White Mountains Online

Winter Wildlife Watching in the White Mountains


Winter ~ just the word evokes thoughts of rosy cheeks, woolly mittens, and of seeing your own breath vaporize in the crisp air. For us folks living in the White Mountains, it's the time to chop our wood for heat, pull out our stored longjohns, and throw tire chains in our truck. And while we tuck away our shorts and t-shirts, we make sure to leave out our binoculars. Why? Because winter is a great time to view wildlife in the White Mountains.

While many critters den up or fly south for the winter, several stick it out in the White Mountains ~ some even arrive here on purpose for the cold season! This can give the wildlife observer great opportunities to witness wildlife that most folks miss.

What can you see on a typical winter day in the White Mountains? Probably one of the most exciting winter species is the bald eagle, usually found roosting in treetops that are near open water or quietly soaring overhead.

Lakes and reservoirs without ice cover can be temporary homes for waterfowl, such as the bufflehead, American widgeon, cinnamon teal, and redhead. Elk and pronghorn can be found in open juniper grasslands. To me, winter in the White Mountains would not be complete without hearing the nasal yank of the white-breasted nuthatch or the clear "fee-bee-bee" of the mountain chickadee break the silence of a winter morning.

Many wildlife viewing excursions can take place in a half-day's time. Visitors from the desert coming up to ski or play in the snow can take part of a day off and tour the White Mountains looking for wildlife. Residents can take a morning walk as a part of their daily routine, and enjoy what an Arizona winter has to offer.

Where can these animals be found? Really, almost anywhere. Driving open roads, even highways, you may be able to luck into seeing elk and pronghorn along the roadsides. There are however, a few places that will offer solitude and an opportunity to watch wildlife in action. After all, catching a 55-mph glimpse of wildlife is nice, but taking the time to observe their behavior gives one a truly memorable experience.

Some areas you may want to visit in the Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside area:

1. Pintail Lake/Allen Severson Memorial Wildlife Area. Located east of Highway 77 four miles north of its intersection with Highway 60 (east of Show Low), Pintail Lake is one of the nation's first developed wetlands using treated sewage effluent (from Show Low). Formerly a shallow grassland basin, the area is now a highly productive wetland, complete with waterfowl nesting islands, cattail/rush marshes, and open water. Bald eagles frequent the area in winter, as do waterfowl. Pronghorn and elk feed in the uplands around the marsh. Test your birding skills and try to identify the winter shorebirds skittering along the marsh's edge.

Pintail Lake comes equipped with a fully accessible paved trail, which leads to a cement viewing blind. A side trail leads to a wooden viewing platform. Signs along the way help visitors understand the significance of Pintail Lake to Arizona's wildlife.

2. Jacques Marsh Pinetop-Lakeside's equivalent to Pintail Lake, Jacques Marsh is a developed wetland using treated sewage effluent from the town of Pinetop-Lakeside. To get to Jacques, drive north on Porter Mountain Road from Highway 260 in downtown Lakeside. After 1.5 miles, take a left onto Juniper Drive and continue 0.6 miles to the gate. There are no facilities. Walk the berms surrounding the ponds. If you slowly (and quietly!) creep up the first berm that surrounds the marsh, keeping your head and shoulders below the level of the berm until the last possible minute, you'll be more likely to get closer views of waterfowl before they swim or fly to the farther end of the marsh. Listen and look for the click-clack of the elusive Virginia rail in the emergent vegetation. Herds of elk may be found at Jacques in the early morning or late evening. Bald eagles often visit as well.

3. Woodland Lake Park. In the heart of Pinetop, Woodland Lake Park always seems to have something to offer. Crowds thin out in winter, leaving the park a little more quiet. The paved 1.25-mile trail takes you completely around Woodland Lake. Bald eagles are regularly spotted, as well as many different waterfowl and songbirds, and of course the tassel-eared Abert's squirrel. The red and iridescent-green Lewis' woodpecker can be seen, as well as cinnamon teal, white-breasted and pygmy nuthatch, and in late winter/early spring, the double-crested cormorant.

