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Prime time for watching Western wildlife.

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 experts to find seven species--elk, elephant seal, 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.

All the sites we suggest are on public lands; some have interpretive centers and guided tours. Obey rules, 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 refuges, though well away from visitor viewing areas.

Animals tend to be most active early and late in the day. Bring warm clothes and binoculars or a spotting scope, and then be patient. Sometimes it's best to stay in the car: it may act as a blind, letting you get closer to animals. 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.

Call ahead for weather, driving conditions, and reservations.

On the following pages, we give the best viewing site for each species first, listed by nearest town. National Wildlife Refuges are identified as NWR. Hours are dawn to dusk unless noted.

Northern elephant seals: Ano Nuevo is their largest mainland rookery

By the early 1900s, these huge, lumbering pinnipeds (bulls weigh up to 6,000 pounds) were nearly extinct. Today, the population has rebounded to some 100,000. From December through March, they breed on island beaches from Baja to Northern California. At Ano Nuevo State Reserve, about an hour's drive south of San Francisco, the seals now number 3,000.

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: a bull's inflated snout and loud bellow mean he's spoiling for a fight. If a bull is challenged, teeth are bared and a battle ensues, often with both warriors bloodied.

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, daily from December through March. For required reservations, call Mistix, (800) 444-7275.

SamTrans runs buses from the Bay Area on weekends and holiday Mondays, early January through midMarch; call (800) 660-4287.

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. Elk, which are related to deer but much larger (up to 1,000 pounds), eat grasses as well as some woody plants. In winter, the 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. Some may be shedding antlers, which are replaced annually. Bulls can hit speeds of up to 35 mph; give them a wide berth. Female elk lack both antlers and dark manes.

Jackson, Wyoming. Elk head down from the Tetons and gather at the National Elk Refuge, at the edge of town. You may see as many as 4,000 animals on 1/2-hour sleigh rides from December to late March; call (307) 733-9212.

Other sites. Washington: At Oak Creek Wildlife Area, see as many as 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; call (509) 653-2390.

Utah: At Hardware Ranch Game Area, 21 miles southeast of Logan, sleigh tours take you to some 800 elk mid-December through mid-March; call (801) 245-3329.

Oregon: About an hour's drive northwest of Portland, see 300 elk at Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area along State Highway 202, just north of U.S. 26. Call (503) 755-2264.

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

Snow geese: jamming California's Central Valley wetlands

Standing under a sky full of squawking 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 grainfields to feed. The clamor of large flocks can be heard a mile away.

Smaller than a domestic goose, this bird is easy to spot with its white plumage, black wingtips, pink feet and bill. Geese summer in the Arctic; from November to March, thousands stop to rest in California's Central and Imperial valleys.

Sacramento NWR, California. This Central Valley refuge and its neighbors (Colusa, Delevan, and Sutter) may get as many as 300,000 geese (numbers peak in January). Drive a 6-mile loop, or hike a 1-mile trail. Exit I-5 on Norman Road (south of Willows). Call (916) 934-2801.

Other sites. California: Tule Lake NWR gets up to 200,000 snow geese; peak is in November, but some remain year-round. See directions under bald eagles. Southern California's Salton Sea hosts as many as 30,000 geese. Try the Wister unit of Imperial Wildlife Area off State 111. For details about guided walks from January through April, call (619) 359-0577.

Colorado: At Two Buttes State Wildlife Area, on U.S. 287, 60 miles south of Lamar, you can 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 from early October to mid-April. Best time to visit is after mid-January, when hunting season ends. From I-5, take exit 221 (Conway); follow signs on Fir Island Road to three access points. Call (206) 445-4441.

Sandhill cranes: throngs from California to New Mexico

Cranes seem born to dance, making their courtship ritual 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 a 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). Sandhills face an uncertain future since many of their critical nesting grounds are on private lands.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Some 12,000 sandhills winter here, a 2-hour drive south of Albuquerque off I-25. For a map of the self-guided driving loop (12 miles), stop at the entrance or small visitor center (open daily). Call (505) 835-1828.

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. For BLM maps and guided tours, call (805) 861-4236.

Arizona: Some 6,000 cranes winter at Willcox Playa, 80 miles east of Tucson; call (602) 384-2272.

Bison: making a stand in their Yellowstone stronghold

Once nearly exterminated, bison now number at least 35,000 in the United States. Yellowstone National Park is the West's premier winter viewing site; here, numbers have nearly doubled in the last 20 years (to some 2,500 today). From November into March, bison often descend from the high country to the valleys to forage for grasses, hugging rivers for water and well-traveled roads for easier walking.

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

Yellowstone 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. Book early.

All three areas, as well as Old Faithful Snow Lodge, offer all-day tours in 12-passenger heated snow coaches ($40 to $75 per person). For details on these and on cross-country ski rentals and guided trips, call (307) 344-7311. For a good wildlife drive, follow U.S. 212 between Mammoth and Cooke City.

Bald eagles: always near water

There's no mistaking the adult bald eagle, with its big, dark body (birds weigh as much as 16 pounds), 7- to 7 1/2-foot wingspan, and white head and tail. 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.

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 trees with stout horizontal limbs.

Tulelake, California. The largest wintering clan of bald eagles in the lower 48 states--up to 1,000--comes to the Klamath Basin refuges, 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. Go south 4 miles to the visitor center (916/667-2231). Pick up a free map for self-guided driving tours.

Rockport, Washington. As many as 300 eagles converge on the Skagit River. From I-5 at Burlington, take State 20 east 40 miles; turnouts offer viewing.

Weekend half-day float trips ply 9 miles of the river from December through February. For information about outfitters, call (206) 485-1427.

Other sites. California: Lake San Antonio, in Monterey County, offers 2-hour boat tours to see 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.

Colorado: At Denver's Rocky Mountain Arsenal, guided tours see about 30 eagles. Call (303) 289-0132.

Utah: About 15 miles north of Ogden, see some 60 eagles in the cottonwoods at Willard Bay State Park, open daily. From I-15, take exit 360.

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 bighorns migrate down to snow-free grazing areas. 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 collide in forehead-crashing contests that sometimes last as long as 20 hours.

Dubois, Wyoming. The country's largest accessible herd--nearly a thousand strong--winters east of here at Whiskey Basin, in Bridger-Teton National Forest (southeast of Yellowstone). The sheep venture into the deep valley when the sun hits the floor (usually from 10 to 2). To spot them, slowly scan the rocks with binoculars.

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. Parking for Fitzpatrick Wilderness Trailhead is at road's end. Call (307) 455-2421.

Other site. Colorado: About an hour west of Denver, a new viewing platform is just off I-70 at the Georgetown exit; scan the cliffs for bighorn.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Best of the Holidays; winter wildlife haunts
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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