Happy New Year to everyone! Winter and snow are with us – and this is a good time for a healthy and invigorating walk. Why not start in the Rouge Valley? Or any city park? It is a good time to look up – way up – and think about nature above the city. Clouds, mist, dew and fog, sun and sky are the elements that set the balance of life. In their book Wild City, Doug Bennet and Tim Tiner wrote about these things. I have chosen to edit some excerpts from their observations, motivated by realizing that even in winter there is much to see and learn about nature, that it is better to celebrate than to hibernate, and that, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, even small amounts of daily contact with nature can help us think more clearly, reduce stress, and improve our physical health. We survive by adapting – so let us adjust to winter by experiencing nature in the city and look at what is above it.

Gazing into the sky and pondering the wonder and meaning of clouds is a pastime far too neglected by city dwellers today, where many urbanites don’t have a clue about what is happening in the dome above their heads. To stay in touch with nature, even in the bleak time of winter, one only needs to look up to get the big picture. Lift up your eyes and look at the billowing white, shape-shifting forms drifting across the deep blue sky. There are the cumulus clouds and the lower nimbostratus clouds associated with low-pressure weather fronts, wispy cirrus clouds, and veil-like cirrostratus clouds that usually are precursors of poor weather.

Clouds are airborne reservoirs of water. All air carries water, which can remain invisible as concentrations of vapour. The cooler the temperature, the lower the concentration of water vapour needed to reach the dew point. That is when it condenses around bits of dust in the air, creating minute droplets. Billions of these droplets form visible clouds. A cloud the size of a two-storey house contains up to half a sink full of water. It takes almost a million cloud particles to form one raindrop. (Ontario’s cloudiest city is Owen Sound).

Misty mornings can have an unsettling ambiguity in the city. The process that causes mist begins at night, when the darkened Earth cools. The air cools faster than water. When water vapour from warm lakes and streams rises into the cool air, it soon condenses into tiny water droplets, forming mist. It vanishes when the morning sun heats the air and vaporizes the water again. Remember the morning mist you see over lakes in the countryside.

Dew forms when water vapour condenses along surfaces that cool overnight, especially on blades of grass, which give up heat quickly because of their large surface area relative to their slight mass. Look at your lawn in the early morning.

Fog is any bank of mist that reduces visibility to less than a kilometre. It is most common in southern Ontario on early mornings in autumn and winter, after light winds cool down the land at night or cool, dry air draws up moisture over lakes. (Ontario’s foggiest town is Mount Forest).

And then there are rain and rainbows. The appearance of a rainbow at the end of a shower commonly signifies improving weather. A rainbow needs two ingredients: sunlight and raindrops. The sun must be located low in the sky and behind the rainbow watcher. The raindrops must be in the air in front of the observer. Rainbows are created by sunlight penetrating billions of falling raindrops. Most of the light passes straight through the drops, however, a small amount of light is bent as it enters the drops and refracts into the seven main colours that make up the visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The back of the raindrop acts like a mirror to reflect these colours out the front of the drop, toward the observer. A rainbow watcher sees only one colour from each raindrop. But becaue the sunlight is refracting and reflecting off many many raindrops, the full spectrum is visible in the beautiful arc of a rainbow. Red is always the outside colour and violet is the inside. Rainbows are actually full circles, which can sometimes be seen from an airplane. But from the ground, only the top portion of the circle is visible, the bottom portion is below the horizon. A low sun produces taller rainbows, and vice versa. Rainbows normally last only a few minutes – and the location of the world’s most frequent rainbows is Honolulu.

How animals make it through the winter

For those animals that don’t migrate or hibernate, we often wonder how they survive on those cold winter days and nights; but they do. Here are some ways species have adapted to Canadian winters:

Small mammals like mice, voles and shrews, tunnel through the snow when the temperature dips. Thanks to the insulating properties of snow, this subnivean zone feels like it is zero degrees, regardless of the cold temperatures and blowing winds above.

The fur of snowshoe hares turns white in preparation for winter. This helps with camouflage and warmth. Their feet are heavily furred in the winter to help them move around in deep snow.

A deer’s winter coat consists of hollow hair shafts and wool-like underfur that has great insulating properties. Deer congregate into larger groups and tend to move to sheltered areas where they benefit from less snow. Using the same trails also allows for easier access to food sources and helps them flee from predators and conserve energy.
Black-capped chickadees eat 20 times more in winter than they do in summer. Just watch your bird feeder. They have the ability to lower their body temperature by entering a controlled hypothermia which allows them to conserve energy.

Squirrels have longer and thicker fur in the winter and their tail can be laid against their back for extra protection. Several squirrels will also share a tree den to conserve heat.

So, during the winter months, look up at the sky, go for a walk in the winter wonderland, and don’t forget to look for our feathered winter visitors, like finches and redpolls, Bohemian waxwings, Northern shrikes, Rough-legged hawks, White-winged scoters, and various owl species, such as Great Gray owls and Boreal owls, as well as Ross’s gulls, Little gulls and Evening grosbeaks.

Looking at the night sky is rewarding too. The bright lights of the big city are not great for night sky viewing. Only a small portion of the constellations visible from a less light-polluted location in the countryside shine bright enough to cut through the urban glare. But even so, the city is a good place to learn the basics of the night sky. Once you know the main configurations, they can act as guideposts for discovering other constellations in the dark sky beyond the city. It is well worth the effort – and yet another way to connect with nature. We can always look to nature for inspiration and renew our resolve to preserve it. S.G.

Sources: Wild City (Bennett & Tiner), Ontario Nature, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy of Canada