A bright male cardinal lands in a feeder and carefully selects a seed with its brilliant red beak. Below him a crowd of charcoal-colored juncos forages for seed bits and noisy blue jays fly by many times a day to check for a new supply of peanuts.
We've heard dire predictions about a dark winter ahead, with human activity constrained by safety precautions to stave off the pandemic. With winter's cold coming on, it can seem as if we'll be confined to our homes with little to divert us.
But how about looking at this time as an opportunity? The months ahead can be a bright time for individuals and families, youngsters and seniors and everyone in between, a time to get into the rhythms of nature. Some restaurants and stores may be closed but the natural world is wide open, and even in winter, there's plenty to see and do.
Walk in wonder
Have you heard of "awe walking?" It's the latest thing, yet it's as old as the hills. Essentially, awe walking is being out in nature while looking at everything with fresh eyes. It's a willingness to be astonished by the simplest things, from the last leaf clinging to a twig, to snow patterns created by wind to a hawk sweeping down an alley. We're lucky enough to live in an area that's rich in parks and open spaces, but you needn't go farther than your own city block (or backyard) to observe the natural world.
Put your cellphone away, even if it's loaded with great apps that identify everything you encounter. Just walk, look and absorb on these outings; if you're with others, share what you're seeing with them. Try not to use the time to plan your schedule or work out a thorny problem, instead just be open to whatever presents itself.
Research shows that awe walking at least once a week has benefits ranging from a lighter mood to increased hopefulness and optimism.
A great family activity, one that kids love, is keeping individual nature notebooks. All you need is an inexpensive spiral-bound notebook and a pencil or pen. Make note of what you're seeing, from robins foraging in the snow under evergreens to goldfinches feeding on weed seed. Try making drawings of your observations — you don't need to be an artist to do this — just pencil in approximations of the animals and plants.
Back at home, journal keepers might get out the colored pencils or watercolors to spice up their pages, and add relevant information ("Not all robins migrate," "Cardinals often feed on the ground," etc.) you can find on the internet.
It's satisfying and even calming to watch out a window at the birds visiting bird feeders, but to keep your interest from waning, how about spicing things up a bit? Some years back I wrote about the Chickadee Challenge created by local bird watcher Bob Holtz. It's simple enough: Choose a common bird already visiting your backyard and challenge yourself to record a sighting each day. It could be a chickadee, cardinal, downy woodpecker or other species.
Watch feeders at usual bird feeding times, such as right after sunrise, around noon and in the late afternoon. At first it may be easy to find your goal bird each day, but as winter advances, it may become tougher. I had to start over several times, after a day without spotting a chickadee, before putting together a string of 30 straight days of 'dee visits. Holtz was so dedicated that if he hadn't seen a chickadee by midafternoon, he'd head to local parks or nature centers to try to find one, which is perfectly within the "rules."
Feed the birds
The best way to see birds every day in winter is to hang a bird feeder and, if possible, maintain a source of open water. Feeding birds is not complicated, but there are a few things to consider, such as keeping squirrels out (they tend to ruin the whole experience) and keeping birds safe from hitting windows. Here's a good place to start: feederwatch.org/learn/feeding-birds. Or visit a wild bird supply store in your area; they'll be more than happy to help you get started.
I keep birdseed outdoors in a metal garbage can with a heavy stone on the lid, to keep out raccoons, then fill each feeder with enough food for 24 hours, to prevent spoilage and waste. I've got a heater in the birdbath, since open water adds to the appeal of any feeding area, and I make sure to dump the water each day before refilling it with a bucket.
At a time when humans are discouraged from indoor gatherings, it's good to know that Mother Nature has an open invitation to everyone to come out and enjoy her treasures. It's easy to keep the requisite distance while we're out engaging our senses of sight, sound, smell and touch. For me, and I suspect for many of us, keeping an eye on the natural world is the recipe for getting through the dark days ahead.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.