Wonders to Find in the Winter Woods

January 4, 2014

Winter walks in the woods often bring you across entrance holes to the homes of burrowing mammals.

You could look at January this way: cold, dark, anticlimactic after the holiday hubbub. Or, you could look at January this way: refreshing, beautiful, magical. I’d be willing to bet that anyone who chooses the latter is someone who gets out there and has fun outdoors in the winter.

Winter sports are great for embracing the season, but once a good snowfall comes, there’s nothing like the peace and beauty of a simple walk in the winter woods. No expensive lift ticket or gear required!

Much like a skier’s enjoyment increases the better he or she gets at turns and stops, my enjoyment of winter meanderings deepens each time I gain more understanding of what’s happening out there. Years ago, I picked up two books that are still my go-to resources for anything I notice in the winter woods and want to identify: A Guide to Nature in Winter, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, and Tracking and the Art of Seeing, by Paul Rezendes. But I still learn the most just by getting out there and actively looking and listening to the forest. Nothing beats personal experience.

So in that spirit, here's a Top 5 list of cool things to find in the winter woods. Take along a kid and a camera, and you’ve got the makings of a wonderful day exploring the outdoors and starting a “Nature in Winter” photo project. If you’re looking for a place to go, try your local town forest, a nearby state park or go to the online “Guide to Our Lands” at forestsociety.org to find one of the Forest Society’s reservations to explore. Happy winter woods walking!

1. Squirrel diggings. If you see small holes dug in the snow, there’s a good chance a squirrel made it while searching for a nut hidden last fall. Squirrel diggings will have grasses, twigs and leaves strewn around the top of the hole. I imagine them with their heads stuck into the hole, sending debris flying and thinking, “I know I put it in here somewhere!” The acorns they don’t find might become oak tree seedlings in the spring. Being stored by a squirrel essentially plants them in the fall where they’re insulated from the cold.

2. Nests. The abandoned nests of birds, squirrels and paper wasps are suddenly in plain view once trees and shrubs lose their leaves. In winter, you can safely examine the wasps’ brown, paper-mache-like nests since the wasps are all dead except for new queens, which overwinter under tree bark or in building crevices. You can also examine birds’ nests to see what construction materials the birds used, and see if they borrowed anything from humans living nearby, like drier lint, yarn or string. Squirrels’ nests are made of leaves clustered high in the treetops. Called dreys, they're mainly used in the summer. Gray squirrels find shelter in hollow-tree dens during the winter.

3. Wildlife tracks. After a fresh snowfall, it’s amazing to see the activity in forests and fields as critters come out of their sheltering places to find food. I like to examine the tracks with a field guide to see if I can determine what made them, but just following the tracks can give clues and tell an interesting story. The other day I saw two depressions in the snow in the middle of a small clearing. There were tufts of super soft grey hair in one of them, and tracks leading to and away. I didn’t have my field guide with me, but I guessed that the small, dog-like tracks belonged to the fox I’d seen in the area last fall. The depressions were just the size a fox would create when curling up to rest or sleep. I followed the tracks and found fresh urine markings and scat (poop), then lost the trail where the fox entered the deep woods.

4. Evidence of wildlife activity on tree bark. I always look for three kinds of bark damage: large holes, tiny holes, and peeled or gnawed bark.

Woodpeckers chop surprisingly large holes in trees in their determined quest to get at the insects living under the bark. If you see a hole or many holes that are rectangular, a pileated woodpecker was the chopper, using its chisel-like beak to search for carpenter ants and to excavate nesting cavities.

Tiny holes show that insects are at work under the bark, which can sometimes lead to the demise of the tree. I saw a pine tree last week with many holes in its bark about the size of a pencil eraser. According to my Stokes field guide, beetles chewed these “exit holes” to escape when they were done developing into adults under the bark.

Peeled or gnawed-off bark shows where critters like deer, porcupine or rodents have dined.

5. Fungi and galls.

You can see fungi, or rather, the “fruiting bodies” of the fungi that’s inside trees, growing on trees in any season, but winter gives you a view unobstructed by leaves. There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, and the variety right here in New Hampshire is amazing. They play an important role in the cycle of decay and regeneration in the forest as well as in the diets of wildlife. They’re also just cool to look at!

Galls are deformities on plants and trees caused by insects. They often look like a bulbous mass on stems or leaves. My favorite is the oak apple gall, which my Stokes field guide notes looks like a brown ping-pong ball and grows on oaks saplings. When I was 7 or 8, my dad opened one of these and much to my surprise revealed a wriggling little white worm – a wasp larva -- inside. He said it would make great fishing bait (but then he says that about most things)! Insects both develop in and eat the protective covering of galls. The most bizarre and interesting thing about them is that sometimes, another insect will lay eggs on the developing larva inside, and the larva’s protective home becomes its coffin!