Witness six of North America’s most spectacular wildlife gatherings that occur during fall and winter.
On a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River, more than 600,000 migrating sandhill cranes converge to rest and feed during late winter.
WITH LEGENDARY FLOCKS of migratory birds winging their way northward, spring may be North America’s best-known wildlife-watching season. But fall and winter actually offer some of the greatest opportunities to see large masses of wildlife. When the weather cools, elk, elephant seals, monarch butterflies and other charismatic creatures move from remote summer habitats to warmer areas or breeding grounds, where they may gather by the thousands. What follows are six of our continent’s most spectacular wildlife gatherings—sights sure to inspire awe and a passion for conservation.
NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS
Piedras Blancas, California
In the early 1990s, two dozen northern elephant seals hauled out of the Pacific Ocean to start a breeding colony at Piedras Blancas, a ragged point off the central California coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Today, the colony numbers more than 23,000 seals scattered along 6 miles of shore during winter. “It is the largest mainland elephant seal colony in North America,” says California Polytechnic State University biologist Heather Liwanag, who is leading the first major study of the rookery.
Among the heaviest pinnipeds on Earth, northern elephant seals generally return to mate on the same beaches where they were born. After living in the open ocean for several months, adult males—some weighing nearly 2 tons—come ashore at Piedras Blancas in December to stake out breeding territories and begin fending off rivals. The females, many of them pregnant from mating the previous year, follow a couple of weeks later. “It’s an incredible scene,” Liwanag says.
The action peaks in January, when many pups are born at the same time some of the males are still fighting over the right to breed. “From a distance, the pups look small,” Liwanag says, “but they weigh about 70 pounds at birth and will grow to about 300 pounds in just four weeks.” Because the rookery is adjacent to California’s famed Highway 1, visitors get ringside seats to the action. “It’s the best place anywhere to view elephant seals,” Liwanag notes.
On a small bluff overlooking one of the main breeding beaches, volunteers from Friends of the Elephant Seal, a local nonprofit, help visitors during daylight hours. While ashore, males can be aggressive toward intruders, so visitors are asked to stay off the animals’ beaches. For details, go to elephantseal.org, where you’ll also find a webcam transmitting live images of the colony.
Klamath Basin, California and Oregon
Each winter, hundreds of thousands of geese, ducks and other migratory birds heading north on the Pacific Flyway stop in the scenic wetlands and woodlands of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on the California–Oregon border. Thanks to this bounty of prey, the refuge also attracts throngs of bald eagles that fly in from as far as northern Canada. “Eagles are opportunistic feeders,” says refuge interpretive ranger Steve Rooker. “They can easily switch their diets from fish to waterfowl.” From December through February, visitors may see a few hundred eagles roosting and feeding in the Lower Klamath’s marshes and frozen ponds. “It is one of the top five locations in the lower 48 states to view bald eagles during winter,” Rooker says.
Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as the country’s first refuge to protect waterfowl habitat, the 50,000-acre Lower Klamath today is designated a National Historic Landmark. Nearby, more bald eagles pass the cold months in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Both refuges maintain all-season auto-tour routes where drivers can see concentrations of eagles, sometimes as many as 50 in one spot. These routes also provide access to places where other birds mass together, including about 50,000 snow geese that winter in the Lower Klamath beneath a backdrop of 14,000-foot Mount Shasta.
Maps of both of these auto routes, which include the locations of viewing blinds, are available at the Tule Lake refuge visitor center in northern California, about 100 miles southeast of Medford, Oregon. To learn more, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/lower_klamath. The Klamath Basin Birding Trail (klamathbirdingtrails.com) also includes maps of local bird-watching routes.
Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada
Even as monarch butterflies decline throughout much of their range, autumn visitors to Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park still have an opportunity to see large gatherings of these iconic insects. Each fall, thousands of the migrating butterflies—flying south from Canadian breeding sites—stop in the park while winging their way down to Mexico and other wintering grounds.
A funnel-shaped peninsula extending several miles into Lake Erie, Point Pelee marks Canada’s southernmost stretch of land, providing the butterflies one of the shortest routes for crossing the Great Lakes. “Monarchs don’t like to fly over water, so they follow the peninsula’s landmass as far as it goes until they have no choice but to take off during favorable weather conditions,” says Andrew Laforet, the park’s interpretation coordinator.
For about six weeks starting in early September, the butterflies gather in large groups, especially on rainy or windy days. “The worse the weather, the more stay in the park,” says Darlene Burgess, a Monarch Watch conservation specialist who conducts daily counts at the peninsula’s tip. “Because they don’t fly after dark, look for them around sunset or sunrise.” One evening last fall, she estimates that 10,000 monarchs spent the night in the park.
