SMITHFIELD – If you were thinking of hibernating for the winter, you might want to think again.
Everyone touts the benefits of getting outside in the warmer months, but the list of reasons to keep the outdoor adventures going year-round is also pretty extensive. Think crisp winter air, the way light hits the landscape differently, less crowds on hiking trails, long nights for better stargazing, the stillness that comes only when the ground is covered in snow, and wildlife not seen in other seasons.
Add in the stress-relieving benefits of spending time in nature, especially during a season that is tough for many who are prone to winter blues and seasonal affective disorder, and now seems like the perfect time to check out the local outdoor offerings happening in coming weeks.
Kim Calcagno, refuge manager of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Powder Mill Ledges Refuge and Fort Nature Refuge, said winter offers certain outdoor experiences that you just won’t find at other times of the year.
“I think for a lot of folks, it doesn’t even occur to them to investigate what is happening out in nature during the winter months. They think the natural world is somehow totally dormant,” Calcagno said. “But the reality is that there is an amazing array of activity with wildlife and the beauty of the landscape. Also, it’s important for us humans to stay physically active even when it’s cold.”
Calcagno said in addition to the Audubon Society’s winter hiking and snowshoeing programs, the refuges are open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk, with no fees to hike the trails.
“On some refuges, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is welcome, though we do not groom trails specifically for that,” Calcagno said.
Locally, the Audubon’s Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge is located at 12 Sanderson Road in Smithfield, with trails listed as easy to moderate in difficulty. Fort Nature Refuge is located at 1445 Providence Pike in North Smithfield, with trails listed as easy to moderate, as well.
If you’re thinking there’s not much to see out on the trails in cold weather, you might be surprised.
“Watching the landscape change over the course of the year is a big part of finding your ‘sense of place,’” said Calcagno. “Nature is always in flux and visiting a wild place in the winter can be a whole different experience from seeing it in the burgeoning growth of spring or the colorful denouement of autumn. Additionally, winter can often provide views and access that cannot be had when the trees are in full-leaf and the brambles are ruling the meadows. You can see a lot more when the trees are bare.”
Calcagno said there are unique birds and bird behaviors only seen in the cold weather months.
“Owls are embarking on their respective breeding seasons – November to February depending on the species – so there is a lot of nighttime serenades happening,” she said.
“Another great winter activity is animal tracking where snow and mud and bare trees can often make it an intriguing detective game to figure out what critters have been nearby.”
Calcagno said the Audubon’s Owl Prowls are especially popular, along with winter birding programs and wildlife wreath-making.
“Our Owl Prowls nearly always sell out, despite the cold weather. We never know if we’ll hear or see owls. After all, nature works on its own schedule, but it’s such a cool night hike experience that people have lots of fun even if it’s a quiet night,” she said.
“We also have lots of great lectures and themed programs that are indoors for those who are looking for a more cozy learning experience. Owls and Ales is a great event,” she said.
If you’re ready to try some of the outdoor winter programming, be sure to prepare with the proper clothing.
“The biggest mistake people make when trying to enjoy nature in winter is under-dressing, Calcagno said. “So many people only ‘cold dress’ for a short wait at the bus stop or for running from our cars into work or a store. At Audubon, we often see people attending programs in ‘winter coats’ and hats that are thin and only provide minimal warmth. Being outdoors for multiple hours on a cold day can be as comfortable as a warm day, but you have to choose the right apparel.”
Calcagno suggests investing in a good winter coat or picking up an old wool coat from a thrift store. Avoid wearing cotton, which absorbs moisture and chills you quickly. She said to choose wool, synthetic fleece, and lightweight insulating layers like Thinsulate.
She recommends wearing layers so you can adjust when you get too hot or too cold.
“Flannel or fleece-lined pants are one of the best modern inventions and keep you toasty warm. Socks should be wool or wool-blend and never cotton if you don’t want frozen tootsies. Warm shoes or boots should allow room for multiple layers of socks. A nice fleece or tight-knit winter hat is very important, Calcagno said.
“Lastly, a lot of people don’t think about this, but sunscreen is very important – even in the winter,” she said.
