by Bailey Zook, Teaching Naturalist

This time of fall turning to winter is such a lovely season full of changing colors, shortening, slowing days, and cozy evenings. It is full of environmental cues that it’s time to slow down, take stock, and prepare to rest. In my work as a Teaching Naturalist, I often have conversations with students about their naturalist sightings each month. This month, in particular, the observations are worth discussing.

“The days are getting shorter.”
This topic can be a little confusing for some students. There are still 24 hours in each day, so what does that mean? It means that the northern hemisphere of the Earth is currently pointing away from the sun in our annual orbit. This means that the northern hemisphere is slowly getting farther and farther away from the sun, which in turn means that our daylight hours are getting shorter and shorter. The shortest daylight hours of the year will be on December 21, the Winter Solstice.

earth's orbit - northern hemisphere seasons

“The animals are hibernating, migrating, or tolerating.”
Absolutely! We know that bears hibernate in the winter, but did you know that Montana’s painted turtles also go into a state of hibernation? Turtles have an incredible winter talent to be able to lower their body temperature and oxygen levels, bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds, and even use glycogen as an energy source! But how do they know when it’s time to “wake up”? Well, turtles continue to stay visually engaged during the winter so they can tell when the ice has thawed and they’re able to swim to the surface.

western painted turtle

Photo by Murray Foubister, CC 2.0

“The trees are dying.”
Though they may look like they’re dying, many trees lose their leaves in the winter in response to the shorter daylight hours. As opposed to evergreen trees that keep their leaves/needles in the winter, deciduous trees drop their leaves to conserve energy during the shortest, coldest days of the year. If you take a second to look at these trees, you’ll notice that they have buds along their branches. These buds contain the new leaves that we will see in the spring! Trees begin to grow these new leaves after many environmental cues take place including the lengthening of daylight hours and days of consecutive cold/freezing weather.

wintry trees in Missoula, Montana

Photo by Djembayz, CC 4.0.

The natural world is full of incredible and inspiring methods of survival as diverse species embrace the seasons of fall and winter. Perhaps there are some bits of wisdom that we as humans could adopt to better enjoy this time as well. A great sense of peace can be found in slowing, resting, and being present during these seasons to prepare for the warmth and joy that comes each spring.