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Winter wildlife watching; elk to elephant seals, Colorado to the Pacific.

Winter wildlife watching In a time of deep concern for disappearing species, it's heartening to know that many of the largest concentrations of wild animals in North America are right here in the West--not even counting Alaska. Several are a day trip from a major urban area. And visits are fun: at some sites, you can travel to see animals by horse-drawn sleigh, river raft, or cross-country skis.

We talked to wildlife biologists, refuge managers, and others to find eight species--elk, elephant seal, monarch butterfly, big-horn sheep, bison, bald eagle, snow goose, and sandhill crane--that collect in large, accessible wintering groups. Nine states are included, with California, due mostly to its mild winters and big unfrozen wetlands, offering the greatest number of sites.

In most areas, what you're seeing are remnants of once sweeping herds or flocks. Without ongoing habitat protection, numbers will continue to decline.

All the sites we suggest are on public lands; some have interpretive centers and guided tours. Obey rules and remember to keep a safe distance, and don't annoy or threaten animals. In winter, animals are under stress from cold and reduced food supplies; being chased may cause them to lose critical fat--which may threaten their survival. Note that hunting is allowed on many of the refuges, though well away from visitor viewing areas; seasons vary, but most end by mid-January.

Animals tend to be most active early and late in the day. Bring warm clothes and binoculars or a spotting scope. For close-up photographs, it helps to use a tripod and at least a 300mm lens. In extreme cold, zip your camera inside your jacket to keep batteries warm. Remember to set your camera to compensate for the bright snowy scenes (a good rule of thumb: meter your palm and open up one f-stop). Call ahead for weather, driving conditions, and reservations.

Be patient. Sometimes it's best to stay in the car (or other vehicle): it may act as a blind and actually let you get closer to the animals. At each site, you'll probably see other birds and mammals besides those highlighted here.

With each species, listed here through page 53, we note best viewing site first, by nearest town. Other sites are mentioned; call for details and directions. National Wildlife Refuges are identified as NWR. Hours are dawn to dusk unless noted.

Elk: in the shadow of the Tetons,

the nation's largest herd

Come winter, elk head down out of the high country. From November to April, they congregate on warmer winter ranges, with young bulls joining herds of does and young. Related to deer but much larger (up to 800 pounds), elk eat grasses as well as some woody plants. In winter, largest herds gather on a few refuges where they're given supplemental feed.

Look for dark-maned rival males snorting, pawing, and clashing racks in sparring matches (the real battles happen in fall). Some may be shedding their antlers, which are replaced annually. Bulls can hit speeds up to 35 mph; give them a wide berth. Listen for adults barking and grunting, cows whistling to their young, calves squealing back. The young stay close to their mothers (female elk lack both antlers and dark manes).

Jackson, Wyoming. Thousands of elk head down from the Tetons and gather at the National Elk Refuge, at the edge of town. You may see up to 10,000 animals, the country's largest herds on view, on 1/2-hour sleigh rides ($6, $3 ages 6 through 12) 10 to 4 daily from December to late March; (307) 733-9212.

Other sites. Washington: At Oak Creek Wildlife Area, a 3-hour drive east of Seattle, see up to 3,000 elk, December to early March. View the 1:30 feeding from the interpretive center, 15 miles west of Yakima, off U.S. 12; (509) 575-2740.

Utah: At Hardware Ranch Game Area, 21 miles southeast of Logan, sleigh tours ($4, $3 ages 12 and under) take you to some 800 elk. Ranch hours are 11 to 5 daily, December 15 through March 15; call (801) 521-0302 or 521-3331.

Oregon: About an hour's drive northwest of Portland, see 300 elk at Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area. Park in several turnouts along State 202, just west of its junction with U.S. 26.

Colorado: Off I-70 west of Denver, Genesee Park has 250 elk.

Northern elephant seals at Ano Nuevo:

their only mainland rookery

By the early 1900s, these huge, lumbering pinnipeds (bulls weigh up to 7,700 pounds) were nearly extinct. Today, the population has rebounded to some 65,000. December through March, they land to breed on sandy beaches on coastal islands from Baja to northern California. Striking out from crowded island rookeries, the seals established a mainland rookery at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in 1975. The reserve, about an hour's drive south of San Francisco, is still the only mainland site, where seals now number 2,000.

