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7 great places to watch wildlife in the States

Northern elephant seals facing off at California’s Año Nuevo State Park.

John Palmer/ California State Parks

Northern elephant seals facing off at California’s Año Nuevo State Park.

We stood at the edge of a deep, boreal forest in the upper reaches of Minnesota, a region named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. It felt cool and ominous, especially then, as the sun was beginning to set.

Someone had to go first. Laura Bolen, a visitor from Chicago, stepped forward and let out a loud, lingering “ah-oooo, ah-oooo.’’ She was howling to the packs of wolves that roam the backwoods of Minnesota.

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We listened. The woods were full of sounds — but no returning howls.

The group joined in: “Ah-oooo, ah-oooo,’’ we clamored. Through the dense forest came the haunting, stretched-out howl of a wolf.

We were on a three-hour, guided field trip with a naturalist from the International Wolf Center in Ely. It was one of our first encounters with wolves in the wild.

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Seeing animals in their natural habitat can be a thrilling experience. The good news is that you don’t have to travel out of the country to have a wild animal encounter. Here are six more of our favorite wildlife-watching adventures in this country.

BEACH BATTLES

Giant, two-ton elephant seals, with leathery skin and long, drooping noses, faced off on the rocky northern California beach. Standing upright on their hind flippers, they suddenly slammed into each other, again and again. The battle for beach rights and dominance over the harem had begun. In the dunes nearby, several female seals were frolicking with their newborn pups.

This rousing scene takes place each year at Año Nuevo State Park, just 55 miles south of San Francisco, when more than 2,000 elephant seals come ashore to molt and give birth and mate. The park, set on a wild, windswept spit of land along the Pacific Ocean, is home to the largest mainland breeding colony of northern elephant seals in the world. From December through March, visitors can join guided walks in the park to watch the seals’ annual return.

An acrobatic humpback whale breaches as it travels through the Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai, one of the top places for whale watching in the world.

Pacific Whale Foundation

An acrobatic humpback whale breaches as it travels through the Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai, one of the top places for whale watching in the world.

A WHALE OF A TIME

“Two humpbacks at 3 o’clock!” the guide shouted. We were a safe distance away, but could clearly see their distinctive back humps, and fluked tails. We watched as the whales dove and resurfaced several times, and then suddenly propelled their long, massive bodies out of the water. “They’re breaching!” several people shouted at once. It was a spectacle that went on for several minutes, as the whales treated us to an acrobatic show before disappearing in the depths of Auau Channel.

Auau Channel, between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, is arguably one of the finest places to see endangered humpback whales. Scientists estimate that 12,000 humpbacks visit Hawaii each year, returning to the warm, calm waters to give birth and breed. The first whales begin to arrive in late September and October, with peak viewing January through April. You can see them best from Maui’s south and west shores, or on a guided eco-trip with the Pacific Whale Foundation.

BEAR BRAWLS

The bears could not have cared less about onlookers perched on the viewing platform overlooking Brooks River. They ignored us completely as they lumbered about in the churning water, fishing for salmon. Several bears hovered over the top of Brooks Falls, while a nearby sow nursed her cub. Occasionally, a brawl broke out, as two bears fought for the same fishing hole. Despite their indifference to us, being in proximity to several of these mammoth brown bears was a heart-pumping experience.

Brooks River in Katmai National Park in Alaska is one of the best brown bear viewing areas in the world. It’s estimated that some 2,000 brown bears live in the nearly 5 million-acre park, and as many as 50 bears congregate along the river during the summer salmon run, with peak numbers occurring in July and September.

About 600 to 800 elk descend to the lower meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park during the fall rut.

Rocky Mountain National Park

About 600 to 800 elk descend to the lower meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park during the fall rut.

BEST IN BREED

Rocky Mountain National Park in September is one noisy, messy, awe-inspiring place. The haunting, deep timbre of elk bugling fills the air. Majestic bulls, some weighing as much as 1,100 pounds with antlers stretching 5 feet across, stand watch over herds of cows (female elk), while younger bulls pace the outskirts, waiting for their chance to move in and take over, or pounce on a straying female. Occasionally, fights break out and bulls clash and lock antlers defending their herds and warding off suitors.

As fall approaches, elk descend from the high country to mountain meadows to breed. About 600 to 800 elk winter here, and can be seen in the lower meadows and grasslands, or at the edge of the forest, especially at dawn and dusk.

Guided watches are offered in summer on Florida’s east coast where sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.

VISITFLORIDA

Guided watches are offered in summer on Florida’s east coast where sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.

MARCH TO THE SEA

Something magical happens on the isolated stretch some 20 miles long between Melbourne and Wabasso beaches on Florida’s east coast. Here, when the sun sets, giant loggerhead sea turtles, green turtles, and leatherback turtles — the world’s largest and rarest sea turtle — swim ashore, pull their great weights across the sand, and use their rear flippers to dig a hole. They lay about 100 to 150 eggs in the hole, cover them, and then drag themselves back into the water. About 45 to 55 days later (75 days for loggerheads), the hole becomes a wriggling mass of baby turtles. The tiny hatchlings scurry to the water, where they are lifted by the surf out to sea.

The protected Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is considered the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the Western Hemisphere and the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America. (It’s also a minor nesting area for leatherback turtles.) Guided, evening turtle watches are offered in June and July.

A puffin on Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine.

Maine Office of Tourism

A puffin on Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine.

POWER TO THE PUFFINS

Bobbing in the water, bright as lobster buoys with their orange beaks and white bellies, the pint-size Atlantic puffins were everywhere as we approached Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine. These comical-looking endangered seabirds, along with razorbills, terns, black guillemot, and others, have taken over the 15-acre island claimed by both the United States and Canada. Even if you are not a birder, this spectacle is something to see.

Machais Seal Island has the largest colony of nesting Atlantic puffins on the coast of Maine. Close to 3,000 pairs return here each summer to nest and raise their chicks. Guided boat trips are offered from late May to mid-August.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at
bairwright@earthlink.net.
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