In spite of the cold and other harsh weather so far this winter, I've managed to stick to one of my personal New Year's resolutions, that being to get outside at least a couple of times a week until spring arrives.
Those outings provide both worthwhile exercise and welcome relief from the shut-in feeling that becomes all too pervasive this time of year.
Most of the time, I'm drawn to many of the same places I frequent in the warmer months for one reason or another. These tend to be beautiful, satisfying places that hold many interesting things to see or do.
Winter, however, provides an entirely different perspective on even the most friendly and familiar locations during the other half of the year.
The forests, once green and lush and alive with a symphony of birdcalls, appear at first glance to be stark and deserted, little more than a collection of lonely, bare trees. Fields that hosted countless wildflowers, bees and butterflies are also now flat and mostly vacant, save for a few stalks of dried weeds or grasses that wave defiantly in the winter winds.
And the shallows of streams and rivers that teemed with countless minnows, crayfish and water bugs seemingly are devoid of life now too.
But while so many plants and animals are gone or at least dormant this time of year, there is certainly more to winter than outright bleakness.
The other face of winter is one that reveals a remarkable variety of creatures that soldier on in spite of the hardships of the season. Observing those intrepid animals as they deal with the elements can be fascinating.
On an afternoon hike a couple of weeks ago, I was standing on a bridge over a small creek. The pool beneath the bridge was covered with a thin sheet of clear ice, and I stared beneath it for a while hoping to see a fish or other sign of life.
I looked up just in time to see a muskrat slip off the bank and into some open water a few yards downstream. It swam under the ice and disappeared into a submerged tunnel on the opposite bank. Just the thought of a swim in such frigid water makes me shiver, but to a muskrat, such behavior is just another day at the office.
Snow adds a special dimension to observing winter wildlife. A fresh coat of the white stuff is like an open book that records everything which passes by, at least for those who can read the signs.
In many ways, following a set of tracks can yield more information about the critter that made them than an actual sighting of the animal.
Of all the wildlife that spends the winter here in central Pennsylvania, I think I marvel most at some of our wintertime birds. Unlike some mammals, which can rely on their fat reserves to keep them going during lean times, birds have a high rate of metabolism and must eat virtually every day to fuel their bodies.
So birds spend most of their time and energy this time of year in quest of food in both fair and foul weather.
The menu options for winter birds in this part of the world are somewhat limited. Insect-eating species have long since migrated to warmer southern climates.
Most Pennsylvania snowbirds subsist primarily on a diet of seed, nuts and similar plant material. Woodpeckers hammer away at trees and logs to find grubs and larvae. Hawks and owls prey on other birds and small mammals, and the ubiquitous and resourceful crow will dine on anything from roadkill to waste grain.
Most small mammals employ an underground burrow or similar lodging to help them withstand the rigors of winter. Not many birds have such secure dwellings. While a few species will find shelter in hollow tree cavities, most winter birds simply roost in trees and shrubs.
Backyard birdfeeders have long been a popular winter diversion for many folks. The birds get access to a plentiful source of food at a time when they need it most, and their human benefactors can derive much pleasure watching them take advantage of it.
Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, juncos, goldfinches and sparrows all readily will visit feeders, and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers will come to suet blocks.
Each species has its own feeding habits and behavioral traits, and I thoroughly enjoy watching these winter residents interacting with one another.
Winter is a season of two faces. One reveals a time of desolation and dormancy; the other, one of activity and specialization. Both are wonderful natural theater for those of us who choose to attend the show.