2013

Reflected light, Iridescence, and refracted light  ( interference ) are ways in which colors are made visible to the eye. Creatures only see light in the wavelengths visible to their unique eye structure. A rainbow represents the light spectrum which results from the sun striking raindrops ( or other prisms such as quartz ) and having its wavelengths bent, or refracted so that colors are made visible. These are the colors the human eye can see. There are more colors- such as ultraviolet or infrared which are only visible to creatures possessing eyes that are able to see these colors. Bees and some other insects see ultraviolet and are attracted to certain flowers by ultraviolet “ nectar guides” which lead the insect into the flowers far enough to ensure pollen pick- up or transference. Nature, of which we are a part, is full of the effects of sunlight striking objects and the colors that result are formed by what happens afterwards.

Light travels in a straight line  until it strikes something. When light hits an object it gets reflected, or bounced off, in different directions. Colors occur because light, composed of a broad spectrum of wavelengths will reflect and scatter differently after striking different objects. Some substances absorb certain wavelengths while the rest are then scattered.

One of  the effects of light scattering through the atmosphere has given rise to the saying “ red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” This is because weather systems generally move from west to east in the middle latitudes because the prevailing winds are westerlies. As rays of sunlight are pass through the atmosphere, they split into colors of the spectrum as they ricochet off water vapor and dust particles. The amounts of these particles determine what colors we see in the sky, and they can be useful  indicators as to weather conditions.

If we see a red sky at night, it implies the setting sun in the west is shining on clouds or particles of dust and water vapor  to the east and atmospheric conditions to the west are clear ( or else you would not see the sun setting ). The sky appears redder if you can actually see the sun setting. As the sun still shines from the west, clouds that have broken up and moved east are still being shined upon by the setting sun, even after both the clouds and the sun may have disappeared from sight. Red light still breaks through the atmosphere while the shorter wavelengths will scatter and break up. Usually this indicates high pressure with its stable air is coming from the west and fair weather should follow.

Red sky in the morning often indicates that a high pressure system has passed through and a low pressure system storm system may be moving in from the west. If the color of a morning sky is a deep, blazing red, it can indicate high water content exists in the atmosphere and rain may be on the way.

9-24-14 6 38 a.m.

September Dawn

Another way we see colors is through light reflected off pigments of objects. Grass appears green because chlorophyll in cells absorbs all colors except green, which is reflected as the sun’s rays hit the leaf surfaces. Amounts of chlorophyll in different species of plants are different and produce deeper, darker or lighter greens accordingly.  Pigments are colors that last and are not affected by turning an object at different angles. Colors are produced by the selective absorption and reflection of specific light wavelengths. A green caterpillar looks green at all times if struck by light because certain wavelengths of light are absorbed, while green wavelengths are reflected and made visible to an observer. Usually only the outermost cells of an organism have pigments which produce the constant colors of species.

In contrast to colors produced by pigments, structural colors are created by the physical interaction of light with the intrinsic characteristics of structures within an organism. Iridescence is a type of structural color that is especially found in certain beetles and butterflies. Incoming light strikes many layers of plates or scales which results in multiple instances of constructive interference where light is reflected many times and produces vibrant and intense colors. Metallic colors in some beetles, such as Bupestrids and some Cicindela and others , plus the iridescence colors of many butterflies are the result of structural interference of incoming light. These insects also have pigments that produce constant colors. But light interference produces colors that can change as the viewpoint of the observer or the insect changes. Or if the butterfly or beetle move into a shaded area, or it gets cloudy, iridescence is affected temporarily. This can make photographing insects exhibiting structural colors a vexing enterprise, frequently requiring patience and a lot of moving around as the insect moves to areas of different lighting. Full sun produces the most striking and clear colors and edges, so sunny days are optimal for seeing the best iridescent colors.


Hologram moth with green patches

Hologram moth with green patches

patches now appear yellow as light source angle and viewpoint change

patches now appear yellow as light source angle and viewpoint change

6-Spotted tiger beetle showing metallic iridescent green

6-Spotted tiger beetle showing metallic iridescent green


Some plants have brilliant, shiny fruits that have  an inner geometry of films and pockets that make for an aesthetically pleasing color that can last sometimes for many months, Winterberry maintains its bright red coloration throughout the winter, making it a vibrant contrast to white snow that may stick to its branches. It is highly visible to any wildlife that may need its fruits for survival.

Birds have feathers than produce colors both by pigments or by light refraction caused by the structure of the feathers. Feather color may be the result of either or both. The throat of the male Ruby- throated hummingbird refracts light like a prism which results from the structure of the feathers splitting light into the rich ruby color. Depending on the angle of the viewer, the throat can appear black  or an iridescent ruby red. Sometimes tiny air pockets in the barbs of feathers will scatter incoming light that produces a blue color, like that of a blue jay or indigo bunting. Backlight the same feathers, and they look brown because of melanin in the feathers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, a mere reflection and consideration of how  color is produced in nature. We can all be backyard scientists if we slow down and observe our natural surroundings, of which color just one primary part of the composition. Even in the winter gloom, there are vibrant sunsets and other splashes of heartening colors in the landscape that can cheer us up, if just for a moment.

Pamm Cooper                                                all pictures copyright 2014 by Pamm Cooper