How to Spot Common Winter Wildlife

Be on the lookout for these cold-weather guests this season.

As winter deepens and the cold winds blow, you might think all the creatures have fled to warmer climates until spring. In reality, there are plenty of wildlife visitors. Be on the lookout for these species and their signs this winter.

Flying Squirrels

shutterstock-flying-squirrel-tony-campbell
photo credit: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock Flying squirrel

Flying squirrels are active all winter, but you’ve probably never seen one because they’re nocturnal. Unlike their cousins the gray squirrels, flying squirrels rarely come down to the ground. These cute little tree rodents are omnivores, but when insects and birds’ eggs aren’t available in winter, they subsist on the normal squirrel fare of seeds and nuts. Leave a feeder out at night and spread some peanut butter on a nearby tree trunk. Then watch and wait for them to glide in for a treat. (Read more: 8 Nutty Facts About Squirrels)

Weasels, Mink and Fishers

photo credit: Wildlife World/Shutterstock
photo credit: Wildlife World/Shutterstock A mink in winter.

All three of these critters belong to the mustelid family. These cousins range from the least weasel, weighing less than two ounces, to the fisher, which can weigh more than 10 pounds. The most common is the long-tailed weasel, found across the country. Mustelids are pretty elusive, especially northern species of least and long-tailed weasel, both of which sport white fur in the winter. But if you’re patient, observant and lucky, you might see one, especially if you have brush piles in your yard. Look for tracks in the snow. (Read more: Garden Critters: Beyond the Birds and Butterflies)

Hawks and Owls

photo credit: Laurie Painter (B&B reader)
photo credit: Laurie Painter (B&B reader) Barred owl

Many hawk species are migratory. Some, however, such as red-tailed hawks, stick around all winter. You can spot them in deciduous trees that have lost their leaves. Look for them in the treetops scanning the ground for small mammals and other birds to prey on.

Unlike hawks, many owls are not migratory. Great horned, barred and screech-owls can be easier to spot in bare trees. Some species, however, do migrate, and your only chance of spotting them is in the winter. Both long-eared and saw-whet owls may migrate some distance south in fall, and could possibly show up in your backyard. Both like to roost in dense strands of evergreens. (Read more: 4 Simple Tips for Hosting an Owl in Your Backyard)

Praying Mantises

photo credit: JoEllen Landman (B&B reader)
photo credit: JoEllen Landman (B&B reader) This reader found a praying mantis egg case in their backyard.

You won’t find any adult mantises in winter, but they’ve left signs of life behind. Like many insects, these garden predators die off when there’s a freeze, but the next generation lives on in egg cases that were laid the previous summer or fall. Praying mantis egg cases are fairly large and pretty easy to spot: They look like scraggly gray pingpong balls attached to old wildflower and grass stems, or the twigs of trees and shrubs. As soon as the weather warms in spring, the eggs will hatch, and hundreds of miniature mantises, will disperse to begin hunting. (Read more: Get Up Close and Personal with Mysterious Mantids)

Winter Wildlife ID Tips

Check for these signs of wildlife in your backyard.

TRACKS. Look for footsteps in the snow or mud. Snap a picture and use a track field guide or website to help identify them.

CHEW OR BITE MARKS. Deer, rabbits, beaver and other wildlife each leave distinctive bite marks on the plants they eat.

SOUNDS. Learn the songs, calls or yelps made by songbirds, owls and even mammals like foxes to help you figure out what’s nearby.

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.