Winter wildlife watching in the snow

Get outdoors with the whole family

California Quail (Callipepla californica) seen on top of a backyard fence. Photo by Danielle Ball

Snow adventures with kids

At-home ideas

Winter and early spring are great times to get outdoors with the kids. Snow reveals animal tracks, hidey-holes, and other wildlife findings that might not be seen on bare ground. Additionally, seasonal changes in foliage can help kids hone observation skills. Observation and sensory activities help children make sense of how the world works and encourage critical thinking skills. For ideas, check out our Nature-based mindfulness activities as well as our Habitat at Home activities.

Before and after snow: If you currently have snow on the ground, take a picture of a familiar area your child sees every day. Take more pictures as the snow begins to melt and have your learner compare and contrast differences. Test their curiosity by asking questions like, “How do you think animals survive in winter? How do you think they find food and water? How do they stay warm?” This could lead into figuring out how animals make their homes in this snow house building activity.

Winter bird watching is a great at-home activity that can provide you and your family with a chance to see wildlife from your window! If you’re in Western Washington, check out this blog that highlights creative ways you can make your yard or outdoor space habitat for overwintering birds.

Ideas on public lands

Municipal, state, and federally managed lands can provide a great opportunity for winter recreation and wildlife activities. If you are a library card holder, you can check out a Discover Pass from your local library and explore any WDFW wildlife area, Washington State Parks, or Department of Natural Resource Natural Area for free. The Discover Pass website has a calendar of Discover Pass Free Days, or you can purchase an annual pass for $35.

A family goes on a winter walk in WDFW’s Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County. (Justin Haug/WDFW)
A family goes on a walk in WDFW’s Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County.

Hiking is a great way to see different parts of the state and put your learner’s observations to the real test. Check out this Washington Trails Association blog post on the best winter hikes with kids throughout the state.

Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are popular activities for the family. Popular wildlife areas like the Methow Wildlife Area can provide great opportunities for nature and wildlife observation. Remember to practice leave no trace principles to be respectful of other people and wildlife.

Cold winter weather and shorter days provide an opportunity to see migratory species like waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans overwinter in Washington and can be seen on many lakes, steams, and rivers. Popular Eastern Washington counties to see waterfowl include Grant, Yakima, Benton, Franklin, and Walla Walla. Western Washington that are common to see waterfowl include Whatcom, Snohomish, Grays Harbor, and Clark. Check out a WDFW wildlife area in one of these counties to see where you can spot some of Washington’s unique waterfowl. You and your family can learn to identify different ducks using this guide.

Before heading out to your public lands, be sure to check agency websites for any closures or special notices. Additionally prepping yourself or your family with the for the ten essentials can be important in the cold winter season.

Finding animal tracks

Finally, one of our favorite snow activities with children is finding animal tracks. The texture of snow makes this much easier. You may not even have to look very far to find animal sign; animal tracks can be found on your balcony, in your backyard, or in a nearby park.

But what animals left those tracks? To help you and your children in your investigation, you may want to print out or take a screen shot of some animal track guides. We like this mammal track guide from Wenatchee Naturalist and this list of resources from National Wildlife Federation. You may also find animal track guides at your local library.

This “snow angel” was likely created by an owl hunting for mice underneath the snow. Photo by Andrea Haug

Tips for investigating animal tracks:

· Be aware that wintering wildlife should not be disturbed so that they do not expend energy stores they need to survive the winter. The activities described here can be enjoyed without actively tracking nearby animals and forcing them to move.

· Keep your eyes on the ground. When you spot a track ask your child how many toes they count, do they see claw marks, what shape is the heel. Based on this information, ask them what animal they think they’ve found and why.

· If you’re having trouble finding animal tracks, look near water.

· Early morning is a good time to investigate what animals are nocturnal.

· Look for other signs such as scat, fur, feathers, claw marks on trees, etc. For more information, read this animal tracking guide.

· Measure the distance between tracks. Ask children if they think the animal was running or walking based on its tracks.

If you live in or are visiting Washington wolf country, you can also check out our family activity called Tracking Wolves.

Learning to identify animal tracks such as these wolf tracks can be a fun and exciting winter experience.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.