By Jody Sackett, Borough of Rumson, NJ – Environmental Commission
Winter’s weak sunlight and cold days have not quite given way to vibrant spring sunshine and warmth. We’re in that grey netherworld between seasons, waiting for the vernal equinox but still looking longingly at the inviting TV and soft couch. So when you or the kids get as restless as a feral cat, it’s the perfect season to go outside for an Awe Walk. You can do this anywhere (your backyard or a park), for any amount of time, with family or alone. It’s a unique and free opportunity to immerse ourselves in nature, while mindfully grasping the awe-inspiring world around us. Being in nature restores cognitive function as it reduces stress, and this is a golden opportunity to get exercise while learning about wildlife. Sort of like a giant educational scavenger hunt.
It’s not spring yet…nothing’s going on, you say? Our local wildlife is still here, just a bit hidden. Here are a few clues on how to find the animals on your Awe Walk. No headphones please, just tune in to the sounds of nature around you.
- Birds Some birds migrate, like our osprey and hummingbirds; and soon it will be time for them to come back north. Osprey will return in mid-March, and hummingbirds in late April or May. But many other species are still here right now, hopping and flying around. They’re searching for hidden insects in dead leaves and bug eggs under the bark, or hunting for abandoned seeds. Birds shelter in shrubs and trees all around us; to find them, listen for calls, look for tiny footprints, or carefully search the dense evergreen bushes for their presence. These little creatures don’t freeze because they keep warm by fluffing feathers to increase insulation, shivering to build body heat, or cuddling together to share body warmth. Birds also pack on weight during fall and preen feathers using body oil to waterproof themselves. Try a birding app like iNaturalist or Merlin to identify the birds you see. Keep the smartphone app handy, since those migrating birds are returning home soon for spring.
- Deer There are plenty of white-tailed deer around, searching for food or congregating together to share body heat. They survive winter by increasing fat layers, getting thicker winter fur undercoats, and darker outer fur that absorbs more sunlight to trap warmth. Deer also have oil-producing skin glands to make their fur water-repellent. Use your Awe Walk to spy on them and look for clues as to where they are. Deer are browsers so look for nibbled foliage up to 5’ high, tracks in soft earth, flattened grasses where they sleep together, and scat (poop). Since they’re less active in cold weather to reduce metabolism and save energy, you’ll surely find them. And when spring hits, you’ll find them happily munching the new green shoots.
- Squirrels Go for a short Awe Walk in your yard now to look for gray squirrels. They semi-hibernate in their tree nests and dens during the really cold spells but emerge during warmer weather to check their multiple food hoards. In the fall, squirrels gather nuts, seeds, berries, and insects to bury in underground caches all around their nests. Winter’s the time to dig and eat until spring bursts forth.
- Rabbits Take an Awe Walk at dawn or dusk to see bunnies; that’s when they’re most active in the leafless season because the muted light helps hide them from predators. Rabbits don’t hibernate but live in underground grass-lined warren tunnels or rock piles or hollow logs. They’ll hide in bushes and under droopy evergreens, which provide protection and food. Bunnies love to eat twigs, tall grasses, conifer needles, plants, insects or even re-ingest their own scat if food is scarce. Since rabbits conserve energy by moving less in chilly weather, you’ve got good odds of finding them if you search for clipped twigs or gnawed bark on woody plants.
- Marine Animals Visit Sandy Hook for your Awe Walk to see the large harbor seals coming here from Massachusetts and Maine for the winter. Go at low tide when you can see them resting on rock jetties while digesting their food. Don’t get too close, as the seals need to rest; instead, use binoculars to watch their antics. The seals will head back north as March warms up, so don’t delay on this one. While you’re there, listen for loud non-migrating seagulls and honking Canada geese. We have local geese who live here year-round and migrating geese visitors too. They all stay warm in cold weather by balancing on one leg to keep the other enfolded and cozy, and tuck their beaks into back feathers to keep the bills warm while breathing heated air. Follow their tracks in the sand to see what they’ve been up to. Awesome.
- Should we feed the animals? Animals use their fat stores to get through winter, but food supplies can get scarce over a long season until spring really gets going. If you want to help backyard wildlife, the best approach is to simply let your yard go wild in autumn; dead leaves hide tasty insects, the seedheads attract feeders, and the brush provides shelter. Please don’t feed deer high-energy food like shelled corn; it will make them sick since it changes the pH of their stomachs and they can’t digest it. Backyard bird feeders are a marvelously simple way to attract birds and provide supplemental food for them and small mammals. Suet works well for insect-feeding birds like starlings, jays, woodpeckers, and chickadees. And everyone loves those peanut butter-and-seed-coated pine cones kids make for seed-eating birds like cardinals, finches, and sparrows. Since wildlife may come to depend on you for bird feeder food, make sure you not only like having the animals in your yard but also that you are willing to keep feeding them until spring provides fresh seeds and insects hatch out.
An Awe Walk immerses you in the joy of nature, floods your senses with quiet amazement, and turns off the negative mental feedback loop. You will be wiser and calmer. Plus you get steps. Don’t give in to the dark side this season – enjoy nature’s quiet gift and celebrate the awe in our world.
Jody Sackett has been an environmentalist all her life. She graduated from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania with a BS in Aquatic Environments, and has a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences from the Ohio University. While working full-time for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, she attended law school and earned a Juris Doctor degree; she is licensed to practice law in Ohio and NJ. She has worked in municipal and state governments, as well as an Environmental Attorney for the local law firm of Giordano, Halleran, & Ciesla. Changing gears to promote marine science and environmental education, she now works for the NJ Sea Grant Consortium as an educator and program administrator as well as serving on the Borough of Rumson – Environmental Commission. Jody has lived in Rumson for over 28 years with her husband Ray, and they have two children, Ethan and Julianne.