By Chelsea Jandreau, Nature Educator

The bare branches and dormant plants of winter may seem like a one-note experience with just a cursory glance, but they also provide a window into an otherwise hidden world if you take time look in the trees and search between the brambles and dead grasses. Look up into the tree branches and you might find a durable robin’s nest or a massive treetop eagle nest. Search for a nest made of leaves and twigs where squirrels overwinter,or find papery wasp nests on the end of a large branch. Without leaves, the birds who spend time in trees and shrubs have less cover, although sometimes their camouflaged feathers make them equally difficult to spot whether in the evergreens or in the bare branches of deciduous trees.

The tree branches and fallen logs themselves play host to fungi, lichen and mosses that get to be the star of the show now that the flowers have largely disappeared and the wide, deciduous leaves are thinned out. The ground is covered with tracks in the snow and mud, sometimes frozen in time when it gets cold enough. 

During the school year, on the various holidays and other days students have off, Audubon offers single day camps. For me, those winter camps are the prime time to experience nature outside of the groomed trails created for people. You can see plenty from the trails, but getting to follow a deer trail or find your own path is its own adventure. 

Holiday Camp

Although other seasons have more comfortable outdoor temperatures, they also bring poison ivy to the party, and no matter how much time you spend ensuring everyone knows how to identify that plant it is hard to avoid, especially in summer when it is so abundant. Poison ivy does not entirely disappear in the winter, as the hairy vines wrapped around trees are still waiting for an unexpecting hand to grab tight, but all of the green leaves containing those potentially itch-inducing oils have died back and cleared from the ground. Many other plants have also gone dormant for the winter, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally trampling all the flowers and other greenery. It is also easier to see a path everyone can get through without breaking branches.

Winter exploration brings its own set of challenges. Snow and ice can be deceiving. They conceal whether the ground underneath is solid dirt or whether it is secretly a pond. This is especially true in wetlands where water levels rise and fall, creating pools of water where there was once dry land. If you come across a sign next to a pond asking you to stay off the ice, this is the reason why. They seem unnecessary during a warmer winter, but when the water freezes and snow falls it really is difficult to tell where solid ground ends and two feet of water begins.

Ice brings a variety of risks and rewards. One of the best parts of exploring off-trail is finding mini ice rinks where shallow water freezes solid. Sliding across the frozen surface is fun for children and adults alike. Breaking ice into chunks is another popular pastime and, for many children, the uses for those pieces of ice are endless. 

Learning how to test the ice in a muddy wetland provides a stepping stone for later learning how to test ice over deeper waters. Determining whether it will hold not only your weight, but the weight of you and your three friends is a skill. Going off-trail in the winter is a lesson in risk management and looking before you leap. It is also a time to learn the effects of wet clothing on comfort levels and figuring out how to walk the line between fun and freezing cold misery. 

Exploring on the edges of winter trails can expose animal tracks and trails. A muddy trail full of deer footprints can provide a path to get behind the crisscrossing branches and multiflora rose thorns. Further into the winter shrubs, you may find signs of animals, such as holes, resting areas or the remains of food that would otherwise be covered by people’s footprints or tire tracks. It is like taking a closer peek into our local animal’s world. 

When COVID prevented students from attending school full time, I had a group who came to Audubon once or twice a week to explore and learn while getting some outside play time in. Since it was pretty consistently the same group of students, they got to see how the landscape changed week to week over the course of several months. After one week focused on fungi, some of them proceeded to bring me to the different fungi and lichen every time they found some. With the lack of leaves, winter fungi are a little easier to spot.

Every time we explored a little further, we would find fungi with new colors, shapes and textures that we just couldn’t find from the well-worn paths. This may be due to habitat needs or decreased disturbance from people, but I suspect that the latter reason plays at least a small role. Exploring what lives behind the brush line generates excitement and allows for some new observations, but we also have to be mindful that our presence does affect the landscape and the plants and animals that live back there. So, if you are looking for a new experience or a place to find some hidden pieces of nature, find a place you are allowed to go off-trail. Just make sure you do so with care for both your own safety and with regard for the plants and animals already there.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.

To learn more about whether ice is safe, visit

Learn some fun activities to do with ice and children here: