The Call of the Wild: Our guide to wildlife watching in the U.S.

The Call of the Wild: Our guide to wildlife watching in the U.S.

by Nicole Rivard

Photograph of Bracken Cave by Jonathan Alonzo, Bat Conservation International

Kudos to the Nebraska Tourism Office’s first campaign of 2019, which promoted the hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes that migrate to the Platte River Valley. The agency’s print and television ads noted that while many people view Nebraska as a place to fly over and not to visit, more than half a million cranes come to the state every March.

Since Friends of Animals places critical habitat and wildlife protection at the core of animal advocacy, we believe more states should follow suit. According to the most recent national survey, more than 86 million people 16 years and older participated in wildlife-watching in the U.S. in 2016. Of this group, 27.3 million people took trips away from home for the purpose of enjoying wildlife. Promoting ways for people to experience wildlife in the U.S. is a win-win for human and non-human animals. So, we compiled some of the most exciting wildlife watching in the U.S. for people planning trips this summer and throughout the rest of the year.

 

SUMMER

BAT-WATCHING IN TEXAS

The emergence of millions of bats from Bracken Cave as they spiral out at dusk for their nightly insect hunt is an unforgettable sight, according to Austin-based Bat Conservation International (BCI). Bracken Cave is located on private property 20 miles from San Antonio and is owned and protected by BCI, so you have to be a member to visit. (An annual membership is $45).

The cave is the summer home of more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats, making it the world’s largest bat colony and one of the largest concentration of mammals on earth. July and August are the best months to view the bats because baby bats are born in June and begin flying in July, and days are longer, which means more bat viewing time.

For information, visit batcon.org.

Another bat-watching hotspot is Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin. Throughout the spring and summer, hundreds of people gather to see the world’s largest urban bat colony emerge from under the bridge. An estimated 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge.

While there is no charge to access the bridge, parking costs and info are available here: batsinaustin.com/ top-10-parking-locations-to-see-the-austin-bats/. Bat-watching river boat cruises are also available. At Capital Cruises (capitalcruises.com) and Lonestar Riverboats (lonestarriverboat.com), tours run March-October starting approximately 30 minutes before sunset.

FALL

FOUR SUPER STOPS ON THE MONARCH MIGRATION TRAIL

Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from as far north as Canada to winter in Mexico—it’s a natural phenomenon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points out that when swarms of monarchs pause en route to rest and feed on nectar-bearing plants, admirers can see them blanket trees and shrubs in orange and black, creating works of art.

The agency recommends these as the four best places to see these masterpieces of nature:

Kansas – The butterflies tend to come in waves, based on weather patterns mid-to-late September. Migrating monarchs feed on asters and goldenrod and other wildflowers that bloom throughout the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. During the day, look for monarchs in wildflower areas. Toward evening, the best viewing areas are sheltered places that are cool and damp.

Texas – In late September/early October, when conditions are favorable, thousands of monarchs a day may flutter through the prairies and oak savannahs of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, where the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast meet.

Florida – October sees the arrival of the monarchs at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the last stop for thousands of the butterflies before they fly over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Viceroy, queen, American painted beauty and Gulf fritillary butterflies are also common this time of year. Iowa – Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has monarchs year-round. Through the refuge’s tallgrass prairie restoration project, thousands of acres have been planted with native plants, many of which are attractive to monarchs. Monarchs can be seen in large number along the Tallgrass Trail and along the sides of roads in the refuge.

 

BALD EAGLE FESTIVAL IN HAINES, ALASKA

The American Bald Eagle Foundation boasts that Haines, Alaska is known as the Valley of the Eagles for a very good reason—the largest congregation of bald eagles in this country happens right in the Chilkat Valley each November. A late run of chum and Coho salmon attracts between 2,000-4,000 bald eagles each year—and the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival at the foundation provides the chance to witness this marvel.

The 2019 festival is November 6-9 and will be comprised of educational programs, music, games, a gala fundraiser and more. Daily buses will take visitors to the Alaska Bald Eagle Preserve to witness the gathering of the eagles. Haines has hotels, bed and breakfasts, as well as numerous campgrounds and RV facilities. Visit baldeagles.org for information.

 

WINTER

THE SANDHILL CRANE MIGRATION

Smithsonian Magazine called the crane migration one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on a par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou. Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes—80 percent of all the cranes on the planet—congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds, according to Smithsonian.

It takes place in three waves of four-to-five weeks each, beginning in mid-February and ending in mid-April, during which birds, who arrive emaciated from wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Chihuahua, Mexico, gain 20 percent of their body weight.

