Snow Tracks and Woodsy Christmas Colors
“Darkness comes swiftly in the Long Night Moon of December. At the end of this twenty-first day of the month, this shortest day of the year, this time when, in other ages, men lit bonfires to strengthen the expiring sun, the Silver Strand faded rapidly from sight” — from “Wandering Through Winter” by Edwin Way Teale.
Wednesday, at exactly 3:59 p.m., marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight. The winter solstice is when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun, and the sun’s daily position in the sky is the lowest. Starting Thursday our days will get longer and the sun higher in the sky. The slow countdown to spring has begun, but let’s enjoy winter first.
For me, any time of year is a good time for a walk in the woods. However, winter can provide the chance to experience the unexpected. Here, in The Last Green Valley deciduous trees dominate our forested woodlands and this time of year they are free of leaves, providing more opportunities to witness the usually unseen.
Tracks in the Snow
A snow-covered forest trail gives up the tracks of previous travelers — human and animal — and the frosty imprint betrays the identity of those who passed this way before. When I see both human and dog tracks together, it usually means someone has taken their pet for a woods ramble. However, a canine track by itself tells me likely the track has been left by an eastern coyote or fox.
One easy way to determine if it’s a coyote or fox versus a dog track is if the footprints are in a straight line. The wild canine wishes to conserve energy, especially in winter, and moves through the landscape with purpose. They are, after all, usually out searching their next meal. Domestic dogs walk in a more haphazard way, sniffing every stump and bush, frequently leaving their own calling card behind. Dogs can also rely on a daily meal.
Tracks of coyote and fox are also easy to identify by the way they leave footprints with the hind foot placed directly on top of the front imprint, as the front foot is lifted the hind foot drops directly where the front foot has been. Trackers call this direct registering and while some domestic dogs do this, they don’t maintain it for too long, are easily distracted and tend to leave a sloppy trail. Coyote and fox will leave a similar direct-registering track, with coyote leaving larger prints.
Natures Christmas Colors of Red and Green
This is the time of year when the evergreen of conifers of pine, hemlock, cedar and spruce stand out. But there are other colors to be found in the bleak landscape with an unexpected flash of color within a typically colorless scenery in shades of gray, brown and white. I enjoy finding green life amid the sleeping, austere colors of winter.
A cluster of deep green Christmas fern peeking up through the snow or waving from beside a stone wall is a welcome sight. The evergreen perennial Christmas fern gets its name since it keeps its deep green stocking-shaped fronds year-round and can even be surprising lush in January. They are very common to eastern North America with stems in clumps of about two feet tall. You will typically find them in shady forest areas, along rocky slopes and beside stonewalls.
Though it is a found mostly in the woods, Christmas fern can also be purchased at nurseries and is popular in cultivation as ornamental plants for gardens. Christmas fern is easy to grow and are also good for erosion control on steeper slopes.
On a recent hike I came upon the beautiful winterberry full of bright red berries lining long stems of the plant — a favorite shrub to brighten up a winter woods walk. Winterberry is a member of the holly family and, despite its name, starts to display its beautiful red berries in the late fall. In The Last Green Valley and throughout eastern North America, it will keep its berries into December. The bright red is beautiful against white snow.
The botanical name of winterberry is Ilex verticillate, but it is also commonly known as black alder and fever bush. It is typically found in wetland areas, which is where we found it on my hike. Unlike most types of holly shrubs, winterberry is deciduous, with the bright berries left behind for us to enjoy looking at after the shrub has shed its leaves. Don’t be tempted to taste the berries, however. They are poisonous to humans.
Winterberry is also a popular landscape shrub for homeowners. However, if you’re looking to purchase it at a nursery, remember the plant is dioecious, which means the male reproductive organs are in one individual plant and the female reproductive organs in another (staminate and pistillate flowers borne on different individual plants). Make sure to buy at least one male with compatible female plants to ensure your winterberry plants will fruit.
Winterberry berries provide an important early winter food source for birds and other animals, especially when food sources are getting scarce. Bluebirds, robins, and cedar waxwings are a few of the bird species benefitting from winterberry. Deer, mice and racoons will also feed on the fruit. The plant may be edible for some birds and wild animals, but its leaves are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. The berries were used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, thus the common name of fever bush.
I hope that after the opening bell of winter rings on Wednesday you’ll make time to get out and enjoy the cold season. Take a winter woods rambles and look for fresh tracks in newly fallen white snow. I hope you’ll also discover the red blush of winterberry and the deep green of Christmas fern — perfect colors for the holiday season.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Nature provides a year-round gift for us to enjoy. We all benefit from the expansive tracks of undeveloped forested land of our National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and others as we explore our natural world and find ways to care for it, enjoy it, and work together to pass it on for future generations.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, December 18, 2022
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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