Column: No shortage of wildlife to view during winter
All Things Wild
Well, the holiday season has once again found its way to the eastern most parcels of the Roan Plateau and the snow has found its way to its final resting place on the cliffs.
The changing of the season brings a changing to the world around us: Trees have dropped their leaves and pulled their nutrients into their roots, a survival technique used to counter the heavy assault brought on by winter; lakes have frozen over hiding and subsequently protecting its delicate inhabitants from unrelenting cold temperatures.
At home, heaters are turned on and fireplaces are once again bright with flames. Coats are a layer not to be forgotten and beanies are worn atop many thankful heads. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but it also begs the question: what is surviving, and in some cases even thriving, around us during the frigid time of year?
Yes, it’s true that the black bears (Ursus americanus) have gone to den for a long hibernation — six to seven months, in fact. From October to April, the males sleep sound, while the females gain one extra month of sleep by awakening in May — sometimes with cubs in tow.
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And, yes, it’s true that many bird species have already made their way south to countless wintering grounds all over Central and South America. One bird in particular, the Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni), is a spring and summer resident all over western North America. The bird winters in central Argentina, a journey of 14,000 miles. What makes this raptor travel so far for winter? Well, grasshoppers.
During the winter, this hawk lives on a diet completely dependent on this insect. With these birds numbering in the thousands, it is safe to say that the grasshoppers number in the billions. These hawks can be regularly viewed during the winter months in Argentina, communally roosting at farm fields waiting for tractors to till up their favorite food item.
But enough of what we can no longer see locally this time of year, what can we expect to see while we are out playing in the snow? Moose (Alces alces), elk (Cervus canadensis) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), are all related and have migrated from mountain peaks to lower elevation in order to escape the bitter cold and constant wind at altitude.
Moving down to our valley, these are animals that may be regularly seen in fields and in open grasslands, where food can be a little more accessible. Moose are the hardest to find in this area, but they have been viewed on occasion in our valley and in Grand Mesa National Forest.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are a year-round resident, but during the winter months they are slightly more difficult to hear than in summer months. This is due to dryer and colder atmospheric conditions that make it more difficult for sound waves to travel longer distances.
Cottontail rabbits (Lepus sylvaticus) can be hard to see if you’re out wandering around looking for them. It may be better to find some fresh tracks, then sit down and wait, as rabbits regularly use the same trails time after time. This method could prove to be one of great value if you’re out looking for a photo opportunity.
If you are an avid outdoors person and spend time snowshoeing in the high country, looking for the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) can be a fun and almost impossible challenge. This particular species is a member of the photoperiodism group, which means it molts two different times a year. To hide from potential predators, the hare molts to an all-white coat and prefers to stay on top of the snow giving it perfect camouflage.
Winter may also prove to be the best time to find members of the cat family, including bobcat (Lynx rufus), cougar (Puma concolor) and Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). Like all animals that must walk on top of the snow, these cats inevitably leave tracks and with patience and a strong stealthy pursuit, may be found.
Both bobcats and cougars are in the surrounding areas of Rifle, and they are animals that you could unintentionally encounter. However, the Canada lynx, which was reintroduced to Colorado’s southern mountains after a long absence due to over trapping, is not in our immediate area. So if the lynx is something you aspire to see, you will have to travel south towards the higher mountains in the southwest part of the state. The best places for viewing are near Telluride, Silverton and the Durango areas.
For the avid birdwatchers, winter will surely not disappoint. This is a great time to see many year-round residents such as the crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), raven (Corvus corax), Eurasian collard dove (Streptopelia decaocto), mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides), scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica), Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta Stelleri) and many varieties of songbirds.
This also is the time to see northern species of birds that have moved south in search of warmer conditions. Colorado sees an influx of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), as the non-mating pairs from Canada and Alaska make winter stands in states such as Colorado to combat the harsher winters experienced up north. Mating pairs stay behind to protect their territory year round.
The most densely populated species of hawk, and my personal favorite, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) stays year round in Colorado, taking full advantage of the lesser competition for food, as many other species of hawk have moved south for the winter. Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and many species of ducks such as the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) that reside in northern Canada and Alaska, winter in Colorado.
There are many species of animals and birds that can be viewed and enjoyed this time of year, so get out there and see what Colorado’s wild has to offer.
Chadd Drott is the owner/founder of Chadd’s Walking With Wildlife, which specializes in outdoor education, for enthusiasts of all ages, revolving around survival techniques, including: tracking, wildlife identification, primitive and modern skills, outdoor and urban survival, and plant identification for edible and medicinal purposes. For more information, please visit chaddswww.com, find them on Facebook or email Chadd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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