The best places to see them are Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center in Wood River or Rowe Sanctuary, approximately 20 miles east of Kearney. Kearney has a good selection of hotels/motels to choose from, but it can be a very busy community during March, so reserve your lodging as soon as possible. Visit rowe.audubon.org/visit/plan-your-trip or cranetrust.org for information on timing of your trip.

While you’re in Nebraska you might also want to check out the mating displays of prairie grouse, the next most sought after experience in Nebraska during late March and April. Visit prairiechickendancetours.com for information.

 

WHALE WATCHING IN HAWAII

If you ever dreamed of seeing humpback whales blow, spy hop, tail slap, dive with their fluke up or breach, the most acrobatic display of all, Hawaii is  the place to be. Humpback whales visit Hawaiian waters each year from November to May with the peak of the season being from January to March. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Hawaii, encompasses the waters around the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. where humpback whales mate, calve and nurse their young, according to NOAA. Mothers can be seen breaching alongside their calves and males can be seen competing with one another for females in fierce head-to-head battles. The sanctuary has a top 10 list for shoreline whale watching sites, with locations on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii and Kauai. Visit hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov and click on the Watch tab. There are a variety of ways in which you can catch a glimpse of Hawaii’s humpback whales.

Boat tours and whale watching cruises have become increasingly popular.

 

SPRING

FIREFLIES IN GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

Most bioluminescent organisms are found in the ocean. But as nature would have it, and lucky for us, fireflies put on their magical shows on land. And Synchronous fireflies, one of 19 species who live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), put on the greatest firefly show on earth during a mating ritual for two weeks from the end of May through the beginning of June. Visitors can see thousands of the fireflies light up at once.

Photograph by Spencer Black

They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns. According to GSMNP, fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae but will live as adults for only about 21 days. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash.

No one is sure why the fireflies flash synchronously. Competition between males may be one reason: They all want to be the first to flash. Or perhaps if the males all flash together they have a better chance of being noticed, and the females can make better comparisons. The fireflies do not always flash in unison. They may flash in waves across hillsides, and at other times will flash randomly. Synchrony occurs in short bursts that end with abrupt periods of darkness.

This event has become so popular that park officials have enforced a lottery system for obtaining passes to the “light show” in an effort to protect the beetles. The lottery is typically the last few days in April. Visit nps.gov/grsm/index.htm for information.

CARIBOU IN ALASKA

The movement of the caribou herds in the Arctic is the world’s largest land mammal migration. It has been reported that if you’re close enough and they’re on the move, you can feel the ground shake. In Alaska, there are three major herds: the Western Arctic herd (approx. 348,000 animals), the Porcupine herd (approx. 152,000 animals) and the Central Arctic herd (approx. 23,400 animals). Since the caribou cross through remote tundra and taiga near the Arctic Circle, and the locations are hard to get to, the best option for seeing the migration is with an organized group.

Trips usually run between May and September and can last between five days and two weeks. Tourists have to be taken by plane or boat into the wilderness and dropped off. Trips also involve canoeing or backpacking. Arctic Wild (arcticwild.com) offers professionally guided trips to see the Porcupine herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Western Arctic herd in the Western Brooks range region.

If you are a more independent traveler, Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge might be the right destination for you, promising one of the only Alaskan destinations with caribou from the Western Arctic Herd migrating past the front porch.

 

PLEASE KEEP WILDLIFE WILD

But before we say, “Happy trails to you,” we have to remind you to treat all wildlife with caution and respect during any wildlife watching activity. That’s to ensure your safety and the animals’ safety.

If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close.

Yellowstone National Park staff has reported that whether tourists are taking a “selfie” with a mama moose walking with her calf, a bison grazing alongside a road or a venomous rattlesnake slithering along a hiking path, they will do everything they can to get that perfect picture. These selfies have resulted in humans being seriously bitten, tossed into the air and gored in the stomach. In 2015 alone, five reported bison-related injuries occurred in Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service (NPS) points out that every park or destination for wildlife watching has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements.

Before you head to a destination, familiarize yourself with all those rules. Many destinations require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves.

For example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards. So, check! It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten or intentionally disturb wildlife. NPS says not to use bird calls, or apps that imitate animal sounds. Mimicking animal sounds is considered harassment, which is illegal. It can also cause birds to leave their nests, leaving their young vulnerable to predation. NPS also reminds wildlife watchers that binoculars/ spotting scopes are a necessity to a fulfilling experience. And packing a zoom lens for your camera is crucial too.

Simply put, keep your distance, enjoy and let wildlife be wild.