As winter quickly pushes into Estes Park, we quickly prepare for the season in our own particular ways. Some may pull out their warm winter clothes for a season full of outdoor activities, others may stack the firewood beside their home and the books beside their bed for a cozy winter spent indoors, while others may simply choose to find a warmer place for the season. Interestingly, animals tend to follow a very similar pattern in their preparations for the rocky mountain winter. These distinctive behaviors can be categorized as tolerating, hibernating, and migrating. Below, Rocky Mountain Conservancy provides examples of animals in each category and specific adaptations they exhibit and preparations they go through to prepare for wintertime.
Coyotes are one of the most adaptable animals found in Rocky Mountain National Park. Their diet varies from small rodents and squirrels to larger game, like elk and deer to plants. This canine's adaptability comes largely from its intelligence and ability to collaborate with other coyotes. Due to the snow pack and hibernation of many of the coyote's small prey in the winter, their winter diet comprises primarily of elk, deer, and bighorn sheep carcasses.
Like all members of the rabbit species, pikas do not hibernate in the winter. However, unlike the rest, pikas live above tree line throughout the year. They survive the long alpine winter due to their hard work harvesting tundra plants throughout the summer months. They store their harvests under rock piles in hay-stacks. Each pika must harvest enough plants to fill a bathtub to survive the winter.
Yellow-bellied marmots have incredible adaptations allowing them to hibernate for half a year. During the summer months, they can be seen gorging themselves on plants throughout the park in an effort to fatten up for the winter. This excess fat in the summer months allows them to enter into a long winter's nap during September and October. During their hibernation, marmots lower their heart rate, respirations, and body temperature to alarming low rates to help them conserve energy.
The black bear has often been labeled as a hibernator, and, to some extent, it is. However, their winter behavior is more accurately described as torpor. This is because black bears have been known to stir during warm periods throughout the winter to scavenge for more food. Unlike the marmot and other members of the squirrel species, black bears do not have significant decreases in body temperature; however, they do effectively reduce their metabolism during torpor.
Believe it or not, the ever present elk in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are considered to be migrators. Unlike birds flying south for the winter, elk are altitudinal migrators. During the summer months, when the temperatures rise in Estes Park and the tundra begins to bloom, elk will move away from the heat up toward the tundra where they can feast on tundra plants. However, as the seasons swing the other direction and the tundra goes to sleep for the winter, elk make their way down to the large meadows and golf courses of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
The magnificently energetic hummingbirds of this area - Rufous, Broadtailed, and Calliope - mark the beginning of summer in Estes Park with their return in April and May. However, their small bodies and high metabolic rate are not well adapted for the cold winter months, so they move south in the late summer months. Their time in Estes Park and Rocky is spent breeding and nesting.
Top Five Spots for Winter Wildlife Watching:
Below are the top five spots in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to find winter wildlife. Remember to always view wildlife from a distance.
1. Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park. This large meadow offers great opportunities to see large numbers of elk, deer, and coyote throughout the winter months. Be sure to look carefully, the coyotes can be well camouflaged among the grassy and snowy landscape.
2. Fall River Entrance, Rocky Mountain National Park. As you enter the park and begin to ascend the moraine into Horseshoe Park, the roadsides provide great winter range for bighorn sheep and wild turkeys.
3. Bear Lake Road, Rocky Mountain National Park. The popular Bear Lake corridor, as it ascends into the sub-alpine, can be one of the best places to see wildlife throughout the year. During the winter months, guests may experience mule deer, turkeys, and maybe even the elusive snowshoe hare.
4. Lake Estes Trail, Estes Park. As you travel around Lake Estes, you may see elk and geese populating the 9-hole golf course, coyotes running around the lake, and trout inhabiting the Big Thompson River below the Olympus Dam.
5. Devil's Gulch, Estes Park. Travelling north from Estes Park toward Glen Haven gives you views of Lump Ridge and Eagle Rock. These areas are popular and protected nesting areas for large birds of prey, but don't keep your eyes on the sky for too long, as the meadows on both sides provide habitat for bobcats and coyotes.
One great way to view the wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park during the wintertime is on a Wintertime Wonders Bus Tour with Rocky Mountain Conservancy-Field Institute. You can enjoy a private educational adventure through Rocky with a professional naturalist onboard catered to your interests and abilities. Tours are available on-demand for $50 per person with a minimum of 4 people. For more information or to register please call (970)586-3262 or visit www.RMConservancy.org.
For tips on viewing wildlife in a safe & respectful way, please visit our Wildlife Watching page.