Winter

From “Wild Moments” by Ted Williams, edited by Connie Isbell, Illustrations by John Burgoyne, Storey Publishing, 174 pages. Winter The “dead of winter” is an oxymoron. Never is winter “dead”; it only looks that way to those who don’t get out into it. Snow is not sterile; it sustains complicated ecosystems from algae that live on its surface, to algae-grazing springtails that burrow up from forest duff by day, to ruffed grouse that roost in it, to the chubby-faced meadow voles that scamper through it. Each time you venture into winter you’ll discover something new and improve your looking skills. But if you go out for the express purpose of “viewing” wildlife, you’re apt to be disappointed. Wildlife doesn’t behave this way. At any season, but especially now, it has a way of presenting itself only when you least expect it and rarely in great quantity. So keep your expectations modest. A realistic goal is one notable sighting per expedition -- perhaps not a living thing, but a sign of one: Wing marks in the snow and a drop of blood or a feather pile where a raptor has nailed a small mammal or bird; foot and belly tracks of frolicking otters; moose scat where no one thought moose should be, now that they’re invading suburbia; regurgitated, bone-filled pellets around a raptor roosting tree; sawdust-like dung and quill bits at the entrance of a porcupine den; deer hair on barbed wire; fox scat perched on stones; the hooting (more like bassoon tooting) of nesting great horned owls, incubating eggs even when temperatures drop below zero and snow piles up on their backs and heads…. Get a track guide so you can identify wildlife from their prints. While many birds have flown south, don’t forget that you are south of many birds. Look for snow buntings, redpolls, pine and evening grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills, ravens, red-breasted nuthatches, boreal chickadees, snowy owls, and great gray owls. The harsher the winter, the more likely you are to see them. And while there are fewer birds around now, residents and migrants from the north need more calories and are more likely to come to sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, suet, and cracked corn. In the Northeast bluebirds and robins are changing their behavior, frequently staying all year. You can keep them around your yard (and give them a head start in the coming nesting season) by putting out mealworms (sold by pet-supply outfits in cloth bags that keep well in refrigerators; don’t buy fewer than 5,000 at a time). In regions where there’s ice for extended periods, open water will attract birds as well, if not better, than food. Heaters and drippers (far more enticing to birds than standing water) are available for bird baths. If you have a garden pool, keep it clear of ice with a stock-tank heater. This will have the added benefit of protecting fish, as well as hibernating frogs and turtles, from oxygen depletion. If you dress incorrectly, winter quickly ceases to be fun. Think first about your feet. Even on the coldest days when you walk or stand on ice your feet will never be uncomfortable if you wear felt-lined boots. Nothing else will work in these conditions. But felt is not great for hiking over open ground; then you’ll want to wear heavy wool socks and boots that aren’t laced too tight. Think second about your hands. I’ve found that puffy, Gortex gloves, more or less waterproof, work best. In my humble opinion the only good thing about snowmobiles are the suits that were designed for those who ride around on them. But if you are walking a lot, snowmobile suits will make you sweat even in sub-zero temperatures. So I use the two-piece variety, wearing only the top except in extreme cold or when I’m not moving much. On days I wear the pants I’ll remove them and stuff them into a light backpack if I start to overheat. Your head releases a great deal of heat, so a wool watch cap that pulls down over your ears or rides high or is easily stuffed into a pocket is a must. Rousting friends and family from warm living rooms for “nature walks” will work maybe once. After that there are all sorts of good excuses to get them next to nature in winter -- cross country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, hiking, an impromptu game of hockey or broom ball, skating, ice fishing…. This last pursuit (not with tip-ups but with short, hand-made rods) has provided me with most of my truly memorable winter wildlife sightings. Once an immature bald eagle sculling low through mist when bald eagles were almost non-existent in southern New Hampshire. An enormous fisher -- by far the biggest I have ever seen or heard of -- who materialized out of a frozen swamp and, as I restrained my exuberant Brittany pup, swaggered past me, not 30 feet away. I nearly expected him to look up and tell me to get the hell out of his way. A great blue heron who had decided to winter in Yankeeland before this became de rigueur for the species. Often the first red-winged blackbird of the year. Geese and ducks muttering from all compass points, only a few feet away, but unseen in a snow squall as my niece, brother-in-law and I stood on a long, thin peninsula of ice. Musk turtles barely moving over the surface of the ice and hundreds of feet from open water, dropped there (at least according to my theory) by herring gulls seeking to crack them open as if they were sea shells. All sorts of wonderful and beautiful creatures below the ice, viewed through man-hole-cover-size holes chopped with a steel chisel: pickerel laying in ambush, crawfish feeding on a dead bass, yellow perch hovering around my hand-made “jigger” and powered only with fanning pectoral fins, a painted turtle walking across the mossy bottom, bright dace and shiners, tiny, dancing invertebrates. Once, when I lay on the ice transfixed by such visions, a tip-up fisherman a quarter mile up the lake yelled at me. He was wondering if I were dead.