Each season has itís own opportunities that can make a hike special.† For some, winterís benefits are composed of what it doesnít offer.† It doesnít have mosquitoes or poison ivy, venomous snakes or high humidity.† Nor does it have nettles or bees!† Certainly, all good arguments.† Perhaps the best element that winter doesnít offer is the concealing green wall of summer (although itís becoming all to common to be able to peek under the curtain, thanks to the serious eating habits of our ungulate friends).†
The Shenandoah National Park is the place to be in winter.† Itís great fun to be able to see the stone walls and foundations of the former mountain residents.† I recommend getting Carolyn and Jack Reedersís trilogy of books about the Park published by the PATC.† The third book, Shenandoah Secrets, will take you along the trails and tell you wonderful stories about the people that lived in the homes that youíll be passing.† Len Wheat has prepared a self-guided tour of eighteen cabins of the community of Old Rag, or Weakley Hollow, also published by the PATC.† While the October fire of 2000 has destroyed some of the chestnut logs, itís still a fun way to spend a winter day.† In addition, Len has an appendix listing 28 cabin sites within the Park that still had standing walls as of about 1990.† Get Ďem and go explore.
For me, the highlight of the winter season is identifying animal tracts in the snow.† Get a field guide for tracks, such as the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks, and find out whoís active.† Even though deer, squirrels, and deer mice are most common, bobcat, fox and coyote are not uncommon.† And, yes, you can see bear tracks every month of the year; some arousing for a short stroll, while others may remain active all winter.†
One highlight I have yet to experience can only be had in January and early February, and it only happens late at night.† This means you have to rent one of the PATC cabins, or camp on your own in the Park.† If youíre very lucky, one night, youíll hear what sounds like the screaming wails of a demented woman off in the woods.† Consider yourself blessed if you hear this mating call of the male bobcat.† They say you will not mistake this sound for anything else in the natural world.†
Other winter opportunities?† Well, notice earlier I said no mosquitoes.† I didnít say no insects.† In fact, a not too uncommon winter site on snow are the congregation of thousands of black dots, known as snow fleas.† These springtail insects tend to appear on snow near the base of trees, where the reflected sun has melted the snow to the ground, allowing these primitive insects to emerge.† They have earned the common name of snow fleas due to the two appendages they have on their last body segment, which enable them to spring a distance of several inches.†
Speaking of insects, when you lunch by the creek and find half inch, slender winged insects walking about on the rocks and your clothing, you have found one of several species of stone flies that wait until midwinter to metamorphose from aquatic nymphs to terrestrial flying adults.† At least, they donít have many predators out to disturb their courtship.† After mating, the female deposits her eggs in the water, at which point, the life cycle is complete for both the adult male and female.
Finally, wintertime is a good time to take up birdwatching.† First, you donít have the hundreds of summer possibilities to deal with, and, second, as mentioned before, NO LEAVES!† You may not find any birds for an hour or more, and then a flurry of bird activity is upon you, with numerous species flying through the forest in mixed flocks.† Take advantage of the opportunity; they may pass through in a matter of minutes, leaving you alone again.
Birds tend to flock in winter.† The logic suggests that more eyes mean more food sources found, and more eyes to detect danger (thus, less wasted time looking for predators).†† Summer flocking doesnít work due to the territorial needs of birds.† Interestingly, woodland flocking is more common with insectivores than with seedeaters.† Since seeds come in so many different forms, so do the forms of the bird bills, and thus, seed preferences for each species.† Thus, itís not reasonable to expect that searching for communal food sources for such diverse needs will work.† Two exceptions are noted.† First, intraspecific flocks (all one species) can be found, such as juncos, robins and cedar waxwings, looking for their common food source.† Juncos are commonly found foraging in four or five favorite foraging sites, usually no more than two to three hundred yards apart.† Incidentally, if you see a flock of waxwings, notice the color of the tip of the tail.† Historically, the tip is a bright yellow, but, as the result of the introduced Asian shrub honeysuckles to the waxwings diet, some of the tips are orange!† Second, seedeaters do tend to flock in field habitats, where a greater abundance of species and quantities of seeds can be found.† Field flocking seed eaters (not an obscenity or rock band) will tend to be more sedentary, thus, more amenable to birding.†
Flocking does work for the insectivores, like the interspecific flocks of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, and, maybe a couple of brown creepers and downy woodpeckers.† The reason it works, while insectivores have just as many varied bills and specialized feeding habits as the seed eaters, is, unlike the seed eaters, they can find all their needs in one site.† You can notice how the chickadees tend to feed on the outer branches, often high in the tree, while the titmouse tends to search the thicker inner branches, or on the ground.† Kinglets are very active and tend to hover around branches, snatching insects as they explore the outermost branches.† Interestingly, the brown creeper and the nuthatch are both found on the tree trunk.† But, while the brown creeper is always found spiraling from the bottom and traveling up, the nuthatch will start high in the tree and travel down the trunks, so that each tends to find eggs and larva that the other would miss.†
When you find these winter bird flocks, try to notice who is leading the procession.† Studies can be found supporting either chickadees or titmice.† Both tend to be loud and vociferous.† Expect to find from four to six of both species, including the mated couple whose breeding grounds you now find yourself, and their offspring and perhaps a few other locals.††