Signs of Winter

Kyle Williams

Author: Scott Bowler  |  Published: Dec. 15, 2020  |  Updated: Dec. 21, 2021  |  Category: Phenology

Winter may seem harsh, and it is indeed a difficult time to live outdoors, but remember that snow on the ground is actually good insulation. It blocks the wind, thus protecting animals from the most serious cold, and keeping temperatures warm enough underneath to allow activity much of the winter. Many groups of animals congregate together now, in order to find safety from predators as well as help protect and care for the herd. Predators shift their focus now, too, taking of advantage of prey aggregations and the changes in species (no insects, amphibians and reptiles now, for example), and taking advantage of winter kills and the carrion available.

Here’s a look at what high desert denizens get up to in the winter, month by month.


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Young Desert Horned Lizard

Young Desert Horned Lizard

In the summer these lizards begin foraging for food as soon as their body temperature rises as the heat of the day increases. They feed on slow-moving, ground-dwelling insects. In the fall they hibernate by burying themselves in the sand.

Latin name: Phrysonoma platyrhinos

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis)

Craig Miller

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Devlin Holloway

Dark skies

Grant Tandy


For many bird species, Oregon’s high desert is actually the “warmer south” in which they overwinter. Many ducks, geese, swans and sandhill cranes spend time in Summer Lake marshes and playa, along the waterways near Burns, and throughout the Warner Lakes and Malheur Wildlife Refuge wetlands. Winter weather freezes up many waterways, so if you can find some unfrozen expanses of water, you’ll also very likely find many birds concentrated on the remaining open waters.

Deer, elk and pronghorn become concentrated looking for food and shelter in more protected areas, like stands of timber or in narrower brushy glens, often in canyons and along stream corridors. As storms increase in severity, and as snows deepen, these herd aggregations will increase in size, foraging together and watching out for one another. Look for elk in stands of timber, deer in the junipers and tall sage expanses, and pronghorn in and around hay and alfalfa fields—I recently saw 36 pronghorn grazing together in a field right along Highway 20 just a few miles outside of Burns. If you come across males in rut now, keep your distance and be careful not to intrude, as it’s a highly stressful time for them and they do not take at all kindly to strangers or perceived threats.

December 21 is, of course, the Winter Solstice and the December full moon is called, for obvious reasons, the “Cold Moon.”

Pika (Ochonta princeps)

Gregory Smith   Website

Weasel (Mustela)

Devlin Holloway

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Devlin Holloway


The lagomorphs— rabbits, jackrabbits, hares and pika — are all active, foraging in grassy and brushy areas near thick cover, or, in the case of the pika, visiting their stored food piles they’ve stashed throughout their favored habitat among large rock piles. Beaver are now living off the hardwood sticks cached in the mud at the bottom of their pond, staying below the ice until the spring thaw. Mule deer and elk can be seen in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and concentrated in places where snow cover is thinner with brushy or treed cover, and where water isn’t too far away. All mammals will be seeking out water sources — looking for a drink, but also prowling around for easy prey, since open water in winter is a rarity.

Coyotes and other predators spend their days now hunting for all those tasty mice, voles, gophers, and ground squirrels, often listening for them traveling along their runs and trackways through the grasses below the snow cover. Weasels, otters, and badgers can variously be spotted searching for, swimming after and digging up their favored “snacks.” Short-tailed and long-tailed weasels are busy investigating brush and rock piles, hunting for ground squirrels, mice, pack rats and pika. Otter hunt along and in the water all winter, and most of all the mustelid family, truly seem to love ice and snow.

Waterfowl concentrate in remaining areas of open water, such as where streams enter lakes and ponds, or springs keep leads of water open. Fishing birds such as herons and egrets, mergansers, grebes, goldeneye and scaup, bufflehead, and others can all be found in wetlands. In some areas you can find large flocks of geese, usually nearby grassy areas in which to forage. You can sometimes find swans, such as in the eddies and backwaters of the Deschutes River, and possibly even white pelicans at Malheur Wildlife Refuge or other big lakes. In open waters throughout the desert, waterfowl are fishing and foraging for any unfrozen aquatic plants and grasses, and songbirds are busily foraging for seeds and scavenging remains fruits and berries. Hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles can often be seen perched now, since circling the skies takes more energy, searching patiently for prey on and under the snow or looking for carrion. Eagles, often thought of as apex predators, actually eat quite a bit of carrion. In the case of bald eagles, fishing is much harder now so that often means eating dead waterfowl, and golden eagles will be on the lookout for deer and others killed by the cold, or the road.

The Earth’s perihelion, the point at which we are actually closest to the sun in our yearly orbit comes in early January. Despite what many think, winter is cold because we are pointing away from the sun, due to the relative “backward” 23-degree tilt of our planetary axis now, and not because we are farther from the sun. Early January also brings the Quadrantid meteor shower. The January full moon is often called the “Wolf Moon” across many northern cultures, because, ironically it’s a pretty good time for wolves (and our coyotes) to find food, as winter-killed animals increase in number.

Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus)

Andy Wraithmell

Desert parsley (Lomatium dissectum)

Thayne Tuason

Snow geese (Chen caerulescens)

Craig Miller


In the brushy areas along riparian corridors, wintering over passerines (perching birds or songbirds) are foraging for seeds and berries, or hunting for any remaining insects and arachnids, or their larvae and eggs. Pine siskins and goldfinches will be traveling in large mixed flocks, often also including house finches, in areas with seeds from thistles and dry grasses, especially the vital Great Basin wild rye. Bush tits, wrens and other insectivores are foraging in rock and bark crevices, and among the twigs of junipers, ponderosa pines, willows, cottonwood and aspens. Sparrows are primarily seed-eaters and will be feasting in shrubby borders and the thicker grasslands. Juncoes come out even in the most inclement weather to forage along the ground for seeds.

February skies can be spectacular, too, with great shows of constellations and the myriad stars in our own Milky Way galaxy smeared across the night sky. The February full moon is known as the Snow Moon, named such because the deepest snows occur about now.

Throughout the month, the first plants start reappearing, most notably the Junipers now becoming brighter green again. You may have noticed that they turn a sort of gray/green/brown in the fall as the light wanes as their chlorophyll retreated from the scaly leaves. New shoots of perennials, and even some early blooming annuals, will begin popping up after warmer spells and on warmer, sunnier slopes and ridges. Some of the first blooms to appear are the smaller lomatiums, or desert parsleys. While the flowers appearing now often aren’t especially big, they can be very beautiful if you get down and look closely. Some wetland plants will now begin greening up as well, sprouting from the cold mud below the ice as it recedes.

As the ice on desert lakes and ponds melts late in the month and beyond, it spurs some waterfowl to begin their northward migration. Thousands of Snow Geese will make their usual stopovers at Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and the Summer Lake Wildlife Area by month’s end. The seasonal warming really begins to accelerate now, even if it IS still winter until March 20 or 21, when the spring, or vernal, equinox marks the seasonal change.