It’s sometimes difficult to occupy yourself in the woods in the early days of winter beyond scurrying briskly enough to stay warm. Especially here, where the snows don’t come until January and usually don’t stick for more than a few days anyway. Long Island seems to be the pivot of the winter temperature pendulum so far this year.
But the woods do offer a lot in January, despite the frozen earth and the frosty nostrils. The leaves that hide everything in the summer have disappeared, revealing many of the forest’s secrets. One trick to enjoying January, I’ve found, is to become a connoisseur of holes.
Like these for example:
There’s a path I walk nearly every day at lunch, and after the leaves dropped in the fall, I started noticing burrows and holes and such all over the place. I’m always looking for stuff like this — evidence of the unseen life that goes on between human interruptions. The first hole is about the diameter of a dodgeball, but it’s on the far side of a deep creek from my trail. I haven’t yet been able to examine it closely, but I suspected for a while that it might be used by an otter. I was very hopeful about my otter hypothesis, and diligently examined all the scat I found for evidence in favor of otters. Alas, I wasted a lot of time dissecting raccoon poop, to no avail. But it may house an otter someday…
I think the second hole belongs to a black racer snake. But don’t tell my mom. I’ll let you know if I see him in the spring.
There are other sorts of holes, too:
The hurricanes of the past two years (Irene and Sandy — excuse me, Tropical Storms for the sticklers) really tore up Long Island’s natural spaces, but not necessarily for the worse. The pitch pines that cover much of the island are hearty enough to resist most saltwater damage, and can regrow entire trees from leftover roots. If the tree is tilted by heavy winds, it often will continue to live for years, listing like a schooner mast, but otherwise content. Trees that do fall leave openings in the canopy for the sun to shine through, holes for saplings to grow into.
But not every dead tree falls, and the ones that died standing in this patch of woods have been converted to woodpecker condos. The woodpeckers went to town on these trees, drilling as many as 8 holes in each bole. They dig out new ones with each nesting season, leaving behind neighborhoods of cozy homes for other creatures to use.
One hole I know is occupied by a squirrel (who happened to be snoozing the freezing day I shot these pics), and I examine every other hole I find in case a resident screech owl happens to be sunning herself when I pass. Lots of songbirds use abandoned woodpecker holes for their own nests, and with the explosion of available tree skeletons, I’m hoping this patch sees an explosion of nesting songbirds over the next few years. Fingers crossed!
Woodpecker holes can mean life or death for tiny birds that spend the winter here. Flocks of birds huddle together in the shelter of woodpecker holes to save as much heat energy as they can overnight, until the sun rises enough to light their furious hunt for food.
Where do you sleep when it’s cold, Winter Wren?
Other sorts of advantageous holes occur in January too: sightline holes stretching deep into the trees where you once were blocked by fruitful, 6-foot blueberry bushes. You might, perhaps, spy a deer’s flag tail fleeing your advance.
I admit, I may be so relieved just to be back on my feet in the woods that I’m inventing reasons to get out there despite the cold. But the chances of seeing wildlife seem to be better in the winter overall, so I’ll be out every day I can be, no matter how silly I look staring at holes. What are you seeing in your open winter woods?