Fall Wildlife Spectacles
Some of the world’s greatest wonders happen like clockwork every season — many at national wildlife refuges near you. You just have to know where to look. We can help. Try these this fall:
See it firsthand:
Male elk announce fall breeding season by throwing back their heads and letting out piercing, high-pitched calls. To female elk, the otherworldly sound is a summons. To human ears, it’s a reminder of nature’s majesty. Male elk bugle to attract females, defend territory and assert dominance over would-be competitors. At Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, visitors fill bugling elk tours in September and October. See and hear bugling elks on other refuges, as well, including National Bison Range and San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in California.
Tip: Peak bugling season is late August to mid-October.
Fun Fact: Elk bugles can range three octaves.
Sandhill Crane Migration
If you’ve never seen thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese lift off in unison from the mudflats and beat more wings than you can count as they head out to feed at sunrise, you’re in for a treat. Groups of birders and photographers huddle in November’s pre-dawn cold at picturesque Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to await the sight. For migrating cranes, the refuge is a favorite wintering ground. The birds’ numbers grow steadily starting in October. Dawn fly-outs and dusk fly-ins are well-attended highlights of the annual Festival of the Cranes in November.
Tip: Plan to arrive at least a half hour before sunrise. Take a winter jacket and gloves.
Fun Fact: Sandhill cranes are among Earth’s oldest living birds. Other fun facts.
At the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, birders and friends scan autumn skies for a glimpse of migrating peregrine falcons. Flying as fast as 200 miles per hour, these incredible birds make their way to South America as fall hits, pit-stopping in South Florida before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Experienced volunteers can help you spot the migration path. “It’s like learning how to read,” says Rafael Galvez, director of the Florida Keys HawkWatch. Early to mid-October is generally prime time to watch these navigators zip through the sky at National Key Deer Refuge.
Tip: Have binoculars on hand. Peregrine falcons can fly high or low.
Fun Fact: Some falcons have been tracked traveling up to 6,000 miles from breeding to wintering destinations.
America’s most-loved butterflies travel up to an amazing 3,000 miles a year. As the days shorten and temperatures drop, the fragile-looking creatures start their journeys south. Some will travel as far as Mexico. En route, they sip nectar at places including Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Clusters of monarchs on bushes draw oohs and aahs from viewers at these popular refuge events: Monarch Mania (Quivira), Monarch Madness (Neal Smith) and Monarch Festival (St. Marks). Here and elsewhere, scientists will catch, tag and release them. Five super stops on the monarch migration trail.
Tip: Check peak migration dates for your area before you go.
Fun Fact: Male monarchs sport a black spot on their hind wings; females are spotless.
Fall Waterfowl Migration
East Coasters eager to see scads of migrating birds can up their chances at mid-Atlantic refuges like Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. In early fall, hawks, shorebirds and songbirds pile up at Cape May Refuge and nearby areas, waiting for the right conditions to cross Delaware Bay. Why Cape May Refuge is such a good spot to see migrating birds. Later in fall, up to 16,000 geese and waterfowl start arriving at Blackwater Refuge — sometimes called the “Everglades of the North.” Tundra swans, bald eagles and snow geese join the mix in November and December. Bombay Hook Refuge’s tidal salt marsh makes it a popular stop for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl
Tip: Check Ducks Unlimited’s regularly updated waterfowl migration map to see where birds are concentrated.
Fun Fact: Waterfowl fly at 40 to 60 miles per hour.
See it on your screen:
Every year starting in late fall, endangered humpback whales swim from the North Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuges to breed and nurse their young. Volunteers at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge celebrate the arrival. The volunteers keep score for Sanctuary Ocean Count, a whale-monitoring project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Scientists estimate that up to 12,000 whales return from November through May. The promontory, at Kilauea Point Refuge, is an excellent view to spot whales diving, tail slapping, blowing and breaching.
Tip: Read up on how to practice whale-safe viewing.
Fun Fact: The word “whale” in Hawaiian is koholā — pronounced ko-ho-LAH.
Thousands of emperor geese migrate south, beginning in October, all the way from Alaska’s Yukon Delta to the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. Many find their way to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent Izembek State Game Refuge. There, the nation’s largest eel grass beds make prime emperor geese feeding and resting grounds. For the first time in 32 years, Alaska will permit state residents to hunt emperor geese this fall, from October 16–31, on the State Game Range portion of the refuge. Hunting is subject to strict guidelines.
Tip: You’ll need to take a chartered plane or ferry to reach the refuge. Prepare for flight delays and unpredictable weather.
Fun Fact: The orange coloring of emperor geese’s heads comes from their feeding in tidal ponds with high concentrations of iron oxide.