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See how nature stays fit
Sometimes a winter walk is the best exercise

01/26/12



The snow, ice and cold might suggest that all is quiet in the woods, but there is plenty happening in the great outdoors in the wintertime.

There is birding potential in New Hampshire all year long, and you can check that out right from your back window. If you want to get some fresh air, you can look for birds and wildlife along open rivers and lakes. And now that there’s some snow on the ground, you can identify animal tracks and follow them, getting a glimpse into the animals’ travels.

A variety of bird species, as well as mammals, like coyote, deer and fisher, remain active all winter long. Particularly in the case of birds, people can spot a number of species right in their back yards. Woodland species are feeding in the forests, as well as at people’s bird feeders.

Deer, moose, fox, coyote, mink, squirrels and fisher are all active in the winter. Animals like woodchucks, chipmunks and, we hope, bears have disappeared in favor of hibernation at this time of year. Don’t expect to see wildlife like deer or coyotes if you’re outside — animals tend to know of people’s presence long before people are aware of a nearby animal. What people can do is identify animal tracks, and even follow them.
“If we get a little bit of snow, it’s wonderful to do tracking,” said Rebecca Suomala, of the New Hampshire Audubon Society. “You can see the signs where they’re active by the tracks they leave in the snow. There are a number of great places to go for tracking.”

Chase Wildlife Sanctuary in Hopkinton and the Deering Sanctuary are both great places to track animals, like rabbits, squirrels, fisher, coyote or fox. Abe Emerson Marsh in Candia and Ponemah Bog in Amherst are also good places. In the Nashua area, the Beaver Brook Association has a lot of land that makes for great places to go in the wintertime if you’re in search of signs of wildlife and tracking.

“If we get a little snow, it’s a great winter nature activity,” Suomala said.

“I think the most interesting thing to do when you’re following tracks is to try to figure out what the animal has been doing,” Suomala said.

Animals are often active at dawn and dusk or at night, so it can be difficult to see the animals. But following the tracks gives people a look into the animal’s world. If you’re following fox tracks, you might see where the fox pounced into the snow to try to catch a rodent, Suomala said.

“You can watch where it’s gone, what parts of the terrain it followed,” Suomala said. “Was it on a trail? Probably not. It was probably checking spots along the way looking for food.”

“You’re piecing together a little bit of a puzzle,” Suomala added. “What did they do? How did they behave? What were they looking for? It’s a chance you seldom get, even when you do see an animal, because when you see an animal, it sees you and it disappears. But the tracks don’t disappear. You get an idea of what it’s doing in nature, unaffected by you.”

Deer and moose are of course active at this time of year. Suomala said it’s fun to track deer because you can look for spots where they bed down, which would be marked by depressions in the snow.

If you are tracking, it’s likely you’d be off the trail, so bring a compass to help you stay aware of your whereabouts, or at least be able to follow your own tracks back to the trail. You need to be able to get back to where you started, Suomala said.

“The chances of coming upon the animal themselves — I never have,” Suomala said. “I’ve always only followed tracks. I’ve never been able to see the animal themselves. … I would expect the animal to see you before you ever see them.”

In the right habitat, trackers could spot bobcat tracks as well, though that wouldn’t be particularly common, Suomala said.

If it’s birds you’re after, New Hampshire has you covered, as feeders stay busy year-round.

Birders can look for two varieties of waxwings, cedar waxwings and a northern visitor, the Bohemian waxwing. Suomala said this time of year is about right for the Bohemian waxwing to show up. They like to eat fruit, so crab apple trees or a bush like winterberry might be a good place to watch for waxwings. Pine siskins, little brown birds, are also around in the winter, though they are more difficult to identify.

They aren’t common, but there have been a few reports of snowy owls so far this year, Suomala said. Common species like bluejays, northern cardinals and chickadees are also regular backyard visitors.

Silk Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Concord is a great place to see any potential winter wildlife along the trails, which begin at the McLane Center on Silk Farm Road. Oak Hill in Concord is another good spot to find wildlife, though the hike is uphill, making it a little more strenuous, Suomala said.

The Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn provides a nice opportunity for winter walking and birds. The Center features trails that go to Lake Massabesic and bird feeders near the Center itself. People can watch birds from inside the Center as they warm up after the walk, Suomala said. People would have a good chance of seeing winter birds, animal tracks in the woods, and birds on the water as long as it’s open.

In late December, there was still a lot of open water, and as long as the waterways remain unfrozen, there is good potential to spot ducks. Once the lake freezes over, the ducks will head out, Suomala said.

Any place where there is open water presents an opportunity to spot ducks and possibly wintering bald eagles. That includes any unfrozen parts of the Merrimack River from Nashua north past Concord. Bald eagles often spend time near dams, where the water tends to remain open. People spot bald eagles along the Merrimack River right off downtown Manchester. The eagles spend much of the winter flying up and down the river in search of food.

“Check out the river where it’s open,” Suomala said. “You might see something.”

If you’re looking for birds, bring a pair of binoculars, and of course, remember it’s cold during the winter — bring warm clothes and dress in layers. Don’t worry about being particularly quiet if you’re looking for birds; just make sure to keep your eyes and ears open, Suomala said.

Something people might not think of in the wintertime is plant identification. Bushes and trees can be identified by their buds. It’s a challenge, for sure, and a whole new set of knowledge. People may know trees and bushes by their leaves, but many enjoy learning how to figure out what is what from the buds, Suomala said. She has a love for birds, so birding tends to be her first focus, but she said she does enjoy looking at everything. There are plenty of resources to help people identify plants. In some cases, you may need a magnifying lens.

“It’s very fascinating,” Suomala said, adding that people can identify plants wherever they are. “It’s an opportunity to look at everything very easily. You can look at plants easily. You can watch the tracks. It tends to be a little quieter in the woods. You can absorb more and look more at the woods.”

If people don’t want to get outside in the winter to look at wildlife, they can still help out New Hampshire Audubon by taking part in the annual backyard bird winter survey, in which people identify and count birds in their yards from inside their homes. The survey takes place on Feb. 11 and Feb. 12. Visit www.nhaudubon.org. Call 224-9909.






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