Sunday Nature Walk: New England Winter

Throughout January and February, it is easy to dream about the warm days of spring that are not so far away. Winter can seem lifeless and bleak, the only refreshing component coming from the occasional snow that offers a brief change of scenery before turning into a brown mush. However, contrary to its quiet exterior, winter is teaming with life, with some species even beginning to mate and raise their young. Imprints in the snow can tell stories, and different animals leave tell-tale signs of their presence. All it takes to find these “winter wonders” is to know where to look and what to look for.

The first element that most notice with the onset of winter is the lack of usual bird calls. Most songbirds travel south for the winter, most notably the warblers, which make up a large bulk of the songbird variety. However, taking a closer look at the low brush in forested areas shows that not all of the small birds have flown south. Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are among the most common winter songbirds one can find. These feisty little fluff balls can be found foraging among the mid-story canopies during sunny days. Their relative, the boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus), is a very rare visitor to Connecticut and can be distinguished with its brown cap opposed to the chickadee’s black one.

A red-shouldered hawk rests on an branch. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Birds of prey are typically here year-round depending on the individual. Don’t be surprised to find first-year red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) hopping around chasing squirrels after a fresh snowfall. Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus), their slightly smaller and harder to find cousins, have a brilliant rusty red color on their breast-plumage.

Owl species become very active in the winter, as for them, this is mating season. Male owls of all species will establish territories during the cold winter months and find nests for the females. Eastern screech owls (Megascops asio), one of New England’s smallest owls, roost in tree holes and males will guard a suitable hideout for the female until she eventually lays her eggs in the spring.

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) lays its eggs earlier than any other species in North America, some females being known to lay as early as February. Barred owls (Strix varia) are much more vocal during the winter and can occasionally be spotted hunting for voles and mice even during the day. Winter also can bring many rare visitors such as the rare snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), which is North America’s heaviest owl at four pounds. For more information on rare winter species, check out the previous issue of Sunday Nature Walk.

A pileated woodpecker tears the bark off a deceased ash tree. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Woodpeckers are another species that persist throughout the cold winter months. The largest species in New England is the pileated woodpecker. These large birds are considered a gem in the New England woods and are identifiable by their size and bright red cap. Other woodpeckers in New England include the smaller hairy woodpecker and even smaller downy woodpecker. Both of these species are much more common than their pileated cousin.

Easton has an abundant habitat that harbors all of the species mentioned in this article. Keep an eye out for these amazing creatures on your next winter walk out into the woods. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region contain a wide variety of trails and natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout Connecticut at CT Woodlands.

For more nature photos, fun facts, and environmental entries, you might like to follow my nature photography Instagram, @tomaskoeckhttps://www.instagram.com/tomaskoeck/ .

Tomas Koeck
Tomas Koeck

Koeck is a photographer and videographer. He is completing his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from the School of Communication, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University. He has worked on several stories with the non-profit Vision Project and is on the Easton Courier’s news team.  He has published in the Connecticut Audubon Society, TAMRON Optics, ESPN, and the Spectrum. He has also been featured on the prestigious Instagram wildlife photography platforms Elite Owls and Elite Raptors. He also runs a YouTube channel with over 20,000 subscribers.

He has conducted scientific research for Penn State University on invasive plant regeneration as well as field work with Dr. Kim Steiner of Penn State’s dendrology forest biology division. Koeck is also a recipient of the University of Connecticut’s Environmental Studies Award and has published species profiles for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

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