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The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
Winter Discovery Walks
in Your Own Backyard
By Hannah Wilhelm

As winter arrives, cabin fever can begin to set in with a vengeance and days
spent curled up indoors begin to seem a little less enticing.  

When activities like skiing or snowshoeing are not an option for your family, try
a twenty minute walk outdoors in your neighborhood.  It’s a fun way to exercise
and restore everyone’s spirits, it deepens a child’s creativity and understanding
of nature, and it’s totally free!

Here are three ideas for winter discovery walks:

1. Mysteries to solve.

Look for something that seems intriguing, and investigate it by observing. For
example, walking near a salt marsh recently, I noticed an icy pool with a cluster
of black shapes like giant seeds in the middle: what were they?  Ducks?  I could
see the headline: “Maine temperatures reach record low, ducks found frozen

Just to check, I returned that afternoon and, with the tide out and the thin
covering of ice gone, some of the ducks were swimming in the same pool, and
another was flying along the ice. The ducks were fine!  

While we humans are walking around covered in layers of wool and polyester
fleece, ducks survive cold winters with fluffy down undercoats and have oil
glands that keep their feathers from getting wet.  When you see a duck with its
head tucked back nuzzling its tail, it is spreading oil onto its feathers.

2. Some things are easier to see in the winter.

The shape of a tree tells a story about its history. Did an animal nip off the top
bud long ago, creating a “Y” shape?  Were side branches trimmed to keep them
out of the way of power lines?   

Barbed wire embedded in a trunk suggests the tree was used as part of a
boundary fence at one time.  Look at the trees you find and make up a story
together about what has happened in the tree’s life.

3. Winter seeds and the animals that eat them.

Look for the remaining petals of hydrangeas and for seeds still clinging to trees
and shrubs. While not as showy as summer flowers, they can be just as
beautiful; winter textures ask us to pause a moment and notice.  

Look at nearby tracks to figure out who is eating the seeds.  Look for robins near
crabapple trees or ornamental shrubs with bright red berries. Robins? That’s
right. Robins can be opportunistic and some won’t migrate far if they can find
food nearby.  

There is so much to explore -- visit your summertime haunts to see how they are
different in winter.  Look for shapes in the icicles and snow banks and come
back again in a few days to see what changed while you were away!

Winter walks are small steps that can make a big difference in your health and
for your appreciation of northern New England’s natural wonders.  

For more ideas for winter adventures with your kids and for information on
upcoming community events, see “
Take it outside!

About the author: This column was submitted by Hannah Wilhelm, Maine Conservation
Corps Volunteer with the Biomonitoring Program at the Maine Department of
Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard
is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your environmental questions to infoDEP@maine.
gov or mail them to: In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta,
ME 04333.
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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