Seasons of Wildlife


Silence. Eyes squinting against sunlight dazzling off the snow. Breath freezing into icy clouds as you wait for—something. The landscape, while beautiful under its blanket of snow, looks devoid of life, other than the conifers standing guard. You're about to turn away, but then out of the corner of your eye you catch movement. Motionless yourself, you stare at the spot where you thought you saw something. Your patience is rewarded when a coyote slowly emerges from the deep undergrowth, ears flicking from side to side. What's he doing? Suddenly a quick bound almost straight up and an almost vertical dive head first into the snow. Interesting. In a second he's back above the snowline. Oh, he's got a mouse.

As the coyote heads home with lunch, you realize that the refuge isn't empty, you just have to pay attention. Almost imperceptively you begin to notice birds flitting through the brush. Squirrel tracks weaving from tree to tree. The far-off call of a crow. Life goes on at Conboy Lake NWR.

Yes, winter is a quiet time at Conboy Lake, and gone are the waterfowl and brightly colored birds of other seasons. Many animals lie sleeping beneath the snow or in hidden dens. But others brave the winter, albeit at a slower pace—deer, elk, turkeys, friendly mountain chickadees and scolding Stellar's jays, our coyote friend. However, winter is harsh, and the survival strategy for many animals is to conserve energy, rather than maximize intake, so life slows and wildlife becomes less visible. And it's important for you to remember this as you visit—disturbance means hardship and even death. So, enjoy Conboy Lake, but take extreme care not to interrupt the natural cycle of life in this special place.


In shocking contrast to the peace of winter, spring arrives and with it pandemonium. Birds arriving by the thousands from tropical winters begin the most ingrained of activities—attracting mates through elaborate displays, melodious songs, intricate dances. Slumbering western gray squirrels emerge from their lethargy to begin new families, twittering from the branches. Croaking Oregon spotted frogs greet each evening, doing their part to sustain a dwindling population. Insects emerge from the ground, the water, the trees, to mate and become the base of the food chain for so many others.

If you're lucky you'll get to witness one of the most entertaining wildlife spectacles—the courtship dance of Sandhill cranes. Conboy Lake hosts 25 or so breeding pairs of greater Sandhill cranes. Shortly after dawn, Sandhill cranes will engage in dazzling courtship displays—"dancing"—that involve raising bills, strutting, prancing, spreading wings and leaping, all the while calling to each other in distinctive songs that evoke primordial memories of dawns long, long ago.


After the frenzy of spring, life settles down to an easy rhythm at Conboy Lake in the summer. Everything is focused on raising the new fawns, calves, pups, kits, ducklings, chicks, colts and other young of the species that use Conboy Lake for the continuation of life. Human visitors are frequently treated to the sight of young exploring their new world, like the black-tailed deer fawn slipping quietly along behind its mother on the meadow's edge, or the raucous calls of Sandhill crane colts clamoring for food.

While every season has its charms, summer is a wonderful time to visit the refuge. Temperatures are comfortable, the air is clear, and the pace of the refuge is idyllic. The winter and spring storms off the Pacific have blown through, the views of Mt. Adams are postcard perfect. If you're a painter—and any visitors are—this is the time to memorialize the landscape. And if you're not a painter, well, the refuge is just as inviting.


Shortening days and frosts in the highlands bring color to the refuge, first in dabs, then in swaths, then finally the whole valley is ablaze with the russets of oaks, the golds of aspen, and the reds and oranges of the occasional maple. Conboy Lake's oak forest are busy with western gray squirrels packing away many a winter's meal of acorns. International travelers, in the form of tundra swans, snow geese and songbirds, pass through on their way to warmer climes, bringing with them the young on their first migration. The push to migrate knows no time limits, as witnessed by flocks of geese flying across the face of the moon, calls reminding one and all that there is still some 'wild' left.

While the birds and squirrels and other, smaller animals are present, this season belongs to deer and elk. Black-tailed deer bucks pursue does across the meadow, and the throaty bugle of elk bulls reverberates throughout the valley as they invite the cows to join them to create next year's young. Sparring matches between bulls and bucks is a treat for the lucky visitor to the refuge. Males lose some of their wariness, making them easier to spot in the open, but making them dangerous to those who venture too close—something the smart visitor keeps in mind.

Fall is the season of preparation, of stocking larders for when food is hard to find, of laying on fat reserves against the cold, of finding the perfect hibernation spot. Like spring, there's a bit of frenzy to fall activities, but unlike spring the mood seems almost serious. Every creature knows, either through experience or through instinct, that they need to be ready for the harshness of the coming season. As fall comes to a close, in reality if not on paper, and the first snowflakes fall, the days shorten and cold settles into the valley, Conboy Lake begins to close down for the winter. Those that can leave are gone, and only the hardiest remain to face another season of silence.

Featured Species

Elk are frequently seen from roads throughout Conboy Lake NWR and surrounding areas; if you're lucky, you might see these majestic animals from your car. But please be careful if you stop to view them, with both an eye to traffic and to your distance from the elk.

Oregon Spotted Frog

While elk are the star attraction of the refuge, it’s the smaller, more reclusive, plants and animals that make Conboy Lake special. The refuge is just that—a refuge—for a number of rare, threatened, or endangered species, at both the state and federal level. Western gray squirrels (state threatened) scamper through the oak and pine forest. Rosy owl clover (state endangered) and sego lily (state sensitive) add splashes of color to wet meadows. Greater Sandhill cranes (state endangered), towering five feet or more, nest on the refuge—the Klickitat Valley the only nesting area in the state. The diminutive Mardon skipper butterfly (state endangered) flits from flower to flower in search of nectar in one of only four locations in the world. The Oregon spotted frog (federally threatened) breeds in the refuge’s cold spring waters. These are just a few of the rare species found here.