It was a case of whodunit. Who made the footprints on the canvas of new-fallen snow?
We knew that it was not a dog or a cat, for each track had only two toes that plunged deep into the snow. A little farther along were many more of the same tracks. Then, as my family followed them like a crew of detectives, we saw the animals that had left them behind as they bound away with their white tails held high. We had found deer tracks. For preschool-age children, it was a fun and exciting adventure.
Family outings need not be reserved for spring, summer, and fall. Winter is more than bare trees and red, fluffed-up cardinals sitting on branches. It is a great time to see nature’s splendor in a different light.
Most of our native trees drop their leaves just before the cold, grey days of winter to reveal many features not seen under a cover of leaves. Just the mere outline, or silhouette, of each tree is a fascinating sight — trees without their clothes on as my 4-year-old pointed out.
Some trees can be identified at a distance by their overall shape. Elm trees, for example, often have a vase-shaped “skeleton.” Other trees may be recognized by their unique bark patterns. Sycamores usually have bone white or spotted grey and white bark. Persimmon trees look like they have blocky alligator-like skin. Hackberries have warty trunks, and honey locusts are armed with long, sharp spines.
Strange features such as galls and burls are also much easier to spot in the absence of leaves. Galls often look like brown golf balls attached to twigs. They may be caused by fungus or bacteria, but they are often caused by insects such as wasps, which sting or pierce the twig and lay eggs. The tree’s tissue becomes irritated and then responds by encasing the egg or tiny feeding larvae in layer after layer of plant cells. When warmer days arrive the new insect emerges from the gall. It is like a personal little room to stay in all snug and warm until spring returns.
Burls are bark-covered lumps and bumps on trees that come in all shapes and sizes. They may appear as familiar objects, from mushrooms to hearts. Some even look like faces looking back. Burls can grow very large. They are most often produced as a response to damage to the tree.
Hollow trees also stand out in winter. Many animals rely on dead snags and living trees with hollow and speculate who lives there. Is it a raccoon, an owl, or a squirrel? Sometimes the answer will surprise you. The same shelter may serve as a home to different animals depending on the season.
Songs of the Season
While many birds migrate to warmer places, there are quite a few that stick around and brave the winter weather. Bird watching is an activity that all family members can enjoy.
You may wish to begin your bird-watching adventure by first feeding the birds in your own yard. It can be as simple as sprinkling some black sunflower seeds in a bare area of your lawn or putting out a hanging feeder. Providing some suet also gives birds a good energy source when snow falls. Birds will be attracted to your feeding stations. Cardinals, tufted titmice, sparrows, chickadees, finches, and woodpeckers are some of the most common visitors. It is also fun to experiment with different types of food such as fruits and seeds to attract different species.
Children like to keep track of their discoveries, so you may wish to write down your family’s bird sightings in a small notebook. It is interesting to record what you see each winter, or if you wish, all year long. Years from now you will have a record to look back on of your family’s time spent bird-watching together. A pair of binoculars and a small pocket field guide to birds will also help you discover more about the resident birds in your area.
After a few days watching the birds outside your window, get out and take a stroll on a sunlit winter day through a wooded area to look and listen for more birds. One of the most fascinating little birds to watch in winter is the nuthatch.
Because white-breasted nuthatches have a very busy behavior, they are fun for young children to watch. With a “yank-yank-yank” nasal call they look like tiny acrobats as they creep all over a tree trunk in an upside-down fashion in their search for food.
But don’t spend all of your time looking up in the trees. Be sure to watch lower down as well. Some birds feed on the ground. Fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos are classic examples.
During winter months many birds have less color than they do in spring and summer. They also may not be quite as vocal. Be sure to listen carefully for small pips, tweets, and squeak-like sounds while on your outing.
A couple of easy to recognize birdcalls are those of the white-throated sparrow and the black-capped chickadee. White-throated sparrows seem to repeat a slow phrase of “Ol’ Sam Peabody,” while black-capped chickadees call out their name with a “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”
Weeds and Seeds
Old fields, fencerows, and wooded edges are excellent places to view birds and other wildlife. Here animals may forage among the plants that have remaining seeds. Gold finches are especially fond of the mature seed heads of thistles and coneflowers. Giant ragweed plants, which can grow to nearly 10 feet tall, provide seeds that are relished by quail and other seed-eating animals.
Several native wildflowers may be identified by their stem and seed structures during winter. While not brilliantly colored during winter, wildflowers have a second life with their architectural beauty. Coneflowers, milk-weed, and cattails are all easy to spot by their characteristic seed structures.
Around oak and hickory trees you may find the remains of acorns and nuts after mammals such as squirrels and other rodents have feasted. Seed-containing structures such as honey locust pods and sweet gum balls are also easier to spot on bare trees than during the warm, leaf-covered days of summer.
Tracks and Trails
Winter is a great time to observe mammal activity, even if you don’t see the animal itself. The footprints that they leave in the snow and mud this time of year can tell stories of food storage, pursuit of prey, and even acts of play.
With new snow on the ground it is fun to guess who left their impressions. Activities with tracks can include counting the number of toes on each foot and the size of the track. Following where the tracks lead is also quite interesting. Do the tracks go on forever or do they stop at a rocky shelter or perhaps the base of a tree? Is there a line drawn where the animal dragged its tail in the snow? Excitement builds as more clues are discovered.
Sometimes the mere location of the tracks gives away the animal’s identity. Slippery, snow-covered stream banks can serve as amusement parks for river otters. Tiny three-toed tracks around feeders, gardens, or trees indicate songbirds.
By keeping a small journal of your outdoor discoveries you will soon have your own personal field guide to neighborhood tracks. Measure track sizes and sketch their shapes. Make notes as to whether claw marks were present, how many sets of the same tracks you found, and more. Parents may wish to keep a few blank notebook pages to trace the outlines of their children’s feet from year to year to look back on as well.
Safe Winter Outings
Missouri’s trees, birds, wildflowers, and mammals all present opportunities for family enjoyment. As with all outdoor activities, be sure to think of safety first and to dress appropriately for the season.
A winter walk with young children should not be long. A short little scavenger hunt in your own backyard is a great way to discover a lot about Missouri’s wildlife and plants. It is best to dress in layers during winter. If it is a cold day, the layers will help you stay warm. If the weather warms up, you can just take off a layer or two to feel more comfortable.
Be very careful of hypothermia, especially if your clothing becomes wet. Having extra dry clothing with you on a longer trip can make a big difference to your well-being. Make sure to take along snacks, water, and a first aid kit. Also, be sure to let others know of your plans. Winter weather can change rapidly. Knowing where you plan to explore and when you plan to return home are important to your safety.
Conservation Opportunities for Winter Months
For those interested in more exploration activities during winter, the Department of Conservation provides many programs. Conservation nature centers give interpretive walks, wildlife watching opportunities, and special programs on topics geared to families with children. Evening owl prowls, animal track identification, winter bird feeding, and Eagle Days activities are just a few of the winter events geared for family enjoyment. Contact your local Conservation office or nature center for programs in your area. You may also search upcoming programs around the state by logging on to mdc.mo.gov. Just click on the events tab for up-to-date program information. Also keep an eye on the new upcoming events feature on Page 33 for ideas.
Plan wisely, adventure safely, and check out the sights and sounds of winter. It just might become your family’s favorite time of year for outdoor discovery.