The joys of a winter hike in the state of Missouri

Francis Skalicky, Missouri Department of Conservation
Mike Jeffries explores the grounds around the Central Office with his grandsons.

Whoever said Nature goes dormant in winter has never walked through an Ozarks countryside or forest trail at this time of year.

There have been some unseasonably warm days in recent weeks, but it’s a good guess that there will be some colder days in the weeks ahead. When those days arrive, it’s tempting to “cocoon” with good snack food and a well-functioning TV remote. However, while you’re thinking of all the things you can do inside, don’t overlook the benefits of getting outside for a winter hike.

And, in all likelihood, there’s a nearby Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) public use area that would be a great site for a winter hike. When many people think of walking at an MDC area, their thoughts turn to MDC’s Springfield Conservation Nature Center in Springfield. It’s true that the Nature Center’s trails are a great place to detach from the hustle and bustle and connect with nature, but it’s not the only MDC area that offer walking/hiking opportunities. Many MDC areas are best-known for hunting or stream-fishing activities, but a number of these areas also have hiking trails. This is the time of year when hunting activities start to wind down, which means it may be a great time for a winter walk on a trail at an MDC public use area.

What will you see? Well, while it’s true trees aren’t leafed out, flowers aren’t blooming, some animals are hibernating and others aren’t seen because they’re over-wintering or have migrated south; it’s equally true the outdoors at this time of year are far from comatose. Some people would argue that, on days when weather provides temperatures we can handle and a wind that’s not too biting; this is the best time of year to get out.

For starters, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes and all those other creatures that sting, bite and buzz are gone. You can take off through the brush and tall grass without worrying about having to do a tick check or a chigger scrubbing at the end of your trip.

Also, because the leaves are gone and much of the vegetation has either died or withered; visibility is much better. That deer in the underbrush that would have gone undetected five months ago is easier to see now because the thicket isn’t as thick. The unique rock formations along area streams that were coated with brush and vines in the summer now protrude like natural statues and sculptures, beckoning you to climb on them and explore them (where it’s permitted) and pose with them for pictures that will highlight your desk, computer screen saver or Facebook page far into the future.

Rock formations and deer aren’t the only things you can see at this time of year. Turkeys gather into flocks in winter and make for interesting sightings if you’re fortunate to come upon a bunch. Come upon an old snag tree during your walk and you may see one of a variety of woodpecker species hammering away at the trunk in search of a meal.

Missouri’s winter bird world consists of more than turkeys and woodpeckers, though. Migrating visitors and the increased visibility at many areas make this a particularly good time to take binoculars on an outdoors trek. Bald eagles are the winter visitor that gets much of the publicity, but you never know when you may see one of several species of hawks perched next to an old overgrown field in search of a meal. Since these raptors are looking for food, that means the meals they’re seeking – rabbits, squirrels and other small mammals – are also around. Later in winter, some species of owls begin courtship rituals which will add audio variety for landowners who have to do after-dark livestock checks or for people who want to star-gaze at the spectacular winter night skies. Lakes, ponds and back-water sloughs are good places to see migrating waterfowl and other birds that prefer to be close to water.

As far as what to take on your trip; binoculars and a digital camera are good ideas. Comfortable shoes are a necessity and it’s always a good idea to layer your clothing because a hike that starts off cold in the morning could get warm when the afternoon sun crosses your path. Although, as mentioned above hunting traffic is down at this time of year, there are still a few seasons going on. It’s a good idea to check with your local Missouri Department of Conservation office or on-line at mdc.mo.gov to see what hunting activity may be taking place (or to find a location where hunting isn’t permitted).

People can get more information about places to go for winter nature viewing and information about the species they might see at these places at mdc.mo.gov or at their nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.