Extension agent encourages winter exploration
Winter along the banks of White Clay Creek.

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9:23 a.m., Jan. 12, 2011----This is the season when many nature-lovers page through seed catalogs, polish their binoculars and dream of warmer and brighter days. But then there are the hardy types, like Dot Abbott, who consider winter the perfect time to get outside.

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“During the cold-weather months, I appreciate aspects of nature that I take for granted at other times of the year,” says Abbott, a renewable resources agent for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “With the foliage gone, it's a lot easier to see animal habitats and to notice wildlife. For example, a male Northern cardinal will really stand out amid the browns and grays of the forest in January.”

Abbott is responsible for Extension's forest conservation education program, which teaches Delawareans about forest ecosystems. Much of the programming takes place at the outdoor woodland classroom located at UD's Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown. Abbott also utilizes woodland classrooms at Delaware State University and Blackbird State Forest.

Abbott works with both adult and youth groups but especially enjoys training childcare providers because they help very young children become attuned to nature.

“Exposure to the natural world is an essential part of growing up,” says Abbott. “It increases a child's awareness and improves observational skills.”

“In the winter, I do an activity with childcare providers and other visitors that encourage them to fully utilize their senses,” adds Abbott. “Without the visual distractions of green leaves and bright flowers, they may find it easier to tune into auditory stimuli -- the crunch of dry, withered leaves under foot, the whistle of the wind, the calls of noisy blue jays or the high-pitched, whistling call of the Eastern screech owl.”

She encourages visitors to fine-tune their sense of smell, too. Though most of us don't think of winter as being a particularly fragrant time of year, Abbott says to think again. Decaying leaves give off an earthy, musky scent; fox dens offer pungent smells and pine trees have a crisp, clean scent that's synonymous with the holidays.

Abbott uses those pine trees, as well as other trees, to illustrate different textures found in nature. Some bark is smooth, such as on the American beech; some is ridged, like on a tulip poplar; some is peeling or flaky, like that of the yellow birch or sycamore.

As for pine, the texture depends on the species. While most pines have thick and scaly barks, a few species have thin, flaking barks.

To Jimmy Buffett, a change in latitude brings about a change in attitude. For Abbott, as she leads her woodland classrooms tours, it's all about a change in altitude.

She's not talking anything drastic, though, just the change in altitude found when one squats or kneels rather than stands erect. “Get down low and you'll notice all sorts of things on the forest floor,” says Abbott. “If you're near a riverbank you may see small black insects -- these are stoneflies, one of the few insects that are active during a Delaware winter. You may see chipmunks, a cache of nuts under a tree, animal tracks or scat. If you had remained standing, you may not have noticed any of these things.”

And if you hadn't braved the cold and ventured out, you definitely wouldn't have seen any of these things.

Abbott offers free, one-hour guided tours of the outdoor woodland classroom to groups, individuals and families. She also offers a forest ecosystem lesson to groups who are not able to travel to the outdoor classroom. For reservations and more information, call Abbott at 302-730-4000 or email her at [dotad@udel.edu].

Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley

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