ParkTalk Podcast
ParkTalk Blog
  • 630-848-5000
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How to Spot Wildlife in Winter

Nature Center Manager Angelique Harshman gives tips on how to look for wildlife in the winter.


Winter at Knoch Knolls Park

Winter is a great time to get out and look for wildlife. Overcast days tend to be the best times to see animals, even when it’s a little rainy. But even if you don’t see an animal it’s really fun to search for the clues they leave behind. Here’s how!

Clue #1: Footprints


Squirrel tracks in the fresh snow

Q: Where do you look for animal footprints?  

A:  Look in the snow, sand or mud.

Q:  When is the best time to find animal tracks?

A.  The perfect time to look for animal tracks is the morning after a snowstorm.  

Q:  What can you learn from the animal’s footprints?

A: Not only can you identify an animal by the footprint it leaves behind, but you can determine which direction it’s traveling and how fast it was moving.  It’s a story of the animal’s activities waiting to be deciphered! For instance, striped skunks leave a sideways track when they run and a deer’s two dew claws show up when it’s running.

Q:  How do you identify the animal from the tracks?

A: Many tracks have easy ways to identify them - raccoon front paws look like little hands and one of my favorite tracks belongs to the opossum. The opossum’s hind food has a “thumb” that sticks out sideways. If you are interested in learning to identify animal tracks go online and search for “animal tracks” and you will find a number of identification sheets that you can print out. Here is an example, a Field Guide to Illinois Mammal Tracks.


Raccoon tracks in the mud

Clue # 2: Scat

Q: What is scat? 

A:  Scat is animal poop. 

Q: What does it tell you about an animal?


Photo by Arnold J. Koenig

A:  The size and shape tell you whether it’s from a larger animal, such as a deer, or from a smaller animal, like a cottontail rabbit. Both deer and rabbit scat consist of round pellets. Wild dogs, including coyotes and foxes, have poop that looks similar to a pet dog’s poop, but the wild dog scat may have fur and feathers in it, since they eat other wild animals and birds. It’s easy to find more information online, for example, a picture guide .

Never touch or handle scat since it may contain parasites or diseases.

Clue #3:  Nests

Q: What nests can be seen in our area in the winter?

A:  Once the leaves fall in autumn you can easily see the leaf nests, or dreys, of our local tree squirrels. Both grey and fox squirrels build these round nests as protection against rain, wind, snow and to raise their young. They will also nest inside of tree holes but these types of homes aren’t as readily available.


Photo of a Great Horned Owl and young by Arnold J. Koenig

One bird that starts nesting in January is the Great Horned Owl. They use old hawk or crow nests high up in the trees. So you may be able to see these large owls sitting in a nest this winter. Don’t forget to look up!

Clue #4:  Leftovers or wing impressions birds leave behind after a meal

Q: What clues might predators leave behind?  

A:  Fur, feathers and even blood in the snow can indicate a struggle between a predator, like a hawk, and its prey. It’s possible, and really exciting, to come across complete wing prints of a hawk, or owl, that landed in the snow as they caught their food. 


Red-tailed Hawk

Q: What evidence can be seen from plant-eating animals?

A:  For plant eating animals, look closely at the end of twigs.  If they are cleanly clipped off at an angle it’s the work of our local rabbit – the cottontail. If the twig is ragged and shredded then it was made by the white-tailed deer. White-tailed deer don’t have top front teeth, or incisors, so they use their bottom incisors to grab and then have to pull causing the shredded appearance.

Visit Knoch Knolls Nature Center

Visit Knoch Knolls Park and enjoy a walk through the woods, where you may be able to spot an animal or see some evidence of animals. Stop in at Knoch Knolls Nature Center during open hours and see the live animals and fish and view the exhibits. Check the Nature Center website to view and register for current programs, both virtual and outdoor.




Connect your business’s brand with a well-known and respected one like
the Naperville
Park District’s and reach a large, active and diverse audience.

To learn more about our sponsorship opportunities
contact Stacey Fontechia Sales and Sponsorship Manager at 630-848-3575 or at
Please consider making a donation of any amount to our Fee Assistance Program.
Your contribution will help Naperville residents in need enjoy the benefits of recreation programs.