From polar bears to hawks, witness one of nature's most magical events
Winging it at Squaw Creek Refuge near Mound City, Mo.
Life in the landlocked heartland is far more diverse and exciting than bicoastal types like to think. Take this remote northeast corner of Missouri. Exotic visitors from far-off places literally flock here. As the fertile floodplain of the Missouri River bottom was drained and planted with crops in the 1930s, FDR had the foresight to protect this little patch of wetlands. The Squaw Creek Wildlife Refuge’s location along the Central Flyway makes it a wildly popular fall stopover for shorebirds like ibis, sandpipers, pelicans and cormorants. But the avian cacophony reaches its critical mass — a mind-boggling 400,000 snow geese and 100,000 ducks — in October and November, making this peaceful, unassuming spot, for a short time, one of the most densely populated bird cities in the country. Once they move on, the bald eagles sweep in — as many as 400 have been sighted feeding here in the winter. Platforms, dikes and towers make it easy to surround yourself with water, native prairie grasslands, and over 300 species of birds. Map it.
Understanding the importance of the pronghorn migration in Wyoming
At the beginning of the 19th century, Lewis and Clark documented sightings of a new animal, a “goat of a different kind.” Lewis wrote: “When I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me, it appeared rather the rapid flight of birds than the motion of quadrupeds.” These were pronghorns — still called “speed goats” by many — the second-fastest land animal in the world, clocking in at speeds of 55 miles per hour. Though often called an antelope, it’s not. Antilocapra americana is the last surviving species of a once-diverse genus from the Pleistocene most closely related to that of giraffes. Despite fences, roads and damaging gas and oil drilling, select herds have managed to preserve an ancient 150-mile migratory route (archaeologists date it to at least 4000 B.C.) through western Wyoming. At over 300 miles round trip, it’s the longest of its kind in the continental United States. In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has taken steps to protect this “Path of the Pronghorn,” but there is still much work to be done in this patchwork of public and private land. The migratory pronghorn summer in the Grand Tetons and, given their speed, are best spotted on a guided wildlife expedition with experts who know just where to find them and how to avoid scaring them off. In November, they hoof it south to the Upper Green River Valley. Map it.
Bidding farewell to the butterflies in Brighton, Ontario
At the end of August and into September, orange and black butterflies arrive on Presqu’ile Point, a strip of land made of sand and limestone that juts into Lake Ontario. This is where the monarchs gather on their way to the mountains in Central Mexico, arriving in clusters, pausing on goldenrod, before embarking on the long flutter over the wide water. The journey to Michoac
Keeping up with the shorebirds in Cape May, N.J.
What did the Hudsonian godwit say to the arctic tern on a Cape May beach? “I just flew in from the Arctic, and boy are my wings tired. Yuk-yuk-yuk!” In all seriousness, though, shorebirds are some of the most magnificent avian species, not for their outwardly obvious grace or grandeur, but for the intangible inner strength that carries them on the world’s greatest long-distance migrations. They fly thousands of miles between breeding and wintering grounds, guided by little more than instinct (scientists have yet to solve exactly how they find their way). And what’s better, many of them stop over in Cape May to rest and refuel before making the water crossing over Delaware Bay. Head to the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, a Nature Conservancy-owned, 229-acre shorefront sanctuary, to get a glimpse of the shorebirds and hundreds of other bird species. Map it.
Dancing with sandhill cranes in a wildlife area in Willcox, Ariz.
From a levee beside Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area‘s flooded ponds, you hear their eerie, unbirdlike creaking and croaking — thousands of sandhill cranes. Silver-gray birds 4 feet tall chatter, preen, bathe and engage one another in short displays of dominance that look like avian pas de deux. Each winter, the cranes pass through southeastern Arizona, where they fatten on grain and sleep safely standing in the shallow ponds. Their migration is one of nature’s great sights, and Whitewater Draw — an oasis in the Chihuahuan desert west of McNeal, Ariz. — offers a fine place to join in the dance. Map it.
Soaring with the hawks in Sausalito, Calif.
You’re looking north, toward Mount Tamalpais. Magnificent vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco are right behind you, and the Pacific Ocean is to your left, but you don’t really care. It’s September in the Marin Headlands, and the peak of the annual raptor migration has just started. There’s a kettle of red-tailed hawks brewing on your right, and there, straight ahead, winging in from Mount Tam, is that a broad-winged hawk? An osprey soars through Rodeo Valley below you. Helpful volunteers from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory are there, calling out the birds, counting them as they fly by on all sides. You follow a ferruginous hawk with your binoculars, watching as it crosses the mouth of the bay and wings it past the bridge’s toll plaza, before you spin around to see what will soar by next. Map it.
