It’s leaf-peeping season! Not only are the colors of the trees and plants changing as they prepare for winter; animals are on the move as well—and the Reno-Tahoe area is full of great spots to check out fall animal behaviors, if you know where to look.
In the mountains around Tahoe, bears are packing on their last pounds before hibernating for at least part of the winter. Though many Tahoe bears wake up for some easy trash-foraging, they still bulk up for long periods of sleep. You can often spot them along Taylor Creek on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, fishing for the salmon swimming upstream.
Speaking of salmon, the Kokanee salmon head from Lake Tahoe up Taylor Creek to spawn. These non-native fish have found a happy home in Lake Tahoe after being introduced many years ago. Thousands of them swim up Taylor Creek, next to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, every fall to spawn in the rocky stream bed and then die. Before they do so, these large fish turn bright red, making them easy to spot in the shallow waters.
Some of the birds that live around Lake Tahoe in the summertime head to warmer climates as the weather cools. Though some bright-colored species like the Western tanager and Calliope hummingbird head south, many more stick around—and change their habits. As summer’s bounty becomes more scarce, Steller’s jays often resort to stalking other cache-making birds in an attempt to steal their food.
Mountain chickadees stop making their iconic “cheeseburger” call—which is a territorial call they utilize to claim space during breeding season—but stay in the area. Large flocks of them live around Chickadee Ridge, just south of Mount Rose and Mount Rose Meadows, above Incline Village. You can hike (or snowshoe) out to the area year-round to visit these classic Tahoe residents.
Bald eagles also stick around all year, simply changing the types of birds they’ll catch, and relying on fish to get them through the winter. Fall and winter are great times to spot these illustrious birds along Tahoe’s shores, as many of their raptor competitors (like ospreys and turkey vultures) migrate south, giving them more space to roam.
The Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (tinsweb.org) hosts two major winter-bird surveys you can join, which contribute to citizen science across the country—the Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Count and the Christmas Bird Count.
Dozens of species of waterfowl migrate from and through Tahoe on their way south. Spooner Lake is a favorite stopping point for many—and an excellent place to appreciate fall in the mountains. A flat, 2-mile-long-trail circumnavigates this small alpine lake, running through changing aspen trees and offering ample bird-viewing opportunities. At various points through the fall, you may spot white-tailed kites, canvasbacks and mergansers.
Migrating birds are seemingly everywhere you look. The valleys containing and surrounding Reno to the north and south become a safe haven for many species. Geese are some of the most obvious migrators, making noisy flocks in meadows, wetlands and grassy urban fields during the day, and honking their way overhead at night. Tundra swans can occasionally be spotted joining these mixed-species flocks.
Our warmer, lower-elevation valleys provide overwintering havens for many diurnal raptors. From Gardnerville to Susanville, Cooper’s hawks, northern harriers and prairie falcons can regularly be seen hunting for prey along roads and in fields. Golden eagles come down from the mountains and join other residents like rough-legged hawks, soaring over ditches and open spaces. Even ferruginous hawks can be counted among our visitors during cooler months. And, of course, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are still regular post and powerline sitters, searching for their next meal.
Mule deer are often about, as they make their way down the mountains to warmer weather for the winter. Even the wild horses change their behavior a bit, tending to hang out in larger groups and closer to water during the colder seasons. Washoe Lake State Park is a great place to spot big herds in the winter.
Make a whole day out of watching nature prepare for winter by heading out of town to Lahontan State Recreation Area or the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. Don’t have that much time? Hidden Valley is crisscrossed by wetland wildlife-viewing trails you can walk along or stop to watch.
The entire Truckee River corridor is full of critters as well. Mornings and evenings are prime times to glimpse animals moving about to find their foraging grounds for the day. Get there early, and pack a chair and blanket—and maybe your favorite hot beverage or a journal!