At the beginning of winter there is a noticeable shift occurring with wildlife moving into their winter range. Suddenly some animals are easier to view now than they were during the summertime.
For instance, in mid-November bighorn sheep migrated down from the craggy precipices of the Gore range, moving onto the sunny slopes outside of East Vail. While the faraway green alpine meadows with tumbling streamlets of melt water and seams of wildflowers fit the summer program perfectly for the bighorns, come winter they want to move down in elevation to a warmer climate. The sunny mountainside offers meager winter forage for the bighorns to survive. Like other large animals, they will be forced to utilize their fat reserves to compensate when caloric intake falls short of energy demands.
After the big snows around Thanksgiving, it was startling to see how man elk came out of the high mountains from south of Minturn. There were tracks from hundreds of elk making their way to their winter range. Deep snows make getting around difficult for elk, and food is buried so deep that it’s not efficient to uncover it. Elk prefer the warmth of sunny south-facing slopes where the snow depth is minimized and there are shrubs to browse on as well as some remnant grasses and leafy plants to graze upon.
As elk pass through aspen stands they often feed on the bark of aspens, and nip off fresh growth from aspen saplings. There is often evidence left behind from a foraging elk where it cleared away snow with its hooves in order to reveal hidden grasses and sedges below.
Similar to the bighorn sheep and elk, our mule deer have migrated to lower elevations as well. Only mule deer prefer lower elevations still, and are now concentrated in the western portions of Eagle County. As the elevation decreases, so does annual precipitation and the forests give way to vast shrublands and open juniper and pinyon woodlands. The mule deer enjoy the thinner snowpack and warmer temperatures of the lower elevations. Since the mule deer’s diet consists mainly of browse from shrubs supplemented by dried grasses and leafy plants, the vegetation is sufficient to get them through the winter. Like many other animals, if they simply survive until springtime, food will once again be plentiful.
Graceful bald eagles are now wintering along the Eagle and Colorado Rivers. These eagles have migrated here from the north where they spent the spring and summer in Canada and Alaska nesting and rearing their young. Eagle County makes a fine place for over-wintering eagles because they can hunt fish, ducks, and small mammals along the river courses, or can scavenge on deer and elk that have died from harsh winter conditions or from collisions with cars.
Rough-legged hawks have also migrated to Eagle County from northern Canada, and like the bald eagles, can only be found here during the winter months. These large hawks generally prefer hunting in open fields for mice, rabbits, and other small mammals. They can be recognized in flight with obvious black patches at the “wrists” on the underside of their wings. Because of their northern range, they have small feet to minimize heat loss, and they have feathers that cover their legs for insulation; hence the name rough-legged hawk.
Winter waterfowl is now concentrated on areas of the rivers that are free from ice. Watch for common goldeneyes which are beautiful diving ducks that disappear completely underwater in search of food in deeper portions of the river. Diving ducks sit low in the water, and when taking flight they must run across the surface of the water before becoming airborne. Male goldeneyes can be recognized by their white sides and dark backs. Closer inspection reveals a large white dot on its cheek and a golden eye contrasting its dark green head.
Another beautiful duck that winters here is the green-winged teal. Unlike the goldeneyes which dive, teals are tipping ducks which mean they stay on the surface of the water with their heads below and their rumps sticking up. These ducks specialize in feeding in shallower waters or they dabble their bills on the surface of the water in search of food. Male green-winged teals can be recognized at a quick glance by their small size and by an obvious vertical white bar toward the front of its side. Closer inspection with binoculars reveals a brilliant green facial stripe through its otherwise rich reddish brown head.
Because of wide diversity in elevation, climate, vegetation, and geographic features, Eagle County provides excellent habitats for many magnificent species of wildlife that can be readily viewed in the winter.
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.