Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Who says we have to spend all winter cooped up inside, seeking refuge from the snow and cold? Nature is calling – if only we stop and listen.

(McHenry Co. Conservation District photos)

It’s tempting to spend the frigid winter months indoors. Who doesn’t enjoy cozying up by the fire, reading a book or playing board games with the kids? But there’s a snowy world of wonder waiting right outside your door, and it’d be a shame to miss out on all that fresh air.

Our area is full of natural beauty, even in the wintertime. You can see cute and colorful birds at nearby parks and forest preserves, explore miles upon miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, and venture into a menagerie of prairies, forests and rivers. It’s a good excuse to stay active, relax or simply reconnect with nature.

Not only are there many ways to enjoy the winter landscape, but there are also heaps of amazing places to get some fresh air.

(Hickory Knolls Discovery Center photo)

Birds of a Feather

Winter is a prime time for birdwatching in the Chicago area. This region is a major fly-through for species migrating from Canada and the northern tundra. Some of them dig in for the winter; others use our area as a pit stop on the way to even warmer climates.

Their numbers abound in our region’s forest preserves, and one of the best places to see them is Volo Bog State Natural Area in Lake County, says Stacy Iwanicki, natural resources coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Juncos are my favorite,” Iwanicki says. “They’re little sparrow-like birds and they’re just adorable. They’re grey on top and white underneath, and they flash their white tail feathers like little skirts when they fly.”

You’ll occasionally see Northern Harriers, American Tree Sparrows, and Northern Shrikes at the bog, too, says Iwanicki. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a Shrike stalking the dense brush to prey on mice. Known as “butcher birds,” these carnivorous songbirds like to impale their prey on spiny plants or barbed wire.

The bog is a water-rich environment that encompasses more than 1,100 acres of wilderness. It’s accessible to the public every single day except Christmas and New Year’s. Guided bird walks with a naturalist depart once or twice a month.

While you canvass the trails or the boardwalk, keep an eye on the skies as you seek water-loving birds like Sandhill Cranes, which visit this area on their journey to Florida, Texas, Mexico and back home again.

“Some cranes don’t go very far, finding their ‘Florida’ as nearby as Indiana and southern Illinois,” says Iwanicki. “If there’s a bit of open water in the area in which to hang out overnight, and not too much snow covering the ground, our harvested farm fields offer quite the bounty of leftover crop seeds.”

The St. Charles Park District maintains more than 500 acres of restored habitat including Ferson Creek Fen, where you can spy eagles along the Fox River, and Hickory Knolls Natural Area, where you can see many bird species and learn more about nature at the park’s Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.

Pam Otto, outreach ambassador for the park district, has a few recommendations for birdwatching that work whether you’re an amateur or a seasoned pro.

“It’s always a good idea to maintain a respectful distance from wildlife, including birds,” says Otto. “Speaking in quiet tones or not at all is good, too, so as not to scare them. Extra flying around is going to cost them in terms of calories spent, so the less extra movement they have to make, the better. If you’re in a park or preserve, stay on the trails so you’re not flushing birds from grasses or shrubs where they’ve taken refuge.”

It’s also a good idea to avoid artificially luring birds, perhaps by playing recordings of other songbirds on your phone.

“For one thing, those songs are used by the birds during the breeding season, and since most birds in our area don’t breed in winter, the songs are going to be out of context for the birds,” says Otto. “We do have one species, the great horned owl, that breeds in January and February. Playing their calls in an effort to draw them into view is going to cause them undue stress and agitation, as they might think their territory has been invaded.”

A better way to lure birds is by making your backyard a welcoming environment. Native plants in your garden offer extra incentive in the form of food for birds.

“It’s the diverse ecosystems here at Volo Bog that attract this variety of birds,” says Iwanicki. “We’re finding that more people are planting native plants, which helps. And keep your leaves. Don’t burn all of them or put them all to the curb to be sucked up and hauled away. Keep some of them in the back corner of your yard; this will help protect overwintering insects and spiders, which can, in turn, be food for birds.”

(David C. Olson photo)

Keep It Simple

When you think of birding, you might imagine holding a guidebook in your hand and squinting through fancy binoculars. But experts say that’s not necessary. “You can observe a lot of birds bare-eyed,” Iwanicki says.

Otto agrees, adding that it’s perfectly OK to build your knowledge as you go.

“Start slowly with birds that are relatively common and expand from there,” she says. “And don’t be discouraged if you go out and don’t see any birds. Make use of the time outdoors to look at all the other great natural wonders: trees, dried grasses, flowers that have gone to seed (which are food sources for birds) and tracks in the snow. There’s always something cool to observe when you take the time to look.”

