A sense of disappointment always sets in for me in August, as the songbird mating season comes to an end and the birds fall silent, and then they start to leave the area, and then the summer insect sounds die away, and then the butterflies fade, and then the first hard frost comes and most of the plants still managing to produce in my garden freeze and die. Although frenetic animal activity begins - such as the white-tailed deer rut and the pre-hibernation feeding frenzy of groundhogs and other burrowing rodents - it doesn’t seem to provide the same pleasure as springtime viewings of fawns and muskrats and bunnies. By November, I feel hopelessly distanced from the natural world.
But it’s really not true that the world of wildlife disappears or even slows down. I was just reviewing my notes from a 20-minute walk I took in mid November. In just 20 short minutes, I saw a female turkey, a young white-tailed buck, and a mink. The birds were crazy with activity, and in a short stroll along a creek I saw a pair of mallards, a mockingbird, several robins, several cardinals, a bunch of male bluebirds fussing at each other and chasing each other through the trees, juncos, goldfinches, and 20 or so yellow-rumped warblers flying down to drink and then back up into the trees. I heard a song sparrow, a Northern flicker, and crows. And I’m sure there were many other animals in my vicinity who saw me but remained beyond my notice.
One of my very favorite books is Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). An experienced tracker, Young explains how understanding bird behavior and sounds can clue one in to many aspects of the natural world. Birds have different songs to indicate different kinds of predators: those on the ground, those coming through the trees, those high up in the air. Their flight patterns also indicate where a predator or food source might be. Young recommends that you sit in the same spot everyday, remain quiet until the birds forget you are there, and then observe. You will quickly begin to distinguish different kinds of calls and activities, particularly if you focus on one species. Fall and winter are ideal times to do this because you remove certain activities and calls related to mating and nesting from the equation, leaving fewer factors to consider in your study. And without leaves on the trees, the birds are much easier to find and keep track of.
Winter can be ideal for learning about other wildlife, too, particularly when there is snow on the ground and you can see tracks. A basic book of mammal and bird tracks is a helpful guide to identifying tracks, and following them can give you clues to an animal’s route, particular behavior, and even the location of a winter den.
Nature organizations and national parks host lots of activities in the winter to help people experience the natural world. My local Audubon society is offering free bird-watching trips, a tree identification workshop, a tracks identification workshop, and several lectures over the next couple of weeks to help people fend off the indoor ennui of winter. I hope you’ll join me in finding opportunities to take advantage of winter and take yourself back out into the natural world to see just how alive it is - at all times of the year.