Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Our icy winter months bring some astonishing qualities, if you know what to look for. Whether you’re watching birds in the day or stars in the evening, there’s no shortage of winter adventures.

This time of year, the still, crisp air makes getting outside a can’t-miss experience. Insulated by snow, the ground and trees become natural sound-dampening devices. Even on breezy days, there’s no rustling of leaves, which have long since fallen away from their branches.

In the daytime, light reflects off ice crystals in the snow to produce an almost cosmic shimmer, and at night the ink-dark sky is punctuated by visible planets, constellations and stars.

Winter weather is a gift, and our region provides ample opportunities to explore the best qualities of this often-misunderstood season. Bird watching, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are just the start of a good winter adventure.

(Juliet Moderow photo)

Nature All Around

For some people, winter is a treasured time of year. Count Holly Hansen, AmeriCorps member for 815 Outside, among those ranks. Winter is her favorite season to visit the forest preserve. “I think it’s the most magical season there is,” she says.

“I think winter is a great reminder, especially when there’s snow, of all the life around us. You can see tracks of all different critters that you might forget are there during the summer,” Hansen adds. “We share this Earth with so many animals, and I find this awesome appreciation for the world around me.”

815 Outside is comprised of six partner organizations that offer a wide range of free and low-cost outdoor activities in the region. Byron Forest Preserve District, Severson Dells Nature Center, Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, Nature at the Confluence, Natural Land Institute and Rockford Park District each boast a rich selection of properties, from nature centers to prairies, forests and miles upon miles of trails to explore.

Each month during the winter season, 815 Outside partners host a guided hike at one of their locations.

“We have a newsletter that goes out once a month that has all of our partners’ free and low-cost (under $10) events in one email,” Hansen says. “There’s so much to do every single month in Rockford.”

Hansen encourages everyone to take advantage of 815 Outside’s Cocoa & Company winter hike series. You can explore the forest preserves and land while sipping warm cocoa if you B.Y.O.M. (bring your own mug). For more information about these walks and other winter activities, see 815outside.com.

No matter which park or forest preserve you visit, you might find evidence of a whole world of activity bustling beneath the snow. What may appear to be a solid blanket of snow may actually be hollow on the bottom, says Janet Dahlberg, Byron Forest Preserve’s superintendent of education. Mice and other critters carve tunnels between the snowpack and the ground in what’s known as the subnivean zone (sub and nives are Latin words that mean “under” and “snow,” respectively).
Although it doesn’t sound like this space would be cozy, between the heat radiating from the earth and the snow’s insulation, this area is warm enough for small animals to thrive despite the harsh winter weather.

“You can tell where the tunnels are, especially if there’s fresh snow,” Dahlberg says. “And every once in a while, you’ll see a little hole in the snow with mouse tracks all around it.”

(Anne Straight photo)

Flying High

Bird watchers are in luck during the winter because birds are plentiful, and the barren landscape makes them easier to spot. Grab a pair of binoculars or hit the trails and try to spot as many as you can this winter.

“Because of the cold, you see them in more flocks together,” says Juliet Moderow, a biology instructor at Highland Community College and past president of the Northwest Illinois Audubon Society. “They may be around food sources rather than spread out, so they might be at a feeder or near a tree with lots of berries. And since you don’t have leaves in the way, you can see them better.”

The empty branches also make it easier to hear the birds. “That’s the beauty of winter,” Moderow says. “Sounds that tend to be muffled by leaves are instead enhanced with the snow. You get to use more of your senses.”

Birdwatching is an activity that’s accessible to anyone of any age, and while it’s common to see enthusiasts carrying binoculars and field guides, it’s just as acceptable to use the naked eye and a sense of curiosity. You don’t even have to hit the trail – backyard birding is fun in its own right – but there are rich rewards for those who venture into the wilderness.

An abundance of year-round residents such as northern cardinals, blue jays and black-capped chickadees make their presence known all winter, but birders also challenge themselves to spot snow buntings, lapland longspurs, horned larks and maybe even a snowy owl.

“These are birds from the Arctic tundra that migrate here during winter,” says Moderow. “They’re looking for a habitat similar to their grassland habitat, so you can find them in our open fields.”

Winter is also a great time to see birds of prey. Eagles and other fish-eating birds like to hang out near the water, where they can quickly catch fish, and they’re spotted frequently around the Rock River. Byron Forest Preserve District’s Jarrett Prairie Preserve, located at the intersection of North River Road and German Church Road, offers prime views of the water and the surrounding landscape, from points high and low.

“Every once in a while, depending on the state of the river, we have bald eagles here because the bridge across to Byron keeps the water open,” says Dahlberg.

North of Rockford, another prime watching area is located near the quiet Sugar River. Sand Bluff Bird Observatory at Colored Sands Forest Preserve in Rockton, Ill., is a working research facility that studies migrating birds. Though it’s closed during the winter, it’s set amidst a beautiful backdrop that comes alive in spring.

“They actually catch and band birds, and you can watch,” says Renee Henert, communications coordinator at Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. She considers herself an amateur bird watcher. “You can see the different kinds of birds that move through our area. It’s pretty interesting to see up close and personal.”

