Winter is one of those words that create a clear separation between people. There are people who HATE winter, and people who LOVE winter. And then you have people that sit on one side of the fence, but change their leaning on certain aspects of the season. Where do you fall?
I tend to dislike much of winter. I don’t like to be cold or have to bundle up with all my winter gear. I hate tromping through the muck that lasts for three months and tracking salt inside all the time. Winter tends to be drab and gray most days in central Illinois and you may not see the sun for weeks at a time. All these things make winter a necessary evil for me. But when I think I can’t take it any longer and want to move down to Florida, the sun comes out and illuminates the woods like it never can in the summer. That is what I love about winter.
Light bounces off the bark of sycamores, maples and oaks and I see things in a new and different way. These random sunny days I will go out for a walk and notice footprints; so many footprints from deer, turkey, raccoons, squirrels, coyotes and foxes. If you have bird feeders (that you keep stocked) you will daily see birds that you never notice in the summer. And snow…but only the fresh fallen stuff. Snow is beautiful. It is clean, pure and covers everything in a blanket of white. I only like snow when it has been untouched by the hand of man though. I grew up living next to a state highway and as soon as the snow plows would drive by our beautiful snow would be ruined with salt, mud and any trash picked up along the way.
Winter is special for another reason, especially here along the river. We get raptors. Not just any raptors, and not the dinosaurs either, but Bald Eagles. Bald Eagles are majestic, and much loved and celebrated. We have been seeing the occasional Bald Eagle since the end of November, but here in the next few weeks we will be seeing more as they migrate south. The eagles migrate to find food. That is why all animals migrate. But our yearly visitors have to fly far enough south to find unfrozen river full of fish. The best sight, in my opinion, is watching an eagle fish from an ice flow in the middle of the Mississippi River. Bald Eagles have a wingspan between 5.5 and 7.5 feet. They soar on the thermals, over the river and are nearly unmistakable in the sky. They look like a long dark line with two white ends. The only bird around here that you might mistake for an eagle would be a vulture, they are smaller and all black though. The real tell tale sign is the way they hold their wings. Vultures hold their wings in a V when they soar and eagles hold their wings out straight.
Here at TNI our preserves get special treatment during the winter. Winter is a hard time for animals to find food, and shelter, so we ask visitors to stay off the preserves. This allows the animals the space and opportunity to find enough food and it allows the land to rebound from 3 seasons of heavy use. Remember winter gets muddy. The more ruts and tracks we make in the trails the harder it is to keep it from eroding in all the spring rains. It will be hard not to come out on those really nice, sunny days but please choose to hike somewhere else. Pere Marquette has some beautiful scenery, or head to a museum to learn something new. There are so many awesome things to do around Alton. The Nature Institute will still be hosting programs while the preserve is closed and we invite you to join us for some learning and a guided hike. The preserve will reopen in the spring ready for you and better than ever.
Please respect our desire to give the preserve a much needed rest.
Ramona Puskar, education assistant