Up at the Tree House: Winter Wildlife

Nature // February 16, 2022

By Christina Moresi

So often, in our rush to get where we are going and warm up, we hustle past the subtle beauty of winter. Up at the Tree House, and throughout the Wissahickon and our neighborhoods, there is a natural masterpiece waiting to be noticed with every glance.

At the Wissahickon Environmental Center, we believe that there is “no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” This has been proven true on many occasions, whether we’ve been prepared or unprepared for different types of weather while out on adventures. That said, in the winter, it doesn’t cost much to bundle up. The most important part of your outdoor wardrobe is warm socks and waterproof shoes or boots. With warm, dry feet, you can focus your attention on nature.

Early-morning frost can be annoying when you have it scrape it off car windows, but it is also beautiful. Frosted windows may annoy us, but have you ever noticed that the pattern of those icy crystals outline grasses, branches, and fallen leaves? In the afternoon sun, look up and admire all the twists and turns of the tree branches as they cross branches on the other trees around them. In the absence of leaves, you may see a migrating bird perched on a branch, a bald-faced hornet nest, or some of the tree’s fruits that have not yet let go.

In the winter, not everything has gone dormant or departed for warm adventures. Focus your eye on the leaf litter and look for things that move. On a warmer day, the camouflaged squirrel or chipmunk may scurry through the leaves and over logs. Look through the trees, and perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a flicker of white from the tail of a deer. Listen for the song of the white-throated sparrow (oh-sweet-Canada-Canada), the whistle of the northern cardinal (cheer, cheer, cheer), or the call of the blue jay (jaay-jaay-jaay). Watch the activity of these and other birds, such as the dark-eyed junco, as they gather at bird feeders.

A snowy day is my favorite time to hike in the woods and the meadow. The snow absorbs sounds, so even on the street, the world seems almost silent. And the blanket of snow makes everything look brand-new. This is the perfect time to take a second look at the trees as they are outlined in white. Look down as you are hiking and see the tracks of the other animals who hiked there too. This is when you can see evidence of our nocturnal neighbors, such as the fox, coyote, and raccoon.

Up at the Treehouse, one of our favorite winter programs is the full moon hike. This hike starts with a group gathered around a fire, roasting marshmallows and catching up on the New Year. Then we hike by the light of the full moon along the Teal Trail until we come to the top, where it meets the Red Trail, and we can see the moon rising above the trees.

One of my favorite “spooky trees” resides at this point: a very large cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) with its signature bumps along its trunk. We continue the hike through the forest, with the moon casting shadows on our backs. It is here that we sometimes hear the hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo of the great horned owl and, on occasion, the haunting trill of the screech owl or the startling bark of the fox. Not to worry though; they won’t hurt us. It is mating season and these calls are for a potential mate.

Soon we come to the meadow, which opens up for a dramatic welcome, and we meet the moon in full again. The winter sky is often the most clear, and despite the twinkle of the antennae farm in the distance, stars and planets can be seen with the naked eye. It is here that I often pause to take it all in—the cold air, the bright moon, the open beauty of the meadow—another winter in the Wissahickon.

Christina Moresi, M.Ed., is an Environmental Education Planner at the Wissahickon Environmental Center.