Dark December still has much to offer nature lovers

December, it has been said, is the evening of the year, the darkest month, the time of the winter solstice (Dec. 21) and the shortest day of the year. Nature generally slows down this time of year.

Even so, there is much astir in Georgia’s wild places in December to please nature lovers. For instance:

Endangered North Atlantic right whales are returning to their winter calving grounds in coastal waters off Georgia and North Florida. Researchers have begun aerial surveys to document calving activity.

In southeast Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, otters are swimming in the lakes and canals as alligators become less active. Wading birds are prominent as they forage in the prairies. Wood ducks and teal can be seen throughout the swamp.

Georgia’s black bears are still roaming about. White-tailed deer breeding season is still underway. Raccoons have started breeding; opossums will do so soon.

Bald eagles and ospreys have started nesting. Some eagle nests may have eggs by Christmas Day. Great horned owls are breeding. You may hear them — and barred owls, too — hooting during the evenings.

The winter birds — cedar waxwings, yellow-rumped warblers, sparrows, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, kinglets and others — have arrived to spend the season in Georgia; they’ll return to nesting grounds up north in the spring.

Many of our year-round birds — cardinals, blue jays, robins — have started flocking up for the winter. Birds in flocks are safer from predators and more adept at finding food.

Birders will be looking for these species and others during the Christmas bird counts that begin in mid-December.

Spring peepers begin breeding this month.

Witch hazel is blooming — the last flowering wild shrub to blossom during the year. Look for its small yellow flowers in damp woodlands.

And, even in the dead of winter, you can still find much greenery in Georgia’s woods — pines, hemlocks, cedars, club mosses, mountain laurel, winterberry, hollies, Christmas ferns and more.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first-quarter Wednesday. Mercury and Venus are low in the west and Mars is low in the southwest around nightfall. Jupiter rises out of the east just after midnight. Saturn is not visible now.

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