Life On the Move

Where to watch 5 great animal migrations—and put things in perspective

John Stetson

Want to feel small? Clumsy? Heavy? Earthbound? Slow? Be reminded that you’re just another speck in nature’s vast canvas of life? One of the more positive—indeed, enjoyable—ways to contemplate your own ordinariness is to witness the annual migrations of species as mighty as the whale and light as the butterfly. Here are some of North America's best: 

Sandhill Cranes, NE
More than half a million of these boisterous birds—the world’s largest concentration of them—descend upon the Platte River each spring. Visit the Rowe Sanctuary early in the morning or at sunset to view hordes of cranes as they gather to roost.

Gray Whales, CA
Watch a piece of the longest migration of any mammal—a 10,000-mile ocean circuit from the Bering Sea to Baja California—without even getting on a boat. In the spring, hike to Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore to glimpse the 40-ton beasts spouting and breaching along their northward route.

Broad-winged Hawks, PA
For a few days each September, broad-winged hawks fly over Hawk Mountain Sanctuary by the thousands, in swirling groups called kettles. Summit this Appalachian ridge for a close-up view of the raptors at the outset of their journey thousands of miles south to Central America.

Monarch Butterflies, Mexico
Each winter at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the mountains north of Mexico City, fir trees sag beneath the weight of up to a billion orange-and-black monarch butterflies that use this area as an overwintering ground on a migration path that leads all the way to Canada. Journey into the El Rosario Sanctuary within the reserve to hear the pitter-patter of wings and feel the ephemeral beauties alight on your skin.

Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds, DE
The world’s largest gathering of horseshoe crabs, a species whose ancestors predate the dinosaurs, occurs late each spring along the sandy shores of Delaware Bay. Not coincidentally, the breeding bonanza triggers a migratory stopover for birds like the red knot, which flies nonstop from South America and refuels on crab eggs before continuing its marathon migration to the Arctic to breed. See both at the DuPont Nature Center.

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