INTO THE WILD:
The Chicago Wilderness winter affords us a peek into the underpinnings of nature — an x-ray of the ecosystem, free from the distracting details of summer. Despite our desire to become as torpid as a woodchuck, the chilling beauty and desert-like stillness of winter draw us outdoors and offer a fresh perspective.
Photo: Peter Dring
Compiled by Dan Spencer
A small group stands in the snow of an open field, illuminated by moonlight near the forest’s edge. An audio tape plays an owl hoot as a lure, and a dark shape flutters silently overhead. This is the mystique of owling, a pursuit enjoyed in early winter, to avoid disturbing nests later on. All of our common owls remain with us during the winter months. Your post-migration withdrawal can also be remedied by looking for unique winter visitors such as redpolls, bufflehead ducks, and pine grosbeaks. Without foliage, trees often reveal bird nests that were invisible before. Find out more about Christmas Bird Counts.
Hikers may be surprised to encounter plants that won’t give up in winter. In November, witch hazel shrubs send out their long, yellow blossoms. In late February and early March, skunk cabbage will produce its own heat and melt its way through the snow. And after a hard frost, a plant called frostweed exudes a crystallizing sap from its lower stem, issuing a sublime, frosty ribbon.
Catching a Winter Bug
The apparent barrenness of winter makes discovering insect life a special treat. On warmer winter days in woodlands, you may find springtails called snow fleas above the snowpack or on dead leaves. Bring a magnifying glass to get a closer view of these little, dark specks that seem to disappear when you try to touch them (and reappear on your glove!). When in a frozen wetland, look for cattails that have not lost their fluffy seed heads yet. Inside you’ll find wormlike, yellow, thin-striped larvae of cattail moths waiting for spring. Likewise, the bulbous swellings on goldenrod stems contain the white larvae of gall flies.
Stars of Wonder
The night sky in winter is as awe-inspiring today as it was to ancient astronomers. The naked eye can see several thousand stars under the right conditions. The winter sky’s pantheon includes the constellations of Cepheus, Orion, Pegasus, Taurus, and the Pleiades. To find a local astronomy club or attend a program, visit the Adler Planetarium online, or call (312) 922-7827.
Photos: Thomas Bentley, Mike MacDonald/ChicagoNature.com, Casey Galvin, Jack Shouba.
Visiting your favorite preserves during winter can reveal patterns overlooked in the warmer months.
Kames, moraines, and other geological formations will pop out from the background with a little snow and some naked trees.
Winter uncovers the structure of a woodland. A winter trip often helps hikers appreciate the difference between a healthy oak woods and one that’s not doing so well (see Reading Pictures, “Restoring Magic”).
Frozen lakes offer new vistas that a person can only achieve by boat or hip-wader when it’s warm. Especially in shallow water, the ice can serve as a window for seeing fish, frogs, and air bubbles — most in suspended animation.
A long outdoor walk in winter can be meditative and informative, both answering questions and suggesting new ones: Which duck species are still on the pond this year? What is the nature of death? Why can’t I feel my face?