Once you’re all geared up, here are some upcoming local events to get you started:
• Wednesday Morning Bird Walks: Locations across Rhode Island. Audubon offers small-group Wednesday Morning Bird Walks, from 9 to 11 a.m., with naturalist Laura Carberry, for ages 14 and older. Each week a new birding destination is chosen. Registration is required. Location will be sent to participants in advance. Cost is $5 for members, $10 for non-members.
• Owls of New England Audubon Lecture: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield, Thursday, Dec. 9, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., for ages 9 and older. Take a pictorial look at our native owls, hear their calls, learn about their adaptations, and meet a live owl. Advanced registration is required. Cost is $10 for members, $14 for non-members.
• Wildlife Wreath Making with Audubon: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield, Saturday, Dec. 18, from 10 a.m. to noon, for ages 12 and older. Make a winter wreath that is both beautiful and edible to birds and other wildlife. Using wire or straw wreath bases, add greens, dried flowers, seed heads, leaves, fruit, and nuts to entice feathered friends to visit. All items will dry nicely if you prefer to keep the wreath for purely decorative purposes. Each participant will make one wreath. All materials will be provided. Participants may choose to bring their own needle nose pliers or wire snips. Advanced registration is required. Cost is $35 for members, $45 for non-members.
• Owl Prowl: Audubon Fort Wildlife Refuge, North Smithfield, Thursday, Dec. 16, and Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, from 7 to 9 p.m., for ages 12 and older. Visit Fort Wildlife Refuge on a winter night to search for owls. An Audubon naturalist will call for different species as you walk through the forest. Dress for the weather, wear sturdy walking shoes, and bring a flashlight. Hike will be canceled in the event of inclement weather or icy trails. Cost is $10 for members; $14 for non-members.
• Let’s Take a Walk! Winter Winds: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield, Tuesday, Jan. 4, from 10 to 11 a.m., for ages 3 and older. Visit Powder Mill Ledges on a wintry morning and learn all about wind and weather in nature. Play creative outdoor games with an Audubon naturalist that spark your child’s imagination. Cost is $5 for member child, $7 for non-member child. No charge for accompanying adults.
• Introduction to Animal Tracking: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield, Saturday, Jan. 8, from 10 a.m. to noon. Join Audubon for an introduction to identifying local mammal tracks and other animal signs. This class will be geared for an adult audience. Advanced registration is required. Wear warm footwear and dress for the weather. Cost is $10 for members; $14 for non-members.
• Owl Prowl: Audubon Fort Wildlife Refuge, North Smithfield, Thursday, Jan. 13, from 7 to 9 p.m., for ages 12 and older. Visit Fort Wildlife Refuge on a winter night to search for owls. An Audubon naturalist will call for different species as you walk through the forest. Dress for the weather, wear sturdy walking shoes, and bring a flashlight. Hike will be canceled in the event of inclement weather or icy trails. Cost is $10 for members, $14 for non-members.
• Family Winter Walk: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Saturday, Jan. 15, from 2 to 4 p.m. Bundle up and join Audubon for a wild and wooly winter walk at Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge. Look for animal tracks and signs of the season on this easy hike. Wear warm shoes/boots, warm gloves or mittens and a hat for this outdoor program. Advanced registration is required. Cost is $10 for member adults, $5 for member children; $14 for non-member adults, $7 for non-member children. Ages: 4 and up.
• Animal Tracks and Signs for Families: Audubon Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, Smithfield, Saturday, Jan. 8, from 2 to 4 p.m. Learn how to identify tracks and signs left by native mammals and birds. Explore track patterns, investigate artifacts, and try your hand at making plaster tracks to take home. Venture out on the trails to find evidence that wildlife has been there. Although all are welcome, this class will be geared for families with children. Wear warm footwear, and dress for the weather. Advance registration is required. Cost is $12 for member adult/child pair, $6 each additional member; $16 for non-member adult/child pair; $8 each additional non-member. Ages: 5 and up.
• Winter Birding at Fort Refuge: Fort Wildlife Refuge, North Smithfield, Saturday, Jan. 22, from 10 a.m. –to noon., for ages 10 and older. Walk the trails and visit the pond area at Fort Wildlife Refuge to look for signs of winter birds. Bundle up for the weather and wear sturdy, warm footwear. Program will be canceled in the event of inclement weather or icy trails. Advance registration is required. Cost is $10 for members, $14 for non-members.
Register for all programs through the events calendar at www.asri.org/calendar.