Other sites to visit in the Show Low/Pinetop-Lakeside area include any of the other lakes (Show Low, Fool Hollow, Rainbow, Scott's), Billy and Walnut creeks, and Big Springs Environmental Study Area.

Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area. Accessible off Highway 191 south of Springerville, this former ranch-turned-wildlife area is now managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Elk roam the irrigated fields and surrounding upland juniper grasslands and forested bluffs. Winter is the best time to view elk here, as large herds often congregate in these lower-elevation ranges. A good time to visit is after a hard snowfall in the higher mountains. Being on the northeast side of the White Mountains, Sipe receives a small proportion of snow compared to the surrounding range ~ an ideal condition to see elk. A hint, though; if you want to increase your chances of seeing elk, stop at the top of the hill and look around before you enter the property. That way, you'll get a good view of the lower pastures before you drive down the hill. Often, the sound of vehicles driving down that last hill sends the elk running into the surrounding bluffs.

You can park your vehicle at one of two parking areas and walk the road network to McKay Reservoir and other wetlands to view waterfowl; bald eagles often spend their days perched in pine trees on nearby bluffs. Pick a warmer, sunny winter day, pack a lunch, and head to Sipe for a beautiful day of wildlife observing. The dirt road that leads to Sipe from Highway 191 is suitable for passenger cars, but please be careful during wet weather.

The southwest side of Becker Lake, off Highway 60 outside Springerville, is a Department wildlife area. You can walk here from the Becker Lake road. Look for waterfowl on the lake and in the emergent vegetation ~ often Canada geese can be spotted. Scan above for bald eagles perched in the large cottonwoods lining the southwest side of Becker Lake. Pronghorn are found in the surrounding grasslands.

Wenima Wildlife Area. Continue west on Highway 60 from Springerville for a couple miles, and take the Highway 180 turnoff to St. Johns. Almost immediately, you'll see a directional sign for Wenima (look for the binocular logo). Follow that dirt road for approximately one mile. It will lead you down into the Little Colorado River Valley and to the Wenima parking lot. The rocky bluffs of Wenima border the grasslands and willow-edged Little Colorado River. Feel free to walk along the river, looking for beaver dams and dens, waterfowl, and songbirds. Walnut trees skirt the bluff edges ~ this interface attracts kestrels, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, Lewis' woodpeckers, and ground squirrels. In late winter/early spring, listen for the breeding "meaow" of the catbird ~ with few breeding sites recorded in Arizona, this is truly a special bird to see.

Other sites in the Springerville area include Lyman Lake State Park (look for one of only three herds of bison in Arizona in the surrounding fields), Nelson Reservoir, and Mexican Hay Lake.

There are many other sites to look for winter wildlife in the White Mountains. Near Alpine is Luna Lake ~ another bald eagle spot. Greer Valley is a terrific place to wander around its three lakes and up creeks such as Benny, Hall, and West Fork of the Little Colorado. Just traveling highways 60 or 260 near Springerville, you may spot antelope herds lounging or feeding in the adjacent grasslands. I once counted about 15 bald eagles in one visit to Long Lake, north of Show Low. Dry Lake, on the west side of Highway 377 halfway between Heber and Holbrook is also a good place to check. Make sure, however, to respect private property.

And what's better than watching wildlife from a comfortable window in your cabin? Birdfeeders filled with black sunflower seeds attract dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees, all nuthatch species, acorn woodpeckers, Stellar's jays, and more!

Watching wildlife in the White Mountains can be a truly exciting adventure. So many places ~ you'll need more than one winter to see everything!


Written by & published with the permission of: Sue Sitco, Information & Education Program Manager, Arizona Game & Fish Department Information. Information courtesy Arizona Game & Fish Department, Region 1-Pinetop,AZ