Late winter isn’t usually considered the best time of year to get out in nature. The days are short, the air is chilly, and the excitement of the holiday season is behind us. Leaves have long fallen from the trees. Many animals are hibernating for the winter. Even animals who stay awake, like squirrels, spend less time being active and more time staying in their dens eating food stores.
Who can blame us for viewing winter as a time of dormancy, cozying up, and waiting for spring? While there is nothing wrong with embodying the winter habits of a squirrel, you risk missing out on some unique seasonal nature watching opportunities. Midwinter nature walks can be a treasure trove of life for those who know where to look.
The miniature landscape of mosses can be a fascinating place to explore in the winter months. Mosses tend to thrive in moist, shady locations, so Vancouver Island is an ideal places for them to grow. They don’t have a true root system, so you can find them on rocks, old fence posts, logs, tree trunks, or even the cracks in sidewalks. You can find dozens of species on the ground or bases of trees–the perfect height for young nature explorers. Try taking a magnifying glass to count the number of different species you can see on a single rock or tree trunk.
Learning the names of some local species can be entertaining in itself. Cat-tail moss hangs in strands from trees, giving the impression of a freshly-brushed cat. Meanwhile, electrified cat’s-tail moss looks like a collection of tiny fuzzy cat’s tails. In summer, many mosses appear to die as they dry out and enter a dormant state until the return of wet weather. Our mild, moist winters are the best time to see mosses in all the lush, green glory.
If the understated beauty of mosses isn’t enough, you may look to our larger and livelier winter waterfowl. Many birds undertake seasonal migrations, so the birds you see locally during winter can be quite different from what you would in summer. Southern Vancouver Island is an excellent place to look for a certain type of winter resident–ducks.
Large, abundant, and often colorful, ducks are the perfect subject for young bird watchers. Look for American Wigeons with their pale blue-grey bills, or Common Goldeneyes with their bright yellow irises. Keep an eye out for our local seasonal celebrity–the Bufflehead duck. Buffleheads are known for arriving here so promptly each fall that October 15 is known as “All Buffleheads Day.” By May, many of our winter resident ducks, including the Bufflehead, have left us for their summer breeding grounds. Another bonus to winter birding? Because many local plants lose their leaves in winter, it can be easier to find birds and spot nests, even in areas with a lot of vegetation.
Though many plants remain dormant over winter, others retain fruit even when they lose their leaves. You and your child can learn to recognize certain species based solely on what stays on the plant during the winter months. Snowberry plants leave small clusters of waxy white berries over winter. Tell your little ones they can identify Snowberry by looking for the bush with the mini snowballs. Many rose species have bright red rosehips, adding a splash of color to your winter walk. Oceanspray shrubs retain distinctive dead flower clusters, which remain until new flowers bud in spring. And although it’s still winter, you may already see the first signs of new growth in Indian plum, one of our earliest plants to bud each spring.
If you know what to look for, there is plenty to see on a midwinter nature walk. We are fortunate to live in an area with many options for winter wildlife viewing. Francis/King Regional Park is a great place to look for mosses under the sheltered canopy of some of the largest trees in the Capital Region. The stroller-friendly loop trail at Island View Beach Regional Park offers many opportunities to view winter birds and dormant plants. For a more adventurous hike, try the Lagoon Trail at Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park. Both Francis/King and Witty’s Lagoon regional parks have nature centres open on weekends year-round and they are great places to warm up on a rainy day. Don’t wait for warmer weather to get outdoors. There are many special things to look for in winter, which may be gone by spring.