Winter Walks

Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and “the dead months” will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.

~William Sharp

Our two trail cameras have given me a new excuse to walk in our woods every couple of days (to retrieve images) and it has reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. We have a little over 14 acres of hardwoods on fairly rugged terrain. There is a simple wooden bench (two boards) set on stones down slope from the house and it provides a nice view of the creek bottom and opposing south-facing slope in winter.

View from the bench looking down slope to a large bed of Christmas Ferns (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wandered down to reset the cameras and took some pics with my phone of the winter woods. I like the expanded views in winter, the crisp air, the sounds of mixed flocks of birds moving through the trees, and the subtle signs of life that appear when you stop to look closely.

The creek on our property disappears underground for much of the summer, but flows nicely after winter rains

The creek bottom extends along the back side of a number of large wooded lots in two neighborhoods and offers an oasis for birds and other wildlife. It also provides a reprieve from many of the human noises we can hear from the ridge top (distant sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, neighbors out in their yards, etc.). For that reason, I decided to haul a cedar log from our yard down to the creek and create another sit spot. Again, nothing fancy, but rather something from the land that blends. This tree trunk had once stood along what I assume was a property line on our ridge and had barbed wire nailed to it (you can see the grooves in it from the years of wire being attached). It now sits on some of the countless irregular-shaped rocks scattered about the tract and is placed up against a beech tree facing the creek. I like to imagine we will spend many hours here contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.

Wooden bench along the creek

Sitting there, I started noticing things all around me that spoke of the quiet beauty of winter…

A skeletonized leaf on a bed of moss
Mushrooms on a mossy tree trunk
Vivid orange mushrooms on a fallen branch (perhaps Crowded Parchment, Stereum complicatum?)
Artist patterns turned into mushrooms on a log (perhaps Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor?)

When I returned to the house, I looked in some mushroom field guides, and reminded myself of the awe I feel for those that can easily identify our varied fungi. I plugged a couple of them into iNaturalist and labeled the photos as it suggested. If anyone has other ideas, please let me know.

Before I left, I noticed a group of tiny dancers, some sort of fly, probably involved in a mating flight, bobbing up and down in a small animated troupe highlighted by the sun. It reminded me that even in winter, life is striving to continue, to take advantage of any opportunity of warmth, of sunlight, of the future. Here’s a quick phone clip…

After spending time with the flies (it’s not often I get to say that), I walked along the creek, noticing the tracks of deer and raccoon, the diggings of squirrels, and then was startled to see a true sign of spring – the first wildflower of the season – a Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana.

Round-lobed Hepatica blooming along the creek

All the field guides talk about it blooming from February-March in the Piedmont, but here it is showing its striking purple colors in January. I had seen a friend’s social media post recently of one blooming elsewhere nearby…indeed, climate change in my lifetime. But, troubling as it may be, it is amazing what finding a hint of a season to come does to your mind. I think it is universal among observers of nature as this quote from 19th century naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, so eloquently states…

Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes. A solitary blue-purple one fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.

The hepatica reminded me we had found some other early signs of spring a few days ago – the first Spotted Salamander egg masses of the season in our small pools and an adult salamander waiting her turn for the next rainy night hiding under a rotting log just outside our deer fence. So, in spite of the abundance of winter birds at our feeders (the grosbeaks, siskins, and finches are still abundant), the march of time carries us toward the green and warmth of the next chapter in our wooded landscape’s story. I’m hoping to read many more pages as this year passes.

A chilly Spotted Salamander under a log near one of our gates

17 thoughts on “Winter Walks

  1. Thank you again for showing us the extraordinary within the ordinary, and more evidence that ALL beings, sentient and non-sentient, have beauty, value, and a critical role in the function of our world.
    You are most appreciated.

  2. Again, thanks Mike. I finally began enjoying winter features years ago while backpacking at My. Rodgers in December. So much to see and feel! And our homes here offer great opportunity for intimacy with winter.

    I saw a 2012 episode of Exploring North Carolina last night that stated the world of fungi as a separate Kingdom along with animals and plants. Your pics are a great follow-up to that revelation (for me).

  3. Lovely post. I’ll start looking for hepatica. I took a long walk along the Tar River hoping to see anything ha ha. I was blown away with the ice crystals in the shallow swamp. I saw deer and raccoon tracks, a raccoon itself (as did my dog!), blue birds and lovely water, blue sky and bare trees. One day I know I’ll spot an otter. I’ll be checking that swamp for salamander eggs. Thank you for your posts Mike.

  4. I love your wooden bench idea! I’m going to do a similar thing creekside at my place. Or maybe above the flood plain! Your observations have inspired me to head down to the creek now to see what I might find.

  5. Hey,
    Your observations give me hope because you are recording what you are encountering right now.
    Well done, you.
    Cheers,
    Carolyn Flynn in central Missouri

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