One of the great joys about living in Madison is the opportunity to get outside and enjoy nature, year round, even if you live in the heart of the city. One way to do that is to visit the UW Arboretum. Every Sunday there are two nature walks, one for adults, and one for families (that is, kid-friendly.) They may take off a Sunday around Thanksgiving or Christmas, but other than that, they run them in all weather and seasons.*
The last walk I went on was a couple two Sundays ago, and it was sunny with calm winds, so despite the temperature in the 20s, it was quite enjoyable to be outside. These walks give me a reason to get my butt out of the house on a wintery Sunday, when it is far too easy to hang around indoors all day. If there is snow, I'm eager to XC ski or snowshoe, but when there's no fresh snow, it's nice to have someone willing to lead a walk.
The topics of these walks vary quite a bit. Some that I have attended were focused on glacial features, prairie plants, spring ephemerals, Indian mounds, fungi and mushrooms, fall prairie plants, and wetland environments. Some of the naturalists are experts on birds, others on plants, and others on insects, but all have a wide variety of interests and knowledge, and they try to answer questions as best they can. The people going along on the hikes often can answer the questions as well, since these hikes tend to attract people generally interested in the natural environment.
The most recent hike was much less focused on a particular topic, and we went only a short distance to Longnecker Gardens to generally check out winter conditions. We looked at some animal tracks, talked about the birds and animals that can be seen in winter, and kept an eye out for anything else that happened or came by. Winter is a great time to get to know trees by their shape, since most are bare of leaves and it is very easy to see the branch structure. Unless you are used to looking at trees, you tend to think of evergreens as conical, and other trees as having a straight, thick trunk branches splitting off and getting smaller as you go up. We sort of think of a tree as being a stick with a fluffy crown of leaves. That's how kids draw trees, right?
But from across an open area like Longnecker Woods, and without the leaves, you can see the structure of the trees, and see how some are tall and skinny, others a more chaotic jumble of branch sizes, and still others having multiple trunks coming from the ground.
You can also see the birds and animals in the trees much more easily. Red tail hawks are very common in the Arb, and they love to hunt the snowy areas with only scattered trees. Twice we say a hawk swoop down from a tall tree along the edge of the gardens, but we didn't see wither one catch anything. It also seems to be easier to hear the bird calls, since there is less ambient noise in winter, and the sound isn't muffled by the leaves. While our guide was talking, I kept hearing a bird calling over the ridge, but of course, it stopped as soon as I asked if anyone could identify it.
But we did get a great treat a few minutes later, when a call came ringing over the snow from the edge of the forest. It was almost like a laughing sound, and as a matter of fact, some humans laughed on the other side of the gardens just after the bird had finished calling. They sounded like they were echoing the bird's call. I had heard the call before, but couldn't quite place it. From the volume and distance, we figured it was a pretty good sized bird, not a chickadee or nuthatch-sized. “I think that might be a woodpecker of some sort.”, I suggested. Finally, one of our group spotted something up in one of the tallest trees on the forest edge. With the small binoculars our guide had in his pouch, we took a look. Red head, definitely woodpecker-shaped. It was a pileated woodpecker!
So despite the winter, I recommend the Arboretum walks, whether you go on the longer adult walks or the shorter family walks. I have never failed to learn something, and it's just nice to be outside in the woods with a few like-minded souls.
* Our guide said that the two weather conditions that will cancel the walks are lightening, and temperatures significantly below zero plus wind. He said that earlier this year he took a walk with two brave souls when the temperature was around 40 degrees, and there was horizontal, pouring rain. He said they had a great time just watching things blowing around out on Curtis Prairie.