As long as the night is, it's growing shorter

As long as the night is, it's growing shorter

A magical moment occurred just a few days ago, and most of the world, while all caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, likely didn’t give a whit about it. Sure, some folks might have been reminded as they glanced at the calendar that we’d just clicked from one season to another, but I’d venture to guess that unless they really thought about what the “first day of winter” meant in astronomical terms, they missed the magic of the moment altogether.

Winter arrives in Ohio sometimes in a flurry, sometimes on a cool breeze and even at times on an abnormally mild southern wind. Our weather in late December is all over the place and often seems to be some of the most unpredictable of the year. The one thing that first day of winter brings with it — invariably and absolutely — is the promise of spring, as with one tiny tick of the astronomical clock, our days begin to grow in length from the moment winter begins.

While winter is the chosen season for a handful of hardy, outdoorsy individuals, each capable of conquering the cold to make the most of frozen trails, snow-covered hillsides and iced-over farm ponds, most folks, however, are simply trying to make it through without going crazy. Offering hope to the latter is the assurance of tiny, daily, incremental increases in the amount of available sunlight — a trend that will continue right up until the moment six months from now when our days begin to once again shrink.

At the moment of the winter solstice, we will have lost just over six hours of daylight per day from the summertime high of over 15 hours. That’s a significant figure, and if you are like much of the population, the hours of daylight you’ve lost are the ones that fall outside the parameters of work or school. Your playtime has been systematically whittled away by the cruel tilt of a blue planet orbiting its favorite star.

Still, even though wintertime may seem long and sad here in the northern hemisphere of planet earth, we should take heart in our good fortune. At only 91 days per season, we’ve got it relatively easy — wintertime on planet Jupiter is over three years long. The same season on far-flung Uranus is nearly 20 years from start to finish.

Lest we pity ourselves into hopeless despair, we should take time to embrace the season, dark and all. There are wonderful things to be seen and heard through the cold blue of a winter’s night. Get to the woods and listen for owls throughout the winter. The hours surrounding dawn and dusk are great times to listen for the “who, who, who-who” of the great horned owl who is busy at this time of year setting up a territory and angling for a mate.

In a leafless, frozen forest, the owl’s call can travel a good, long way, and his silhouette, on a naked branch set against a moonlit sky, is as visible as it will ever be. The feathered tufts or “horns” on top of the great horned owl’s head make for a simple and unmistakable ID. Spot what looks to be a large cat sitting on a tree branch and you’re most likely looking at a great horned owl.

Even beyond creatures of the night, the moon shadow of nearly anything can cast a wonderful treasure on the snow. Take a moment to walk in the woods, breath in the brisk air and enjoy the long winter’s night. Its time grows ever shorter.

For comments about this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.