Thanks to USAWeekend.com and National Wildlife Federation
While few people may share Miller’s intimate knowledge of animals, anyone can experience the same sense of exhilaration this summer by visiting places in this country where wildlife is accessible. The United States is unsurpassed at providing havens for its thousands of native species, including several of the most endangered animals on Earth. Whether your goal is to see a 500-pound bear or a rare and fragile butterfly, you can find an appealing destination without leaving the Lower 48 states.
Following are 10 favorites:
Bald eagles, Maine
There has never been a better time to watch our national symbol soar in the wild, thanks to recovery efforts that have increased its numbers 25-fold in the Lower 48 in recent decades. And there are few locations as scenic to watch bald eagles as Acadia National Park, where the rugged Maine coastline, sandy beaches and many islands provide habitat for more than 300 bird species -- a national park record. In summer, dozens of mated pairs of eagles raise their young here; you can view them while driving on the Park Loop Road. “But the best place to see them is by boat in the outer islands,” says Winston Shaw, a local resident who for three decades has been surveying eagle numbers in the park and taking people out in his boat to the best locations.
Regal fritillary butterflies, Pennsylvania
One of the country’s busiest National Guard training facilities seems an unlikely destination for travelers who want a close look at one of the country’s most beautiful native insects. But amid its tank trails, parachute drop zone and tens of thousands of soldiers preparing for combat, Fort Indiantown Gap also provides a haven for the largest viable population of regal fritillary butterflies in the eastern United States. Every summer, hundreds of the imperiled creatures emerge from their cocoons in an area on the base where the plants they need to survive flourish. For several days in July, fort staff members provide free guided tours of the butterfly habitat.
Synchronous fireflies, Tennessee
A natural spectacle unlike any other in the Western Hemisphere takes place every June in a Great Smoky Mountains meadow, where throngs of fireflies (Photinus carolinus) gather for two to three weeks of breathtakingly beautiful synchronized mating displays. The show begins every night between 9 and 10, when dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of the lightning bugs begin flashing almost at the same time. The insects flash together for two to four seconds, followed by 10- to 12-second pauses. Because adult fireflies live for only three weeks, these brilliant light shows are the only way males and females can find each other in the darkness. The meadow is about six miles southwest of Gatlinburg, Tenn. The National Park Service runs buses to the site from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
American alligators, Florida
The gator’s ancestor was already on earth when the dinosaurs first appeared. The reptile, which can grow as long as 19 feet, has survived for more than 65 million years. Today, one of the premier places to see it up close is the Everglades National Park, which shelters thousands of the creatures. You can spot them easily from canoes and hiking trails, including the park’s popular Anhinga Trail boardwalk. Despite their frightening appearance, gators usually aren’t a threat to people. Just don’t feed them or get between a protective mama and her offspring, which hatch during the summer wet season. You can tell a young gator by its distinctive yellow bands. In the dry season, you can take ranger-led daytime and evening gator tours from the Royal Palm Visitor Center.
Green jays, Texas
Gorgeously clad in brilliant blue, green and yellow plumage, the green jay is an unmistakably tropical bird that rarely ventures far north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The best place in the U.S. to see this magnificent creature is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where you’re also likely to spot dozens of other tropical bird species found nowhere else in this country. One of the largest protected sites in the valley, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, is particularly well known for avian life. With 413 documented species, it is home to more types of birds than any other U.S. wildlife refuge. Green jays and other exoticlooking songsters frequent the feeders and photography blind near the visitors’ center.
Prairie dogs, South Dakota
There’s rarely a dull moment in 1,000-acre Roberts prairie dog town in Badlands National Park. In early morning and late afternoon in summer, thousands of chatty black-tailed prairie dogs exit their burrows to socialize, their antics clearly visible from Sage Creek Rim Road. Black-tailed prairie dogs, the species found in the park, have one of the most sophisticated communications systems in the animal kingdom. Listen closely and you can hear their distinctive calls. The colony also is home to about 20 black-footed ferrets, one of our most endangered mammals. Along the park’s loop road, you may get a glimpse of the deerlike pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal that can sprint 70 mph.
American bison, Oklahoma
Few animals symbolize our Wild West heritage as strongly as the American bison, or buffalo, as it is commonly called. Native only to this continent, our largest land animal numbered in the millions before overhunting nearly wiped it out in the late 1800s. Bison were reintroduced in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in 1907 and number around 650 animals. Drive along refuge roads to view them as well as elk and Texas longhorn cattle.
Sea otters, California
You may think of southern sea otters as playful mammals floating among fronds of giant kelp on the central California coast. But the best place to see them is entirely different: a muddy-bottomed estuary 15 miles north of Monterey called Elkhorn Slough. The threatened species first showed up in this tidal marsh in the mid-1980s. “When I started leading tours 16 years ago, I’d be excited to see one or two otters,” says guide Yohn Gideon. “Now I’m disappointed if I don’t see 20 or more.” Though the charismatic creatures can be watched from shore, visitors can get better views by renting kayaks or taking a pontoon boat tour. Other attractions: California sea lions and harbor seals.
California condors, Arizona
Two decades ago, fewer than two dozen of these birds survived, all in captivity. Today, they number about 350 and as many as 70 regularly hang out at popular scenic viewpoints in Grand Canyon National Park. From May to August, condors sleep on cliffs below Bright Angel Lodge on the park’s South Rim, waking around 8 a.m. each day and circling up the cliffs before heading off for the day in search of food. They return in the afternoon, swooping dramatically on 9-foot wingspans directly above visitors’ heads before settling again on the cliffs.
Grizzly bears, Montana
For sheer thrills, nothing compares with seeing a grizzly in the wild, and Glacier National Park is one of the few locales in the American West where you are likely to see one. A recent census found that the park is home to nearly 800 bears, twice as many as previous estimates suggested. During summer on the park’s east side, grizzlies usually frequent lowland meadows and aspen groves, returning to higher altitudes to hibernate. Remember: Grizzlies are dangerous and do not like to be surprised. So before you venture onto a trail, ask the Park Service about precautions to take while traveling in bear country.