The feathery flakes fall softly, driven by an ice-cold northwest wind. The trails are mostly barren, and those once crowed parking lots are ghost-town barren.
There is something about winter that stifles our desire to be “out there,” but sooner or later the chains of being housebound will be broken. For some, it may simply be the necessity to purchase a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, but for others the need to get outdoors is overwhelming.
Some strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis, while others choose a snowmobile or four-wheeler on which to head out. Although the latter two are permissible in certain areas, make sure you read the signs before heading down a trail, some places allow them, and others do not.
I’ve tried them all, and now prefer slipping on my Mucks or gaiters over my hiking boots to go trudging through the snow. A walking stick helps me maneuver the slippery slopes, and my mono-pod can be converted to a shooting stick, or even used for stabilizing my camera.
It’s a great time of year for those who enjoy all four seasons in Pennsylvania, because when you do venture out, you will see how quickly the forest and woodlands have changed in the past month.
A tree naked of its leaves can be something of extreme interest, a stark contrast against the vivid blue of a winter sky as its branches finger skyward. Maybe it’s because we rarely see them in this stage, or we speed by them without a second thought, that they now appear ethereal.
The animals you see during the winter keep moving, eating more food than usual to survive the winter, and the ones you don’t see are hibernating, or inactive. Trees go through a process similar to hibernation called dormancy, and that is what keeps them alive during the winter.
Dormancy is like hibernation in that everything within the plant slows down, such as metabolism, energy consumption and rate of growth. The first part of dormancy is when trees lose their leaves. They don’t make food in the winter, so they have no use for masses of leaves that would require energy to maintain. When it’s time for trees to lose their leaves, a chemical called ABA (Abscisic acid) is produced in terminal buds (the part at the tip of the stem that connects to the leaf). The terminal bud is where the leaf breaks off when it falls, so when ABA gathers there it signals the leaf to descend.
ABA is a chemical that also suspends growth, preventing cells from dividing. This is something that occurs in both deciduous and coniferous trees. Impeded growth is another aspect of dormancy. It saves a lot of energy to stall growth during the winter, because at this time of year, the tree isn’t making any new food for energy. It’s similar to hibernation, since most animals that are hibernating store food as fat, and then use it to run their essential systems during the winter, rather than produce any more. The tree’s metabolism also slows down during dormancy, and this is part of why cell growth is impeded. Since it has to conserve the food it has stored, its best if the tree uses it up slowly, and only for essential functions.
We find it amazing that these trees have their own method of surviving the winter, something both Karen and I realize most people give little thought to.
Of course there are spectacular panoramas that dot our state, places where you can stand and gaze at your surroundings from a different perspective. At no other time of the year can you see so deeply into the forest, actually being able to discern the folds in the mountains, created millions of years ago. It makes us recognize that we are a mere speck on the face of the earth.
From these vantage points we often see songbirds, deer and turkey, all on a quest for food that will allow them to survive for yet another year. It’s breathtaking in every sense of the word.
We both realize that birds have few places to hide during the winter, and their food is often in short supply. Birds are warm-blooded, meaning that they maintain their body temperature within a certain range, even when the temperature around them changes. The maintenance of body temperature within a normal range depends on the amount of heat the bird produces.
On cold, wintry days, most birds fluff up their feathers, creating air pockets, which help to keep them warm. The more air spaces, the better the insulation. Some birds perch on one leg, drawing the other leg to their breast for warmth.
Before winter arrives, birds start to look for reliable sources of food for their survival during this harsh season. When fall fades, many birds begin forming flocks, because large groups of birds are better able to find food, and protect themselves from predators.
The life of a bird in the winter may not be as stress-free as many people think.
In much of North America, winter can be an extremely difficult time for birds. The days are short, and nights are often frigid and long. Nearly all of their natural food supply has been consumed, or is hidden by snow. Most insects are dead or dormant. Water can be hard to find, and food needed to provide the energy to keep birds warm might be scarce. Finding shelter may not be easy. If there are limited natural evergreens or shelter, birds may seek man-made houses or habitats that can provide refuge from the wind, rain, ice or snow of winter.
But humans do not have to spend every waking hour searching for food, or finding a place to hide from a hungry predator during the winter. We are free to marvel at the sheer beauty that lies at our doorsteps. The sparkling snow that is cradled in the dried seed pods of a milkweed plant creates a focal point for our camera. There is such a vast array of things to see and do out there.
As always, though, before you travel into remote areas, be aware that cell-phones may not work. Be sure to pack any medications you might be taking, fire starter material and something to light it with, extra clothing and a sleeping bag. Especially make sure to tell family and friends where you are headed and use commonsense.
As humans, we simply go to our kitchen, open the refrigerator, and find something to eat. With the flick of a switch we can turn on lights and raise the temperature on our thermostat. I sip coffee fresh from the coffee maker, while Karen uses the microwave to heat a mug of hot chocolate. A warm bath or shower is obtained by simply turning on a spigot. Compared to the life or death circumstances wildlife experiences every day during harsh winter conditions, our lives are quite trouble-free.
In short, winter is something we should embrace, look forward to and take pleasure in.