Meeting migrating fish in Seattle
Cross the Ballard Locks and head down into an underwater theater, where lumbering humans watch salmon swish by bright, television screen-like windows. It is here — not through the arms of a Pike Place fish-slinger — where mammals come face-to-face with the life aquatic. This is the fish ladder, a way station for salmon and steelhead trout in the journey between salt and fresh water, and, more existentially, between birth and death. The fish begin their lives in the river, head out to the ocean to feed, and ultimately return to the fresh water to spawn and die. Watch them pass through the 21-step ladder as their bodies adjust to the new water and a new phase of life. Map it.
Going on a polar bear safari in Churchill, Manitoba
Dancer, a 10-foot-tall, 1,300-pound polar bear, presses his huge paws against your Tundra Buggy’s sides, rocking the viewing platform of the truck-like vehicle as if it were a cradle. He and 1,200 other white giants roam the frozen terrain outside of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada in the Wapusk National Park from mid-September to early November, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze. When the water turns nearly solid, the bears depart. But today Dancer’s luminous brown eyes look kind and curious as he raises his snout ever so slightly back and forth — the better to sniff you. From inside the train-like cars of the tundra buggy — which have been providing responsible ecotours here for over 25 years — you’re so close to the bears that you note their purple tongues and see their breath turn to silky frost in the subarctic air. Map it.
Whale-watching on a boat tour off the Northern California coast
The venerable Oceanic Society leads naturalist-guided, all-day weekend whale-watching trips to the Farallon Islands. As you ply the waves, keep your eyes peeled for porpoises, seal pups, sea lions, enormous sea birds — and of course, whales. You’ll likely see many breaching in the distance, but it’s not uncommon that they roll over right next to the boat. During the gray whale migration from December through May, over 15,000 of the cetaceans follow the coast as they eat their way south en route to their romantic rendezvous point in Baja California. Trips run about $95 a head — but really, how often do you get to sail off toward the horizon from beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? Map it.
Spreading out a blanket to watch bats emerge in Austin, Texas
First you hear the high-pitched chirps echo beneath the concrete bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake. Then, as the sun drops over the Texas horizon, a flash of wings as the first bats burst from the crevices beneath the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Before long, the trickle has become an undulating, airborne wave as 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats begin the night’s hunt for insects. The largest urban bat colony in North America lives in downtown Austin from March to early November, with August and September being the peak months before they head back to central Mexico for the winter. Visitors can watch the flying mammals emerge from a grassy slope below or (if guano-averse) from the bridge railings above. Map it.
Soaring with the eagles in Brackendale, B.C.
While the bald eagle may be the official bird of the U.S., the largest population of eagles on the continent spends the winter in a small Canadian town a few hours north of Seattle: Brackendale, B.C. Up to 4,000 of the majestic birds swoop in during the fall and winter to feast on salmon spawning in the region’s icy rivers. Take a stroll through the Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park and you’ll see dozens of eagles tearing into sockeye salmon along the river banks and clustered together in the highest branches of tall cottonwood trees. The highlight occurs every January with the annual Eagle Festival + Count, where visitors can join scientists in tallying up this year’s migrating population. Map it.
Celebrating swallow migration in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
A popular getaway at any time of year, the San Juan City packs a lot into the walking distance from the metrolink train stop. Every March, around St. Joseph’s Day, bird lovers flock to the Fiesta de las Golondrinas parade to celebrate, as the song goes, when the “swallows come back to Capistrano.” This used to mean the feathered travelers would end this year’s grueling 6,000-mile migration from their Argentine winter abode by nesting into the 18th-century mission, but now they settle in the new highest points in the region: the Mission Viejo Mall, the Vellano Country Club in Chino Hills, and I-5′s underpasses. It may be less poetic (or more, depending on your concept of poetry), but there is still a very good party every year to celebrate the birds’ indisputably courageous journey with the ringing of church bells, a parade and drinks in the streets. Swallows Inn is a landmark bar for San Juan that serves up a tasty honey brew that is good even when the birds aren’t in town. Map it.
Spotting whales from the desert north of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
“Where are we going?!” I forced my husband to drive north into the desert on Highway 19 from Cabo San Lucas. No sinister motives here, I simply wanted whales without Dramamine. But for 45 minutes, we found only sand, cactus, rocks and fleeting glimpses of an inaccessible Pacific Ocean. Then, there! Left down a dirt drive just past kilometer marker 84, we parked at “The Hill” with two other rental cars. Atop the rocky perch, we watched gray whales spout, roll, dive and even breach! January through March is when they are abundant in these warm waters at the end of their 6,000-mile journey from the Bering Sea. We saw dozens surface each minute. Map it.
Every Sunday, Salon presents a feature from Trazzler spotlighting surprising travel stories from across the globe. Unexpected discoveries and strange, wonderful treasures are condensed into slide shows that entertain as much as they educate.