Nature Watch: The Woods in Winter

Author: Steve Ellis | 11/28/23

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


Conifer forests, those areas dominated by evergreen trees, offer important shelter during the winter months. Multilayered branches reduce the effects of slashing winds and pounding rains. Survival is made easy for birds and mammals in the typical conifer forest.

In contrast, deciduous forests are laid bare to the elements after the leaves have fallen. It’s a colder, wetter environment than that provided by evergreens and yet – even with these disadvantages – life can thrive here.

Flocks of Pine Siskins, a small finch species, and Black-capped Chickadees visit red alders for the seed crop. Many seeds blown down by the wind are harvested by Dark-eyed Juncos. Invertebrates seek shelter in the forest floor’s leaf litter. Varied Thrush can be seen busily tossing leaves aside with their bills to find these prey items. You’ll have to look carefully; the thrush’s coloration blends perfectly with the background of dead leaves.

Trunks of deciduous trees are more fully exposed to the rare winter sunshine than conifers. This bit of warmth energizes insects, which in turn attract Brown Creepers and Downy Woodpeckers looking for a meal.

Winter is a good time to spot bird nests. Robins often build nests in young red alders that are 10 to 15 feet tall.  Nests of many small birds are located in oceanspray and willow thickets. There are apps and field guides that help to identify the species that raised their young. Nests must be left in place so that birds have the option of reusing them for the following breeding season.

Signs of the coming spring are everywhere in deciduous forests. Buds of alders are dark red and half an inch long, while those of bigleaf maples are scaled and may be green or red-brown. Red elderberry buds are large and change from green to purple if the weather becomes cold.

The first deciduous woody plant to set buds is osoberry (Indian plum). Look for the bright rose-red buds as early as November before the last leaves have fallen. The buds turn green by late January.

Deciduous forests are located on many of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust properties. Their winter aspect exposes what was present in high summer in the form of remnant nests, shows current events such as the foraging of thrush, and reveals the promise of spring in the latent buds.

Oceanspray by Martha Ellis.

Flora: Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)

Named for the white to cream flower clusters, oceanspray is a common deciduous shrub in lowland areas, with multiple stems that can reach 12 feet in height. In autumn, the 2- to 2.5-inch, lobed and egg-shaped leaves are tinged with reddish-yellow.

Oceanspray blooms in early summer. The pyramid-shaped clusters of small flowers are pollinated by hoverflies, gnats and beetles. Tiny light brown seeds emerge in late summer and are scattered by the wind.  Several species of small birds eat the seeds. Townsend’s chipmunks may also be seen carefully negotiating the twigs, consuming the seeds before they’re dispersed.

Many insect-eating birds forage among the leaves in summer. Some, such as Orange-crowned Warblers, build nests in the oceanspray’s forks. These nests are easily located after the leaves have been shed. Look, too, for a rolled up dried leaf attached to a twig with silk. This pouch is a hibernaculum or wintering spot of a Lorquin’s admiral butterfly. The caterpillar will emerge in spring to complete the metamorphosis to adult. Other butterflies also use oceanspray as a host plant for feeding caterpillars.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of oceanspray to local habitats: nectar for pollinators, foraging sites for warblers, Bushtits, and other birds, host for butterflies, forked branches for bird nests, and abundant seeds sought out by birds and small mammals.

Look for oceanspray along roadsides, forest openings and other sites that offer dry to moist (but not saturated) soil conditions.

Downy Woodpecker by Martha Ellis.

Fauna: Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Sparrow-sized Downies are the smallest woodpeckers in our area. They are year-round residents of deciduous forests, often joining mixed flocks of other bird species in fall and winter.

Downy Woodpeckers are 6 to 6.7 inces long. The head has a black and white pattern, with the male sporting a red patch on the back of the head. The bill is much shorter than that of their larger cousins, Hairy Woodpeckers.

Downy wings are black with white spots, and the tail is black with white outer feathers. The undersides are dingy white.

Insects and other invertebrates are on the menu for Downies. They tend to flake off bits of bark rather than tap out feeding holes. Males favor feeding on smaller branches of trees and shrubs such as oceanspray, and on stems of larger plants. Females prefer to forage on tree trunks and larger branches. This cuts down on competition and allows pairs to stay together, even year-round if food is plentiful.

Trees or snags with rotten wood are picked for nest sites. The 4 to 5 young fledge about 4 weeks after hatching and are tended by both parents for another 3 weeks.

Each Downy excavates a roost hole. These holes, along with the Downies’ used and then abandoned nest sites add to the deciduous forest supply of cavities which are available for Black-capped Chickadees and other small birds that need them for their own nests.

Downy Woodpeckers are rarely found in conifer forests, preferring deciduous or mixed woods. They readily come to suet feeders.

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