WE WHO LIVE  in the Arizona Central Highlands are fortunate to experience the varied seasons of the year and the many changes that they bring to the native plants and animals of this unique ecoregion.

Winter is the season during which the Highlands receive a large percentage of its yearly precipitation.  The fallen leaves provide an organic blanket to hold in the life-giving moisture and provide protection and nutrients to the root systems of the plants which depend on these for growth during the coming year. Small mammals, reptiles and insects that spend their winters underground also benefit from the covering of dead leaves and the nutrients and shelter they provide.

Winter can also be a very beautiful time. Snow-covered trees transform the forest into a sparkling enchanted fairy tale land. But even without the snow there is something beautiful about the bare tree limbs lifting skyward. Without their protective covering of leaves, it is easier to see their graceful structure and to appreciate their strength.

It is also easier to see all manner of birds fluttering through the boughs. Birds also use the winter months to prepare for spring. The migratory birds that winter here will be around a bit longer, foraging and fattening up to fuel their journey to their northern breeding grounds, while our year-round avian residents are already scoping out nesting sites, though not yet starting to build. Winter may be the least hospitable season, but our relatively mild weather allows us to get outside and learn.  We can brave the snow to look for animal tracks and scat, or just to enjoy the crispness of a bright winter day.

When the snow has melted, we can observe that plants are already beginning to prepare for spring. Even now, in January, some of the native plants have new leaves growing at their bases. Others have leaves that will remain green, and new leaf buds will soon be swelling on deciduous trees and shrubs.

Contributed by Sandy Stoecker