On occasions when the Rock or Sugar rivers are frozen, eagles are still plentiful farther west, around the Mississippi River’s Lock and Dam 13. This location at Fulton, Ill., has observation areas where you can observe bald eagles gathered in large numbers.

“Even if the rest of the river is frozen, the lock is still open water because of all the churning,” Moderow says. “You could easily find a tree with more than 50 bald eagles.”

As much as you might love to see birds up close, Moderow cautions against artificially attracting birds with calls, recordings, food or encroachment on their wild habitat. On the other hand, a backyard feeder has its advantages.

“Bird experts generally don’t recommend feeding wild birds due to the increased risk of diseases,” she says. “However, winter birds need energy, and with everything covered in snow, having a bird feeder does help them survive. If you do have a feeder, keep it clean and dry, so it doesn’t accumulate bird droppings or develop mold.”

For families who want to go birdwatching together, Moderow releases a monthly guide with book recommendations, upcoming events and activity ideas. It’s available on the Audubon Society’s website, nwilaudubon.org.

(Chris Krueger photo)

Getting Your Steps In

Birdwatching can be as relaxing or vigorous as you make it, but some winter activities are best with a little sweat.

Krape Park and Oakdale Nature Preserve Park in Freeport are ideal for those who love to make the most of a peaceful and snowy landscape.

“What’s gaining popularity now, especially since the pandemic, is people getting out to go hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing,” says Ron Schneider, executive director of Freeport Park District, which manages Krape Park and Oakdale preserve. “And the hottest thing right now is fat-tire biking. The bikes look like mountain bikes, but they have even wider tires for the snowy terrain.”

When the snow on the ground is around 4 inches thick, Oakdale staff grooms trails specifically for cross-country skiers and fat-tire bikers.

Down in Byron, Jarrett Prairie Center is a launching point for winter activities. The nature center has dioramas, fossils, live critters and interactive exhibits that appeal to visitors of all ages. Bird guidebooks and binoculars are available on request.

The surrounding restored prairie contains more than 7 miles of trails through rolling prairies and oak woodlands. Although the trails aren’t groomed, cross-country skiing is popular on snowy days.

“We rent skis for $5 an hour, and we have guided trips,” says Dahlberg. “I go out with people and teach them how to ski, keep their balance, turn and get up when they fall. It’s very beginner-friendly.”

The great thing about hiking, walking and skiing is that you can spot animals (and their tracks) as you go. Dahlberg says it’s not uncommon to find rabbits, coyotes and broad-winged hawks while you’re out.

In Winnebago County, the forest preserve district manages 44 forest preserves, most of which are open year-round in one way or another. Though some gates are locked, cross-country skiers and hikers are still invited to hit the trails, says Henert. Snowmobiling is allowed in five preserves.

Hikers who want a flat route should consider Deer Run in Cherry Valley, Ill., or Kieselburg in Roscoe, Ill, says Henert. “We have three paved paths that we maintain in winter, too,” she adds. “First, there’s a paved path at Headquarters Preserve that goes around a quarry pond. It’s pretty in the winter. We also have Kishwaukee River Recreation Path at Kishwaukee River Forest Preserve and Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, and the paved loop at Severson Dells Forest Preserve.”
Henert also finds that winter is a magical time of year.

“I love to go out after a fresh snow and just listen,” Henert says. “The forest preserves get busy in the spring and summer, but in winter, it’s at rest and it’s just a different vibe all around.”

Marvel at the Night Sky

Another part of winter’s magic is right overhead. When night falls, a whole new world of possibilities awaits in the darkened night sky.

“One of the big things that gets overlooked is astronomy,” Dahlberg says. “Winter is the best time for viewing deep-sky objects and constellations because the atmosphere is so much clearer, especially when the humidity drops.”

From our vantage point in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, you can see several planets, including Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. You can also spot well-known constellations such as Orion, Taurus, Gemini and the Big Dipper as well as deep-sky objects including the Orion Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy and Pleiades Cluster.

Some of these things can be seen with the naked eye, but you’ll need a telescope for others. The J. Weiskopf Observatory near the Jarrett Prairie Center has a powerful reflecting telescope that sees far into space. The observatory is open to the public every Saturday night when the skies are clear. Guests can enjoy complimentary hot cocoa and an unforgettable view of the sky.

To find out if viewing conditions are good enough for stargazing, call (815) 234-8535, ext. 216 and listen to the recording.

Bundle Up and Go

So long as you dress for the weather, there’s no reason to stay cooped up inside when the temperatures drop. A good walk in the winter is what you make of it.

“For me, it’s both physical and mental wellness,” says Freeport’s Schneider. It’s a time to get out with friends and breathe in some fresh air. Sunlight goes a long way in terms of lifting our spirits.”

“We’re so lucky to live in a place with seasons,” says Hansen, of Outside 815. “Often, people think going outside in the winter needs to be this grand adventure, and it really doesn’t have to be. Just spending time outside is important.”