Winter Weary? Take A Cue From Wild Things
WHEELING — Molly Check gets it. Sure, she may be an outdoor enthusiast to the point she is director of the Schrader Environmental Education Center. But, winter is still winter, gray is still gray and cold is just cold.
“I think that, as mammals — and, sometimes, we tend to forget that humans are animals, too — there’s a biological component to feeling a little more sluggish, a little more prone to pulling the blanket over us and hunkering down on the couch,” Check admitted.
But, lest Ohio Valley residents go all groundhog, she shared a number of tips gleaned from wild things to help put some pep in the rest of our winter steps.
SMART LIKE A FOX
Some animals make it through the winter by migrating to a warmer place, Check said, noting some human “snowbirds” do the same. Others — such as groundhogs — hibernate away all season.
But, it’s animals like foxes, deer and black bears (which hibernate but get active when the weather is good enough) that Check said probably have the most application to human life. “We have those animals that just stay active,” Check said. “Those are the ones we can take our cues from on those wintry days.”
Deer, for example, cope by growing a thicker coat and getting a move on, she said. Unless they are sleeping or hunkering down during a spell of particularly bad weather, they are moving, eating and generally staying active.
Check said she learned just how active another mammal, black bears, can be when she was working in the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania earlier in her career. On a winter day that was good for hiking, she and some fellow nature enthusiasts spent a glorious three hours following one such animal’s tracks.
“You can really find some crazy things … We saw where he had scratched his back on a tree and there was bear fur left behind,” Check said. Further along his trail, “he went out on the ice and tore into a beaver dam — they sometimes eat hibernating beavers.
“We saw where he broke through the ice and climbed back out,” Check continued. “We were convinced we were just a few moments behind him. He’d had all sorts of adventures.”
Check noted area residents who struggle with winter months might enjoy doing some tracking of one sort of another, as well.
While black bears do not live in the Ohio Valley in significant numbers, she said there are plenty of smaller mammals and birds to keep things interesting — especially on mornings after storms when many species are frantic for the food they need to cope with the cold.
“Even if you don’t get to see the animal,” she said, “you might cross their tracks and find out you’re not living that far away from them.”
Check noted that keeping an eye out for the two species of foxes — red and gray — that live in the area and are active all winter can be especially fun.
“They’re gorgeous,” Check said, noting a skin from a red fox on an educational display at the Schrader Center shows just how luxurious their winter coats can become. “Most people see the red fox because gray foxes tend to be more secretive and tend to be in the forest.”
In her lifetime, she’s spotted a red fox maybe 100 times, but has only seen the notably smaller gray fox three times. You never know, though, she added. Grey foxes can climb trees — meaning it sometimes pays to look up.
Or, at least look out the window — whether it’s at home or in the car.
Check said the vagaries of winter weather can bring unusual animals into view. Bad weather to the north, for example, can push down visitors like snowy owls. As they are adapted to open areas, Check said the massive white birds have a tendency to perch on a small rise in a field, making them easy to spot.
In December, when Check and other birders were counting individual birds and species as part of the annual National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a snowy owl was even seen at the Highlands.
As many birders call in their unusual finds to the center — official count or not — Check keeps records. She also maintains a personal count of bird species seen — beginning at zero each Jan. 1. As of last week, she was up to 22 species — a good start on trying to match or beat the 162 species she saw in all of 2021.
BIRD’S EYE VIEW
While most wildlife watchers aren’t able to rack up those kinds of numbers, Check said Schrader has a new birdy trick up its sleeve to help area residents combat the winter doldrums in a simpler way. A camera system purchased by the Brooks Bird Club will soon allow visitors to enjoy a magnified view of feeders at the center.
A large screen is already streaming bird activity from feeders stationed at Cornell University in New York, but Check said the view will imminently turn local. Visitors will then be able to pull up a chair and watch Schrader feeders directly or on the large screen.
On the weekend beginning with Feb. 18 — during the national Great Backyard Bird Count — visitors who can spare even 15 minutes can contribute to citizen science by maintaining a count of what they see at center feeders, she said.
Counters with home feeders are also welcome to contribute data, she added, noting there’s still time to begin a home feeding station.
Check suggested newbies begin with black oil sunflower seeds (a food that attracts a wide variety of bird species, including woodpeckers) and consider a platform feeder placed near shelter such as a tree or shrub. This kind of feeder, she explained, allows birds of all sizes to access food.
Feeding birds offers a helping hand that any species trying to make it through the winter can appreciate and can also perk up the remaining weeks of winter for people, she said, noting she has some 15 feeders that are stocked with seasonally appropriate food all year. (In the summer, she provides sweet treats such as nectar, oranges slices and grape jelly to hummingbirds and orioles.)
“The entertainment comes from the interactions of the birds … they really do seem to have personalities,” Check said. “I think that the more you observe wildlife — and birds are an easy place to start — you start to learn from them what nature has to teach you.”