By Andrew Oost, Natural Areas Team Leader
Wintertime can be deceiving in Kentucky. While the forests and fields appear to lie quietly dormant, in reality a compelling exhibition of nature is occurring all around us.
As winter approaches, the activity of the seasons slows and becomes quieter; we enter into a perfect time for reflection on the cycles of the natural world.
While the wispy yellow petals of witch hazel may persist into the early winter, and the earliest flowers of phlox or harbinger of spring may emerge in the waning of the season, the vast majority of flora lies dormant in the winter months.
In the moss- and lichen-covered rocks, brilliant blue skies or fog-shrouded forest, the colors are muted, but they are there. Signs of life exist in the winter wilderness, and are perhaps all the more beautiful for their concealment.
While most flora tend to lie dormant in the winter, the same cannot be said for a great array of our fauna. Many birds migrate south for the winter months, but the familiar sights and sounds of robins, blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals and owls can be seen and heard throughout the winter months. A stocked bird-feeder is sure to be appreciated by our year-round avian residents, and makes for fascinating bird-watching during the colder months.
Amphibians, reptiles and many mammal species go into hibernation during winter, taking up refuge in dens, burrows, caves and hollow trees. Some fauna, such as deer, coyote, foxes and rabbits, do not go into hibernation, but instead remain active throughout the winter. Winter is one of the best times to see such animals thanks to the lack of foliage that camouflages them in the warmer months.
The lack of foliage not only allows us to see animals that are normally hidden, but it also reveals the topography of the land in a way that is disguised in the summer. Gullies and swales, drainages and slopes, caves and crevasses are all waiting to be discovered. These topographical features are laid bare when the leaves fall, and the land can be observed and traversed in a way only possible in the wintertime.
An often overlooked, but critically important winter activity goes mostly unseen on the forest floor, among the detritus of fallen leaves, bark, twigs and needles. This fallen organic material forms an ecosystem unto itself, harboring nutrients, beneficial bacteria and habitat for a vast assortment of life. It is perhaps in this “litter” of the forest where we can most easily observe the cyclical nature of life, wherein the death of the previous year’s vegetation quite literally becomes the key to life for the next generation of growth.
Maybe the most important, and overlooked, aspect of winter is the sense of silence and solitude that exists most tangibly in these months. The rustling of leaves in the icy wind, the ripple of the stream through ice-tinged waters, the call of a bird with the fortitude to weather the barren season, the rays of early morning sunlight reflecting off frost-blanketed branches are all treasures of nature that emerge in the winter.
Take some time to explore our winter landscapes. The payoff is subtle, but incredibly rewarding.
When winter winds are piercing chill,
And through the hawthorn blows the gale,
With solemn feet I tread the hill,
That overbrows the lonely vale…
Chill airs and wintry winds! my ear
Has grown familiar with your song;
I hear it in the opening year,
I listen, and it cheers me long.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
EXPLORE LOUISVILLE THROUGH A WINTER HIKE:
- Jefferson Memorial Forest — Orange Trail: A two-mile loop trail through a scenic section of the forest, with abundant evergreen vegetation.
- The Parklands of Floyds Fork — Coppiced Woods Trail: A 1.8-mile loop through a unique “coppiced” woods, featuring wonderful views from a bluff above Floyds Fork.
- Iroquois Park: Hike one of the trails or paved paths uphill to some of the most spectacular views in Jefferson County.
- Clifty Falls State Park — Trail #7: Wait until a freeze to visit this gem of a state park near Madison, Ind., and you may have the pleasure of seeing numerous frozen waterfalls. This 1.25-mile trail will take you to a beautiful overlook of Clifty Falls.
- Harrods Creek Park — Harrods Creek Trail: Head to Prospect for a newly opened trail that follows Harrods Creek, framed by impressive rock outcroppings.
- Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest: A variety of beautiful trails are available at Bernheim, from the ½-mile Fire Tower Loop to the 13.3-mile Millennium Trail.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork is one of the nation’s largest new urban parks projects. Under construction now and opening in phases from 2013 to 2015, it is a system of four new parks, connected by a park drive, world-class trail system and the Louisville Loop. 21st Century Parks is the nonprofit responsible for the development and long-term management of The Parklands. Andrew Oost is a member of The Parklands Natural Areas Team.
This article appeared in the Courier-Journal Green Spaces section on 1/5/2013. Read the full article on the Courier’s site by clicking here.
About the Author
Andrew joined the 21st Century Parks team in 2012 as the Natural Areas Team Leader, responsible for the restoration and maintenance of the woodlands, meadows and trail system within the park and worked on The Parklands project until February 2015. Previously Andrew worked for Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy, NativeScapes, Inc., and the National Park Service, at both Rocky Mountain National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. He graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Geography.