Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002 Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002
Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002

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Photo by Ross Hall

Winter Wildlife
A spotter’s guide to wildlife viewing amongst the snow

If, as you glide above the snow up the mountain, you think you see something move in the white spaces between trees under the lift, I advise you to watch carefully as you pass. You might see a shadow shaped like a rabbit bobbling across the lift line. Did I see that, you’ll wonder, or dream it?

We humans sometimes think all the animal world goes to sleep under the snow, but winter is full of animals operating under our very noses. In four-plus decades of watching, I’ve found the key to seeing winter critters is conscious observation – coupled with luck.

On your next ride up the lift, watch for the four-point prints of that rabbit; smaller tracks of ermine and mice; and perhaps the splayed marks of Merriam’s turkey. That set of canine prints sauntering from tree stump to aspen clump marks passage of a coyote looking for the snowshoe hare you saw.

That was, by the way, a rare sight. Rabbits are shy, prone as they are to being eaten by larger things traipsing through or flying over the winter woods – coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, the rare Canadian lynx, and great horned and snowy owls. Ma Nature evened the odds by allowing this member of the Leporidae family to change from brown to white as winter comes on.

Rabbits are not the only color-changers. The ptarmigan, a grouse-sized bird that lives at higher elevations, turns from gray black to white in winter. Winter weasels become ermines; all white excepting a black tip on their tail, pink around their ears and beady black eyes.

We don’t see a lot of wildlife in winter, partly because many species are shy of us, and animals have that ability to “hide” in plain view. A coyote or bobcat sitting stock-still in a winter larch grove is difficult to spot; impossible, if we’re not watching. Even moose “disappear” standing in a dark grove munching stems.

Relatively few creatures actually avoid winter by migrating or damping down their internal fire. Most migrators fly; birds, bats and butterflies. Fish and ungulates migrate, too, but their routes are from streams to lakes in the case of fish; or from mountain valleys to hay fields (or Hidden Lakes Golf Resort) in the case of deer and elk.

Creatures who “go to sleep,” do so to varying degrees. Bears and squirrels, in spite of a reputation as hibernators, actually “aestivate,” spending long periods sleeping or dozing, but not reducing heart rate and body temperature dramatically as true hibernators do. On a warm day in any winter month, it is not unlikely for a bear to go out and take a look around before returning to its den.

Many birds book a flight south in November, but any number spend the snow season here. It is not uncommon to see ducks and geese through the whole season in venues like Pack River, Denton Slough or on Sand Creek. They can even act as a sort of barometer. When they suddenly disappear, watch out for bad weather.

Another species of waterfowl, snow geese, are harbingers of seasonal change. At their arrival in autumn, expect winter right behind. When they glide back to the sloughs around Lake Pend Oreille in March, spring is following.

In deep winter, little birds such as chickadees, siskins and grosbeaks abound, as well as ruffed grouse. Coots, plentiful, blackish water birds that gather in “rafts” in shallow water and feed on bottom-growing plants, are one of the most commonly seen birds on the lake and its estuaries. Eagles fish for spawned-out kokanee along the edge of the lake in early winter and hunt coots as the season wears on. Along any highway, ravens clean up the remains of road-killed deer.

Under the snow, the secret life of rodents continues through deep winter. Insulated from extreme weather by snow itself, moles, voles, mice and Columbia ground squirrels live at or just below earth surface, tunneling from one food stock to another through the lowest layer of snow. Unlikely to see the under-the-snow life of smaller animals, you will have many opportunities to see other critters. Elk like fields with low snowpack that can be foraged through. Deer and moose browse on brush and can be spotted almost anywhere, including the middle of town.

Predators are more shy. The most common sighting will be of coyotes, who can appear anywhere, and like places where birds and rodents proliferate (watch fence lines). The big cats live way out, and seeing one of those species is unlikely.

Birds are probably the easiest winter wildlife to enjoy fully. Small birds and turkeys will come to your yard if you put out feed. Watching waterfowl is easy at Pack River, Denton Slough, Morton Slough or the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles west of Bonners Ferry. Bald and golden eagles inhabit cottonwoods in the Clark Fork Delta, at the mouth of Trestle Creek and near Sandpoint City Beach throughout much of the winter.

Where there are tracks, there are animals to go with them. Spotting that snowshoe hare from the chair lift was serendipitous; the secret to seeing winter wildlife is diligent, hopeful watchfulness.

– By Sandy Compton

Winter 2004

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