There’s snow in the forecast!
So go leave some footprints in a park. A lot is hidden under the green leaves of summer and only reveals itself when the weather turns cold. Make tracks along with the animals and bring someone special with you. You might even get to steal a kiss under the mistletoe.
The parks around you might look kind of dreary this time of year, but if you take a closer look, there’s actually a lot going on. Wildlife can be easier to see with the leaves gone, and some birds can only be seen in Fairfax County at this time of year.
To get the most out of your walk in any park, Tony Bulmer, a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP), says “Focus on the evergreen trees, because everything’s hiding in those. The owl can’t hide in the oak tree, so if you can find a nice stand of cedar, it’s very productive in the winter.”
Resident owls start setting up their nests in winter, and this is when you might spot a Saw-whet owl, a migratory owl that only passes through the area in wintertime. This is also a great time to see hawks and other birds of prey.
Not only are birds easier to see because the leaves are down, they also tend to congregate in larger groups. Because they’re not busy defending breeding territory, they’re more likely to band together in their search for food and shelter.
Mammals are out and about, too, and it’s easier to see their tracks in the snow. Look for the prints of deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits and other woodland critters. Bulmer notes that it’s a great time to see where squirrels have been keeping house. The squirrel nests, or dreys, are much easier to spot in wintertime. It’s also a better time to see those elusive flying squirrels.
But don’t just look up. Bulmer says, “With all the leaves down now, the leaf litter is a great place to explore because everything’s in the leaves.” You might come across a butterfly chrysalis or the cocoons from moths, so please be careful. Insect eggs may also be tucked in the ground under those leaves. They’re going through a growth stage to be ready for spring. One thing you won’t be bothered with on your hike is those pesky ticks and mosquitoes. They wait for temperatures in the 40s and 50s to emerge.
Bulmer says a lot of people don’t realize that creeks, streams and other waterways are humming with activity in the winter. “Two-lined salamanders and northern duskies are active all year round because the water never really drops in temperature enough to freeze.” ECLP offers naturalist-led hikes to the streams so you can see for yourself what’s going on.
If you’re into winter botany, Fairfax County Park Authority Ecologist Kristen Sinclair says this is a good time to get a close look at bud scales and bark on deciduous trees. These leaf-droppers go into a dormant state above ground to survive the winter, but Sinclair says the roots are still growing in preparation for spring. Sinclair notes you might be surprised to learn you can actually see plants in bloom, too, during the winter. The cold season is when the flowers on witch hazels erupt. Green Spring Gardens specializes in these plants and has a nationally significant and wide variety for you to enjoy.
Most of us are familiar with evergreen trees, such as cedar and pines, that bring color to the woods in winter, but there are other plants greening the landscape. Sinclair points out that many of them are invasive species, such as English ivy, vinca, winter creeper, and Japanese holly. She notes, “If you see a lot of green, it could be invasives.” These invasive plants are often nice to look at, which is one of the reasons they were brought here, but they can be harmful to other plants and animals. Many have been transferred here from similar temperate climates and don’t mind our weather at all.
Now, about that mistletoe. It’s a parasitic plant that lives off others, and there’s more of it around than you might suspect. It does a good job of blending in with tree leaves during summer, but in winter you can spot the berry plant hanging in ball-like clumps from the top of oaks and other trees. What you do when you find it is up to you.