Embracing Winter

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker


It is difficult to embrace winter in Wisconsin when there is no snow to be found, yet more than 20 of us gathered to trek the muddy trails on this slightly chilly and mostly overcast afternoon.

We began our walk in the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. Though we could not look for animal tracks in the snow, we were able to find tracks in the mud and animal scat a plenty. Using these aides, we identified rabbit (most likely eastern cottontail), and white-tailed deer. Since the trees are currently without leaves, it was easy to make out nests made by birds, squirrels, and insects. Though many trees and shrubs are bare, the pinetum is always green and we enjoyed its brightness against the gray sky and muddy landscape.

We observed a local flock of American robins flittering about the gardens. Though many robins migrate south out of Wisconsin for the winter, there are some that will stay and stick it out. The open water in the Arboretum from the fresh springs it houses provides for these robins, helping them survive Wisconsin’s cold winters.

On our way out of the gardens, we were surprised to see big soft buds on the magnolia trees. These are the buds we look for in the spring time, not the last week of December; they are in for a surprise! We hiked next into Wingra Woods, marveling immediately at how prevalent and large the effigy mounds are there. We worked on our winter tree identification along the way and listened for winter birds. It was pretty quiet in the woods though. We only heard the song of a downy woodpecker once or twice, as well as a busy red-bellied woodpecker. We were able to get our eyes on both of these . . . their black, white, and red coloring standing out in the gray of the day on the leafless trees.

We checked out the big spring and the smaller springs, bright green watercress covering them all. We admired the shiny golden bark of the yellow birch trees and the beautiful beech trees holding on to their leaves in the winter. We discussed how giant the beech trees can get and we marveled at the hemlocks on our way to Skunk Cabbage Bridge. Surprisingly enough, we could see the buds of the skunk cabbage appearing already as if it were the end of winter instead of the beginning. Skunk cabbage is a cold tolerant plant, poking through the snow in early spring, so even though it is already budding it will survive the cold to come.

As if to provide us with a grand finale at the end of our hike, a red-tailed hawk was perched on a light in the parking lot providing us with an excellent view. We passed around binoculars and enjoyed a long observation of the raptor. He or she (as there is no visual distinction between the two that I am aware of) appeared all fluffy, as in the winter birds will poof their feathers out to trap air between their body and their feathers to stay warm (we noticed the robins looked all fluffed out too for this same reason).

As always, thanks to the Friends of the Arboretum for making these naturalists-led walks possible!

—Lisa Andrewski