Polygamous bulls arrive first to fight for territories and--once the smaller, snoutless females arrive days later--establish harems. Look and listen for threat displays: an inflated snout and loud bellow mean he's spoiling for a fight. If challenged, teeth are bared and a battle ensues, often with both warriors bloodied. A dominant bull may have hundreds in his harem; females reluctantly accept his heavy embrace.

Ano Nuevo, California. This state reserve is just off State 1, 55 miles south of San Francisco. Join 2-1/2-hour, 3-mile guided walks over the dunes to see the colony ($2; 9 to 2:30 daily December through March). For required reservations, call Mistix, (800) 444-7275. SamTrans runs buses from the Bay Area weekends and holiday Mondays, January 6 through March 11 ($5, includes guided walk); call (415) 348-7325.

Other site. California: A visit to the colony on San Miguel Island, within Channel Islands National Park, requires a 9-mile hike and overnight backpack. The island is 40 miles west of Ventura; call (805) 644-8262 for reservations, boat trips.

Butterflies near the beach,

bison in the snow--here are 31 places to view wildlife

Monarch butterfly: scattered roosts

along coastal California

Borne on a 4-inch wingspan, and with a cruising speed of 10 mph, the black-and-orange monarch migrates up to 2,000 miles. The 3 million butterflies that winter along the California coast come from all over the West to seek out specific groves of trees. It's still a mystery how they find these habitual wintering sites.

Monarch populations are healthy, though winter habitat is dwindling. You can see big groups easily--six park sites in California each get 50,000 to 100,000 monarchs from October through March. Here they hang from eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress, clustering to keep from being dislodged by wind and rain, drinking but not feeding. A diet of milkweed when they are caterpillars makes them forever toxic to birds that might consider them lunch.

A sunny day offers best viewing and activity--in a graceful mating ritual on warm afternoons January through February, pairs drift like autumn leaves. Couples float down to the ground and mate, then the male carries the female back to the trees, holding her against his abdomen. Look for clusters high in the leeward side of trees. If the temperature is below 55[degrees], check the ground for butterflies, too: they have trouble flying when the air is cold.

Santa Cruz. Natural Bridges State Beach, at the north end of W. Cliff Drive, is a monarch natural preserve. Follow a self-guided trail (free brochure at the trailhead) to a viewing platform, or join 1-hour guided walks at 11 and 2 each weekend in January and February. Open dawn to dusk; parking fee is $3 per vehicle.

San Luis Obispo. Pismo State Beach, 14 miles south of town, had some 100,000 monarchs last year. You can take the 1/4-mile self-guided walk from North Beach Campground to the grove. Or join free 1/2-hour guided walks at 11 and 2 weekends November 25 through February 25. Park hours are dawn to dusk (no fee); it's off State 1 about 1/2 mile north of Grand Avenue in Grover City (park in the campground's new lot).

Other sites: California: George Washington Park, in Pacific Grove (Pine and Alder streets). Point Lobos State Reserve, near Carmel; (408) 624-4909. Morro Bay State Park, in Morro Bay; (805) 772-7434. Montana de Oro State Park, in Los Osos; (805) 528-0513.

Bighorn sheep: a thousand strong

in Wyoming's Rockies

Standing 3-1/2 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 315 pounds, the tan-coated, white-rumped bighorn can be found from Canada to the U.S. Rockies and in some Western deserts.

From November to May, Rocky Mountain bighors migrate down to snow-free grazing areas; herds grow as rams join ewes and young. Rams boast the dramatic, C-shaped horns (full curl by age 7 or 8); ewe horns are shorter and don't curl fully. Fall through winter, males compete in forehead-crashing contests, colliding at 20 mph with a crack you can hear a mile away.

Dubois, Wyoming. The country's largest accessible flock--nearly a thousand strong--winters east of here in Whiskey Basin, within Bridger-Teton National Forest (southeast of Yellowstone). Locals say the sheep venture down into the deep valley when the sun hits the floor (usually from 10 to 2); by midafternoon, animals have scattered back to the heights. Scan the rocks with binoculars; the sheep blend in, so pan slowly.

Head east on U.S. 26 about 4 miles; take the fish hatchery turnoff and bear left at the Y. After about 5 miles, you enter the Whiskey Basin sheep range and may see bighorn or elk (250 winter here) from the road. Continue to the end of the road and parking for Fitzpatrick Wilderness Trailhead.

Other site. Colorado: About an hour west of Denver, a new viewing platform is right off I-70 at the Georgetown exit; look on the rocky cliffs for some 80 bighorn.

