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A sunset landscape at the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, where steam rises from geyser vents and hot springs near a forest of lodgepole pine trees, and a herd of bison is grazing.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Amazing animal phenomena in the US you have to witness in your lifetime

Swimming ponies, jumping salmon, the monarch butterfly migration and more amazing animal phenomena in the US

Written by Robin Catalano
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The US is one of only 17 megadiverse countries on the planet, home to vast green spaces, wetlands and forest ecosystems that are protected as National Parks and public lands. In and around them, nearly 3,000 native animal species thrive, including 400-plus types of mammals, 800 species of birds, more than 500 reptiles and amphibians and over 1,100 fish – not to mention 10,000 insects.

While opportunities abound for observing the very best nature has to offer, the key is knowing where and when to look – and how to safely enjoy these encounters. Idaho-based wildlife expert Sylvia Medina, author of the Environmental Heroes book series, cautions that you should maintain a distance of at least 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from bears. Don’t feed them, and don’t leave behind any trash they might accidentally ingest. Medina also notes, 'You’re a guest in their home. Keep quiet, and don’t slam doors, shout to get attention, or intrude on their space.'

But if you're interested in witnessing these amazing animal phenomena for yourelf, then here are the top places in the US to see the very best that Mother Nature has to offer.

Amazing animal phenomena in the US

Coquí chorus
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1. Coquí chorus

Where and when to experience it: El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico; all year round

The only tropical rainforest in the US National Parks system is home to 13 of the 17 species of coquí, a small arboreal frog whose colors range from brown to yellow and green. As night falls, the frogs begin their enchanting two-note song. It’s hard to believe these tiny two-inch creatures can emit so much sound; they can be heard not just within the park itself (camping allowed by permit only), but through much of the surrounding towns and villages.

Swimming ponies
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2. Swimming ponies

Where and when to experience it: Assateague Island, Maryland; July

One of the largest and most pristine barrier islands in the country is home to a herd of famous wild ponies. Every July, to keep herds at manageable levels and prevent damage to the native habitat, saltwater cowboys round up ponies in an epic swim across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island in Virginia. After foals are sold to prospective owners, the herd swims back across the channel.

Mark Hendricks, photojournalist and author of Natural Wonders of Assateague Island, says, 'The beauty of Assateague is that all seasons are great for wild pony viewing. The ponies can wander wherever the wish, and can be found on beach, marsh, and forest. In summer it is common to encounter them on the beach, where they will wander in the surf and let the waves crash on them as a way to cool off and keep the bugs away.'

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Snow goose migration
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3. Snow goose migration

Where and when to experience it: Cayuga Lake, New York; March

The Atlantic Flyway is one of four major bird migration routes in North America. In the spring, a variety of birds use this path to return to Northern locations from their wintering grounds in the Mid-Atlantic or South. Stand at the edge of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes Region, and you’ll be treated to the site of hundreds of thousands of snow geese returning to the area. Observing the majestic pale birds soar overhead, the black tips of their wings just visible against the sky, is like watching a thick snow blanket the lake.

Beaver dam-building
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4. Beaver dam-building

Where and when to experience it: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Massachusetts; spring

Often considered a nuisance animal in residential environments, beavers are a keystone species that are essential for promoting biodiversity. These 'ecosystem engineers' are best known for gnawing down trees and building dams and dens; dams can range from a few feet wide to around 300ft. These activities help thin forests and create wetlands, which attract an incredible variety of other mammals, fish, and insects.

Spring is breeding season, and also when two-year-old beavers leave their dens to create their own territories. The best time to watch these industrious critters at work is dusk or sunup.

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Monarch butterfly migration
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5. Monarch butterfly migration

Where and when to see it: Highway 1, Central Coast California; November through March

Late fall marks the mass movement of monarch butterflies from colder Western climates to the Central Coast of California. After a strangely silent 2020, the endangered insects were back in force in 2021, with researchers clocking as many as 230,000 butterflies in a single season at Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve. The recently introduced Western Monarch Trail, along Highway 1, follows the migration route of these flashy insects, who alight along the coast for shelter, nectar to feed, and the native milkweed that provides food for their larvae. The trail is marked with signage that identifies crucial overwintering and feeding locations.

Bonus: Drive a little farther north along Highway 1, and you’ll spy a herd of wild zebras. Yes, zebras. They’re the descendants of a group originally brought to the USA by William Randolph Hearst. The herd now occupies the land around the publisher’s former home, Hearst Castle.

Bison migration
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6. Bison migration

Where and when to see it: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; November

One of America’s two national animals, the bison has existed since prehistoric times on the lands that are now part of Yellowstone National Park.

About 5,000 bison, the country’s largest bison population, live at Yellowstone, and the nearly one-ton animals are not shy. Catch a glimpse – from your car – of hundreds of bison migrating to lower elevations once snow starts to accumulate. They often take to the park’s roads for ease of passage, which makes them vulnerable to traffic. Stay at least 25 yards away from migrating bison, and remain stationary to let large herds pass.

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Whale migration
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7. Whale migration

Where and when to see it: Maui, Hawaii; November through May

From fall through early spring, thousands of North Pacific humpback whales glide through the waters around Maui for their annual winter migration. These spectacular creatures, which weigh 25 to 40 tons and produce songs that can be heard up to 12 miles away, make their way from Alaska to the deep, warm waters of Hawaii each year to mate and give birth.

Both the north and south coasts of Maui are excellent for observing the migration, but Maui Nui Basin, along the southwestern coast, is especially rich in viewing opportunities. 

Firefly fireworks
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8. Firefly fireworks

Where and when to see it: Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee; mid-May to mid-June

More than 170 species of fireflies are abundant in the warm, humid environments of the eastern USA. But nowhere are their displays more impressive than in the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. From mid to late spring, the forests are aglow with a magical green aura caused by lightning bugs.

One species of firefly glows synchronously, or all at the same time. Others flash in alternating bursts. Take the firefly shuttle in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for peak viewing.

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Jumping salmon
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9. Jumping salmon

Where and when to see it: Russian River Falls, Alaska; late June and late July

Early spring and midsummer are the best times to see thousands of red-bodied sockeye salmon leaping the stairstep falls of the Russian River in Alaska. Take the two-mile trail to the viewing decks, where you can watch the green-headed fish swim upstream, en route to their spawning grounds. (State fisheries managers maintain a fish ladder, a structure that allows migrating fish to pass over an obstacle, to ensure that enough salmon reaching their destination.) You might even catch sight of a brown bear wading through the river and snagging a salmon in its traplike jaws.

Kissing prairie dogs
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Kissing prairie dogs

Where and when to see it: Roberts Prairie Dog Town, South Dakota; April through June

Humans might think they own the block on kissing, but prairie dogs have their own type of smooch. In order to greet and identify one another, they press their front teeth together to take in one another’s scent.

Roberts Prairie Dog Town is home to thousands of black-tailed prairie dogs. These chirpy little rodents use 50 different squeaks to communicate, which they seem to do continuously. Part of the squirrel family, the prairie dogs weigh up to 3lbs and live in an underground network of 'towns.' They pop out frequently to have a look around, munch grass, or repair their burrows. Go during the day, when the sun is out, to catch them in a liplock.

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