A Naturalist's Voice
Field notes by Jeff Cantrell
I believe even the folks who don’t care for snow, find themselves three days before Christmas wishing for a few inches of fluffy white precipitation. Perhaps there is Christmas Magic in those flurries mixed with twinkling lights and air full of holiday anticipation. I don’t know all the particulars, but flurries certainly give the season an added festive feel.
Natural colors seem to visually pop in the snow; at the bird feeders, the blue jays seem bluer and the male cardinal is aglow in crimson. Common wild animals like squirrels are bold and fluffed up in cold temperatures. Sometimes their guard hairs carry clumped snowflakes like holiday decorations. Ice crystals and flakes in their whiskers add to their facial expressions when calling on neighborhood bird feeders.
Snow on the ground persuades quail and rabbits to inhabit brushy cover. Rabbits will move about more in the moon shadows and the quail will rely on their covey mates to forage together and be vigilant for threats. I often find quail and a rabbit or two in the dogwood shrubs and blackberries along my farm’s driveway. Gray and silky dogwoods, although bare of leaves, are ideal winter shelter. While the weather stokes the voles, cotton rats and rabbits’ nighttime activities, some predators like otters and fox try their footing in the daytime drifts.
River otters are very smart mammals, and a sure sign of otter intelligence is their time given to simple pleasures of playtime. Otters running, frolicking and sliding in the slush are familiar exploits around Christmas time. If you are lucky, you might spot otters playing on frozen water surfaces at Schell Osage and Four Rivers Conservation Areas.
My experiences in wildlife observations draw me to the theory that snow brings red foxes out of their crepuscular and nocturnal habits. They sport a nice winter coat, insulating them well against the holiday season. Of course, it could be a matter of energy needs forcing a wild canine to search extended time for prey to eat. But I like to think it is taking advantage of the change in scenery, a special challenge and maybe the joy of the winter wonderland.
The joy extends into our homes as well, and we find ourselves connecting so many holiday adornments and traditions to the theme of nature. This is a special time for wonder and dreaming at the window, looking out and wondering “what is out there” and “how are the songbirds and perhaps reindeer doing?” Christmastime brings acts of kindness and gifts to family, friends and even pets. I love my hikes with the dogs! They sniff out everything and always stop in their tracks for the song of a white-throated sparrow.
The season gives us reason to be heartfelt thankful. And for us outdoor oriented people, it gives us a new view from the window and the trail. We like to get out as much as possible and put those Christmas presents of smartwool socks and Patagonia wear to good use. A good winter trek gives us the opportunity to experience the magic, and it all begins with the sound of crunch beneath our boots. It all reaffirms my belief, fresh snow makes everything beautiful. Enjoy the trail friends, embrace the season. It is a most wonderful time of year. Merry Christmas! - Jeff
Jeff Cantrell is an education consultant with MDC and technical adviser for MPF. He is also a member and mentor for the Chert Glades Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists. Our chapter participates in a monthly nature scavenger hunt, Naturalist by Numbers, with topics of interest presented by Jeff to get us outside, observing nature and learning about natural events.
Photography by Russel Kinerson and Ann Butts