Platte River, Nebraska
Each February, bugling calls announce their presence, the first sign that sandhill cranes have arrived from wintering sites in Florida, Texas and northern Mexico. By mid-March, more than 600,000 of the birds have converged on a 75-mile section of the Platte River in central Nebraska to rest and feed for several weeks before continuing to summer breeding grounds in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and across Canada. “In all my years of studying birds around the globe, nothing I’ve witnessed compares to the return of cranes to the Platte,” says University of Nebraska emeritus professor Paul Johnsgard, one of the world’s leading authorities on the birds.
Indeed, this annual avian spectacle symbolizes one of the continent’s last great migrations. Though dams upriver have diverted much of the Platte’s historic water flows in recent decades, “we probably had a record number of the birds return here this year,” says Chuck Cooper, chief executive officer of the Crane Trust, a nonprofit that safeguards more than 10,000 acres of the region’s crane habitat.
Every day at sunrise and sunset throughout March, the trust offers guided tours to viewing blinds and cottages near the largest crane roost on the river, where tens of thousands of the birds gather at night after feeding in nearby fields. Volunteers also guide visitors to a footbridge across the Platte River that provides 360-degree views of huge flocks in flight. “Our main goal with these tours is to make sure we avoid disturbing the birds,” Cooper says. A warning call from one of them can send a whole flock into panicked flight. “It’s important to recognize and respect their alarm calls,” adds crane photographer Michael Forsberg. When threatened, sandhills produce a series of clicks that sound, he says, “almost like a low-pitched growl.” To arrange a visit, go to cranetrust.org.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Driven out of the mountains in southern Yellowstone National Park by deepening snow, hungry elk set off every autumn on a 50-mile trek to the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the base of the Teton Mountains. By November, they merge with herds migrating from other regions to spend the following few months in the valley’s National Elk Refuge, where natural forage and a supplemental feeding program attract at least 7,000 of the animals. “It is one of the country’s largest concentrations of wintering elk,” says former Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell.
The sights and sounds of the 500- to 600-pound wapiti, as elk also are known, dominate the 25,000-acre refuge throughout winter, providing unique opportunities to experience the animals. Educational horse-drawn sleigh tours take visitors close enough to see elk but remain far enough to avoid stressing them. Participants should prepare for snow and temperatures that can fall below 0 degrees F.
Visitors also can see elk from turnouts on the main refuge road—though only the first 3½ miles of the road are open during winter. The closure provides wildlife protection at a time of year when their energy reserves are low and new forage is not yet widely available.
The National Elk Refuge is located just outside of the town of Jackson, Wyoming, where refuge staff operates a visitor center. The best time to see large numbers of wapiti is between November and April, before the animals begin migrating back up to their high-elevation summer ranges. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/national_elk_refuge.
WEST INDIAN MANATEES
Crystal River, Florida
Despite their hefty size, West Indian manatees are susceptible to hypothermia. So, when late-fall ocean temperatures dip below 68 degrees F, an estimated 6,000 of the mammals—which range off the eastern and southern U.S. coasts—migrate to Florida’s natural springs, where warm water bubbles up from underground aquifers.
Located along the state’s west coast, 70 pristine springs in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent Kings Bay host large numbers of the animals each winter. The 600-acre system, where water temperatures average 72 degrees F, makes up the biggest winter reserve for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast.
From mid-November to mid-March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) closes several parts of the reserve to boating and other aquatic activities to protect the threatened species. At Three Sisters Springs, however, visitors can still swim under certain conditions. “Swimming near manatees is a special experience that people tell me they’ll never forget,” says refuge biologist Joyce Kleen. “Most come away with a better sense of the need to protect the species.”
Brimming with turquoise water and surrounded by lush vegetation, Three Sisters also provides the only land access to the animals, giving visitors a chance to observe hundreds from designated viewing areas. “Keep in mind that when the tide is outgoing and air temperatures warm, manatees will leave the springs to feed in the Gulf,” Kleen says. Once the weather cools, the gentle “sea cows” return.
FWS issues permits to several local outfitters to take people into the springs. Before going in, visitors must watch a “Manatee Manners” video, which is also available on the refuge website along with a list of approved operators. Visit www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river.
To prevent overcrowding, which can stress manatees, FWS four years ago began banning kayaks and other paddlecraft in Three Sisters Springs during winter. Indeed, whether in Florida, Wyoming or elsewhere, tourists who travel to see large groups of wildlife have an obligation to tread lightly in the animals’ habitats. That means following several rules of ethical wildlife watching, including observing wild creatures quietly and giving them plenty of space. Experts also suggest that you research your subjects’ behavior. “When an animal is completely relaxed around you and doing what it would be doing even if you weren’t there,” says professional wildlife photographer Melissa Groo, “that’s when you get the gold.”
Mark Wexler is National Wildlife’s editor-at-large.
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