Text and photos by Barbara J. Saffir
Hibernation is for big, ol’ hairy bears—NOT humans. Bundle up and head outside to discover winter’s wonders!
It’s downright easy to spy our hometown Bald Eagles nesting in leaf-bare sycamores and other mammoth trees. And you might catch a sly Red Fox prancing through your neighborhood searching for his Valentine. Their breeding season peaks in late January. If you peer a bit more closely, you can also eyeball our many other winter visitors, like perky Ruby-crowned Kinglets popping up their crowns as these curious critters land near you to say hello. And if you learn where to look, your eyes will reveal one of our planet’s wackiest wildflowers, self-heated Skunk Cabbage that resembles a curvy chartreuse and plum-colored Georgia O’Keefe painting on the outside and a coronavirus-like ball on the inside during its flowering stage. (Hint: They thrive by mucky creeks.) These brumal miracles could even transform a winter loather into a winter lover.
Gobs of “snowbirds” choose Virginia as their Miami Beach. As a wildlife photographer, my personal favorites include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (no, it’s not a cartoon character), White-throated Sparrows (they sometimes sound like computers), Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Dark-eyed Juncos. I also adore wintering waterfowl like Canvasback Ducks with vampire-red eyes, ballerina-graceful Tundra Swans, chunky Snow Geese, and feisty American Wigeon Ducks with green-striped heads and squeaky voices.
You can find the general location of these birds with Cornell University’s eBird website and free mobile app and use it to alert you to rarities, like teensy but tough Rufous Hummingbirds, which are increasingly more common winter wanderers. You can pinpoint birds, critters, and plants with the iNaturalist website and free mobile app by National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences.
You’ll know you’ve stumbled upon a Sapsucker if you hear a nasal mewing and spot trees with perfect rows of round or rectangular holes. Itsy-bitsy Golden-crowned Kinglets might flit down beside you to show off their sunflower-yellow crests. These and many other birds hang out in area forests or at the forest edge, especially if it bumps into a meadow. It doesn’t hurt if there’s a creek, a waterfall, a bird bath, or another water source nearby. In Northern Virginia and throughout the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), you’re never more than a mile from a “birdy” park or other public land. Winter ducks—including Scaup, Ruddy, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and Ring-neck—even promenade around the pond at Constitution Gardens on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol. And as long as you’re crossing the Potomac River, head to Gunner’s Lake in Germantown for a cornucopia of dazzling ducks.
In the DMV, eagles and owls both nest during the winter. You might notice Ma and Pa Bald Eagle flying in with new branches to spiff up their massive nests in early winter and sitting on their eggs by February. Both of these big nesters live along the Potomac River in Arlington near Spout Run and at Alexandria’s Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. To find dozens of eagles in Northern Virginia, consult the unparalleled Center for Conservation Biology’s eagle nest map. Just don’t venture closer than 660 feet to an active nest or the feds might swoop in to bust you since eagles are highly protected by federal laws.
Owls aren’t quite as easy to see. But at Dyke Marsh, you might glimpse Barred Owls “honeymooning” in the winter. Babies come a bit later. Depending on the weather, Virginia’s Great Horned Owls typically hatch by late winter or early spring. They have recently nested at Fort C. F. Smith Park in Arlington and at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge.
Barred Owls also parade around “must-see” Huntley Meadows Park. In the winter the owls are joined by their country cousins, pint-sized Brown Creepers (with two-toned curved beaks) that spiral upward around frigid tree trunks. Northern Pintail ducks dabble for dinner along the boardwalk of Huntley’s locally famous wetland. If you’re lucky, you might spy a Common Muskrat chomping on its leafy green dinner or see a playful North American River Otter. Visit late in the day if you’re eager for Beavers. In late February and early March, American Woodcocks with their Pinocchio-sized beaks lure mates with buzzing sounds and spiral “sky dances.”
Some parks, like Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Chantilly, hang bird feeders, which make it even easier to gawk at beautiful birds close-up. And Arlington’s Long Branch Nature Center is now likely the most dependable place in the United States to see Southern Flying Squirrels up close. It offers a few public programs during the winter.
But you don’t have to visit those hotspots for birds, blooms, or beasts. Just trek anywhere along the thousands of miles of public trails in the DMV. Stop often to look and listen for sights (especially movement) and sounds of life. You might encounter rascally Raccoons, acrobatic Eastern Gray Squirrels (and maybe some white and black morphs), White-tailed Deer, and perhaps even a Virginia Opossum, with a whopping 50 teeth, the most teeth of any wild mammal in North America and North America’s sole marsupial with its kangaroo-like pouch. By late winter, you may hear the deafening, high-pitched wailing from a hidden brigade of thumbnail-sized Spring Peeper Frogs introducing themselves to their mates.
Besides just evergreen trees and shrubs, Virginia’s forests are splattered with other greenery all winter. Clumps of American Mistletoe cling to bare trees. This parasitic plant’s white berries may poison humans but yield a yummy snack for Cedar Waxwings and other crayon-colored birds. Tropical-looking Christmas ferns spill over rocks with dark emerald green fronds. Plant-like lichens light up trees and rocks with a light-green, yellow-green, and green-gray palette. Pincushion, brocade, and a tapestry of other mosses form a spongy green oasis on the ground suitable for leprechauns and other fairies. Invasive vines, such as English Ivy, wind their way up trees. The birds and critters that use them can’t know that the gnarly vines are choking the trees to death. Pint-size Partridge-berry plants (a Virginia Native Plant Society “Wildflower of the Year”) and Spotted Wintergreen plants also decorate the drab dirt. Summer-blooming Cranefly Orchids stand out with two-tone leaves—green on top and cranberry-colored underneath.
Native berry-like “drupes” (fruits), and seeds also brighten the winter woods and gardens. The birds will help point out their fave eye-candy seeds and drupes, like brick-red Staghorn Sumac, sometimes spotted with a woodpecker dangling underneath. Woodpeckers are also fond of the Poison Ivy drupes that often cause an allergic reaction in humans. Humans won’t need help finding the shiny-red drupes of American Holly, beaming purple Beautyberry, salmon-colored Coralberry, regal-red Winterberry, red-orange fruits of native Coral Honeysuckle, and rosy-red rose hips from Virginia’s native Swamp Rose.
And don’t forget to look in your own backyard for wintry wonders. You’ll likely find a super-model bird: a fiery-red male Northern Cardinal with an orange beak, kinetic crest, and a black Zorro mask. Cardinals are considered one of the most beautiful birds in the entire world. These living ornaments, which often adorn Christmas cards, are one of our America’s—and Virginia’s—most cherished winter wonders.
So, grab your cardinal-red scarf and gloves and go exploring for your own winter wonders. The only thing you likely won’t stumble upon is a big ol’ hairy bear!