We are approaching the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the earliest sunset of the year. Although people tend to think of the solstice as a day, the actual event is just a fleeting moment when the Earth is tilted as far away from the Sun on its axis as possible. In the Northern Hemisphere, this will happen on Thursday, December 21st, 2023 at 10:27 pm, and will mark the start of Winter in the astronomical calendar. The good news is that after the solstice, days start getting longer again and sunsets will occur later.
On Nantucket, nature is now fully in its dormant season. The snakes and turtles are brumating, deer are wearing their thicker winter coats, and plants have dropped their leaves. Everything seems quieter, even us humans may feel more tired during these cold, short days. However, under the façade of stillness, if we look carefully in nature, we may notice hidden signs of life that evade us during the busier months. Take, for instance, Wintergreen, which is a small evergreen shrub that grows only six inches tall and is commonly found in Nantucket’s woodlands. In the height of summer, it is often overshadowed by trees and shrubs and is easily missed. Now that the trees are bare, Wintergreen shines brightly through on the forest floor with its green, glossy leaves.
Winter is also full of surprises. Sea turtles stranding on our beaches, dolphins swimming into the harbor, and unexpected birds showing up. Over the last month, we have had several rare bird sightings on-island, including a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a beautiful bird with a long, split tail. They tend to winter in Central America, so it is far from home, but they are also known to wander, which ended up being a treat for local birders!
On these cold days, it is important to get outside and experience nature. Research has shown that spending at least two hours a week in nature improves mental and physical health. It may be hard when you want to snuggle inside, but now is the perfect time to explore a new outdoor hobby or discover a new trail. If you look closely, you will be able to find your own surprises!
There are various ways to support local flora and fauna during the winter season. During winter, birds may struggle to find food and water. By putting out a bird feeder or bird bath you can provide them with these resources. Delaying yard cleanup until spring creates additional habitat for many species, such as spiders, frogs, insects, and small mammals. These animals may use leaf piles or downed branches as overwintering sites. Driving carefully and keeping an eye out, especially around sunrise and sunset, reduces the risk of deadly collisions for both you and the deer who may be crossing the road.
As we approach the solstice and transition into the new season, let us take a moment to appreciate the natural beauty of our island and the thriving ecosystems that exist here throughout the year.
Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.