Bison: making a stand in its

Yellowstone stronghold

Once nearly exterminated, bison now number at least 35,000 in this country. Yellowstone National Park is the West's premier winter viewing site; here, numbers have nearly doubled in the last 20 years (to some 2,000 today). From November into March, bison descend from the high country to the valleys to forage for grasses, hugging rivers for water and well-traveled roads for the easier walking they provide.

Six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to a ton, bison wear a shaggy winter coat and beard (longer on old males); both sexes have slightly curving horns. Bison sometimes feed on moonlit nights--an exciting sight on a nighttime ski tour.

You may hear cows snort, calves bawl, and bulls grunt or bellow (an upturned tail is a warning signal). Bison have gored visitors, so keep a safe distance--100 yards minimum.

Food supply, snow depth, and weather severity regulate herd size; some feel the 1988 fires may help the park's bison by clearing away pine forests and making way for fresh forage. In recent years, bison have so thrived that they now roam beyond park boundaries, where controversial "hunts" have occurred.

Yellowston National Park. In addition to the Old Faithful area, three main bases offer services, tours, and lodging. West Yellowstone, Montana, is on the park's western boundary; call (406) 646-7701. Mammoth Hot Springs, in the north end of the park, has the most wildlife. Jackson, Wyoming, is just south of the park; call (307) 733-3316. January bookings should still be available, but call soon. All three areas offer all-day snowcoach tours ($40 to $75 per person), a comfortable way to see the park and its wildlife.

Within the park, mid-December to mid-March, consider Old Faithful Snow Lodge or Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel; both offer snowcoach tours, as well as cross-country ski rentals, lessons, and guided trips. For details, call TW Recreational Services, Inc., at (307) 344-7311. For a good wildlife drive, follow U.S. 212 between Mammoth and Cooke City (plowed).

Bald eagles: always near water

There's no mistaking the adult bald eagle, with its big, dark body (birds weigh up to 16 pounds), 7- to 7-1/2-foot wingspan, and white head and tail. Though DDT slashed their numbers, since the '60s nesting pairs have increased threefold in the lower 48 states; some 14,000 eagles now winter here. Even so, the bald eagle is still an endangered species. The oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, killed hundreds of eagles and reduced numbers of young.

Starting in October, many eagles migrate from Alaska (numbers peak in February; birds usually stay through March). Eagles gather near water to feed on salmon and waterfowl. Birds tend to roost in large, open trees with stout horizontal limbs, offering the birds--and us--unobstructed views. In a group of feeding eagles, look for the pecking order: bigger birds eating first and fighting off the rest.

Tulelake, California. The largest wintering clan of bald eagles in the lower 48 states--up to 800--comes to the Klamath Basin refuges, clustered near the Oregon border. Tule Lake NWR is a good place to start; from I-5 at Weed, take U.S. 97 east 55 miles, then take State 161 east 18 miles to Hill Road. Turn south 4 miles to the visitor center (open 8 to 4:30 weekdays, 9 to 5 weekends; 916/667-2231). Pick up a free map for self-guided driving tours of this refuge and neighboring Lower Klamath NWR. For details on the Bald Eagle Conference, February 16 through 18 in Klamath Falls, call (503) 883-5732.

Rockport, Washington. About 2 hours northeast of Seattle, up to 500 eagles converge on the Skagit River between Rockport and Marblemount. From I-5 at Burlington (65 miles north of Seattle), take State 20 east 40 miles; turnouts offer viewing.

Weekend float trips ply 9 miles of the river December through February; cost is $30 to $50 a person (2-1/2 to 4 hours). Some serve snacks and hot drinks or let you bring your own; a few don't allow food. Dress warmly with rubber boots, rain gear, hat, and gloves. Listed outfitters have Park Service permits and use experienced, informative guides. Area code is 206. For others, check the yellow pages under River Trips.

Blue Sky Outfitters, Box 124, Pacific, Wash. 98047; 931-0637. Downstream River Runners, Inc., 12112 N.E. 195th St., Bothell 98011; 483-0335. Orion Expeditions, 1516 11th Ave., Seattle 98122; 322-9130. River Drifters, 324 N.W. 203rd St., Seattle 98177; 546-3073. Rivers, Inc., Box 2092, Kirkland 98083; 822-5296. Wildwater River Tours, Box 3623, Federal Way 98063; 939-2151. And Seattle Aquarium (Pier 59, Seattle 98101; 386-4329) also offers float trips with a naturalist on board. Price ($50) includes a pretrip slide show and round-trip transportation from Seattle.