Otto invites bird watchers to join experts from Kane County Audubon on Feb. 18 for a global community science event known as the Great Backyard Bird Count. From 1 to 4 p.m., you can help count birds at the feeders at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center. Lists of the type and amount of birds will be submitted to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

(McHenry County Conservation District photo)

Hit the Trails

If birding isn’t your thing or you’re looking for something more lively, cross-country skiing is another way to soak up nature. Local park and conservation districts offer well-groomed trails.
McHenry County Conservation District manages more than 25,000 acres and more than 100 miles of hiking trails. Across 16 sites, cross-country skiing trails cover about 40 miles.

“Ten of those trails get packed and tracked,” says Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, marketing manager. “Our rangers go out there with equipment after there’s a significant snowfall so that the trails are ready for skiers.”

One of the most popular destinations is Glacial Park Conservation Area, near Ringwood, where scenic trails wind through woodland, wetland and prairie habitats.

“Most of our sites close at sunset, but we have two sites open for cross-country skiing or hiking in the evening during wintertime,” says Martinez-McWhorter. “Pleasant Valley Conservation Area in Woodstock and Hickory Grove Highlands in Cary have solar-lit trails that are open until 9 p.m.”

For those who enjoy the quiet stillness of winter nights, there are also candlelit trails. “We host one per month during the winter on a Friday and Saturday evening,” Martinez-McWhorter says. “Staff put out luminaria.”

Check the conservation district’s website or social media in advance, to make sure the trails are open and clear.

Of course, hiking and cross-country skiing are fun ways to experience the landscape, but there’s another option that’s especially fun for families with younger kids. Snowshoeing is easy for the whole family, and equipment is available to rent inside the Lost Valley Visitor Center at Glacial Park.
“You can snowshoe anywhere you’d be able to hike,” says Martinez-McWhorter.

Typically, snowshoeing and skiing are only permitted once there’s 4 to 5 inches of snow on the ground.

“Glacial Park also has a sledding hill and trails for snowmobiles,” Martinez-McWhorter says. “Nippersink Creek, which is one of the highest-quality streams in northern Illinois, travels through Glacial Park. We had river otter sightings last winter and even a snowy owl spotting.”

(McHenry Co. Conservation District photos)

Taking It All In

Venturing out to enjoy the sights and sounds of wildlife while getting some exercise brings an unexpected benefit: reconnecting with nature.

Linda Karlen, a certified forest therapy guide, organizes and leads group walks through local parks and nature preserves including Volo Bog.

Karlen says she felt compelled to dive deeper into the practice after her first ecotherapy walk in 2016. “It certainly touched my connection to nature, but in a different way,” she says. “When you go on a forest therapy walk, you slow down. The emphasis is on the present and using your senses to connect with the world around you.”

Inspired by the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, which literally translates to “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” forest therapy brings profound mental and physical health benefits. Spending time in nature can reduce stress, boost your immune system and nurture your creativity, according to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.

“Certainly, it can be a challenge to get outside in winter, but what are the health effects of staying in, feeling cooped up, not getting enough fresh air and in some cases not socializing as much?” Karlen asks.

If you can’t carve out a few hours for a forest walk, you can still reap some benefits from being outdoors in shorter intervals.

“We often suggest developing personal ways you can be in touch with nature,” Karlen says. “One of the things we can do is find a ‘sit spot,’ even if it’s in your backyard. It doesn’t have to be any place far or exotic. Anywhere there are trees or some kind of greenery will do. Just sit for 20 or 30 minutes if you can. Observe your surroundings and get quiet.”

For Karlen, getting acquainted with local plants and animals is not only fun, but it also serves a greater purpose. “The hope is that we recognize that we are one with nature, not separate beings,” she says. “We need to be caretakers, tend the land and work at supporting our natural world.”

Making the Most of Winter

Regardless of your motivation for getting outdoors during the winter season, the extra effort will pay off. Whether you take on a cross-country ski trail, try snowshoeing with the kids, marvel at the sights and sounds of migrating birds, or bask in the wonder of snow-crested trees, you belong in the outdoors.

“Get out and explore your public lands,” says Iwanicki. “They belong to you. Get to know the plants and animals around you; it just makes life more interesting and helps inspire you to get outside when you start paying attention to the biodiversity that surrounds you.”

Bundle Up!
The key to enjoying the outdoors in winter is knowing how to dress for the cold temperatures. The right combination of layers makes all the difference, says Stacy Iwanicki, natural resources coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Obviously, you need a good winter coat,” she says. “You also need a hat and mittens – which are better than gloves when it’s really cold – and good boots and the oft-overlooked scarf.”

The secret to staying comfortable, Iwanicki says, is dressing in layers. “Don’t get the warmest winter coat you can find and put it over a T-shirt,” she warns. “Bring a midweight coat that’s big enough for you to wear a couple more sweatshirts or zip-ups underneath.”