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Feb 07, 2023

Winter’s the Time for an Awe Walk

By Lori Draz with Jody Sackett, Rumson Environmental Commission

Everyone could use a lift during the short, cold days of winter, and a fast, free and fascinating solution is just outside your door. Whether you go alone or with a friend or family member, taking a walk to appreciate winter’s awe will clear your mind and restore your cognitive function, give you some exercise, and provide real inspiration and appreciation for all the living that continues in the cold months. So lace up your boots and get ready to meet the wildlife that’s all around you.

Jody Sackett, of the Rumson Environmental Commission, has made a list of the creatures to keep an eye out for. Make a game of it, journal your discoveries, take some pictures and enjoy! 


While some birds migrate, osprey, warblers and hummingbirds – to name a few – spend their winters here, searching for hidden seeds, insects and bug eggs in dead leaves and bark. Birds shelter in shrubs and trees, fluffing their feathers and huddling together to beat the cold. How these little birds don’t freeze is awe-inspiring, and watching them is calming. Look for tiny footprints, listen for their calls, and leave some snacks out for them on your journey as birds expend most of their body weight keeping warm.  


Seeing deer has become a common sight. White-tailed deer survive winter by increasing fat layers, getting thicker winter fur undercoats and darker outer fur that absorbs more sunlight to trap body heat. Deer also have oil-producing skin glands to make their fur water-repellent against the snow.  Look for nibbled foliage up to five feet high, tracks in soft earth, flattened grasses where they sleep together, or scat (poop). 


Squirrels semi-hibernate and briefly awaken to dig for their hidden nut, seeds, berry and insect stashes on a warmer winter days. Squirrels build and share tree nests or dens where they hunker down against bad weather. 


Rabbits winter in warm grass-lined warrens or rock piles. They feed on twigs, tall grasses, conifer needles, plants and sometimes they even re-ingest their own scat if food is scarce. Dawn or dusk are the best bunny-watching times, but they are much less active in the winter. Search for clipped twigs or gnawed bark on woody plants as evidence that rabbits are around. You may find one in thick bushes or droopy evergreen trees, since these places provide food as well as protection from predators. 


They hibernate solo in their underground den during the winter but won’t sleep all the way through. Their thick winter fur coats and fat reserves keep them warm, but chipmunks still wake up periodically to eat the nuts and seeds they gathered last fall to store in their dens. Chipmunks can gather up to 165 acorns in one day, and it only takes them just two days to gather enough food to last the whole winter. You may not see any now, but just wait until early spring to be delighted by their high-speed scurrying.

Marine Animals

Visit Sandy Hook to see the large harbor seals who are wintering from Canada and northern New England. These magnificent animals are such fun to watch. Go at low tide and you’ll see them resting on jetties after dinner. Please don’t get too close, as the seals need to rest; instead, use binoculars to watch their antics.  

Finally, the question: Should you feed the animals? Your garden and natural wooded, undeveloped areas can be a buffet. To help the backyard wildlife, let your garden or yard go wild in autumn to provide backyard wildlife with food. The dead leaves can hide insects, the seedheads attract feeders, and the stems and brush provide shelter. Animals use their fat stores to get through the beginning of winter, but toward the end of the season is when they most need food as everything else has been eaten. If you are one of the wonderful folks who want to care for wildlife in winter, don’t feed deer high-energy food like shelled corn; it’s hard for deer to digest and changes the pH of their stomachs, making them sick. Small mammals, squirrels and birds will appreciate a feeder filled with a variety of seeds. Suet is an in-demand snack for insect-feeding birds like starlings, jays, woodpeckers and chickadees. Remember that wildlife will come to depend on you for birdfeeder food, so make sure you not only like having the animals in your yard, but also that you are willing to keep feeding them through the end of winter. 

Most of all, enjoy your Awe Walk. Immerse yourself in the joy of nature, flood your senses with quiet amazement, and turn off the negative feedback loop. Don’t give in to the dark side this winter – enjoy nature’s quiet gift and celebrate the awe in our world.