Top 10 Wildlife Hot Spots in the USA
Where do professional wildlife photographers go to shoot all those wonderful pictures? While some construct habitat to attract birds and mammals to their own backyards, most rely on public sites such as national and state parks or wildlife refuges to get within camera range of the critters. In addition to well-known wildlife sanctuaries such as Yellowstone National Park, there are a few lesser-known wildlife havens where photographers can find success. The pros I know are some of the aces in the business, and specialize in subjects from amphibians to waterfowl. After informally interviewing a few of my photographer friends, here are 10 diverse places they love best.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
This recommendation comes from a travel-loving photographer in New Hampshire. Located on the eastern edge of the Black Hills, southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota, Custer State Park ranges from rugged, pine-covered hills to creek bottoms lined with oak and birch trees to rolling grassy prairie. Bison, elk, whitetail and mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep all roam the park and are usually found near the road that loops through the park’s interior. June, when the grass is lush and newborn animals are trotting after mother, is a prime time to photograph. October and November are excellent as well. Both months find hoofed animals preoccupied with mating and easy to photograph. The park is also home to a plethora of raptors and songbirds.
Everglades National Park, Florida
If you want to photograph an anhinga, the diving bird that spears fish on its bill, this is pretty much the only place in the United States to go. Along with anhingas, you’ll find a bewildering array of other birds, ranging from elegant snowy egrets to gnome-like green herons. Snakes and alligators are also seen from the safety of the boardwalks — easy places from which to make great photos. Also look for unusual insects such as brightly colored grasshoppers and butterflies. For a change of pace from wandering the boardwalks, a kayak excursion is an excellent way to observe wildlife here.
Mount Evans, Colorado
A short distance from Interstate 70 west of Denver, Mount Evans is a favorite destination for a photographer friend from Oregon. He ventures up the road to the 14,264-foot summit, mainly in search of the mountain goats that hang around the top of the mountain. Bighorn sheep can also be photographed from the road, which is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Also on the list is an intriguing array of smaller critters such as yellowbelly marmots, pika and chipmunks. Watch carefully, and you, too, will be able to point your lens toward migratory alpine birds, including beautiful American pipits and pretty little white-crowned sparrows.
Mirror Lake State Park, Wisconsin
In south-central Wisconsin, this park is named for the beautiful lake that dominates its landscape. Mirror Lake State Park has whitetail deer, raccoons and other critters might be found and photographed from the park’s trails, but it’s the lake itself — or more specifically the wetlands around the lakeshore — that offer the best wildlife viewing and photography. Your best bet is to rent a canoe or a kayak and paddle out quietly in the morning. Great blue herons and sandhill cranes can be photographed here, along with many species of waterfowl. Also keep an eye out for painted turtles and interesting (but harmless) water snakes.
Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah
Just a few miles south of Moab, Utah, the Brumley Creek area of this unit of National Forest contains classic southwestern geological features: wide vistas, gnarly junipers and jumbles of colorful rocks and cliffs. It was recommended as a great place to see lizards. Several interesting species of these reptiles live here, including collared, northern side-blotched and short-horned lizards. Hike among the rocks and cliffs and there you’ll find them; a slow approach is the key to photographing lizards. The area is also home to mule deer and a small species of rattlesnake.
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska
Heralded by a Midwestern photographer with a fondness for birds, this refuge in north-central Nebraska sits in the heart of one of the few remaining tracts of tall grass prairie in the country. Mor than 260 species of birds have been sighted on the refuge. Blinds are available to observe the mating rituals of prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse in the spring. The wetlands brim with a wide array of ducks, blackbirds and other marsh-dwelling species. In the grasslands you can find long-billed curlews, upland sandpipers and several varieties of sparrows. Photographing birds is easiest with a long telephoto lens.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Just 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah came recommended by a photographer who is wowed by whitetail deer, our nation’s most abundant big-game species. Deer can be viewed year-round, but June is a prime month to photograph spotted fawns. Fall colors often persist into early November, which is an excellent time to photograph large-antlered bucks that spar for dominance during the mating season. While taking plenty of pictures of deer, also be on the lookout for black bears and pixie-cute birds such as chickadees, nuthatches and tufted titmouse.
Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri
Around Thanksgiving, up to 400,000 snow geese, along with tens of thousands of ducks, may inhabit this wildlife refuge some 90 miles north of Kansas City. Local photographers come to snap photos of these migrating waterfowl, but they’re also on the lookout for bald eagles that regularly roost in the trees along the 10-mile auto route that winds through the refuge. Other intriguing birds, such as scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and cedar waxwing also nest in the refuge. You’ll have the best luck photographing from your vehicle.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, mountain goats and grizzly bears are among Glacier’s calling cards, but the photographer who recommended this spot has even taken photos of a wolverine. The area around the visitor center at the summit of Logan Pass is a favored spot. Look for sheep and goats, along with ground squirrels, marmots and white-tailed ptarmigan. September is a great time to photograph wildlife in Glacier, because fewer people are visiting the park, and the animals are actively preparing for winter.
Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana
Okay, so I get to throw in a favorite spot of my own. A long way from my home in Montana, this obscure refuge, located 25 miles southeast of Lake Charles, is a great spot to view and photograph gators. Look for alligators in the observation pond adjacent to the refuge headquarters, or drive the auto route. It’s also a good destination for resident and migrating birds.
Well, that makes 10 top places to photograph wildlife, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more fabulous places in America to take great wildlife pictures.
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