It's not only the cold air that takes my breath away in snow-covered woods. It's the beauty as well ---wintry beauty that sparkles and shines and creates a glorious contrast between silvery snow and black tree bark, between sparkling icicles and blue shadows. There's not another sight in creation quite like it.

It's not only the cold air that takes my breath away in snow-covered woods. It's the beauty as well ---wintry beauty that sparkles and shines and creates a glorious contrast between silvery snow and black tree bark, between sparkling icicles and blue shadows. There's not another sight in creation quite like it.

For me, that beauty is reason enough to visit Preservation Parks in the winter. I've always loved just taking in -- breathing in -- the big picture. But a recent walk in the park at Hogback Ridge Preserve gave me another reason to love the snowy woods: I'm seeing wildlife, and signs of wildlife, everywhere.

Several weeks ago, before our recent snowfalls, the woods were drab brown and taupe. Other than the sight of some birds at the feeders, and the rustle of the leaves that indicated a squirrel -- or some other creature just as well camouflaged -- was nearby, there were few indications of wildlife.

Then the snow came, and the woods have come alive. Our park bird feeders are amazing. With their woodland sources of food buried in snow and ice, 50 and 60 birds at a time are converging on the feeders. Finches, sparrows, cardinals, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, chickadees and many others are jockeying for position, flying in and out as they look for an empty perch. These avian competitors flutter almost on the backs of the birds that have been lucky enough to find a place at the feeder. The motion is non-stop and mesmerizing.

The tracks of ground-feeding birds, such as towhees, form random patterns under the feeders; even if I don't see the birds now, I know from their tracks that they were here.

There are deer tracks outside my office window, and rows upon rows of tracks show the movement of many deer within the park. Tiny footprints - could they be from a mouse? - track up and over a log on the woodland floor.

I like to picture the little mice peeking out from their warm nests to make sure the winter weather is not too severe. Then -- like children relieved to be outside after being cooped up too long indoors -- the mice take off over brush and leaves, leaving their tiny, telltale tracks. I probably would have forgotten that mice don't hibernate if not for their tracks in the snow.

Animals are easier to spot, too, against a canvas of white. What earlier was just a rustle in the leaves becomes a gray squirrel. No longer able to blend in with its surroundings, it stands out in stark contrast to a brush pile covered with snow.

Bright male cardinals, while always stunning, are especially so in the snowy woods. Nature photographers have so often captured on film the showy red bird perched on a snow-laden pine branch, that the image is almost a cliché. I don't care; the sight thrills me every time.

The parks are alive in winter. Not all the animals are holed up in warm burrows; not all the birds have abandoned the Midwest for the season. It's a time to see beauty and joy in the season, as Robert Frost wrote in "Dust of Snow."

"The way a crow / shook down on me / the dust of snow / from a hemlock tree

Has given my heart / a change of mood / and saved some part / of a day I had rued."

Spring will come soon enough. Join us in the parks for several winter programs, scheduled over the next few weeks. There's an adult nature hike, our new Bird Quest program for teens and adults, and two studies of owls for preschoolers and children ages 6 to 12.

Please visit www.preservationparks.com for dates and times of all Preservation Parks programs and events, or call (740) 524-8600.

Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.

Sue

Hagan