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  • Michael J. Kieffer

Winter Woods

Over the years, I have shared this article in many forums including our newsletter. While I feel a little like I am running a “clip show” episode, I think the message is as important as ever. In a world that is becoming ever more dominated by our human presence, it can become easy to lose our connections to the vast variety of life that surrounds us, especially if we spend so much of our time looking at a screen. Of all the seasons, winter may be the one that brings us back to the reality that the world needs us less than we need the world. Driving through a snow storm, getting stuck in a snow bank, walking with your dog in a bitter wind etc. may be the only times that we feel as small and out of control as we actually are in this universe. I hope this inspires you to spend as much of the season outside as you can. It is a great feeling to connect with the magnificent life that shares our joint home.

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Winter has approached; fall has faded. Many birds are gone, some mammals have begun to hibernate, winter seeds are dotting otherwise lifeless looking plants, and the woods appear at first glance dull and slightly eerie. This all seems reasonable, considering that sunlight has dwindled, temperatures have dropped, and living seems hard.


Go outside, look, listen, and smell the air. What we see are glimpses into the lives of minks, otters, weasels, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, moles, voles, and others, as we follow their tracks in the snow. What we hear are songs of procreation as owls, wild canines, and other animals not only survive the winter, but court, mate, and incredibly, even give birth. What we smell are leaves decomposing, dampness settling in, first hints of snow, and a freshness that cleanses.

Winter is a time of discovery. Something magic happens as the days shorten; for three months it is possible to spend as much time outside at night as it is during the day, without losing any sleep. Throughout most of the year we make our observations during the day. While many living things are active during the day, there is a whole world active only at night. For centuries there has been a preconceived evil feeling towards nature in the dark, but, truth be told, only beauty will be encountered on a night hike.



Winter is a great time to begin night-time forays. Leaves have fallen, so the woods are open, the moon and stars appear brighter in the cold air, and the snow acts as a blanket of light. Winter sounds are less confusing, for there are no insects, and the diversity of what is moving around has decreased.


At no other point in the year is the virtue of a deciduous tree so evident. Silhouettes identify them. Sycamores, with their feet wet, take a bent approach as they reach for sunshine over the water. Tulip poplars stand erect like soldiers, with upturned seeds covering their crown. A few scarlet oaks stubbornly hold on to their leaves, clearly showing how much canopy they claim. The individuality of each tree stands out as they etch the winter sky. Look close and you will see buds, the tree’s future lifeline, and a promise that winter will give way to spring.

On a moonlit night one can listen to the strange wail of a coyote or fox as they yip and howl with abandon in a much wilder way then at other times of year. Both the coyotes and the fox yowl for mates during the frigid nights of January and February.


Owls are especially vocal this time of year as they are busy reinforcing their pair bonds, courting, mating, and caring for their young. Great horned owl hoots are presently echoing through the hollows and valleys, and if they have not already they will soon usurp an old hawk or crow nest and lay their clutch of eggs. Barred owls will lay their eggs in February, and screech owls in March. Even with the possibility of food shortage and starvation, many animals not only survive, but they thrive during this arduous season.


As a human, it certainly is fun hiking through the fields and woods with less chance of bringing home ticks and chiggers. As flu season is in full swing ask this question: Where are viruses and bacteria more likely to survive–inside the climate-controlled building, or outside in below-freezing temperatures? Give yourself a treat by spending this season outside and enjoy what could be your healthiest winter.

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Bull Run Mountains Conservancy

PO Box 210

Broad Run, VA 20137

703-753-2631

info@brmconservancy.org

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