There’s an undeniable magic to winter. Whilst outwardly it looks like nature has wrapped itself up, tucked itself away and become bare and barren, in fact there is a huge amount going on beneath the surface. I’m not just talking about the bulbs that seem to be springing up in premature glory wherever our walks take us lately. I’m talking about the trees and hedgerows with their tiny buds, catkins and bark markings. Without their usual give-away glossy green manes of leaves they have become secret strangers, each one concealing its mysterious identity given away only to those who look carefully.
After nursery yesterday Roo and I only had time for a short walk so it seemed like the perfect time to bundle up and go and inspect the trees in our local field a little closer. I’d run out of time during the day to nip out and make an ID sheet for Roo to use but a quick search online brought me to this fantastic twig identification activity sheet from the Woodland Trust’s Nature Detectives’ series. Perfect – I printed a copy off, ran off a quick worksheet for Roo to do her own pictures, notes and bark rubbings on (printable included below) and we headed off to the fields, clipboard, wax crayons and pencils in hand.
It was wet and muddy in the field. Before we got anywhere near Roo’s first target tree we stopped to inspect the many footprints left in the mud along the path. There were the usual assortment of dog-prints and shoes but we also found the signs of deer hooves – unsurprising since we have seen both Roe and Muntjac deer in the fields and even peeking in our garden in recent weeks.
At the first tree Roo whipped out her colouring crayons and set to work drawing a picture of the twigs. We talked about how high the tree was (much taller than hedgerow height) and she tested its width by trying to throw her arms around its trunk to no avail. It was fun to see Roo’s eye tune in as we examined the twigs together and compared them to the Woodland Trust’s activity sheet. At first, she was quick to just dismiss it as ‘brown with pokey bits’ but then after realising most of the twigs on the sheet were to some extent brown with pokey bits she started to zoom in a little bit more on the more subtle differences.
‘This tree has some greeny bits too but not on the buds,’ she observed after a few moments.
A careful comparison to each twig on the sheet and she took a punt on it matching most closely the oak tree. I happen to know that she got it spot on with this one – the oak she had chosen is one of my favourites in that field. I didn’t tell her this though – part of the fun will be coming back in the spring to check if her guess was right when the tree has unfurled its leaves.
Roo took a quick bark rubbing (‘very wide and bumpy’ ) and on we went.
Roo tackled another couple of trees before it began to get a bit dark and gloomy and we turned back for the day. She found what we think to be a field maple and a hawthorn bush but I need as much practice as her on this exercise of winter ID and whilst I’m fairly confident she got at least the hawthorn right, we will need to wait until Spring for definite confirmation.
Being out in the fields and spending a bit of time just being still and not just tramping on past does make a difference though. We spotted a large dark woodmouse dash up from some sticks near Roo’s feet to behind the tree she’d just been studying. On our way back we found what looked suspiciously like a fox’s den and a rabbit that was almost black in colouring bounced through the hedgerow, startled by our sudden movement after several minutes of stillness.
Back home I’ve tucked away Roo’s sketches and bark rubbings until later in Spring. Then we can retrace our steps with the help of a leaf id guide and track down exactly what our mystery trees are. Whether Roo’s guesses are right or not is beside the point. She is only four after all. For now she has sharpened her observation skills, paid attention to her surroundings and engaged with nature, all whilst having fun. That is as much as any outdoorsy Mum could wish for.
If you’d like a go at your own winter tree identification walk then you can find the excellent Woodland Trust twig id sheet here. You can download a printable copy of the Winter Tree Identification Activity Worksheet I made for Roo here. Have fun!