For many along the Susquehanna Greenway, winter signals the end of the outdoor season; a time to hang up your hiking boots, grab your blanket, and settle in for a long winter’s nap until the milder days of spring. Yet, for those willing to bundle up and venture outdoors, nature’s splendor can still be found even on the coldest of days.
Whether scurrying among the treetops, swimming below the ice, or popping out from under the snow, an unexpected array of critters can be found in winter along the Susquehanna Greenway—all it takes is a warm coat, a sense of adventure, and the patience to look and listen.
Season for Songbirds
While many of our summer favorites have migrated south, winter and early spring are ideal times to go birding in large part thanks to the absence of foliage blocking your view. The bright red plumage of northern cardinal or light grey feathers of the Dark-eyed Junco, two of the most common winter birds in PA, stand out among the bare background.
Second, identification is much easier as the confusion that can occur with similar looking species is eliminated due to their range. For example, Wood Thrushes and Hermit Thrushes can look similar and often confuse birders; however, Wood Thrushes spend their winters in tropical and subtropical regions far from our region.
For some species, such as American Tree Sparrows and Snow Buntings, winter is the only time of year to find them. So, keep those eyes and ears alert on your next outdoor adventure this season! Your senses are your best tools for birding, but a pair of binoculars can also come in handy.
The short daylight hours during the winter may limit our opportunities to see nature, but we can still use our ears! Listening carefully makes owl prowls the perfect nighttime nature activity. Two species, the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl are year-round residents of the Greenway and both breed in the winter.
When walking through the woods on a cold winter evening you may hear the Barred Owl’s “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” or the Great Horned Owl’s haunting “who’s awake, me too.” These birds have been seen and heard throughout the Susquehanna Greenway, including in the heart downtown Williamsport.
Many mammals are active in the Greenway throughout the year. Winter is generally very wet, which makes great conditions for spotting muddy tracks. Plus, when a storm brings heavy snow falls, finding the tracks that these critters leave behind is made all the easier. These clues will give you the opportunity to play detective in the woods, using the series of tracks to tell a story about the animal.
Gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits, coyotes, red foxes, and beavers are active year-round. In addition to snow tracks, you can find other evidence such as trees felled by a beaver and scat left behind by a squirrel. And, as always, stop and listen! You just might be able to hear the call of a coyote.
Insects? In winter? It’s true! While the pesky mosquitos, gnats, and wasps are no longer swarming the air, you can still find interesting insects, especially during a warm winter thaw. Winter Stoneflies are one of the few insects that mate during the winter. If you are on the Susquehanna River or one of its tributaries, you might get the chance to see these small, black, aquatic insects crawling atop the ice.
Most of the fungi in our region make an annual appearance in the warm seasons, usually leaving late summer and fall for mushroom lovers to enjoy their favorites. Never fear! If you venture out into the woods during a mid-winter thaw, you can still enjoy the miracles of fungi.
While soft, fleshy mushrooms wilt and rot away quickly, some woody, shelflike conks, such as the Artist’s Conk, are perennial, meaning they grow year after year. True to its name, the pores on the underside of the Artist Conk bruise brown, essentially turning it into a canvas you can etch your artwork into.
Other winter fungi include the supermarket favorite, Oyster Mushroom, the beautiful multi-colored layers of Turkey Tail, and the winter resident that only appears from fall to spring, the Velvet Foot Mushroom.
Don’t let the cold keep you from enjoying the unique natural wonders of winter. Every season has something special to offer the outdoor enthusiast. It is not only a great time to spot new species, but also an opportunity to see how familiar critters behave, adapt, and survive at different times of the year. No need to hibernate this season; Get outside and explore all the Greenway has to offer!