Winter Cardinal

In the midst of yet another cold front and winter weather advisory, I wondered what nature lovers during Charlotte Mason’s day did for winter nature study. So I turned to The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady to see what Edith Holden observed during the winter months in 1906. Here is one of her entries, February 9, chock full of ideas for winter nature study.

“Snow-storm in the night; this morning we looked out on a white landscape, this is the first deep snow we have had this winter. I swept a space free on the lawn and strewed it with bread and rice: crowds of birds came. I counted eight Tits at one time on the cocoa-nut and the tripod of sticks supporting it. There were some terrible battles among the Tits this morning. One tiny Blue-cap took possession of the cocoa-nut, sitting down in the middle of it and bidding defiance to all the others. It was very funny to see him squatting in the shell, warring and hissing at the Great Tit who came at him with open wings and beak. There was a partial eclipse of the moon visible this morning at 5:57 A.M. At 8 o’clock in the evening there was a beautiful rainbow-coloured halo round the moon, unusually bright and distinct.”

And now I have the beginnings of a list of nature study ideas for winter, pulling some from Edith’s entry and adding others from Clare Walker Leslie, Charlotte Mason, and Karen Smith, who all have wonderful hearts for nature.

  1. Keep a weather calendar. Record sky conditions and clouds, the temperature and what time of day it was taken.
  2. Turn your eyes to the heavens. Note the time of sunrise and sunset each day, the phases of the moon, and any other celestial happenings.
  3. Put out food for the birds. Keep a list of the kinds of birds that come to dine and note their habits and interactions with other birds. Suet and black oil sunflower seed are the two best foods for birds any time of the year. Most seed mixes have cheap filler seed that the birds generally don’t eat, but just knock out of the feeders, wasting it on the ground. Even if they knock out the sunflower seeds, ground-feeding birds, squirrels, mice, and voles will eat the seed. Cracked corn and peanuts are favorites of some birds. Woodpeckers, cardinals, and blue jays will eat the peanuts. Ground-feeding birds, like mourning doves, will eat cracked corn.
  4. Study the tree shapes and bark. Leaf shape is not the only way to identify a tree. Get familiar with the general shape of the branches and do a rubbing of the bark.
  5. Notice which trees or bushes or other plants hold their leaves or fruit all winter.
  6. Look for animal tracks and bird wing impressions in the snow. See how many different animals you can identify that visit a snowy patch.
  7. Look for icicles and ice on tree branches or frost on windows or small branches. Take close-up photographs of the beauty.
  8. Look and listen for birds in trees. You should be able to spot them easier on the bare branches this time of year. Use binoculars. In the North, birdsongs/calls are limited to a few birds in the winter. Chickadees will sound their chick-a-dee-dee-dee sound, cardinals will chip, blue jays will scream “jay!”, and some of the woodpeckers will make their noises. The great-horned owls mate this time of year, so brave souls could open their windows at night to hear the owl mating calls. As the days get longer, the chickadees will change to their “hi, sweetie” mating calls, cardinals will change to singing a long melodious song in the treetops, and the robins will begin returning and adding their “cheerio” call.
  9. Go for a silent nature walk. No talking, just listen and look.
  10. Catch snowflakes on your mitten or on a black cloth and try to draw them before they melt. Read Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin for inspiration.
  11. Notice the various patterns of snow sculpting that is formed by the wind drifting the snow.
  12. Go for a What-Don’t-You-See nature walk and look for aspects of nature that are missing compared to your walks in warmer months; e.g., leaves, insects, certain birds, green grass, certain warm-blooded mammals, cold-blooded reptiles. Talk about why they are missing and where they are.
  13. Look for buds on trees. These form in the winter and swell as the days get longer, but won’t open until the days are warmer.

Please feel free to add to this list by leaving your own winter nature study ideas in the comments.

For more on the Charlotte Mason method of nature study and keeping a nature notebook, see this blog series on Nature Study and our book, Hours in the Out-of-Doors: A Charlotte Mason Nature Study Handbook.


  1. I usually have a hard time coming up with activities when there is no snow but it is still cold. this is a great list.

    It has been so cold, lately, that I just can’t take my little one outside. My friend shared an image of her little one’s playing with snow in their house and I thought “Why didn’t I think of that!”

    Thanks for the list

  2. Take a cutting from a woody perennial and put it in a glass of water on the table inside. In 7-10 days, leaf buds should swell and will even burst forth sharing new life from within.

  3. I printed this out and we are heading outside to enjoy the activities. Thank you! We actually have snow/ice here in LA so this post is so helpful!!!

  4. This is a wonderful and inspiring list. Thank you for sharing!

    I tried sketching ice today. I had to write words to describe what I drew!

  5. During our big snow day we bundled up and went to a local park. My daughter and I took a quiet walk through the woodland trails and had a wonderful time playing detective as we looked for animal prints in the snow. It was great fun imagining the scamperings and games the birds, rabbits, squirrels, and foxes must have played. It was such a magical walk… one we will both cherish. We especially loved seeing the twisting, zig-zag, circular trail of Brer Rabbit. Brer Fox must have had him in mind for dinner. We saw their prints together often and could just see Brer Rabbit laughing safe and sound in his brier patch!

Comments are closed.