Nature lovers in the St. Louis area don’t need to book a safari or take a trip out West to encounter majestic wildlife — we’ve got tons of opportunities right here to get up close with the animal kingdom.
While the organizations below offer a variety of wildlife experiences, do be sure to check their websites for the most updated information regarding COVID-19 restrictions, as well as what programming and animal viewing is on offer.
Most importantly, remember to respect the animals, says Lone Elk Park Supervisor Pat Curry. “Don’t forget that they are wild animals,” he noted. “Give them plenty of room, especially if you’re visiting during rutting season.”
Endangered Wolf Center
If you’ve ever wanted to see one of our greatest apex predators in the wild, here’s your chance. The Endangered Wolf Center, located in Eureka, works to protect and preserve endangered canids. It’s home to Mexican, red, and maned wolves; swift and fennec foxes; and African painted dogs.
Winter is one of the best times to visit, as the animals are more active in the cold. Their full coats will be on display, and puppies born in spring will still be small and playful.
Normally, the center offers public tours that teach visitors about the center’s mission and takes them on a stroll around the property and its enclosures, where you’re likely to see a variety of canids hanging out. Tours are currently restricted to small, private groups.
“These animals are family-oriented, so you’ll often see them interacting just like a family unit,” said CEO Virginia Busch.
World Bird Sanctuary
In talking about the World Bird Sanctuary’s mission, Executive Director Dawn Griffard likes to mention a quote by conservation biologist Dr. Thomas Lovejoy: “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”
Located in Valley Park, the sanctuary is situated on 304 acres that includes avian exhibits and easy hiking trails. It’s home to more than 200 non-releasable birds and also rehabilitates hundreds of wild animals each year. Its species includes owls, falcons, condors, eagles, kookaburra, cranes, pheasants, vultures, and more.
A large part of its mission is education, which it accomplishes through a variety of guided tours, special events, and shows that allow visitors to see its birds in action or meet them face-to-face. Its Handle an Exotic Raptor experience, for instance, allows you to hold a non-native raptor with a falconry glove, with guidance from a naturalist.
You can also see its resident birds, as well as some mammals and reptiles, at the Nature Center.
Lone Elk Park
Elk, bison, deer, and a variety of native birds roam the 546 acres of Lone Elk Park in Eureka. The park’s bison herd currently includes eight adults and two cubs; its elk herd includes 18 adults.
There are two ways to take in the park’s wildlife: by car or on foot via a hiking trail (the bison area is only accessible by car). In late spring, you can expect to see elk and bison calves — if you’re lucky, you may even see them playing and chasing each other around. The fall offers stunning autumnal foliage, but the breeding season may mean animals are more aggressive.
Whatever season you choose to visit, animals tend to be most active early in the morning or just before dark, said Curry.
Audubon Center at Riverlands
The Audubon Center at Riverlands is located in West Alton, in the middle of the Mississippi River flyway, one of the largest migratory bird corridors on Earth. Throughout the year, hundreds of bird species come through the Riverlands’ 3,700 acres, which you can experience via more than 8.5 miles of hiking trails that wind through prairies, marshes, and forest.
Depending on the time of year, you can spy bald eagles, trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, raptors, and waterfowl, as well as turtles, coyote, and pollinators.
Center Director Ken Buccholz says the spring and fall migratory periods offers nothing short of a spectacle. “On any given day in the fall, you might see upward of 5,000 pelicans,” he said.
Winter is a particularly good time to visit, as many overwintering birds such as bald eagles and trumpeter swans make the center home for the season. Spring is also great, as grassland birds and songbirds make their arrival from as far away as South America.
But no matter when you drop in, you’re sure to see something interesting. The Center’s social media channels provide updates on current viewing opportunities.
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge
Also located on the Mississippi flyway, Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge is just a little over an hour away in Brussels, Illinois. Managed by US Fish and Wildlife, it includes more than 9,000 acres around the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers that can be explored on foot or by canoe or kayak.
Nearly 300 bird species come through the refuge each year. Similar to Riverlands, the wildlife changes with the season, from waterfowl in the spring to bald eagles in the winter. The refuge is also home to deer, beavers, muskrat, and other wildlife.
October, November, March, and April are the best months to see large concentrations of waterfowl, especially in the refuge’s shallow wetlands, says Visitor Services Manager Bob Dietrich.
“My first full winter here, we had about 250,00 waterfowl come through. When the snow geese migrated, we saw as many as 15,000 geese in one pod,” he said. “To see that amount of birds in one location was incredible.”
Wild Horses of the Ozarks
Did you know there are two herds of wild horses in Missouri? The herds, which roam around the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers in Shannon County (home to Eminence), are protected and maintained by the Missouri Wild Horse League. Although more elusive than the other wildlife viewing opportunities mentioned here, you can get in touch with the Missouri Wild Horse League for help tracking them down.
Author: Stephanie Zeilenga is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.