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Winter’s track is beyond your window

By Sandy Quadros Bowles

The couch can be a tempting place to spend the cold winter.

But there’s plenty to see and enjoy in central Massachusetts beyond the comforts of your living room.

Wildlife viewing should not be limited to warmer weather, nature enthusiasts advise. All four seasons offer the chance to observe, says Viola Bramel, park ranger at West Hill Dam in Uxbridge.

Winter brings its own serene beauty, Ms. Bramel said. “Nature’s there, the outdoors is there. Come out and have an adventure.’’

Marion E. Larson, chief of information and education at Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, agrees, when she says, “Being outdoors in the winter is a ‘cool’ way to connect with nature and have fun with friends and family.’’

Some people worry how animals will cope in the rugged winter conditions. But wildlife in Massachusetts has adapted over thousands of years to cope with harsh winter weather, including deep snow, cold temperatures, and high winds, according to information provided by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Unlike humans, many animals that are active in winter have extra layers of fur to keep them more comfortable in winter.

But, like humans, animals require food, water and shelter. Find sources for those activities and “that’s where you’ll find the animals,’’ Ms. Bramel said.

Visit the areas where the animals are likely to be active, such as open meadows or waterways—and be patient, wildlife experts advise.

Wildlife tends to be most active around sunrise and sunset, Ms. Bramel said. She recommends spending time in nature at these times for the best opportunities for wildlife viewing.

River otters, for example, have been seen romping in the waterways at the dam. She has seen an otter with her young, an enchanting sight.

Coyotes are also a common nighttime visitor, she said. “We have coyote sightings every night.” At night, the packs of coyotes will feed, with one animal often serving as “sentry’’ to keep the others safe.

Red fox have also been seen near the office at the West Hill Dam, not far from the main road, while grey fox tend to go deeper into the woods, she said.

Trek or track? Photo courtesy Viola Bramel, West Hill Dam.

And the white-tailed deer at the dam create especially beautiful sights at the dam, silhouetted against the snow. One frosty morning, she observed deer “with steam coming out of their nostrils.’’

One advantage that winter provides is the snow cover, that can provide permanent record of the comings and goings of wildlife.

Deer, for example, are likely in the area if you observe a deer bed in the snow, which has been hollowed out by the body heat of the animal as it hunkers down.

Notice an area of snow torn up with leaves in the vicinity? That’s a potential sign that deer have been on the prowl for acorns.

Or it could be a sign of wild turkey, which also scavenge for acorns throughout the winter, Larson said.

Some wildlife can be heard as well as seen. Owls can cough up, perhaps unappetizing, but nevertheless highly informative, greyish pellets that include fur and bone near areas where they are roosting. White wash on trees, signs of their body waste, are another indication that owls are nearby.

Deer photo courtesy Mass Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

Wildlife also leaves trails in the form of tracks that make winter nature viewing especially interesting, Ms. Larson said.

“Follow tracks to see what story might be developing,’’ she said. “Rabbit, squirrel, tiny mouse tracks … and along open water streams or river banks, you might see an otter slide mark.’’

Don’t forget to look up as well, she advised. “Look at dead standing trees for holes drilled by woodpeckers,’’ Larson said.

Birding may not be generally considered a winter activity; but, with the spring visitors not yet in the area, this is a good time to observe common resident birds such as chickadees, blue jays, crows, woodpeckers, red tailed hawks, and even eagles, Larson said.

If there is any running, open water, possible waterfowl can be observed, such as ducks and geese and even swans—if there is a “little bit of active water,’’ Ms. Bramel said.

This waterfowl also provides a food source for bald eagles during the winter, according to Massachusetts Audubon Society (although the eagles eat fish when there’s open water). During the winter, the birds will congregate around unfrozen coastal waters, large lakes and major river streams.

In addition to seeing and hearing birds, look for specific telltale signs that they might be in the area.

Large oblong-shaped holes with big chips at the base of the tree have been drilled by the largest, nearly crow-sized woodpecker: the pileated woodpecker.

Small round holes the diameter of a pencil (all in neat rows) are from another woodpecker, the yellow bellied sapsucker. Other round holes, 2-3 inches in diameter, are most likely pecked out by downy and hairy woodpeckers, Larson said.

So there’s plenty to explore in the colder months, with no pesky bug spray needed.

But getting out in the winter requires planning. “As the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices,’’ Larson said.

Dress in layers of fleece or wool, wear warm, sturdy boots and ensure that your final outer layer provides wind protection—such as rain or wind pants and jacket, Larson said.

Finalize your outfit with a scarf or face mask, she said. Sunglasses or clear safety glasses can also provide vital wind protection.

And don’t forget solid, warm footwear. Winter can bring ice as well as snow.

Ms. Bramel suggests wearing insulated boots, perhaps with “crampons,’’ a traction device attached to footwear that improves snow and ice mobility.  

Carry a water source, energy bars and a way to make a phone call.

By being prepared for the winter weather conditions, you can prepare yourself for potentially stunning—and certainly intriguing—sights.

“Every season has a beauty all its own,’’ said Ms. Bramel. “Who needs to be inside?”

Wondering where to view wildlife? Check out this link: