Winter officially begins on December 21 – the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice is the day that the north pole tilts as far away from the sun as it will get on earth’s annual journey round our star. On December 22 the pole starts to tilt towards the sun and we’ll gain 2 to 3 minutes of additional light each day until we reach the summer solstice in June.
Technically it’s still autumn, but it feels like winter arrived with the first dust of snow this week. A skiff of new snow is a blank page in the Nature Park journal where animals record their activities. Footprints, wingprints or the remains of a meal show who passed by and what they were up to.
Wingprints from an owl that overlap the tracks of a mouse record a close call for the mouse. Is that a drop of blood? Maybe the mouse didn’t get away after all.
A scattered tuft of feathers record the final moments of a small bird that was surprised by a hungry hawk. Or maybe it was a near miss and the bird escaped without its tail.
Coyotes and raccoons are comfortable around people and their winding trail of footprints often come to the door of the Nature House–just to check for an edible tidbit that might have fallen from someone’s pocket.
The smallest animals record their presence on a new snowfall, too. Tiny insects and spiders that overwinter in the forest canopy may be blown down by the wind or winkled out of their hiding place by the prying beak of a sharp-eyed bird.
Plants leave a record in the snow, too. Seeds that fall from trees and shrubs can be identified by their unique shapes and structures, like wings that aid their dispersal. Only a few seeds will ever germinate and grow into a new plant–the vast majority provide a nutritious meal for the myriad of small animals that remain awake in winter. Watch for signs of a Douglas squirrels’ dinner–they specialize in getting the seeds out of pine cones and will leave little piles of scales and cone “cobs” wherever they have dined.
The Nature Park is open every day and in all weather. We invite you to dress warmly and explore the park in winter.
Posted by Kristine Bauder
Nature Park Coordinator