If you’re like me, by March the spring jitters have well and truly set in. Balmy teases of April weather spark bouts of cabin fever. The drip of snowmelt, the lengthening of days and, to a nuanced eye, the presence of egg masses in our region’s vernal pools all herald the arrival of warm weather, regardless of what the groundhog sees.As of this morning, however, there is still snow on the ground. My car thermometer read a frosty 36 degrees at 8 a.m. Major League Baseball teams are playing spring training games, but Old Man Winter is still around for two more weeks.
Instead of holing up next to the fireplace with a thermos, pining for that day you can spring your clock forward one hour, my suggestion is to get outside! Winter presents fantastic opportunities to observe wildlife, you just have to know where and how to look for it.
At Riverbend Park, migratory ducks make this relatively calm section of the Potomac River their home during the winter months. Hundreds of ring-necked ducks, common mergansers, coots, buffleheads, redheads and many other species can be found dabbling and diving in the open water right in front of our visitor center. These ducks will be gone by April, so there’s only a narrow window to catch sight of our friends from up north. A pair of binoculars is an important tool for winter wildlife enthusiasts and not just for spotting waterfowl. The absence of foliage makes viewing from afar a rewarding pursuit. A long hard look at the sycamores and silver maples on river-dividing Watkins Island may yield a glimpse of the fox squirrel, a large tree squirrel more common in the Western reaches of the state than here in the Piedmont.
While some of Riverbend’s warm-weather birds take to the tropics for the winter, others stay year round. Winter can prove to be the best time to view some real dazzling plumage against an otherwise stark background. The reds, yellows, blues, and gold of resident woodpeckers, cardinals, jays, and bluebirds create a vibrant, dynamic palette in and around the bird feeders on the visitor center patio. Woodpeckers like the yellow-bellied sapsucker and finches like the Pine Siskin are some of the rarer species seen by Riverbend naturalists this time of year.
A walk through the woods after a snowfall can also provide clues as to which wintering mammals are active this time of year. Along the flood-plain, footprints in the snow-flecked ice reveal the presence of a pair of otters. Somewhere along the riverbank, their den, a maze of tunnels burrowed into the hillside, will soon house baby pups. For now, the path of the footprints suggest the otters have been popping in and out of air holes cut into the ice; perhaps evidence of playful courting before the female accepts the male as her mate.
Winter gets an unfair rap as a period of lifelessness, sandwiched in between the colorful transformation of autumn and the fresh energy of spring. Venture out to Riverbend, or any other FCPA park and you will become instantly aware of winter’s dynamism and beauty. The faint quacking of ducks, the echo of pileated woodpeckers drilling for insects and faded hoof prints in fresh snow are subtle reminders that nature can brave the cold better than we can.
Written by Ethan Kuhnhenn, park/recreation specialist, Riverbend Park