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Autumn, when woodsy walks are wonderful - November 10, 2011

Autumn offers many pleasures, few as satisfying as a hike in the woods. The solitude, the crisp air, the smell of the earth, the stunning array of color, the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet. With a thermos of warm cider or hot chocolate, even a short walk in the dappled light of a forest helps soothe one's soul.

An added bonus? After the first frost or two, you're unlikely to encounter ticks, chiggers, or mosquitoes, which may have deterred you from entering local forests in recent months.

There are so many beautiful forests to explore on Delmarva. Public lands including city, county, state, and national parks offer wonderful opportunities to immerse oneself in nature. Take full advantage of your local parks.

While I take many hikes on my own, I also enjoy walks with friends and family, and adventures with my daughter. My love of nature began in the woods near my childhood home, exploring with my father who carefully pointed out the mosaic of sights, sounds, scents, colors, and textures, and helped to interpret the interrelationship of the plants and animals we encountered. He encouraged me to hone my observation skills and nurtured my appreciation for the world in which we live.

If you take a hike this fall, I would encourage you to deliberately engage all of your senses. If you have a child with you, you could embark on a nature scavenger hunt. Search for something that is crunchy (dry leaves), prickly (sweet gum balls or pinecones), bumpy (bark), smooth (mushroom top), and soft (moss). Take note of all of the colors you see -- brilliant red berries, glowing orange and deep purple leaves, bright yellow mushrooms, dark green moss, cool gray bark, and warm brown earth. Autumn offers an amazing color palette. Children require little encouragement to create ephemeral art from nature's infinite parts, collect buckets of acorns, and construct stick-built forts.

Wildlife abounds. Newly-arriving winter birds flit about from tree to tree. Squirrels rustle through the leaves and scurry up trees. Deer, fox, and turkey are often seen along forest edges. Geese fly overhead in formation.

If you don't see wildlife, you will surely see signs of wildlife, if you know where to look. After the leaves have fallen, many bird nests are in plain view. Holes in trees hint at woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Tree trunks may reveal bark removed by a buck that left a territorial scrape or a notch gnawed by an industrious beaver.

If you look closely at the ground, you may discover a box turtle shell, shed antlers, bones, feathers and chunks of fur leftover from a predator-prey encounter, or an owl pellet coughed up by a nocturnal owl perched somewhere above your head. You may also find scat. Yes, that's another word for poop. Animal scat can help you better understand what species have walked the same path. Deer scat looks like a pile of shiny, round Raisinets, but they are not nearly as tasty. Last week, while in the wet woods along Nassawango Creek, I discovered two clues that ensured a river otter was nearby: a damp "slide," bare of leaves, that lead into the creek, and a pile of fresh otter scat. Otter scat has a texture similar to chocolate no-bake cookies, but in place of oatmeal, fish scales are mixed throughout.

While exploring, be sure to look up, too. Depending on the time of day, you may be fortunate to witness a beautiful sunrise, take time to daydream as you look at fluffy cumulus clouds float across a blue sky, enjoy the calm of a colorful sunset, or the quiet of a starry night sky on a chilly night.

There is so much to discover. Step outside. Take a hike.

If you're interested in exploring the coastal bays region, please contact the Maryland Coastal Bays Program at mcbp@mdcoastalbays.org or visit www.mdcoastalbays.org for more information.

Samis is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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