Winter can be a great time to watch wildlife. Cold weather in the mountains will drive big game animals, such as deer and elk, to lower elevations. Snow in the hills and mountains makes it easy to follow the tracks of a rabbit or squirrel. Trees barren of leaves make it easy to spot a great blue heron roosting amid the branches.
At the same time, winter can be a difficult time for animals.
They have to use more energy to move and function in the cold and snow of winter. Unnecessarily disturbing animals battling winter conditions just depletes their energy reserves more quickly.
Wildlife biologists from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife remind wildlife watchers that minimizing impact to wild animals at this time can be critical to their surviving the winter.
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A good way to watch wildlife this time of year is to use specific sites that separate viewers from wildlife by motor vehicle routes, trails, boardwalks and blinds. Using such areas is less likely to stress animals that are intent on finding food and shelter this time of year.
To make it easier for wildlife watchers, here are recommendations from the agency, Washington State Parks and start Department of Natural Resources on places to go wildlife watching:
Whatcom Wildlife Area Lake Terrell Unit: 10 miles northwest of Bellingham and 5 miles west of Ferndale in Whatcom County. Wildlife viewing is available year-round on a fishing pier with sightings of trumpeter and tundra swans and bald eagles in winter. Black-tailed deer are also visible year-round.
Skagit Wildlife Area’s Johnson/Debay Swan Reserve: Northeast of Mount Vernon in Skagit County, the reserve provides a winter feeding and resting reserve for trumpeter and tundra swans and other wildlife, with grass and corn planted for swans and ducks. The large numbers of wintering waterfowl also attract bald eagles and other raptors. Beaver and river otters inhabit the sloughs year-round. The area has two parking/viewing areas for disabled visitors.
Skagit Land Trust’s Hurn Field: Three miles west of Concrete on state Route 20 in Skagit County, the area offers winter elk grounds, plus visible waterfowl and winter birds. A viewing area was constructed by the department.
Skagit Wildlife Area’s Fir Island Farms Snow Goose Reserve: On Fir Island Road and adjacent to the Skagit Bay estuary in Skagit County, the reserve provides a winter-feeding and resting area for thousands of snow geese with fields of winter wheat grown for the birds. You can walk along the dike to scan for waterfowl and shorebirds, including wintering dunlin and bald eagles.
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Urban areas: Kent Ponds for waterfowl and raptors, Discovery Park for wintering passerines, and bluff overlooks to see wintering seabirds on the Sound. Edmonds waterfront, Carkeek Park, Seahurst Park and Des Moines Beach Park all offer beach and shoreline wintering seabird watching. The Union Bay Natural Area (Center for Urban Horticulture) is a good spot for winter waterfowl and passerines.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: Between Tacoma and Olympia, the refuge attracts thousands of ducks and geese through the winter, plus raptors and songbirds year-round. You also can see black-tailed deer, mink and coyotes at the forest edge. A 1-mile trail provides access to many habitats and numerous observation decks. The Nisqually Estuary Trail boardwalk will be fully open after waterfowl hunting season ends in late January.
Woodard Bay: This natural resource conservation area north of Olympia is scheduled to reopen later this month after construction. There are many wintering shorebirds, but you also can see animals such as harbor seals, river otters and Townsend’s chipmunks.
Millersylvania State Park: If you’re looking for something different, this park in southern Thurston County is an option. Walk the park’s 8.6-miles of trails to see Douglas squirrels, black-tailed deer, red foxes and an assortment of bird species.
Quartermaster Harbor: Viewed from Vashon or Maury islands, the harbor is a good place to look for seabirds on a beach.
Watery areas: In Ocean Shores, the North Jetty and Damon Point shoreline trails in Grays Harbor County are good spots to view wintering seabirds, as are the shorelines of Willapa Bay, Long Beach Peninsula and Leadbetter Point in Pacific County.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge: In the Columbia River floodplain north of Vancouver in Clark County, this refuge hosts thousands of wintering waterfowl including tundra swans, Canada geese, cackling geese and many duck species. The refuge has a 4.2-mile auto tour route that is open during daylight hours through winter. Wintering tundra swans also visible at Franz Lake on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge and at Mirror Pond at the foot of Crown Point in Oregon.
Oak Creek Wildlife Area: Northwest of Yakima, the area runs a winter elk feeding program to keep animals off adjacent private lands where they cause damage. It has easy and close viewing from a high-fenced visitor parking lot off U.S. Highway 12. Bighorn sheep also feed in some units nearby. Check the recorded message at 509-653-2390 for updates on feeding start-up and volunteer-led elk viewing tours (by reservation only through 509-698-5106).
Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge: South of Toppenish in Yakima County, the refuge has wintering waterfowl and raptors. Wildlife observation and hiking are allowed year-round in the southeast portion of the main refuge from U.S. Highway 97 to refuge headquarters.
Pineside Sno-Park Loop: In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Klickitat County, the area has trees dying from a budworm outbreak in the 1990s that are loaded with insects. The bugs attract Williamson’s sapsucker; hairy, white-headed, three-toed, black-backed and pileated woodpeckers; and brown creepers, among other birds. You also can bird-watch while cross-country skiing and snowshoeing the area.
Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge: In northwest Klickitat County, you can see wintering rough-legged hawks, northern shrikes and common redpolls. Other winter viewable species include tundra and trumpeter swans, greater white-fronted goose, cinnamon teal, northern pintail and northern harrier.
McNary National Wildlife Refuge: Near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers southeast of Tri-Cities in Walla Walla County, the refuge attracts some 100,000 Canada geese and mallards each winter. You also can see tundra swans and a variety of duck species. The 1-mile loop Burbank Slough Wildlife Trail and a viewing blind are available.
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge: Southwest of Spokane, this refuge is a year-round home to many species of birds and mammals, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, crossbills, hawks, owls, coyotes, white-tailed and mule deer, elk and moose. It has an auto-tour route and some trails.
Echo Ridge Nordic Ski Area: In the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, north of Chelan, you might see snow buntings and other wintering birds. Watch for cougar and bobcat tracks on the 25-mile cross-country skiing loop around ridge tops with vistas of Lake Chelan and surrounding mountains. At the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area’s Sinlahekin Unit south of Loomis in Okanogan County, you can watch wildlife from viewing blinds or via an 11-mile nature trail traversable on cross-county skis or snowshoes in winter when snow conditions exist.