I have become a fan of winter walks in the woods, even on a cold day like today. It wasn’t bitterly cold, but the thermometer struggled to get out of the thirties in midday, before falling in the afternoon as a cold sprinkle of rain began. Under a blanket of clouds, the bottomland forest at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge was quiet, so that the calling of crows echoed through the bare winter trees and made the place seem even quieter.
In this season of dormancy the leaves lie on the ground in a quilt of sandy brown, reddish brown, cinnamon, tan, gray, and all shades in between. The signatures of the various tree species are written in the shapes and sizes of the leaves: the cottonwood, bur oak, beech, and other species that contributed to the carpet that I walked on.
I am aware that a community of wildlife lives in this forest, however quiet it might seem today. Some, like the armadillos, white-footed mice, and other mammals, may be sheltering in burrows under the ground near where I walk. Excavations that lead down under the gigantic trunks of felled cottonwood trees suggest where some of these animals may be. Reptiles and amphibians have curled up under rotting stumps, in burrows that run back under a sheltering tree root and into the ground, down in crayfish burrows, and other places where an insulating layer of soil or wood or rock stays a few degrees warmer than freezing.
Only the birds seem to have no respite from the constant search for food and interaction with their own and different species. Periodically a splash of red would appear in the brown and gray maze of branches, as a male cardinal landed nearby, dropped to a nearby branch, and flew off to a higher and more protected vantage point. Periodically, a chickadee or two would flit through nearby branches. And at least once, some distance off in the woods, the telltale hammering on a tree trunk revealed the presence of a woodpecker, hard at work searching for insects hiding within tree bark.
Later, I waited at the Hardwicke center for Clint to arrive. I rested for a while by the window that looks out on a courtyard with bird feeders and a small artificial pond. Icicles had formed on the little waterfall down to the pond, and the feeders were getting nonstop attention from chickadees, goldfinches, tufted titmice, and other birds.
Clint arrived with his son, and we walked along the caprock escarpment to continue checking temperatures inside burrows and under big slabs of the walnut-shell limestone exposed along the top of the ridge. Since November, I have several times checked temperatures under soil and within burrows or holes to see how even a relatively thin layer of soil, wood, or rock provides protection from temperature extremes. In our part of Texas, reptiles and amphibians may not have to hibernate for long periods, but they certainly seek shelter when it is quite cold, and I have been trying to learn more about the places where they go to escape the winter’s cold.
We decided to drive down to Greer Island for a walk there before the day was through. Along the way, we saw a young armadillo foraging through the leaf litter and stopped to admire its odd, armored form as it snuffled along rooting out whatever invertebrates it could find. Those bony plates of armor at the shoulders and hips, and the nine tough bands between them allow for flexibility as well as protection. Even the tail and the top of its head are armored. Because the armadillo’s hearing and vision are not very good, it is often possible to approach pretty close for a photo, and today was no exception.
We saw several deer, and one of them was an older buck with impressive antlers. He paused and looked at us while we peered at him through the car window, and then he turned and disappeared into the woods.
There were other sightings, such as great blue herons, great egrets standing in the water or flying over Greer Island, as well as centipedes and woodlice under branches on the ground. Among the dormant vegetation along Greer Island’s shore we came across a nearly complete skeleton of a deer. There was really so much to see and hear, on a cold winter day in the woods around Lake Worth. At every turn there were landscapes of subtle beauty in muted colors, and sounds that drew attention to the essential quiet of the place (apart from the jets from the nearby joint reserve base, which could be tuned out, to some extent). The more years go by, the more I need these walks, and I miss them a great deal when I am imprisoned for very long in buildings and cars.