One of the greatest experiences you can have is encountering wildlife up close. It doesn’t get any better than witnessing a large-scale migration in a breathtaking natural setting. From mammals to marine life, a number of species travel great distances or in large numbers each year. These 12 animal migrations around the world are especially breathtaking. Make sure you bring your camera.
Wildebeest (Kenya and Tanzania)
Over 1.5 million wildebeest undertake a perilous journey every year, accompanied by other species such as zebras, topi, and gazelles. This migration forms a continuous circular loop from Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania to Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya and back again. Typically, such ungulates can be found on the Serengeti plains from late fall to late spring, arriving en masse to the Masai Mara by July, though the exact dates of the migrations vary from year to year.
The wildebeest’s journey through Africa is probably the most famous animal migration on the planet — especially notable for the animals’ spectacular and dangerous crossing of the Grumeti and Mara rivers in Kenya, where predatory crocodiles hide beneath the water’s surface to attack straggling wildebeest as they leap down from its banks. Hungry lions, leopards, and cheetahs join the hunt, too, while hyenas and other wild dogs scavenge for leftovers.
Sandhill Cranes (Nebraska)
One of the most impressive bird migrations in the U.S. takes place in Nebraska from February to April. It’s estimated that as many as a million Sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River Valley. These magnificent birds begin their journey in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and across the border in Chihuahua, Mexico. By the time they reach Nebraska, they’ve lost a significant amount of weight, so they hang around to feed on waste from the state’s cornfields. The corn helps them put on about 20% of their body weight and gives them the energy to continue north for the summer. During the migration, the cranes also mate, so you’re likely to see male cranes perform captivating mating dances, involving wing-flapping, jumping, and bowing.
One of the best places to view Sandhill cranes is at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, which offers crane season tours. Head over to Plautz Viewing Platform and Fort Kearny Bridge at sunrise and sunset, take a self-guided tour, or sign up for a virtual event.
Burchell’s Zebras (Botswana and Namibia)
Thousands of Burchell’s zebras spend the dry season in Namibia’s Salambala Conservancy. Close to the Zambezi-Chobe Floodplain, there’s an abundant water supply. But as the rainy season approaches, the zebras head south, bound for Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park. The journey is believed to be the longest mammal migration in Africa, yet for these zebras, the remarkable trip is simply an annual routine.
In the dry season, the desiccated landscape of Nxai Pan National Park seems an unlikely destination for such a long and arduous trek. But although the grass grows tall beside the Chobe River, it doesn’t provide the nutrients the zebras need. By the time they converge on the Nxai Pan, which is typically around late January, the wet season grazing that awaits is far better, as evidenced by the number of foals seen near the area’s salt pans. By March, the rainy season draws to a close and these four-legged travelers know it’s time to make the trip home.
Monarch Butterflies (California)
Monarch butterflies live in many different locations across North America, but a few populations in particular are known for their sensational migrations. Some travel south from Canada by the millions, their sights set on Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Others, like those found west of the Rockies, spend winter at the sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California. If you visit between October and February, you’ll soon understand Pacific Grove’s nickname — “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.”
What makes these migrations even more unusual is that the average lifespan of this fragile insect is only six weeks; even those who rest in the eucalyptus trees of Pismo Beach only live for up to six months. This means that the butterflies that set out on the journey south aren’t the ones that return north. So how do they know where to go? Scientists believe that the new generations navigate using the sun and Earth’s magnetic field.
Leatherback Sea Turtles (Southeast Asia)
Loggerhead sea turtles are known to migrate around 8,000 miles from Japan to Baja California Peninsula in Mexico. They travel across the Pacific to mature and then return to nest and breed. But as impressive as that sounds, it’s not the longest sea turtle migration in the world. That record belongs to the leatherback sea turtle, whose appetite for jellyfish drives it over even greater distances. Pacific leatherbacks begin their journey at what’s known as the “Coral Triangle,” an area that is famed for its marine biodiversity and encompasses the waters surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Solomon Islands.
The turtles’ destination is North America; these amazing creatures have been known to travel as far north as Alaska. The longest migration distance by a leatherback that anyone has managed to record was an extraordinary 12,774 miles. In 2008, news outlets reported that scientists tracked an intrepid female leatherback for 647 days as she made her way from Indonesia to Oregon. She was well into her return trip when they lost the signal.
White-Eared Kob (South Sudan)
The White Nile replenishes the water of the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. This reliable water supply during the dry season supports hundreds of thousands of white-eared kob, a member of the antelope family. But in the wet season, the excess water causes flooding in the meadows on which the animals graze, and they migrate south and east in search of more suitable pastures.
Together, with gazelles and tiang (a type of topi), these agile herbivores migrate between Badinglio and Boma national parks from November to January. It’s quite the spectacle: More than a million animals form a massive herd up to 50 miles long and 30 miles wide. They travel great distances, but when the dry season arrives once more, they’re forced north to the wetlands again.