Other sites. California: Lake San Antonio, in Monterey County, offers guided 2-hour boat tours ($8, $17 with brunch) to some 60 eagles and nests; call (408) 755-4899. In Southern California, boats visit a small population on Lake Cachuma, east of Solvang; call (805) 568-2460. Cost is $8.

Colorado: At Denver's Rocky Mountain Arsenal, guided tours see 50 eagles. Call (303) 289-0132.

Utah: Just 16 miles west of Salt Lake City, see about 20 eagles at Great Salt Lake State Park, open 8 to 5 daily; $3 per vehicle. From I-80, take exit 104.

Snow geese: jamming California's

Cetral Valley wetlands

Standing under a squawking sky full of snow geese, you get a hint of the abundance of game that stunned early American travelers. At dawn, huge flocks rise as one from the night's roosting fields, circle like a white funnel cloud, then head to marshes and stubble grain fields to feed.

Smaller than a domestic goose, this bird is easy to spot with its white plumage, black wingtips, pink feet and bill. But you might hear these vociferous waterfowl before you see them: the incessant clamor of large wintering flocks can be heard a mile away. Geese summer in the Arctic; November to March, thousands rest in California's Central and Imperial valleys.

Sacramento NWR, California. This Central Valley refuge and its neighbor refuges (colusa, Delavan, and Sutter) may get up to 300,000 geese (numbers peak in January), plus thousands of other waterfowl. Drive a 6-mile loop, or hike a self-guided 1-mile trail (with new interpretive panels). From I-5, take the Norman Road exit (south of Willows) and follow signs.

Other sites. California: Tule Lake NWR, near the Oregon border, gets up to 200,000 snow geese; peak is in December, but some remain year-round. For details and directions, see heading under bald eagles (far left). Southern California's Salton Sea, a 2-1/2-hour drive east of San Diego, hosts up to 30,000 geese. Try the Wister unit of Imperial Wildlife Area. From State 111, watch for the Wister sign, about 5 miles north of Niland. At the headquarters, ask for directions to best viewing areas (access limited until January 15). January through April, free 2-hour walks are offered at 9 on first and third Saturdays. Entrance fee is $2 per person, free for ages 15 and under; call (619) 359-0577.

Colorado: At Two Buttes State Wildlife Area, on State 287, 60 miles south of Lamar, see some 20,000 snow geese.

Washington. Skagit Wildlife Area, 13,000 acres of wetlands where the Skagit River meets Puget Sound, is home to some 50,000 wintering snow geese (as well as eagles and other waterfowl) early October to mid-April. Best time is after mid-January, when hunting season ends. The area is a 1-hour drive north of Seattle. From I-5, take exit 221 (Conway); follow signs on Fir Island Road to three access points (1-3/4, 4-1/2, and 5-3/4 miles from the freeway). Call (206) 775-1311.

Sandhill cranes: throngs from

California to New Mexico

Cranes seem born to dance, and this courtship ritual is one of nature's most memorable sights. The stately, 3-1/2-foot-tall sandhills pair off, hop into the air with spindly legs dangling, raise their red-capped heads, jab their beaks, and flap their giant wings. Their distinct gargling call is created in part by a windpipe looped like a French horn.

You'll spot sandhills feeding in grainfields. They're shy and skittish--best view is from a blind or car. In the West, they summer in Alaska, Idaho, California, Nevada, and Colorado, then winter from central California to Mexico (prime time is January through February). Listed as threatened in California, sandhills face an uncertain future since many critical nesting grounds are on private lands.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Some 12,000 sandhills (plus 14 rare whooping cranes and snow geese) winter here, a 2-hour drive south of Albuquerque off I-25. The self-guided driving loop (12 miles) stops at two viewing platforms; pick up a map at the entrance or small visitor center (open 7:30 to 5 daily). Call (505) 835-1828; $2 auto entry fee.

Other sites. California: Merced NWR, in the Central Valley, hosts some 12,000 cranes. Drive 8 miles south of Merced on State 59, then 6 miles west on Sandy Mush Road. View 6,000 cranes at Carrizo Plain, 50 miles east of San Luis Obispo (see page 35 of the November 1989 Sunset). Call for BLM maps, guided tours; (805) 861-4236.

Arizona: Some 6,000 cranes spend the winter on an ancient lake bed at Willcox Playa, 80 miles east of Tucson; call the Willcox Chamber of Commerce at (602) 384-2272.
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