By Renae Blum
Winter is a great time to explore the outdoors and look for wildlife. While some species have migrated or are hibernating, quite a few are still active at this time of year. And thanks to fewer leaves on the trees, they’re easier to spot, too.
Watchable Wildlife biologist Olivia DaRugna offered these tips for enjoying wildlife watching this winter.
What species can I see?
Winter is a great time to watch for bald eagles. They can be found on any river or large body of water. To watch bald eagles in comfort, visit the viewing facilities at Kingsley Dam or the J-2 Power Plant south of Lexington. Peak numbers at the J-2 facility usually occur in December and early January, while at Kingsley Dam, the peak typically occurs in February.
You can spot jackrabbits in the panhandle and Sandhills, especially in January and February as their breeding season begins. They’re typically nocturnal, but if you’re out at dusk, you might see them foraging on shrubs and grasses.
Owls are awesome to watch in winter, as they’re busy defending their territories and trying to attract mates. If you live in eastern Nebraska, you might hear the iconic barred owl doing the “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call. There’s also the great horned owl, which makes a low “who-who” sound similar to a mourning dove; they can be seen statewide. At night, try and listen for owls, and during the day, take a closer look at any big stick nests you see — a great horned owl may be staring back at you.
Rough-legged hawks can be seen statewide in winter, usually on posts around open prairies and fields. They arrive here from Canada to spend the winter in Nebraska. They look similar to red-tailed hawks but have a dark band on their bellies and dark wrist patches.
Deer can be seen year-round, but they’re easier to spot this time of year. Their tracks are more visible, too.
Turkey are abundant at many Nebraska state parks.
Other Animal Signs to Look For
Besides wildlife itself, you can watch for signs they leave behind. Winter is a great time to get better at identifying tracks, whether for skunk, opossum, deer, raccoon, coyote or any number of species.
One track that’s fun to look for is river otter slides. In winter, river otters will conserve energy by sliding on their bellies. The tracks look like Morse code: little pawprints, then a smooth slide across the snow, followed by tracks again.
You can also look for what’s called whitewash on tree trunks. These are white stains left behind by owls or raptors perching in trees. You can also look for owl pellets on the ground.
Tips for Viewing Wildlife
- Feeding birds is a great way to see more wildlife. Songbirds will be coming to feeders to refuel after a cold winter’s night.
- Open water is key. All wildlife depends on water, so head to lakes and rivers with open water. Chances are you’ll see ducks, waterfowl and maybe eagles perched in trees next to the water.
- Stay quiet. Noise can travel farther in the winter when there’s less foliage to dampen sound.
- Use multiple senses. Use your eyes to look for tracks and listen for calls from birds and deer. You can even use your sense of smell – if you smell something musky, it could be a coyote or fox marking its territory.
- Try to head out early in the morning as the sun is rising. That’s a great time to watch for wildlife as they wake up and look for food after a cold winter’s night.
What to Bring When Viewing Wildlife
- Bundle up! Make sure you’re comfortable and bring a hat, gloves and hand warmers.
- Binoculars are always helpful. If you don’t own a pair, several state parks rent them out.
- Have a phone or camera ready to document what you see.
- If you are interested in recording tracks and trying to identify them later, bring something like a quarter or pencil you can lay next to the track to give a sense of scale.
Which state parks are good for viewing wildlife?
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area – Come visit the Wildcat Hills Nature Center and watch the bird feeders outside. They attract hundreds of pine siskins as well as a variety of juncos. Rare birds have been seen as well, including a gray-crowned rosy finch last year.
Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area – This is a great spot for viewing birds thanks to its open water. At the dam, you can see a variety of geese, ducks and gulls, and below the dam is the eagle viewing facility.
Branched Oak State Recreation Area – Again, the open water at this state park makes it a good choice for wildlife viewing. Also, there are many trails around the park where you can see deer or turkey or look for tracks. Listen for owls at dusk or in the evening.
Ponca State Park and Indian Cave State Park – Located along the Missouri River, these parks attract large concentrations of bald eagles perching in the trees along the river. You can also look for muskrat dens and tracks of opossum, raccoon and river otters. Chances are good to see deer and turkey, too.
Resources for More Information
- Visit the Nebraska Birding Guide website. You can find links to the bald eagle viewing facilities as well as many sites across the state where you can view birds.
- Watchable wildlife guides published by Nebraska Game and Parks provide regional information and help with species identification.
- Use the eBird app to find more birds, share your sightings and track your birding lists.
- Check out the iNaturalist app. It allows you to record your observations, create useful data for scientists and learn about what you’re seeing.
Just go outside!
You don’t have to go far to view wildlife, said Olivia DaRugna, a Watchable Wildlife biologist with Nebraska Game and Parks.
“Wildlife is all around us,” DaRugna said. “Just get outside. You never know what you’ll experience or what you’ll see. And winter is a wonderful time to explore what wildlife is around our own homes and the parks we enjoy most.”