Winter Wildlife Watching

Jim Yuskavitch via ODFW

By Scott Bowler

What’s there to do in the desert in the winter?

Watch wildlife! In many ways, especially at lower elevations, winter’s cold weather can provide some great hiking and exploring opportunities and it’s definitely a great time to be on the lookout for the rich array of wildlife species that inhabit Oregon’s high desert.

Many small prey species remain active all winter, and if they are active, you can bet that their predators are out there, too! Birding can be excellent in winter, too, as resident species become concentrated in areas of more abundant food and safer shelter. Since everyone needs water, it’s a good plan to look for streams and ponds that are still open, where you will find plenty of critters using the resource.

First, keep your distance

Winter time means more difficulties for animals, and keeping alive means finding appropriate shelter, food, and water—all vital to winter survival. Cold weather is a highly stressful time for animals because resources are scarce, and they’ve found their place to be safe, so we must try even harder not to affect their behavior and drive them off their range. A great rule of thumb to keep in mind is that if your motion and sound causes the animals to change their activity and move away, you just got too close.

So, what is out there to see?


South Fork Crooked River and Birds

South Fork Crooked River and Birds


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


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Central Oregon’s “Backyard Wilderness”

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Located just 15 miles east of Bend, Oregon Badlands is a 30,000-acre wilderness area filled with fascinating lava flows and ancient juniper trees Arriving in the Badlands, so named for its rugged and harsh terrain, can feel like stepping

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My favorite animal to watch in the winter is the coyote. Snow and the tamped-down plant cover makes it easier for Wiley and his clan to traverse large swaths of land, and their prey can be more concentrated in lower, more protected areas. Due to the long darkness and deeper nighttime cold, some nocturnal activity can occur in the daylight now, too.

In more open fields, coyotes will be hunting for mice, voles, and ground squirrels, often listening for them traveling their runs and trackways through the grasses below the snow cover. It’s amazing to watch coyotes cock their heads and listen. If you’re really lucky, you might see them pop up into the air and dive down after the prey through the snow banks. Look for coyote around fallow farm fields, bottom lands, along the edges of brushy areas, and in canyons or riparian areas.


Herds of deer, elk and pronghorn are likely concentrated for food and shelter in protected areas, too. It’s interesting to watch the behavior of the ungulates as they spot a coyote, even if they are too small to really do much harm to healthy adults. As ungulate fawns are dropped in the late winter, however, it presents a great opportunity for a canine predator, or a team of them, to utilize this smaller, easier to kill prey.

Smaller mammals

Pika, mice and voles, squirrels, rabbits and hares, and beaver are active all winter, foraging now and then, and/or living on stashes of food that they gathered in the summer and fall. Various members of the mustelid clan, such as weasels, otters, and badgers will be variously searching for, swimming after, or digging up their favored “snacks.” Also searching after this furry crowd are the raptors, and winter is prime time for viewing them.

pygmy owl


Watch the skies for hawks, falcons, owls, and especially for golden eagles, who are often locally abundant. Many raptors winter in the high desert, and some of their usual prey are not available in winter (insects and reptiles and fish), so they are very avid mammal and bird hunters. Passerines predominate in the brushy areas along riparian corridors, where they will be foraging for seeds, berries and insects. For waterfowl, including ducks, geese, swans and sandhill cranes, you will want to look for areas with open water, such as rivers and larger lakes, and grasslands that can provide forage and seeds.

Here are few particularly good winter bird-watching areas:

* along the Deschutes River trail upstream of Bend
* Summer Lake marshes and playa
* the Silvies River flowing into Burns
* several reservoirs on the way to and around Burns
* Malheur Wildlife Refuge

And, now that you’re all jazzed on what there is to see, let’s talk about how to do so safely and comfortably.

Choose Your Paths and Roads Carefully

Each time I visit the high desert, I like to preview areas to explore at different times of the year, assessing which roads to drive, hikes to take, and wetlands to investigate. Wet or dusty roads and trails that are seasonally difficult or impassable to your rig might just be traversable now. Although you certainly do have to be aware of snow and ice, which will remove many of the higher elevation roads from consideration, in lower areas it can be a great time to explore some unknown-to-you areas of the sagebrush sea. You can also hike many of the areas that might be too warm in high summer, or get into a previously muddy area that is now frozen. Be careful though, as it gets warmer in the day and later in the season, watch out for the potential of mud.

Consider Lodging

It’s rather cold for camping. Depending upon seasonal and Covid-19 related closures, there are good lodging opportunities available at the Malheur Field Station, French Glen Hotel, Diamond Hotel, Crane Hot Springs, and several motels in Hines and Burns. Or if you are game to camp, it’s awfully nice to do so near one of the many hot springs out there—nothing like a soak in hot water on a snowy day!

Be (Better) Prepared

Before you head out, I’ll leave you with some final notes of prudence and caution: it’s colder and more unforgiving than you think out there!

Oregon’s high desert always warrants careful preparation, but since the consequences are more severe, or at least much more unpleasant, in winter, you want to be even more prepared:

  • Pack lots of excellent cold weather clothing and some seriously warm and waterproof boots.
  • Pack more food and water than you think you might ever need. (Chocolate and cookies need no excuses to eat in winter!)
  • Be sure that your vehicle has a great battery (and maybe a back-up starter too), full fluid levels (bring extra), fresh wipers, spare headlight bulbs, proper snow/all-season tires, chains (yes, you still need to carry a set of chains even if you have snow tires, a four-wheel drive, and high clearance!)
  • Carry a shovel, ice scraper, an air compressor or pump for adjusting tire pressure, a couple of bags of sand (kept dry until needed!), sleeping bags, flashlights, a tarp and a kneeling pad (to change tires or put on those chains).
  • Fill up the gas tank frequently too—safer for you, and this practice supports small local stations.

And don’t forget your field guides and binoculars!