Snow Absent Again for Annual Mid-Winter Nature Walk

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 by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate

The mid-winter wildlife walk held on February 22 would be expected to feature a white landscape complete with snow covered branches and tracks from animals on the move in search of food, during what is winter’s peak period. This spectacle, mammal tracks in snow, was to be the focus of this walk. But for the second consecutive year, the Lloyd Center grounds were totally void of snow cover, instead ablaze with the greens of live vegetation, and browns of dead fallen leaves and branches from past growth.

Hardly a winter scene, it leaves one wondering if, like the January waterfowl survey, impacts of climate change are outpacing our and nature’s ability to adapt. However, lack of snow cover and a mostly warm trend has meant higher availability and accessibility of forest food sources, and highly active and visible wildlife. The low shrub layer contains browse, seeds, fruits and insects, while acorns, hickory nuts, and other forage items are exposed at ground level.

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White-tailed deer and wild turkeys have plentiful browse and forage and no snow to slow them down. Insects are abuzz, including more moth species than is usual for February. Songbirds, while not as abundant at backyard feeders, are strewn across the landscape pursuing a more vast buffet. Tree-clinging birds are probing for bugs, kinglets are working the shrub layer, and birds of prey are in the forest canopy feeding on these birds and small mammals which are up and active. Beyond the forest are more raptors soaring high above in search of prey, and on the ice-free estuary, winter waterfowl have plenty of food to consume below the water.

The opportunity to see all this activity and enjoy the many vistas offered at the Lloyd Center property motivated the group attending the walk. The snow-free forest, while not allowing wildlife tracking, offered good opportunity to observe traits on trees that aid in species identification. The group was shown evergreen species, including Atlantic White Cedar and American Holly, both common in the Atlantic coastal plain region, and both Balsam Fir and Eastern Hemlock, both scarce on the property but found in the state. The group learned that evergreen trees conserve water in winter with a waxy coating around their leaves. While leaf structure aids in identification of evergreens, the deciduous trees drop their leaves to slow growth and conserve water, and have buds whose characteristics aid in their identification. Oaks have four buds clustered at the tip and alternate buds on the stem, maples have one small bud at the tip and opposite stem buds, and hickories have a large end bud and leaf scars along the twig. Sassafras saplings are abundant on the property along the trails, and the group saw their green stems and smelled lemony scent when they are crushed. The group also saw Sweet Pepperbush florets, and an old bird nest.

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Birding activity was relatively quiet, but highlights for songbirds included good looks at a foraging White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-bellied Woodpecker at the feeders, a few Carolina Wrens, and the song of the first breeding Red-winged Blackbirds. On the way to the pier, a Turkey Vulture flew low over the trail and kettle pond, with a flock of vultures seen from the pier at the waterfront. Although a stiff breeze shortened our pier visit, the group enjoyed close-up views of the Slocum River. On the Lloyd Woods property, the winds were calm and we stopped at the viewing bench to gaze onto the Little River estuary where through the spotting scope, the group had good looks at the American Black Ducks that frequent this open section of river.

Although no roaming owls were seen, the outing concluded with the showing of Koko the Screech Owl, which gave the group a rare look at a common bird of the forest.