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A Winter To-Do List to Enjoy the Outdoors

By Lisa Mason, CSU Extension Horticulture Agent

Happy New Year! For me, one of the best parts about Colorado is that you can be outside all year around. Winter is a lovely season to enjoy the scenery. Spending time outdoors is always beneficial for our mental and physical health. While you are out enjoying the fresh air, here are some things to do and observe:

  • Look for tiny critters. Most insects and arthropods overwinter in a diapause state (dormancy), but you may see some activity on warm days. While winter watering my landscape, I came across the larvae of a brown lacewing (Family: Hemerobiidae). Lacewings are excellent beneficial insects in our gardens because they feed on pests, especially aphids. Recently, I also came across a Say’s stink bug, (Chlorochroa sayi). Stink bugs overwinter as adults, usually finding a safe, warm place under leaf piles and other debris. The Say’s stink bug will slowly turn from green to brown as fall and winter approach. For more information on how insects survive the winter, check out the following blog post: How Insects Survive Winter. On warm days in winter–usually above 50 degrees–you may observe honey bees out flying. Honey bees cluster in the hive most of the time, but on warm days, they leave the hive to go on a cleansing flight to relieve themselves. They may also seek out water and food sources. Honey bees feed on the honey stores in the hive, but occasionally you may see them at bird feeders picking up bits of protein from seeds and cracked corn. Learn more about Where Do Bees Go in the Winter?
  • Notice plants that provide winter interest. Plants also go through a dormant stage during the winter, but many plants still provide beauty and interesting characteristics to your garden and landscape. One of my personal favorites is rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) and varieties like Baby Blue rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus var. nauseosus). Rabbitbrush is an interesting plant all year around, but in the winter, the seedheads and stalks provide a golden color and interesting texture to the landscape. Here are some examples of other plants that provide unique winter interest: Four Native Plants for Winter Interest and Winter Interest with Plant Select® Plants in the Western Garden.
Rabbitbrush along a trail in winter. Photo: Lisa Mason
  • Provide water and food for the birds. During the summer many birds feed on insects and other arthropods. Once winter arrives, food becomes scarce and backyard birds tend to feed on seeds and fruits. Check out the Winter Bird Feeding guide by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for details on how to provide the most nutritious food for birds during the winter. If you are interested in providing long-term habitat and nutrition for backyard birds, consider adding native plants to your landscape. Check out this Colorado guide on Native Plants for Birds. Fresh water is also critical for birds and can be hard to come by in the freezing temperatures. Be wary of birdbaths that can crack with freezing water. Consider birdbaths that have a built-in heater. Providing food and water for birds in winter provides them needed resources and can bring joy from watching the birds visit your yard.
Black-capped chickadees are common visitors to birdfeeders in Colorado. Photo: Pixabay
  • Take up birdwatching as a hobby. Speaking of birds… Winter is a great time to go birdwatching. Without the leaves on the trees, birds are easier to observe. Many birds take up residence in Colorado during the winter. Some bald eagles are residents–you can observe them in Colorado all year around. Others migrate to Colorado for the winter. The population of bald eagles increases during the winter months for a variety of reasons, including the available of food. Read more about why bald eagles migrate to Colorado for the winter in a blog post by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. Colorado normally has around 200 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and in the winter more than 1,000 are expected to come through Colorado. Learn more about where to observe bald eagles near you. Another winter migrant raptor you may observe are rough-legged hawks. They live in the arctic tundra during the summer where they breed. For winter, they migrate south and inhabit Colorado and much of the United States. Rough-legged hawks received their name because they have feathers that extend down to their feet. You may observe great horned owls in the wintertime because they are courting. You can often hear them hooting and see their silhouettes in the trees. Courting begins in December and January—one of the earliest bird species to begin the process of mating. Great horned owls are often crepuscular, meaning they are active in the twilight hours.
A great horned owl. Photo: Pixabay
  • Water your landscape. Colorado had another dry year in 2021. Landscape plants will benefit from extra water to get them through the winter. Winter watering can prevent root damage and help the overall health of your plants. Anytime we have a prolonged period of dry, warm weather in the fall, winter, and spring, consider watering your plants when the weather is above 40 degrees. Apply water during the warm part of the day so it has adequate time to soak in before temperatures cool down. Prioritize watering newly planted trees and shrubs, followed by trees in your landscape. Don’t forget to water your lawn and perennials. For more information, check out the CSU Extension fact sheets on Fall and Winter Watering, and Watering Your Landscape During a Drought.

Winter is a wonderful time of year to explore the outdoors and notice the beauty in our surrounding environment. Enjoy the fresh air, cool temperatures, snow, plants, birds, and other wildlife that make Colorado a wonderful place to live.

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