Winter Wildlife Watch: Species to See in Land Between the Lakes

Jan 8, 2020

January's chilly temperatures can often be a deterrent to getting out into the wild and enjoying nature. However, the colder months create unique wildlife watching opportunities as migratory species, nocturnal foragers, and Mississippi flyway travelers settle into Land Between the Lakes. LBL's lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, visits Sounds Good to discuss.

"During winter months - particularly January, when it's bad for us - it's great for a lot of other things. A lot of northern species will migrate down to the Land Between the Lakes area mainly because the water is open. There's a lot of opportunities to survive during these colder conditions. The leaves are on the trees. The animals still have to do all their normal daily stuff. You see some different kinds of behaviors. You see a lot more species moving down here, but you also see some of the species that we have being more active," Pollpeter says. 

Although November was National Bald Eagle month, January is a great time of year to see them throughout Land Between the Lakes in addition to other unique birds and waterfowl. "People will travel hundreds of miles to come see the eagles," Pollpeter says. "We have a very high population of eagles, probably the highest in both Kentucky and Tennessee. We're close to that Mississippi flyway."

"We also have a number of different water fowl species," Pollpeter continues. "Typically, if you go out wildlife viewing, you'll see maybe twenty regular species of waterfowl. You always get the odd one...oddly, the odd duck...out there on that water. One of the things I think is the neatest during the winter months that you don't normally get to see in our area is loons. We think of loons as being on Minnesota lakes, Wisconsin, Canada. But the loons come down here during the winter months, so [in] each bay you'll probably see one or two. They change colors, so [they're] not the same loons you're going to see in Minnesota during the summer months. But you can see their winter plumage, [and] every so often they call."

Land Between the Lakes is also the winter home to the peregrine falcon, the world's fastest bird. "You don't normally get to see [peregrine falcons] throughout the year because they like to nest on cliffs, buildings, and skyscrapers...in areas like Louisville, Lexington, or eastern Kentucky in the mountains. They need to migrate to warmer places where there's a lot of food," Pollpeter explains. "Another name for a peregrine falcon is the duck hawk. A lot of times, they'll be perched up on our new bridges that we have at Land Between the Lakes or the two dams. You'll see this lone sentinel on watch. If you're lucky, you'll get to see them dive-bomb one of the gulls or a duck."

There are several land mammals that are more visible in the winter months, including armadillos, bobcats, bats, and coyotes. Other Land Between the Lakes regulars, such as deer and turkey, tend to group up in the colder months, making them easier to spot. Turkeys can get into flocks of about fifty. Deer will also join larger herds. 

Perhaps one of the most unexpected winter species of Land Between the Lakes is the armadillo. "You wouldn't think you would see armadillos, but I think January is one of the best months to see these really nocturnal animals. Land Between the Lakes has a number of them. We've had them for [approximately] twenty years as they migrated up north," Pollpeter says. "One of the reasons why they're out during the middle of winter is because these nocturnal animals are forced to forage during the day when it'swarmer. If you look at an armadillo, they don't have much body hair. They are a mammal, so they're warm-blooded, but they don't have a lot of hair, so they're not adapted for cold conditions. They don't hibernate, so they don't build up a lot of body fat. They have to stay active."

"You can see lots of bats during the month of January...particularly red bats," Pollpeter continues. "They're the ones that are flying around in the evening hours when you get those fifty degree days. They are tree bats, so they don't go to the caves. They stay in the trees, and they look actually like a dead oak leaf."

As bobcats prepare for their early spring mating season, the opportunities to spot one in the wild increase. "We see more bobcats during this time of year than we do at other times of the year," Pollpeter says. "The bobcat's a very secretive, nocturnal, solitary creature. I think there's two reasons why you see more bobcats during this time period. One, the leaves are off the trees, so you can actually see further into it. But also, I feel that they're scurrying around trying to find whatever they can and marking their territory. March is their breeding season, so they're probably trying to set those territories so they can get the females later on when March comes around."

Pollpeter highlights specific areas of Land Between the Lakes to find different types of winter species. "If you want to go for some unusual birds - the peregrines, the loons, eagles - definitely go to the two large dams, the tailwaters, Kentucky Lake and Barkley Dams. The northwest corner of Land Between the Lakes...so any of those bays - Smith, Pisgah, Duncan - are all good ones. Two big highlights are what we call the Woodlands Nature area, which is the area between Honker and Hematite Lakes. Then the Nature Station itself."

"If you drive back there, you're going to see all sorts of wildlife," Pollpeter continues. "You're going to see white-tailed deer, fallow deer, turkeys. You're probably going to pick up a bobcat or two. I saw one last week. It's an area that's managed for wildlife viewing as well as wildlife diversity. Another spot that's not off the beaten path, but it's one that people may overlook, is called the Long Creek Wildlife Refuge. It's right next to the Lake Barkley bridge. It's the wetland that the forest service manages. It attracts a number of different bird species. If you're a birder that wants to rack up some numbers of species to see, Long Creek Wildlife Refuge can satisfy a lot of people."

Pollpeter explains that while winter is a great time to see a wide range of uncommon species, there are also physical aspects of Land Between the Lakes that are worth taking the time out to see. One example is "when the lakes freeze over, the sound that the cracking ice makes...it's kind of a cool one. It's very sci-fi," Pollpeter says. 

"There's this thing that people don't always realize called a frost flower." Frost flowers are created when plants with hollow stems are broken while still rooted. "[The plant] collects water. When that water freezes, it gets pushed out because ice expands. It curls around and makes almost this perfect ice rose on the ground. A lot of times, you're driving on the road, and you might bypass it as trash. If you stop and look at it, it's this intricate piece of natural art on the side of the road. I encourage anybody fi they see those on a frosty morning to stop by and take a look," Pollpeter concludes.

For more information on Land Between the Lakes or the Woodlands Nature Station, visit the LBL website.