Getting out in winter looks different all over the country, but in Ohio and New Jersey, where we live, the winters mean cold and snow. Sometimes just a bit, other times a big, heavy helping, but every winter is cold and snowy. It is easy to think that in weather like this, we should stay in our warm homes until the season passes. Hot tea and hot cocoa, books and warm slippers, movie nights and cozy blankets – all of this sounds pretty appealing when the weather is chilly. With that said, if we prepare ourselves with warm and water-resistant clothing, winter is an especially beautiful season and there is so much to explore and learn.
Here are some ideas to inspire winter nature study:
Buds: Did you know the buds on trees and many bushes form in fall, so they are ready to inspect and explore. They will swell and become more visible in spring, but they are formed now. Are they hard or soft? Fuzzy or smooth? What color are they in winter? Below are three that I found right in my front yard.
Bark: Being able to identify your favorite tree using the bark is a lovely way to know your favorite trees even better. What better time than in winter, when you don’t have the benefit of seeing their leaves, fruit, or seeds? I personally like using the book Bark, as it outlines the ways to look more deeply at the color, texture, and surface variations of the bark on trees.
When the darkness comes early, its great to find a clear day and look at the skies after dinner. You don’t need much knowledge to start – be able to find the north star or the big dipper and then see where your curiosity takes you. If you are looking to go in depth during your winter term, check out The Stars or Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey (of Curious George fame, who knew he was an astronomer?) Sometimes, I like to use my SkyView app as well to learn more about what I’m seeing.
Birds are easier to see in winter because the branches are so bare. Head out for a walk in your neighborhood, at a local park, or at a nature center. If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to spot lots of varieties of non-migrating birds. Or, maybe where you live is “the south” for some varieties of birds that spend their summers in the far north? My favorite idea blends my love of birds with my desire to stay warm – window bird feeders. I’ve collected a bunch of feeders over the years and I really love to be able to have one right in my living room window. I’ve found they work best when you have other feeders on a post nearby, then the birds eventually become brave enough to jump right over to your window. Other sources of food are scarce in the winter, so I find my feeders full of delightful varieties of birds – right now I can see a nuthatch, junco, a pair of cardinals, tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker, song sparrow, and a house finch. In the past few days we’ve been visited by a whole murmuration of starlings, a red-tailed hawk (who did not have any seed, but perhaps was looking for all the song birds?) as well as a blue jay.
Is it truly just too cold to go outdoors? A trip to your closet, thrift store, or donation pile might offer enough substance for a bit of nature study. Find something made of 100% cotton, 100% wool, and 100% linen and get your magnifying glass. Inspect the different fibers and then go in your encyclopedia or online to see what they look like when they are growing, how they are spun into yarn (both now and historically), and how they are woven or knit into the fabrics we wear. This could also spur some handicrafts – be warned! Suddenly, the kids might be interested in weaving, spinning, or knitting for themselves.
Lastly, study the snow! Weather study is great most times of year, but especially in winter when the precipitation is so varied. Is it snow, sleet, or hail? Perhaps leave a few magnifying glass plates out in the cold and wait for a snowflake to land on them. Can you get them in quickly enough to check out the flake magnified? Maybe a magnifying glass outdoors offers enough of a glimpse of the crystalline structure. Try it out! Why do icicles form and why does salt keep the streets from icing? What kind of clouds bring the snow and what does the barometer do before the snow comes? So many questions to explore around the weather in wintertime!
What is your favorite way to do nature study in the winter months? If you aren’t in the snow areas, how does your climate and surroundings change during this time of year?