Via alumna Stef at the DEP:
Winter Discovery, In Our Back Yard
As February arrives, cabin fever can begin to set in with a vengeance and days spent curled up indoors begin to seem a little less enticing. When activities like skiing or snowshoeing are not an option for your family, try a twenty-minute walk outdoors in your neighborhood. It's a fun way to exercise and restore everyone's spirits, it deepens a child's creativity and understanding of nature, and it's totally free! Here are three ideas for winter discovery walks:
1. Mysteries to solve: Look for something that seems intriguing, and investigate it by observing. For example, walking near a salt marsh recently, I noticed an icy pool with a cluster of black shapes like giant seeds in the middle: what were they? Ducks? I could see the headline: "Maine temperatures reach record low, ducks found frozen solid." Just to check, I returned that afternoon and, with the tide out and the thin covering of ice gone, some of the ducks were swimming in the same pool, and another was flying along the ice. The ducks were fine! While we humans are walking around covered in layers of wool and polyester fleece, ducks survive cold winters with fluffy down undercoats and have oil glands that keep their feathers from getting wet. When you see a duck with its head tucked back nuzzling its tail, it is spreading oil onto its feathers.
2. Some things are easier to see in the winter: The shape of a tree tells a story about its history. Did an animal nip off the top bud long ago, creating a "Y" shape? Were side branches trimmed to keep them out of the way of power lines? Barbed wire embedded in a trunk suggests the tree was used as part of a boundary fence at one time. Look at the trees you find and make up a story together about what has happened in the tree's life.
3. Winter seeds and the animals that eat them: Look for the remaining petals of hydrangeas and for seeds still clinging to trees and shrubs. While not as showy as summer flowers, they can be just as beautiful; winter textures ask us to pause a moment and notice. Look at nearby tracks to figure out who is eating the seeds. Look for robins near crabapple trees or ornamental shrubs with bright red berries. Robins? That's right: robins can be opportunistic and some won't migrate far if they can find food nearby.
There is so much to explore, visit your summertime haunts to see how they are different in winter. Look for shapes in the icicles and snow banks and come back again in a few days to see what changed while you were away! Winter walks are small steps that can make a big difference in your health and for your appreciation of Maine's natural wonders. For more ideas for winter adventures with your kids and for information on upcoming community events, see "Take it Outside!" at: http://take-it-outside.com/thismonthoutdoors.html.
This column was submitted by Hannah Wilhelm, Maine Conservation Corps Volunteer with the Biomonitoring Program at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP.