One of the virtues of the Vail Valley is its diversity in wildlife. Some wildlife you may simply stumble across, while other species will require some deliberate searching to find.
One only needs to take a nighttime drive up Highways 24 or 131 to experience animals jumping in front of the car. But what animals and birds are we likely to see on our daily travels?
Imagine yourself waking up early as the day is dawning and step out onto your deck to experience the peacefulness of the crisp winter morning. A dry two inches of fluffy snow fell overnight and a light blanket covers the landscape and parked cars.
At first it’s perfectly still and silent, but wait, are those voices? Yes, indeed it is the cackles and chortles of magpies rummaging around in the first morning light. The flashing of tuxedo black on white catches your eye as a gang of four magpie flaps its way by. The magpie’s striking long black tail sticks in your mind as they round the bend out of sight.
Suddenly another voice pierces the morning silence in the rhythm of machine gun fire. “Dat, dat, dat, dat, dat.” A dark blue and black bird descends quickly upon the scene flanked by two companions. These are the Stellar’s jays and they’re bossy. They assess the scene and move on just as quickly as they had appeared. These jays are the cousin of the familiar blue jay of the east, and a close relation of magpies as well.
Realizing that there seems to be some action out there, you grab your binoculars and return to the deck along with a steaming hot cup of coffee to keep you company. Glassing the opposite hillside, you scan through the thick shrubs for any mammals that may be moving about.
Thick with branches and clumps of grass, the mountainside appears to be a lifeless barren wilderness of rock, dirt and snow. As you scan higher up onto the mountainside, you notice the background high peaks aglow with the pink morning light.
But wait, a set of branches catches your eye that has a different pattern. Wow! It’s a massive set of antlers on a huge bull elk that is nestled down in a snow patch between the shrubs. Close observation through the binoculars reveals the massive animal chewing its “cud” with its eyes lazily opening and then drifting shut again.
Similar to domestic cows, elk have multiple chambers in their stomach. Food is regurgitated and then re-chewed, and this enables the elk to extract valuable nutrients from the leafy plants, grasses and shrubs upon which they feed.
The elk appears to be in a restful state. He is conserving energy in order to make it through the long winter when food is scarce and his forage contains only a fraction of the nutrients of summertime plants. This conservation of energy can also be seen in bighorn sheep and mule deer. They fatten up in summer when food is abundant, then draw on their fat reserves in winter when fuel demands are high with keeping warm and moving through snow.
What a great way to start the day. Seeing wildlife from just outside the door. Knowing that a special day is unfolding, you gear up for a day of skiing and make your way to the lifts.
Riding the chairlift is like taking an elevated tour up the mountainside. In the fresh snow beneath the lift, you can’t help but notice the myriad of animal tracks left from the previous nighttime’s activities.
Closer observation enables you to differentiate heavier animals that sink deeply into the snow from those who float on the snows surface. It is like a puzzle of characters, both large and small, both predators and prey.
Likely tracks to see would be the walking gait of the coyote meandering through the landscape using it’s powerful senses of smell, hearing, and sight to locate its prey. Coyotes prey consists mainly of mice, squirrels, rabbits and birds. Coyotes also scavenge on already-dead animals like deer and elk that don’t make it through the hard winter.
Below the lift you notice the tiny tracks of mice with the thin little tail drag-marks down the center of the track. You notice the hopping tracks of the slightly heavier squirrel as it bolts in a straight line from tree to tree. And you also notice the familiar pattern and large feet of the snowshoe hare as it floats lightly upon the surface of the snow.
Suddenly, you notice a tiny white animal about the size of a squirrel bolting across the ski slope. You realize that it has something in its mouth as it bounds for the cover of the thick spruce and fir forest. It is a weasel in its white winter coat, also known as an ermine. These tiny predators are always hunting and must consume one-third of their body weight a day in meat in order to offset their energy demands during the winter.
Thinking that you’ve been mighty lucky with the wildlife sightings today, you take your first ski run of the day, the sun reflecting off of the gently piled snowflake crystals. Glorious turn after glorious turn! Huffing and puffing and laughing until you can’t take it anymore, you have to stop. Your head spins with adrenaline and thin mountain air, and all you see is a swirl of white, blue, and the deep green of pines.
As you take a deep breath looking skyward toward the treetops, you notice a shape against the blue sky. Up in the top of a mighty fir is a porcupine seventy feet off of the ground! Yes, the treetops are where the freshest growth is, and it is often a porcupine’s favorite place to browse on needles and eat bark, all while staying safe from the predators below.
Some days are just magical that way. You get on a roll and just keep seeing wildlife. Now you ride the lift back up and size up your next run down into the back bowls. The bowls give a wide-open feeling of wildness and solitude. You start your way down finding powder stashes amongst glades of spruce. Again, you can’t take it anymore and have to come to a stop and take it all in.
You look across the vast open spaces with vistas stretching as far out as the eye can see. A tall dead tree contrasts against the clear blue sky far across the remote terrain of the bowl. A silence comes over the scene and the sense of being alone in the wilderness envelopes you.
You just observe for a while standing quietly and alone. A light breeze whisks across your face and brings you back to the moment. Yes, you were drifting off somewhere far across a fairyland mountainscape.
Then, you become aware of a presence. Across the open bowl in the top of the dead tree is a huge bird. You pull your mini-binocs out of your pocket and focus on this winged beast. It is a golden eagle, and it is fidgeting on its perch. You suddenly realize that there are not one but two eagles, the second concealed in the upper branches of an ancient spruce.
A scene is unfolding before your eyes, and you see the eagle’s legs pump, and it’s off in a screaming fast descent toward the slopes below. You’ve got it in your sights in the binoculars wondering what it is after, then Wham! The second eagle appears in your sights and is speeding off with a white lump of something in its talons beautifully contrasted against the deep blue sky.
This is an example of golden eagles hunting as a team. One flushes the prey, the other snatches it unexpectedly in its powerful talons. Golden eagles live year round in mountains and high deserts. Weighing in at twelve pounds and held aloft by a mighty seven-foot wingspan, these high-speed aerial predators pack a punch.
What an unbelievable day connecting with wildlife. You take a nice leisurely lunch at a sunny picnic table recapping the great morning you’ve had. You take a bite of your delicious burger and as you lower your hands to your plate, a gray jay boldly comes hopping across the table toward your mound of crispy French fries. At two feet away, he looks you straight in the eye to size you up. You smile and realize sometimes the wildlife comes to you.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.