Guyer: Take advantage of a wintry walk through the woods

Sentinel photo by HARRY GUYER
One of the many things you can find in the winter during a hike include tracks. These rabbit tracks are just one of many sets of tracks that can be found in the woods.

This is the time of year when many of us suffer from a malady known as the winter blues. With our first taste of real snow cover, occasionally freshened with new accumulation or by wind, it’s a great time to shake off the cabin fever and take a walk through the winter wonderland.

For many hunters, it will seem funny at first to venture into the woods without the comforting weight of a firearm. Most of us do a lot of walking in pursuit of game. However, sometimes it’s more fun just to hike just to see what you can see without being concerned about filling a tag or a game bag.

Winter walkers are rewarded for the hardiness it often requires to venture out from a snug, cozy house into the great outdoors. However, the payoff comes from the unique sights and sounds of winter days afield. All you have to do is simply slow down, watch, and listen. You’ll see more clearly now than at any other time of year. Visibility enhanced by the clearness of the air; most forms stand out well against the snow, and very few leaves will block your vision.

In addition, cold, still air magnifies any sounds. Noisemakers such as turkeys and other birds will sound like they are right on top of you.

Of course, there’s a downside to the cold. On one hike earlier this winter, it was so cold that my exposed skin actually hurt. A strong breeze and the resulting wind chill made it worse. I found that by bundling up in layers and looking for any available sheltering windbreak, I was able to stay relatively warm.

In the winter much of nature has also bundled up to get through the freezing season. On trees, next year’s leaves are bundled under hard bud scales to protect them from the wind and cold. Many flowers are safely bundled in bulbs and roots deep in the earth away from frost, waiting to sprout and bloom in the spring.

Foxes and other furbearers are bundled with a thick underfur to see them through until spring. Birds have bundled themselves in more feathers to insulate them from these frigid temperatures.

Walking in winter helps you understand the coping skills and endurance that trees, foxes, and birds must possess to survive. Because you have been out feeling the cold and seeing the scarcity of winter, you will appreciate more the warmth and bounty of the coming spring.

Close your eyes. You may hear a group of pugnacious crows challenging an enemy, “makin’ hellish” as an old friend of mine used to say; a fox barking across a ridge or coyotes serenading the moon; a creek softly gurgling under the ice; the hammering of a pileated woodpecker on a hollow tree; the rustle of leaves stubbornly clinging to a chestnut tree; the whistling snorts of whitetails and the crunch of their hooves in the snow; or the honking of resident geese in flight from feeding fields to open water. Open those peepers, and you may see a squirrel venturing forth from his den to retrieve acorns hidden earlier; robins and bluebirds flitting among the branches of a tree (yes, they do hang around much of the winter, if soft mast is available); a tiny shrew darting furtively from patch to patch of exposed leaves; the scarlet flash of a male cardinal; and, if you wait until dark, pink and green waves of the aurora borealis-northern lights-in the sky.

If you’re very, very lucky you may catch a glimpse of a groundhog or even a bear emerging from its winter sleep for a short look-see. Or you may notice a flock of wild turkeys scratching for their lunch. Or spy a hawk patrolling a drainage ditch for its mousy prey. Or witness a porcupine making its slow, leisurely way through the woods.

Snow means tracks. You might see the marks of cloven hooves denoting the passing of our state animal. You may follow the rear-feet-forward spoor of a cottontail. You might spot the disturbingly manlike track of a black bear or the doglike footprints of a coyote.

You might also witness the evidence of an outdoor drama. On one hike I found the remains of a luckless grouse that became prey to a great horned owl. I knew this because the head was gone from the carcass–evidence that the owl was the predator. The first body part they eat is the head.

Follow deer tracks at this time of year and you may find a real woodland treasure: a shed antler. Bucks drop them from now through March or April. You can simply display your prize or use it to form a knife handle, buttons, or a host of other crafts.

Don’t go forth empty handed. Take along a field book or two. A good bird book will help you learn to identify both year-round residents and winter visitors. Some of my favorites-very handy little pocket-sized editions published by the Nature Study Guild, Box 10489, Rochester, NY 14610, include their Winter Tree Finder, Track Finder, Berry Finder, and Winter Weed Finder. They’ll help you learn to identify specimens at less-than-optimum times of the year

I also like to take along some snacks-not all for me, but some for my forest friends. Chunks of suet from a local meat market pressed into nooks and crannies of rough-barked trees will be relished by chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, robins, bluebirds, and members of the woodpecker clan.

Other birds are seed eaters. A handful of sunflower seeds left on a stump make finches and native sparrows happy. A few ears of corn impaled on branches out of the reach of deer will provide winter food for squirrels, which will in turn shell it onto the ground for turkeys, grouse, and doves.

The world of nature is one of change and repeating cycles. By getting out in winter you will feel the change of the seasons intimately and understand that spring is not a red date on a calendar but a gradual transition coming in small day-by-day increments.

And spring will be upon us before we know it. I can’t stay cooped up inside, and neither should you. Don’t let this winter pass without at least one winter hike. Come out and enjoy a walk through the winter woods.