Watching animals in the wild is an inspiring experience. But getting up-close and personal with wildlife can be more than just memorable. Recent research has shown that getting children engaged in the natural world can make a difference in their health and well-being, foster a lifelong curiosity about animals, and create a healthy respect for the environment. And, these days when kids spend as much as 50 or more hours a week in front of some kind of screen, it’s even more important for a real life, outdoor experience. Here are 10 great animal encounters in New England that your entire family will be wild about.
BREAK FOR MOOSE
These funny-looking animals, with their long, knobby legs, humped backs, and big snouts, are enormous — some weigh as much as 1,500 pounds. While they roam the woods and feed in the shallows throughout northern New England, your best chance of spotting one is on a guided tour. Pemi Valley Moose Tours in Lincoln, N.H. (603-745-2744, www.moosetoursnh.com, adults $30, 12 and under $20) offers 3- to 3½-hour evening safaris through early October. On the narrated bus excursion, you’ll travel the back roads in the western White Mountains, hear corny jokes your kids will love, and watch a video about moose in between real sightings.
A WHALE OF A TIME
The nutrient-rich Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary is one of the best places in the world to spot whales, and it’s just a short boat ride away. The New England Aquarium has teamed with Boston Harbor Cruises to offer informative and fun whale-watching excursions, with onboard naturalists (617-227-4321, www.bostonharborcruises.com, adults $49, ages 3-11 $33). Keep your eyes peeled for humpback, finback, minke, pilot, and endangered right whales. These folks are so sure you’ll see whales that if the group doesn’t spot at least one of them you’ll get a free ticket for a future trip.
LISTEN TO LOON-Y TUNES
Loons are beautiful, their babies incredibly cute, and their songs create a haunting melody. Check out the exhibits, videos, and displays at the Loon Center at the Markus Wildlife Sanctuary in Moultonborough, N.H. (603-476-5666, www.loon.org, free), to learn about the birds, and then walk the nature paths to see whether you can spot one of the resident pairs. Typically during June and the first part of July, you can see the loons while they are on their nests. Or, take a biologist-guided cruise offered by the Loon Center and the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (603-968-7194, www.nhnature.org, adults $25, ages 3-15 $21). The 90-minute, guided excursions offered Monday and Friday include a picturesque cruise around Squam Lake, with loon sightings. You can also get close-up views of loons and their baby chicks at Ricker Pond State Park in Groton, Vt. (802-584-3821, www.vtstateparks.com/htm/ricker.htm, adults $3, ages 4-13 $2) Best bet: Camp or stay overnight in a cabin or cottage and listen to the call of loons as you fall asleep. There are also hiking and biking trails and a nature center in the park.
LEAVE IT TO BEAVERS
Your kids will get a kick out of watching busy beavers go about their work of downing trees, hauling branches, and building dams, and then learning how these hard-working creatures sculpt the landscape. Rent a kayak or canoe at Woodford State Park in Woodford, Vt. (802-447-7169, www.vtstateparks.com/htm/woodford.htm, adults $3, ages 4-13 $2) and paddle the Adams Reservoir to see beavers and their lodges, hear the slap of their tails, and watch them pop up around you. The park is also home to mink and muskrat, so keep an eye out.
WATCH EAGLES SOAR
Head to Maine, where there are some 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles and more than 300 fledglings born each spring. One of the more dramatic — and enjoyable — ways to spot these majestic birds is with Sea Ventures Custom Boat Tours in Mount Desert Island, Maine (207-412-0222, www.svboattours.com, 1-2 passengers $120 per hour, 3-4 passengers $140, 5-6 passengers $180). Each trip is designed around your interests, timetable, and budget, but wildlife watching, especially bald eagle sightings, are the company’s specialty. If anyone can find them, it’s captain/owner Winston Shaw, who spent more than three decades conducting bald eagle research as the director of the Coastal Maine Bald Eagle Project. You’ll see other wildlife too as you cruise around the gorgeous Mount Desert Island, including porpoise, seals, osprey, ducks, gulls, and shorebirds.
EVERYONE IN THE TIDAL POOL
The sheltered tide pools of the Sunken Forest at Odiorne State Park in Rye, N.H. (603-227-8722, www.nhstateparks.org/explore/state-parks/odiorne-point-state-park.aspx, adults $4, ages 6-11 $2) are swimming with sea creatures. Go at low tide to explore the shallow pools along the rocky coastline, home to a slew of coastal critters, like periwinkles, crabs, baby lobsters, and shrimp. Also on site is the Seacoast Science Center (603-436-8043, www.seacoastsciencecenter.org, adults $10, ages 3-12 $5) with touch tanks, exhibits, and scheduled activities and programs.
EGRETS, EGRETS, EGRETS
Paddle a kayak or canoe through a watery wilderness of tidal marshes and salt creeks teeming with waterfowl. The Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center in Scarborough, Maine (207-883-5100, www.maineaudubon.org/find-us/scarborough-marsh, canoe rentals $16 an hour) is the largest salt marsh in the state and considered one of the most important and productive on the New England coast. You’ll see waterfowl, egrets, herons, glossy ibises, and many species of shorebirds that feed in the rich estuary, rest there during migration, and use the preserve as nesting habitat. Go at low tide when the animals are most active and visible. There are also guided canoe trips, nature walks, and a variety of activities and programs.
Commercial fishermen and women may complain about seals, but who else can resist those cute, whiskered faces? Board the Monomoy Island Ferry (508-237-0420, www.monomoyislandferry.com, adults $40, ages 10 and under $30) in Chatham to tour the picturesque islands of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, with a naturalist on board. On the narrated Rip Ryder boat cruise, you’ll see seals everywhere: sunning themselves on ledges, navigating sand bars and beaches, swimming, diving, and surfacing around the boat.
FEED A FISH
Learn how Vermont’s fish hatcheries play a major role in restoring and maintaining the state’s legendary fishing waters at the family-friendly Bennington Fish Hatchery, in Bennington, Vt. (802-447-2844, www.vtfishandwildlife.com/cms/One.aspx?portalId=73163&pageId=190236, free). The hatchery has a small visitor center and is home to trophy trout and the only albino “ghost trout” in Vermont. Kids love to see the hundreds of fish in the outdoor tanks, and if it’s feeding time, they can help serve the next meal. Call ahead to be sure someone is on hand to show you around.
Atlantic puffins are adorable, but it’s the sheer number of them on Eastern Egg Rock Island off mid-coast Maine that will wow your kids. In 2014, there were 148 nesting pairs of puffins on the island, along with hundreds of other seabirds. For a close look, join a 90-minute cruise with Hardy Boat Cruises in New Harbor, Maine (207-677-2026, www.hardyboat.com, adults $28, ages 11 and under $12). Onboard narrators are from the National Audubon’s Project Puffin Seabird Restoration Program, and a percentage of ticket sales goes to Project Puffin.