Let’s look at some of the reasons to get outside once “Hotlanta” cools off. Though many think of spring and fall as the best times to enjoy the outdoors, our relatively mild winters afford a number of reasons to get out into the natural world and experience the full palette that is offered.
Every season has its pros and cons vis-à-vis wild life viewing opportunities. While winter offers precious few opportunities to observe turtles and butterflies, bird and mammal sightings abound. There are two basic reasons for this: changes in behavior, and changes in the environment.
Examples of behavioral changes are best demonstrated by those great travelers, our winter migratory birds. Among others, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) is one of my favorites. Woodpeckers are a wonderfully crafty group, but the Sapsucker takes this to a higher level of excellence. As their name implies, they prefer to eat sap, and construct two different types of holes to withdraw sap; one deep set of holes to withdraw sap from the xylem (wood), and shallow ones to withdraw sap from the phloem (thin layer near the bark). They then take opportunism one step farther by consuming any insects that are drawn to (and sometimes trapped in) the sap.
Sapsuckers are migratory, only appearing in the south during the winter months, but some of our year round residents become far apparent in this season, most notably the Owls.
Sounds of the Day and Night
Both Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) and Barred Owls (Strix varia) begin breeding in December or January, and sightings often increase at this time. Their calls can be heard anytime of year, but are most often heard during the breeding season as they stake out territories, dissuade rivals and entice mates. While their nocturnal nature means they tend to keep a low profile during the day, they can sometimes be found by listening for a different species entirely: crows.
American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are intelligent and aggressive birds. When they are confronted with a perceived threat they will gather en masse, and harass the bird in a process known as mobbing (fun fact: a group of crows is called a murder). The calls and agitated displays can usually be followed from some distance, and as often as not, the end of the journey reveals an owl, stoically attempting to ignore the crows’ screams and bullying tactics.
While the unique animal viewing opportunities shouldn’t be ignored, many of our forest trees deserve attention as they change entirely, offering once-a-year vistas. The incredible color of a few weeks ago has largely faded as the colorful leaves now carpet the forest floor. Leaf drop opens views that haven’t been appreciated since the leaves burst forth last February or March.
Taking the Autrey Mill Nature Preserve as an example, the forest is dominated by Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda), and a variety of deciduous hardwoods. Most of the evergreen Loblollies have reached the canopy, and as such, don’t offer much obstruction as one looks through the forest. Loblollies are a masting species, meaning that they drop their branches regularly as the trunk ascends to the canopy. With no lower branches, there are no low hanging leaves to disrupt the view.
Many of the hardwoods, however, do have leaves found at eye level, which tend to reduce long distance viewing opportunities. The vast majority of our native hardwoods are deciduous (Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and American Holly (Ilex opaca) being two exceptions), and so by the time winter appears, the forest opens up. With these open viewing lanes, wildlife viewing opportunities increase. Many of the preserve’s resident wildlife are accustomed to humans, and will allow extended viewing times if the observer keeps their distance. A pair of binoculars will enhance the experience, and if employed from one of our wildlife blinds, truly memorable sightings may occur. As a quick bonus, I should point out that Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a deciduous plant, and though the vines are persistent and toxic, the leaves have much more surface area, so in total, your odds of brushing up against a urishol laden leaf are greatly reduced in the winter.
Another opportunity that hits a little closer to home is to inspect the trees in your yard. Without leaves to clutter the view, defects, dead branches and wounds can be observed. It doesn’t hurt that an observer needn’t be quiet, sneaky, or lucky to observe trees, as opposed to observing wildlife which is usually a brief activity if one isn’t a ninja. e
Winter is the appropriate time to perform most tree pruning, so this would be the time to contact your arborist and have an inspection. Mistletoe is an interesting item to keep an eye out for; though it is a native and highly beneficial species, it does compete with the host plant for resources. It is readily visible, as it’s short, broad evergreen leaves will contrast with the bare branches.
The Lower “ick” Factor
Despite any of these reasons, many people enjoy one thing more than all others during the winter; most of the ectotherms are dormant. Ectotherms are the so-called “cold-blooded” creatures, which for most people, brings to mind snakes. But it isn’t just the snakes that are dormant; many species that give people the heebie-jeebies are ectothermic. Spiders, bees, wasps, ticks, and scorpions all fuel their metabolic furnaces with external heat sources. Winter’s cool temperatures prevent these species from operating well, so those suffering from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), arachnophobia (fear of arachnids) and apiphobia (fear of bees), may enjoy a more pleasant walk through the forest.
So what are you waiting for? Do you need a guide to help you enjoy the natural world?