One of the best ways to stop, slow down and enjoy skiing or snowboarding is to take in the views and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Wildlife is all around in our mountain retreats if we just take the time to stop and look...
From red squirrels to porcupines lodged totteringly high in evergreens while munching bark to faint tracks in the snow from a rabbit or ermine, wildlife abounds at Utah's ski areas. It takes a patient skier or shredder to notice the signs but the critters are out there if you've got a keen eye and the wherewithal to travel a bit more slowly.
WINTER BIRDING AT UTAH'S SKI AREAS
One of the easiest ways to spy wildlife at ski areas is to hone in on winter bird life. Birds remain active throughout the winter in Utah’s mountain ranges and many resorts are home to a wide variety of species. It’s fun to spend some time with a local guidebook and memorize a few of the species you’re most likely to come across while skiing at Utah resorts.
Utah State Parks offers a great Wasatch Mountain Bird Checklist if you’re curious about what type of species inhabit the Wasatch year-round. Although only a handful of them will be seen in the winter months at local ski areas, it’s still great fun to notice and appreciate these mountain dwellers.
Below are brief descriptions of some species you’re likely to see while skiing the central Wasatch as well as some opportunities to learn more and dive deeper into the rewarding hobby of combining birding and skiing.
Utah actually has two species of chickadee, the black-capped chickadee and the mountain chickadee. Their adorable calls are easily identifiable and both species are fun to watch because chickadees are bold and inquisitive birds. Black-capped chickadees have large heads with a distinct black cap and bib and can be heard calling “chicka-dee-dee-dee.” To identify the mountain chickadee, look for a distinctive white ‘eyebrow’ of feathers above the eyes.
Grouse are large and slow birds with small heads and chicken-like bodies. Males are dark with a mottled white breast and a conspicuous tail fan that is used during courtship or displays of aggression. Females are mottled brown with white bars of feathers. When walking, grouse thrust their head forward and backward. In snowy climates like ours, grouse shift to foraging from the ground to foraging up in the trees in winter. They may seek cover during snowstorms and burst out of the snow when the sun re-emerges; this has been known to occasionally startle a skier or snowboarder! I recall one particular season there was an ornery dusky grouse calling Snowbird's Cirque Traverse home. He would often burst out and chase unsuspecting skiers or snowboarders and it was quite memorable!
You’ll probably hear this bird before you see it with its brash croaks, chittering and raspy squalls. A member of the jay family, the Clark’s nutcracker has bold grey, black and white patterning. Its long sharp bill is adapted for probing pinecones for seeds, of which it stashes and buries tens of thousands to survive the long winter. Look for flashes of white on its tail and secondary feathers as it takes flight.
Meet North America’s only tree creeper! This shrill and tiny bird will land near a tree trunk’s base and slowly circle its circumference, poking and probing the bark for insects and grubs. Though difficult to see, it's long, slender beak is curved to forage for prey. Having spiraled around a tree, a creeper will fly to the base of another and begin the process again. The brown creeper is difficult to spot because it is so well camouflaged, but if you notice a bit of bark moving, it’s probably a brown creeper!
Found west of the Rocky Mountains, the Steller’s jay haunts forests from Alaska down to Central America. It is an omnivore and will forage in trees or down on the ground. The jay is named after the German naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller. Look for a distinctive black crest and gorgeous cerulean blue feathers that blend well with shadows in the coniferous forests
Look for the curiously curved points of the red crossbill’s beak which indicate its role as a specialist within the ecosystem. Its unusual bill helps the crossbill extract seeds from spruce, pine and fir cones. Positioning the tips of its beak underneath a pinecone scale, it will clamp down with its powerful muscles to thrust the scale upward and extract the seed. Crossbills are sparrow sized and males are red with dark brownish-red wings and white wing bars; females are yellowish brown with darker wings
BLACK ROSY FINCH
The black rosy finch is a beautiful little songbird steeped in mystery and intrigue that inhabits high and remote elevations from New Mexico to Alaska. They are deep brown or chestnut in color with a striking red coloration. Alta and Powder Mountain are special in that these resorts offer two of the few places where naturalists can view and study groups of black rosy finches, one of the least-studied birds in North America! There is a wonderful and ongoing citizen science initiative to track and survey the handful of rosy finch subspecies at Alta and Powder Mountain to learn more about their behavior and inform conservation efforts. Banding stations help scientists and bird enthusiasts track the movements and behavior of rosy finches.
The easiest place to spy rosy finches is at the large feeder maintained by the Alta Ski Patrol at the top of the Collins Lift. Next time you unload, pause for a moment to witness and pay homage to this rare bird.
There are feeders throughout Alta Ski Area and the town of Alta to foster and study rosy finches. Join in the fun and spy a rosy finch at Alta or Powder Mountain! Find more information from the Alta Environmental Center here and an informative article on the study from the Salt Lake Tribune here.
GREAT HORNED OWL
Though a rare sight, owls are occasionally spotted in the daylight hours at Utah's ski areas. The great horned owl sports large and erect ear tufts 3-inches in length or longer and big yellow eyes. The great horned owl’s feathers are a mottled combination of white, brown and grey but there is a large regional variation in markings and coloration. Look for a distinct black outline surrounding its large yellow eyes—kinda like ski goggles!
WHERE TO BIRD AT UTAH'S SKI AREAS
Though it’s next to Snowbird, Alta is truly for the birds! There’re tons of opportunities for birding enthusiasts at Alta. Join a Birding on Skis tour and act like a citizen scientist to help with species surveys. Alta also hosts monthly birding hikes and surveys with the Tracy Aviary in the summer and fall months where hikers can join an expert.
In partnership with the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, Solitude, Snowbird, Brighton and Alta all offer ‘Ski With a Ranger’ programs. These informational tours allow guests of intermediate ability or stronger to tag along with a knowledgeable forest service ranger to learn about the geology, ecology and watershed of the magnificent Wasatch mountains. Click below to learn more about each resort's program.
Alta Ski With a Ranger - Click Here
Brighton Ski With a Ranger - Click Here
Snowbird Ski With a Ranger - Click Here
Solitude Ski With a Ranger - Click Here
Deer Valley offers private guided hikes in the summer months where guests can join an expert local to discover the area's history, natural splendor and wildlife.
Another fantastic way to find solitude and probably spy a little wildlife and a TON of great scenery along the way is to book one of Ski Utah’s Interconnect Tours. This all-day affair takes advanced skiers on the adventure of a lifetime to ski resort and backcountry terrain across as many as six ski resorts in one day.
Photos generously provided by Alta Ski Area:
Iz La Motte
How to Find Deer Valley's New Tree Skiing - Click Here
The Geology of Utah's Ski Areas - Click Here
Wasatch Mountain Field Guide - Click Here
Good Mountain Manners Trail Ethics Guide - Click Here