Flickr, USFWS Mountain-Prairie (John Carr)
Winter is the time to spy tracks in the snow, dark animals against snowy backdrops and creatures who’ve migrated nearer to us. You'll find that winter days on public lands tend to be much quieter than during peak season, so animals aren't as shy - and you can rent a cabin much more easily. It's also the best time to visit breathtaking desert landscapes, which are home to a surprising array of wildlife.
Here’s some tips on spotting creatures large and small in winter.
During winter, herd animals descend from mountains into valleys. Elk, bison, bighorn sheep and even elusive gray wolves may be seen roaming through snowy landscapes.
While skiing is often a more popular recreational activity in winter, exploring trails by snowshoe allows hikers to slow down and see tracks from animals like deer, foxes and rabbits.
photo: elks playing in Redwoods National Park. credit: Flickr, javi.velazquez.
There’s no better time to start or engage in birdwatching than during the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is held annually in mid-February.
Winter is especially prime for viewing large birds of prey like raptors and eagles. Some National Wildlife Refuges offer bald eagle tours to help visitors spot nests.
Many wildlife refuges also host bird festivals during the colder months:
- Alabama: Festival of the Cranes
- California: Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival, and San Diego Bird Festival
- Florida: Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival and Florida Scrub-Jay Festival
- Oregon: Winter Wings Bird Festival
- Texas: Whooping Crane Festival
photo: bald eagle building a nest in Yellowstone National Park. credit: Flickr, Lorne Sykora.
Birds aren’t the only creatures migrating south for this season. Whales swim down from northern latitudes to warmer waters, offering glimpses from U.S. coastlines.
Gray whales spend a few months wintering in Southern California and migrate by the Pacific Northwest in early winter and spring.
Humpback and fin whales appear off the east coast and can be spotted in Virginia.
The Hawaiian Islands host the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Count a few times during the season as well.
photo: humpback whale at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. credit: Flickr, Peter Liu Photography.
Even when you’re indoors, you’ll be able to see remarkable wildlife thanks to incredible wildlife cams across the U.S.
Keep your eyes peeled for shots of these early in the year:
- seals at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Maine
- birds of prey (eagles, osprey and horned owls) at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland (eagle eggs may arrive in mid-January)
- eagles at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center (starting in late January with a possibility of eggs in February)