Watching Wildlife in Winter

Published online: Jan 22, 2021 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
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Small tracks tiptoe through the powder on the deck in your backyard. Bigger prints, more like a paw, pock the driveway in front of your house. And in the neighbor’s tall poplar tree, now naked of leaves, two yellow eyes watch. 

Outside of town there’s even more to see. A soft nose surrounded by needles on that thick branch arching bankside over the dry creek bed. Grand, pale feathers matching the freezing moisture in the air gracefully float on thawed current. And brown fluffs of flurry bounce across the meadow. There’s action all around and you’re missing it. Wildlife doesn’t disappear in winter. We do. So stop with the hide inside during the season of snow. Put on your warm layers and see the wild in winter. Hot cocoa tastes better outside anyway. 

Backyard

Shovel your driveway by hand instead of by plow, and shovel in the dark instead of during the day. Mother Nature’s show is better with these two tactical changes. Shovels provide a quiet rhythm rather than the motor of plow with its relentless rumble. Within the quiet of scooping you’ll stay warm, your mind will clear like your driveway and you’ll discover what belongs to those two yellow eyes in the neighbor’s poplar. It’s hooting as it wants to do in winter. It’s a great gray owl. He’s hunting and possibly courting. He’ll feed his mate the vole he talons and together the pair will choose a nest site by February. This is a busy time of year for owls so they’re moving about with frequency. While owls are indeed active during the day, the better display is by night. That’s why you’re shoveling in the dark. 

Back Road

Now grab your car keys. The driveway is clear.  Leave your neighborhood and head north on I-15. The main road into Market Lake Wildlife Management Area near Ririe isn’t plowed, but it  welcomes enough traffic to stay hard packed and drivable. The ponds are frozen so don’t expect waterfowl, but the fields host rabbits and deer. Walk the dikes between cattails in hiking boots if the snow is shallow. Take snowshoes if it’s deep. 

Do the same at Camas National Wildlife Refuge near Hamer. That’s where you’ll spy those soft noses surrounded by not-so-soft needles. Porcupines. They like to perch in trees along ditches that water the refuge in summer. Those ditches are empty in winter, but the tree canopy above isn’t. 

White tail deer, bald eagles and, on lucky occasion, moose also hang out at Camas, but all three move faster than sloth-similar porcupines so stay alert and crank the defrost for a clear view from within your car. This is a drivable adventure, but take a shovel. If you pull to the side of the road to watch a herd of elk or that lone coyote, the packed roadway quickly turns into piles of powder on the shoulder. It gets deep in a hurry so take something to dig with just in case you have to shovel out your tires like you had to shovel your driveway before you left. 

Backcountry

Pack cross-country skis for this jaunt and that thermos of hot cocoa too. You’re going to want it after you ski Harriman State Park for swans. Snow easily stacks above the 5-foot line on the measurement marker near the park’s entrance, but, surprisingly, the river doesn’t freeze in Island Park. That’s why thousands of swans swing our way in winter; we have open water.

Ski along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and watch the long-necked fliers stir up river bottom plants for breakfast. The white birds are adults. They’re usually in pairs. The grey ones are cygnets, young birds born last spring. Adult pairs usually have at least one to two cygnets with them in winter and by then those babies are more like teenagers, but they still like to hang with their parents. 

It’s a family affair of feathers, and fur, and it’s on display for your family now. Enjoy the show.

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. Her first book ‘My Place Among Men’ is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com 


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