Nature & Mountains

Which animals can you see in the mountains in winter?

The mountains and the forest are now covered in a white blanket., the snow crunches under your feet – winter is here. It’s the perfect time to go skiing, but that’s not all there is to do.

Snowshoeing, hiking, snowball fights – there’s no shortage of fun activities in the winter. And if you do head out for a walk, don’t forget to take your camera – the mountain wildlife might be out too!

The Alps are home to many animals, such as migratory birds, grouse and wild sheep. Here are seven of the animals you might see while you’re out and about in the winter, and how to behave if you do!

1. The snow partridge

In winter, the snow partridge's white coat makes it difficult to spot
If you’re patient you may be able to spot a snow partridge or ‘ptarmigan’ on your adventures! © Fabrizio Friz CTA-CFS

You’ll need patience and your most powerful binoculars to spot the snow partridge, or ‘ptarmigan’ (taa·muh·gn) when it’s wearing its winter coat! Its white plumage is a natural camouflage that protects it against predators.

In summer, its feathers will change to grey-brown, going through all the intermediate colours during the spring and autumn – a process called homochromia.

The snow partridge also has feathers on its feet, which act like snowshoes as it moves through the snow! It also has a short, thick, black beak, which it uses to crush willow twigs, on which it feeds, along with birch buds and catkins.

Weight: 500-600g
Size: 31-35cms 

Warning! Please don’t get to close to this bird – it’s very timid, and hates to be disturbed. Life is already pretty difficult for them in winter, searching for food and avoiding predators.

Where to see it?

At high altitudes (2,200 to 2,500m).

2. The mountain hare

The mountain hare prefers to move around in the night and hide during the day
The mountain hare adapts to its surroundings with its changing coat!

Weight: up to 5.8kg
Size: about 50cm

The mountain hare is one of the last prehistoric animals left on the planet. Its large front legs mean it can leap easily through the snow, and it usually lives on tree bark and shrubbery.

In the winter, like the snow partridge, its coat changes from brown to white so that it blends in with its surroundings. It’s a very secretive animal, preferring to move around during the night and stay hidden during the day. However, you may be able to spot its tracks in the snow, as well as its droppings.

Where to see it?

In the mountains, above 2,000m

Did you know?

In France, the mountain hare is only found in the Alps. But it loves cold climates, and can also be spotted in other parts of the world, such as Northern Europe, Siberia and Japan.

3. The snow vole in winter

The snow vole can be found in rocky areas, and in barns
If you look carefully you may find a snow vole out on your winter hike. With sizes of only 12cm, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled! © Matthieu Berroneau

Weight: up to 62gs
Size: about 12cms

During the winter, the snow vole finds refuge in the snowy mountains. You’ll recognise it by its grey coat, which distinguishes it from its brown cousins. However, it has a long white tail, and its ears and legs are also covered in small white hairs, helping it to blend in against the snow.

It feeds mainly on its stores of roots, seeds, stems and leaves, which it hides in its burrow in the rocks.

Where to see it?

In the rockiest areas of the mountains, at altitudes of less than 3,000m. However, in winter, it can also be found in barns. It’s easy to see, as long as you keep your distance and don’t make any sudden movements.

4. The deer

Herds of deer are a common sight in the Alps, where numbers are growing
Older male deer tend to be solitary, except during the mating season @ Francesco Ungaro

Weight: male deer – 200kg, doe – rarely exceeds 100kg
Size: up to 2.6m long

The deer is a herbivore, eating up to 15kg of vegetation per day, preferring plants that grow in the light.

The deer is an iconic animal of the mountains and forests, and its numbers are growing fast in the Alps. In winter, you are very likely to come across a herd of deer (hinds and fawns). The older males are solitary, and only appear during the breeding season (autumn).

Beware – if you come across a young fawn, don’t touch it. If you leave your scent on it, its mother will not recognise it and will be suspicious of it. As for the adults, you’d be lucky to see them twice!

Where to see it?

Up to 2,500m.

5. Golden eagle

A golden eagle feeds on is prey - hunting isn't easy in the winter
A golden eagle’s sight is ten times better than ours, which helps it hunt in the snow © Olivier Paris

Weight: up to 6.7kg
Size: 75-88cm high

The golden eagle is recognisable by its dark brown coat and white-cream coloured underfur. Occasionally, there are a few golden highlights on its chest, from which it gets its name.

It is a carnivore and feeds on any small animals it can find, especially during the winter, when hunting is more difficult.

Did you know?

The eyesight of a golden eagle is about 10 times more powerful than ours. It has a lifespan of about 30 years.

Where to see it?

If you look up at the sky in the mountains, you may catch a glimpse of one.

Beware! If you see one, do not approach it, stay quiet and go back the way you came. This bird needs peace and quiet and is very sensitive to disturbance.

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6. The ibex

In winter, the ibex finds it difficult to move around in the snow
Keep an eye out for an ibex ascending the mountain ridges © Xavier von Erlach

Weight: 50kg for females and 80-120kg for males
Size: Between 100-130cm long for females and 130-150cm for males

The Alpine ibex is easy to recognise – it looks like a goat with long, thick, curved horns. Entirely herbivorous, they feed on lichen, grass and other vegetation. They are fairly sensitive to disturbance, so stay quiet and don’t get too close.

Did you know?

The ibex is the king of climbers! However, it finds it more difficult to move around on snow in the winter and prefers to settle on a ridge, where it can look out over its surroundings.

Where to see it?

In winter, the ibex can be found at altitudes of between 1,600-3,300m, especially on ridges and in sunny areas where the snow melts quickly. Numbers are particularly great in the inner Alps.

7. The chamois

The chamois can live for up to 25 years
The chamois is easily identifiable with its small horns and distinctive markings © Daniel Tonks

Weight: 25-38kg for the female and 35-50kg for the male
Size: About 1.3m long and 70cm wide

The chamois is a cousin of the ibex, but you can recognise it by its tiny horns and longer snout. Capable of jumping up to 2m high and 6m long, the chamois is flourishing in the Alps, which is its favourite terrain. In winter, it mainly eats twigs, bark, lichen and grass.

Beware -the breeding season takes place in November, leaving the chamois fairly weak at the beginning of winter. If you come across one, do not approach it. They are very sensitive to disturbance.

Did you know?

If you visit the Alps often, you may come across the same chamois more than once, as they can live up to 25 years!

Where to see it?

You can see them in the mountains, from altitudes of 800-2,500m.

Behaviour guidelines in winter

When you come across animals in the mountains, please do not feed them, as you could upset their digestion and the environment in which they live. The best thing to do is to observe them from a distance without disturbing them.

When you go for a walk or a hike, consider these points:

  • Respect protected areas
  • Be aware of the times when animals are vulnerable (mating, calving etc)
  • Make sure that the area you are using will not affect wildlife
  • Don’t startle them: use open paths where possible
  • Use binoculars to watch from a distance: animals can become accustomed to your presence if you are not seen as a threat
  • Use well-trodden paths through the forest, so that you don’t surprise the animals. If they are stressed they could take flight and end up exhausted
  • Avoid taking your dog with you, or keep it on a lead so as not to disturb the animals too much.

As you can see, there are many inhabitants of the mountains and forests. We hope you enjoy beautiful and refreshing winter walks and look forward to seeing your photographs on our social media!

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