A Tiny Winter Tour

The wind seems to have icy fingers that search for any break in my clothing. It whistles down my neck and up my sleeves. It searches for my loose pant leg and hunts for bare skin.

It is hard to imagine that there is life flourishing in this frozen landscape, but it’s there for those brave enough to look. A walk through the winter always yields unexpected life.

I was watching a Canada goose struggle across an ice stricken pond when I saw a moving blob in the snow at my feet. I crouched down to investigate and found two insects in a rather intimate position in the snow.

These caddisflies did not seem to mind the snow as they mated and presumably flew down to the still unfrozen creek to lay eggs. The tiny larva will live underwater and build a tiny tube around itself out of tiny rocks or plants. It will crawl through the water hidden in this tube until it is time for it to transform into a winged fly next year.

I am always amazed by the huge number of spiders that is out and about on the snow. We found 12 of them on a 10-foot stretch of trail earlier this year. Spiders are a great indication that there is a lot of unseen life out there. These tiny spiders must eat something in the snow or just under it. With so many spiders out hunting, there must be a many more things out there that I am not noticing.

Insects are more common in winter than we think. There are caterpillars that can be found crawling across the snow and on tree branches. In fact, they are so common in winter that one bird, the golden-crowned kinglet, eats almost exclusively caterpillars in the wintertime.

There is also a winter moth that lays its eggs in the wintertime. There are a couple of butterflies that are known to fly around on warm winter days, including the mourning cloak butterfly. I’ve even seen huge masses of ladybugs hiding under the leaves, just waiting for spring to come.

Every insect that I find in winter is a reminder that every day is a little bit longer and brings us a little bit closer to the warm muddy days of spring. The first precious bits of spring flowers are even showing up already.

Tiny flowers called spring beauties are preparing for the warm weather under the leaves. Their tiny leaves have uncurled and little flower buds are hidden underneath, just waiting for a few long warm days so they rise up from under the leaves like rays of pink sunshine in the woods. Skunk Cabbage, long known as the first spring flowers, sent tightly wrapped spikes of leaves up as far back as last September. Their flowers won’t wait for spring; they’ll just melt their way through the snow in February or March.

Every season is special in some way. Some say that winter is even more special when it is over, but there are amazing things for people to see outside, even if it looks like there is nothing there at all.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit land trust and watershed education organization that works to protect water quality through the conservation of lands that store, filter and deliver clean water to the county’s lakes, streams and wells. Its 2014 membership campaign is currently underway. To donate, sign up to receive CWC’s e-news or for more information on CWC’s programs and activities, visit chautauquawatershed.org.