Christmas Island Red Crabs (Australia)
The red crab migration on Christmas Island in Australia is one of the greatest spectacles nature can muster. The migration occurs in fall, coinciding with the first rains of the wet season, but you’ll need a little luck to witness it, as the rains can occur any time from October to January. The later the rains come, the more the crabs will hurry. Time it right, though, and you can watch millions of these colorful crustaceans scuttle over streams and across roads on bridges to reach the beach.
Once the crabs arrive, they have one thing on their minds — making it into the ocean so they can mate. Spawning always takes place before dawn on a falling high tide during the last quarter of the moon. For a ringside seat, your best bets are Greta Beach, Flying Fish Cove, Drumsite Beach, or Ethel Beach. To protect this determined migrant population, you’ll probably have to park your car and walk the last part of the journey to the beach on foot, as road closures are common.
Reindeer (Norway and Finland)
The history of reindeer migrating across Lapland goes back 10,000 years. In northern Norway, reindeer begin to move from inland areas to the coast in late April or early May. Sami herders travel with their reindeer across the icy landscape of Lapland and welcome tourists who wish to join them. But even with today’s technology, it’s impossible for them to keep track of every animal.
Some of the deer wander off in search of lichen, a staple of their winter diet, traveling more than 50 miles from where they’re supposed to be. Although it’s normal for reindeer to scrape loose snow off the ground with their hooves, the lichen often freezes, so they migrate further south in the hope of finding some that’s more accessible. You’ll see something similar in northeastern Alaska and the Yukon in May or June, when a 197,000-strong herd of porcupine caribou arrives at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to have their calves.
One of Wyoming’s pronghorn herds spends the summer in Grand Teton National Park and the winter in the Upper Green River Basin. While most of Wyoming’s half a million pronghorns (North American relatives of the antelope) are fairly sedentary, this particular herd prefers to move around. The journey they undertake twice a year as they migrate between the two locations is thought to be the longest land migration of any North American species apart from the caribou in Alaska.
The route is around 150 to 200 miles long and crosses rough terrain and water. In 2008, it became the first federally designated wildlife migration corridor in the U.S. To keep safe from predators, such as wolves, pronghorns evolved to be fast, but infrastructure, such as fences and roads, make them vulnerable. For instance, Highway 191 at Trapper’s Point near the town of Pinedale was once a problem area, but a few years back, an overpass was created to facilitate safe passage.
Arctic Terns (Iceland)
If you’ve ever spent your summer vacation in a place like Iceland, you’ll probably have heard about the notoriously aggressive arctic terns. These fiercely protective birds will stop at nothing to protect the chicks in their nests, dive-bombing anyone who gets too close. But the birds are impressive for another reason: They have one of the longest migrations of any bird. From their Arctic breeding grounds, some of them manage many thousands of miles every year as they fly all the way to Antarctica to escape winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
The record-holder was an arctic tern that clocked 59,650 miles in a single year, traveling from the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland in England to Antarctica — and back. If you’re struggling to do the math, the birds don’t fly in a straight line, but instead follow a meandering course with the wind. They begin their epic flight any time from late July to early October, hugging the coastline of Western Europe and Africa, where there’s usually a plentiful supply of their favorite foods, such as sand eels. In coastal North America, you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of them from late April to May.
Straw-Colored Bats (Zambia)
In Zambia’s Kasanka National Park, the branches of mahogany and milkwood trees sag under the weight of straw-colored bats. At least 8 million of these flying mammals descend on the area between mid-October and mid-December, lured from the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond by the promise of fruits, such as waterberries and wild loquats. The best time to see them is at dusk, when they feed. A few scouts set off first, but it’s the sight of the rest of the group as they take off together that gives this migration the wow-factor.
In the morning, the bats return, jostling for position in those same trees to get some much-needed sleep. Scientists monitoring the population have worked out that some of them manage to consume large quantities of fruit over the course of a single night, so it’s not surprising that when they return, the groaning branches sometimes snap under all that extra weight.
Synchronous Fireflies (Tennessee)
Tens of thousands of synchronous fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, swarm close to Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though there are around 150 species of fireflies in North America, these are the only ones that have managed to synchronize their actions to create such a breathtaking display. The bellies of these bioluminescent beetles flash in perfect time with one another, alternately lighting up the forest and then, as their lights are extinguished, plunging it into darkness.
These insects emit between five and eight bursts of light within a very short amount of time, then pause for about five to eight seconds before the pattern repeats. This peculiar phenomenon is caused by a chemical reaction, and its purpose is to enable the fireflies to find a mate. If you plan to attend this annual event, which happens in summer between late May and mid-June, you can enter a lottery for a park pass or grab one of a limited number of spots on a group tour.