Imagine, somewhere near you now, a bighorn sheep leaps gracefully from cliff to cliff. Just up the road, a bull elk nestles into deep snow for some quiet rest. Down by the river, a bald eagle fluffs its feathers against the cold air, perched waiting as a silent hunter.
There is no better season than winter for viewing local wildlife because the animals migrate closer to the valley floor where we can see them. Finding animals, and then observing their behavior out in nature is a rewarding and fascinating experience. With a spotting scope for instance, you can see the sparkle in an eagle’s eye, the rippling muscles of a bighorn ram or the steam billowing from a bull elk’s nostrils.
The bighorn sheep return to the valley in an annual winter rite after spending the summer in the lush high mountain meadows and faraway craggy precipices of the Gore Range. Some of the bighorn sheep’s winter range includes sunny south-facing slopes just out of East Vail. Here they find warmth from the sun, and leafy plants and shrubs to hold them through the long winter.
Vertical terrain is where these master rock-climbers feel safest so look for bighorns near cliffs and canyons. Aided by strong hips and shoulders, the stout bighorns can jump over ten feet vertically, land on a tiny ledge, and then jump higher again using its two-toed hooves like climbing shoes. In this fashion the agile bighorns can scale sheer cliffs and escape predators such as a mountain lion.
Visually locate bighorns by their tan-colored rumps that stand out from the surrounding vegetation. Distinguish the powerful rams, with massive full-curled horns, from the ewes that have thinner, less curved horns. Also be on the lookout for darling little lambs that are typically grouped in with the ewes.
It is interesting to note how horns differ from antlers. Horns remain with an animal and grow stouter each year, such as on the bighorn sheep. On the other hand, animals with antlers such as elk and deer shed their antlers in the springtime and then re-grow larger ones each summer.
Herds of elk forage on sunny mountainsides each winter near the historic railroad town of Minturn. Elk enjoy the summer months in high mountain meadows near timberline feeding on lush leafy plants, sedges, and grasses. Like many animals that must survive a long winter with limited food, elk build fat reserves to provide fuel to keep them alive during lean winter months.
Look for their tan-colored rumps to spot elk on a mountainside. Weighing between 500-900 lbs, elk are commonly observed foraging on shrubs, leafy plants, and grasses, often using their hooves to clear away snow to reveal green plants hiding at ground level.
Oftentimes, elk are observed lying down and “chewing their cud”. Like domestic cows, elk have multiple stomachs containing special enzymes and bacteria that enable them to break down and extract nutrients from a wide variety of vegetation. Lying down in the mid-day sun and conserving energy is part of the elk’s strategy for surviving the winter. If the elk survives until spring, there will be a bounty of food once again.
Elk have a regal presence about them. A mature bull’s rack can measure six feet across. Even though elk are large, they are unbelievably swift and can disappear into trees or brush like ghosts.
Eagles are also forced to conserve energy. Both bald eagles and golden eagles live here during the winter. To find bald eagles, drive to the Colorado or Eagle River. Look in the limbs of cottonwood trees or near the tops of very large pines for blotches of white that stand apart from the landscape. Bald eagles have long white heads, and big white tails that stand out. Balds measure about 30 inches tall, weigh 9 1/2 pounds, and their wingspan is nearly 7 feet.
Imagine the energy it takes to keep a beast of this weight in flight. Therefore, balds must conserve energy by patiently playing the waiting game. A bald sits, waits, and watches, for a very long time. When the perfect opportunity presents itself, a bald reacts with grace. Utilizing precise telescopic vision and neck-break speed, the eagle swoops down snatching a fish, a duck, or a mammal. Balds inflict a high-speed, talon-clenching bone-snapping blow to its prey.
Look for balds where there is more open water, and less ice, on the river. Look for balds in the tops of standing dead trees. If you drive slowly along the Eagle River from Gypsum to Minturn, and you’re watching closely, you should see several bald eagles.
Golden eagles are the cousin of bald eagles, and are arguably North America’s fiercest and most aggressive avian raptors. Known to knock mountain goat kids and bighorn lambs off of precarious cliffs, we’re talking one big bully here. Goldens rule year-round from high crags, tops of sheer cliffs, and from perches on prominent rock outcrops. Goldens want meat. “Meat, meat, meat,” is all they can think about. I generally sight goldens in soaring flight, perched on a cliff, or feeding on a roadside carcass. When I see a golden on a road kill, it’s startling just how big they are. 30 or more inches tall, 10 pounds, and a 7-foot wingspan. Remember all of the bone crushing options of the bald, same with golden, but with more force still.
Goldens like to soar. Soaring, as in not flapping the wings, not once, for a very long time. Giant wings open wide with fingerlike primaries spread apart soaring, soaring, on a thermal. A thermal is the sun’s warmth on a mountainside that causes hot air to rise creating an updraft effect. The golden just sticks out its massive wings and takes the free hot-air elevator to a nice high elevation for a better view. Another option with the thermal, is to take the rippin’ high-speed flight across the rock cliff face. Using built-in telescopic high-resolution vision to comb the landscape for unsuspecting prey, the golden is like a war machine. Imagine the striking power of 10 pounds at 50 miles per hour, hitting its unsuspecting prey in the back of the neck. Goldens often hunt in pairs. One flushes the bunny, while the other one snags it. Goldens hunt rabbits, coyotes, newborns of all large mammals, fox, hares, marmots, and more. With its powerful eyesight, a golden eagle can spot prey from a mile away. This king of the raptors, crowned with a brilliant head of gold, can live for twenty years in the wilds.
It is well worth a drive to western Eagle County to view the vast shrub-lands that are the winter home for mule deer. Mule deer have astonishingly large ears, and are capable of growing to impressive size.
Mule deer migrate down from the higher elevations of summer, and enjoy the milder climate of the arid western portions of the county where snow depth remains shallow, and temperatures are warmer. Mule deer’s main food source is browse from shrubs, supplemented with grasses and leafy plants.
It’s amazing to get out of the car in the middle of a vast rolling shrub-land. You swear there are no animals out there, and then one head pops up, and then another. You soon realize that there are fifty mule deer hidden within the sagebrush around you.
When you go out wildlife watching it is best to bring binoculars, sunscreen, and warm clothes. Although you can see plenty from inside the warmth of the vehicle, great sightings await those who are hearty, and get out of the car to take a good long look, to listen hard within the silence, and to be extra observant for movement and color variation within the landscape. The Vail Valley is truly a top-notch place to take a scenic drive and hone your wildlife watching skills.
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.