Delaware News

A walk in the park

Brief respite from chill can't fool nature


Every January, when the frenetic pace of activity that surrounds the holidays has died down, I do two things. First, I breathe and feel thankful for the quiet month ahead of me. Second -- and pretty much simultaneously -- I start planning for spring.

I notice the downspout that needs to be repaired, the patio furniture that should be cleaned, and the barren flowerbeds just begging for some color. I become antsy, ready for action in areas where no action can yet be taken. (I know ... I could be cleaning my closets, but that can be done anytime, right?) It's the outdoor work that is calling me, so I respond by going for a walk in the park.

Now, if the day had been cold and snowy, I think my mind would have settled down into winter mode with the understanding that spring work has to wait. But, of course, the day of my walk is an unseasonable 60-plus degrees and downright spring-like.

However, it is not spring, and Mother Nature knows it.

The snow is mostly gone, but my outing at Char-Mar Ridge Preserve on this warm Saturday bears most of the hallmarks of a winter walk. I hear a few birds calling: cardinals and goldfinches and some other of the usual winter residents. They are not singing, but only calling out their location, or maybe notifying others of a food sighting or a nearby predator.

It will be a while yet before birds fill the woods and fields with their elaborate spring songs as they try to attract mates or establish their territories. Still, the occasional winter bird call is welcome during my quiet walk.

I hear some rustling in the underbrush, probably made by tree squirrels. Unlike their ground-squirrel cousins that hibernate (chipmunks, for example), tree squirrels will leave their leafy nests on winter days to return to the caches of nuts and other food they stored during autumn's abundance. The squirrels keep their motion to a minimum, conserving energy, before they quickly retreat to their nests. There is no springtime scampering today.

It is quiet, also, on the pond; I see nothing at all happening as I stand in the wildlife blind and gaze over the frozen expanse, noting the little bit of ice-melt along the edges. The partially submerged logs near the shore have been abandoned by the painted turtles that, during the summer, climb on them for a sunbath.

A noisy gaggle of Canada geese break the general silence; their honk-honks briefly reverberate through the woods, no doubt coming from nearby Hoover Reservoir or an inlet that abuts the park.

It used to be that geese flew south from Ohio for the winter; in fact, the old adages still say they do. But as water stays open year-round, many geese stay the winter in central Ohio. We still see the "V" formations of migrating geese, but many of the flights I notice in the winter consist of a solitary goose, flying from pond to lake and back again.

In a moment, the rustle of dried leaves on a beech tree, moving in the gentle breeze, brings my attention to the paucity of foliage in this mostly deciduous woodland. The uniformly brown, black and gray winter woods lacks the vibrancy of spring, with the drab colors broken up only by the occasional green boughs of the white pine. A closer look at a tree branch underlines the fact that we are in the dead of winter; the leaf buds are there, but the little leaf embryos are hidden behind a protective hard covering. Buds usually will not burst out through this scale during a January thaw, ensuring leaf survival when the true spring warmth arrives. Now, the twigs are bare and cold, holding only the promise of leaves that will arrive much later.

I finish my walk listening to the water rush quickly along the many little creeks and streamlets in the park, the result of snowmelt and the heavy rains from the day before.

However, the sound of the water and the 60-degree day no longer fool me. The evidence I've seen in the park, provided by nature, is keeping me grounded in winter and the present day.