Take a hike! You'll be surprised how much flora, fauna you'll see -- even in the winter

Take a hike! You'll be surprised how much flora, fauna you'll see -- even in the winter

It's 12 degrees out, you're hiking in the woods and you do not have a death wish — you're having a great time.

Because a winter hike has a lot of advantages.

"No bugs. No crowds. No heat," says Pam Leiter.

She is the assistant director of the Museum and Education Department at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and she's thrilled by the gifts of winter: Most deciduous trees, she points out oaks as an exception, are bereft of leaves.

That means you can see nests in every direction at River Bend Forest Preserve south of Mahomet.

This preserve, once a sand and gravel mine, now has ponds called wetland bioswales. They were constructed with grass buffers to catch silt and pollutants from storm water runoff, the park's website says.

More than 700 tons of topsoil were brought in to help stabilize user areas, reduce erosion and allow more than 400 native trees and shrubs to be planted.

The trees and shrubs shelter a wide variety of flora and fauna.

Things may look dead, but they're not — for good and bad.

Frozen poison ivy still spikily threatens even with its green gone. Leiter said the ivy retains its irritating oils all year. Don't burn it, she recommends — it will only aerosolize the offending particles.

Then there are the joys.

There's a robin's nest, distinctly thick with mud and twigs. Squirrel nests are everywhere. Mice have added to a roof to a bird's nest and call it home.

Woolly mullein pokes out of the ground, looking very woolly. Some grass that got bamboozled by a January thaw gives spots of green, as does moss. And Leiter has seen bald eagles at preserves, too.

Her face lights up when she spots chickadees and tufted titmice. The newishly opened land is teeming with life that she can spot.

You can't see any deer, but their tracks are everywhere. One deer seemed to be moving to the same place as a squirrel companion, toward a deep pond (formerly for gravel) that is not fully frozen and hosts lots of ducks and geese.

And then there's the humble scat.

Scat is a word the noble Greeks used, which gives its name to a science, scatology.

"Kids love two things the most when they tour here," she says. They are: scat, or dried poop; and dead smelly animals.

(The guide discourages the practice of rubbing one's back all over it, which is OK, however, if you're a canine.)

Coyote scat looks like dog poo, except that it has fur in it, she says.

"Dogs eat dog food; coyotes eat the whole rabbit," Leiter says.

Winter is also the best time of year to get sap out of sugar maples. Every season has its treats; the forest preserve's newest addition, Sylvester Woods near Homer, has survived intact thanks to a family's stewardship, and in April shows off wildflowers that prairie settlers might have seen.