Winter wonders: Discover Tahoe’s natural world

A Winter Wildlife snowshoe hike in Tahoe Meadows. | Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences

On a cold March morning last season, a decently sized group of people gathered at the Diamond Peak Base Lodge in Incline Village, Nev., strapped on snowshoes and headed uphill to the Crystal Express chair. We were led by Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) outreach director Sarah Hockensmith who is well-versed in the flora and fauna in the Tahoe Basin.

During the hour-long event, held well before skiers and snowboarders arrived, Hockensmith shared some of the activity that goes on behind the scenes, under the snow and in the trees.

On the TINS Winter Wildlife walks, attendees learn about trees, habitats and fascinating survival tactics that critters use to protect themselves and survive long periods of freezing temps. TINS’ guides share common misconceptions about cold temperatures and hibernation (it’s really photoperiodism that determines how wintering animals plan their days) and the habits of Tahoe’s most beloved birds and mammals.

“It’s pretty wild all the stuff that happens around us that we’re unaware of,” Hockensmith says.

People came from as far away as Carson City, Nev., to learn about the birds, bats, zombie frogs, mule deer, snowshoe hares and more.

I don’t want to give everything away that takes place on a Winter Wildlife hike, but it is worth putting on your calendar as you are bound to learn something new about the Tahoe area and its indigenous and interesting creatures.

“[At TINS] we feel it’s good to know about the environment here because if you connect to it then you’re more likely to take care of it and we can all be better land managers,” Hockensmith says.

TINS hosts winter outings from snowshoe treks to Nordic ski adventures along with its Bald Eagle Count and the popular Tahoe Big Year.

Bald Eagle Count
Each January, TINS coordinates the bald eagle survey in the Tahoe Basin, which includes observing and recording the majestic birds.

Always held from 9 a.m. to noon on the second Friday in January, no matter the weather, volunteers are paired and placed at 26 vantage points primarily around the Lake Tahoe shoreline. Birders of all abilities are matched with experts, and they tally, track and communicate with each other about which birds have been spotted.

In the early years of the bald eagle survey that started in 1979, only one or two bald eagles were seen, said Hockensmith. TINS has since recorded 40 bald eagles locally. TINS is holding a virtual Bald Eagle Count Talk on Jan. 11, and the official boots-on-the-ground bald eagle count takes place Jan. 12.

The Tahoe Big Year
Starting Jan. 1, bird enthusiasts will scour the Tahoe Sierra to count as many bird species as possible in this nationwide Tahoe Big Year competition that is free and open to everyone with youth and adult categories.

Participating bird enthusiasts, both local and visiting, will attempt to find as many bird species as they can within the boundaries (essentially the Lake Tahoe basin and north through the remaining portion of the Truckee River watershed on the California side) and submit any records of new species.

While the competition is open to everyone, TINS members will be able to join monthly guided tours and are eligible for prizes, other benefits and special events. |

Winter Wildlife Hikes

Jan. 1 | Tahoe Big Year kick off

Jan. 12 | Bald Eagle Count

Jan. 19 | Sierra Valley Raptor Outing

Jan. 23 | Nordic in Nature at Spooner Lake

Feb. 2 | Carson Valley Raptor Outing

TBA | Winter Wildlife Snowshoe