With the past couple of weeks below freezing, Winter has certainly made its presence known, blasting into the region with icy temperatures and light snow showers. Temperatures during the day have been in the low 20s but feel like single digits with the wind chill factored in. The river has mostly frozen over leaving just a ribbon of moving water winding down the center. A mid-week dusting of snowfall was still trimming the sidewalks and grounds yesterday frozen in places where hurrying footsteps had not worn them down.
Finally yesterday presented a chance to visit the woods on one of these frosty cold days. Bundling in layers is the best way to avoid feeling the cold, and a wool first layer against the skin will continue to retain heat even if it gets wet. Three layers of pants including a fleece lined first layer; two shirts and two long wool sweaters and then a fleece and outer shell. Two kinds of gloves, one that allows finger movement and one set that doesn’t but keeps the wind out. A thick hat, and a fleece “turtleneck” which can be brought up over the face and ears. Once walking, this is quite warm!
The woods were clear and cold, and the whole landscape had settled into a kind of quiet winter rest. Part of the trail was a mix of snow ground together with leaves and wedged frozen between stones and pebbles. The sun was shining through the branches and gave a warm glow in the late afternoon despite the frostiness of the air and ground.
The tree branches were starkly bare! Some beech and oak leaves remained dried on the branches, but the tall trees were all twisting branches and contrasting bark tones. The edges of the woods are also visible. Affluent homes line these woods, and in the winter the houses and new construction is visible. During the rest of the year the leaves and undergrowth provide blinds and colors to give the illusion of thick woods and allow us to briefly escape these visual reminders of urban pressures and disparity.
There were many lively birds in the woods yesterday, flitting and flying from branch to branch, and singing! The woods practically echoed with bird songs. It was so easy to watch them because their flight paths and landing places were all exposed in the bare winter branches. There were a variety of birds and woodpeckers flying around and searching for food including what looked like a Red-bellied woodpecker, and a bright red male Cardinal. Viewed through the camera zoom (if they sat still long enough) they were as fluffed out as could be, rounded into little balls of downy feathers on their cold perches.
In a small meadow area, tall grasses had yellowed into dry stalks. Fluffy brown sparrows flew and hid in the stalks, perhaps pulling seeds from the delicate curling seed heads.
Further on, dense brushy patches were safe haven for many fluffy birds searching for food on the ground, more sparrows and Eastern towhee. They were quickly able to fly into the low branches. Black and grey squirrels searched among the fallen leaves and ran back to tree trunks at the slightest sound.
As for green plants, evergreen holly bushes were standing by in the cold with cheerful green spiky leaves. A small holly bush looked like it had suffered a shock due to the sudden cold weather. And several young pines appeared damaged perhaps by deer.
The wind picked up in various places throughout the woods. Along one stretch of trail the trees swayed as the wind rushed through their branches. Creaks and cracks! came from the swaying trees, sounding like they were straining to stay upright in the cold.
A short ways uphill from the frozen creek, a male wood duck flew along the trail and landed on a fallen tree trunk. He sat for a few moments in his handsome feather coat.
Fallen tree trunks held sugary snow crystals in their bark. One fallen tree had several large ruffled fungi frozen in place.
The evening was setting in and it was the sunset and not the cold temperatures which cut this walk short.
Wood ducks (Aix sponsa), according to Cornell’s All About Birds online Bird Guide, live in wooded swamps, where they nest in holes in trees or in nest boxes around lakes. They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches.
Post script. For this walker, the month of December included a move out of the city and across the river. The high cost of renting cramped and dysfunctional housing was too absurd to stay another year. But the irony of moving to a suburban location is that there is no comparable wooded reserve. Visiting this wooded park now means a long travel time to and from. But how important it is to be able to visit a natural area!