Where to go to witness real animal magic, as creatures of all colours, shapes and sizes feed, court, fight and migrate.

Travel to destinations around the world to witness real animal magic, as creatures of all colours, shapes and sizes feed, court, fight and migrate.

Látrabjarg bird cliffs, Iceland
While Britain’s famed White Cliffs of Dover get their hue from the chalk stratum, Látrabjarg, the western-most part of Iceland (and Europe), can attribute the whiteness of its rocks to another source. These cliffs -- some more than 400m high and about 12km long – are stained by the guano left by the millions of seabirds that roost there in the summer. Even if you are not into bird watching, the comedic antics of the puffins and the swirling, squawking cacophony of razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, cormorants and kittiwakes is an extraordinary sight. Access to Látrabjarg is easiest with a car, though a bus runs three times a week between June and August from Isafjordur, the main town in the Westfjords region.

Monarch butterfly roosts, Mexico
Instinct is a curious thing. How does a creature that lives for only a few weeks or months know how to find its way to a spot that is thousands of kilometres away, without ever having been there before? Somehow, millions of Monarch butterflies make the annual migration south from summer territory in the US and Canada to spend winter in Mexico’s oyamel fir forests. Seeing clouds of these pretty orange, black and white insects would be impressive enough, but they also perch on trees in numbers huge enough to bend branches. The picturesque town of Angangueo, about 130km west of Mexico City, is a handy base for visiting the El Rosario Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Great migration, Tanzania and Kenya
One wildebeest is amusing: a shaggy, skinny cow with a head seemingly too narrow for a brain. But 1.3 million wildebeest are unimaginably impressive. In a breathtaking spectacle, particularly from above, vast herds of gnu sweep across the East African savannah in an annual circuit, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles and elands – and the predators that feed on the rumbling masses. The wildebeest spend the December to May rainy season in the southern Serengeti, nosing northwest before crossing into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Most dramatic is the mass crossing of the Grumeti River, usually between May and July, where crocodiles wait to snap up unlucky wildebeest.

Brown bears feasting, Alaska, United States
There is nothing like the flavour of flapping-fresh fish, straight from the river – especially if you are a brown bear with a taste for salmon. From early summer, shimmering masses of salmon return from their oceanic feeding grounds and head upriver to spawn. When they hit the rapids and small cataracts, they make easy prey for bears – rather like a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. At the falls on the McNeil River, 1.5km upstream from its mouth in southwestern Alaska, huge brown bears, bulky from years of salmon feasts, gather to flip fish from the stream. Dozens of bears can be spotted at any one time, but only 10 viewing permits are issued for each day between June and August, allocated through a lottery.

Elephant gathering, Sri Lanka
When King Mahasen built the Minneriya Tank, a vast reservoir, in the Third Century, he probably was not thinking of animal welfare. Today the reservoir is the focal point of a national park, and the lake comes into its own in the dry season as elephants trundle in from reserves around the region. Forming enormous herds, with numbers peaking around August and September, they head to the tank for the world’s biggest pool party. This is known simply as the Gathering, where 300 or more thirsty pachyderms graze the lush grass, drink and play in the water. It is a unique opportunity to watch how elephants interact (noisily and boisterously, as it turns out). Jeep safaris organised through local hotels get you close to the lakeshore action.

Bats of Dear Cave, Sarawak, Malaysia
Head to Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park to get two superlatives for the price of one: the world’s most impressive bat gathering and the planet’s most gag-inducing stink. Sadly for those of a delicate olfactory sensibility, it is tricky to experience one without the other, and three million wrinkle-lipped bats create a lot of poop. Rest assured though, the spectacle is worth the stench. Settle into a viewing spot by the mouth of this colossal cavern and wait for dusk when the bats come flooding out as one snaking, coiling stream, heading off to hunt for airborne bugs.

Orca feeding, Valdés Peninsula, Argentina
The orca, you might think, is just a big, chubby dolphin. But head to Punta Norte, on Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula, and it becomes abundantly clear why orcas are also called “killer whales”. The beach here is home to sea lions nursing their pups, which are favourite orca snacks. The whales launch themselves from the surf right onto the beach, grabbing a tasty pup before the next wave breaks and allows them to wriggle back into the sea. It is risky, as stranding themselves would be disastrous, but the hunt is breathtakingly dramatic to watch. Sea lions pup in January, so orca attacks mostly occur between February and April, three hours on either side of high tide.

Starlings roosting, Somerset Levels, England
Late afternoon on a misty winter’s day, head to the wetlands of Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve. As dusk falls, a patch of sky darkens and a vast black cloud usually gathers. But it behaves strangely, ebbing and flowing, clumping and twisting, shifting sinuously. Millions of starlings in a swirling mass, gathered in a huge flock for safety, dip to escape the attentions of raptors. Then in one smooth flow, like a genie returning to its lamp, the swarm swoops down to roost. And then you remember to breathe.

Sardine run, South Africa
You might think watching fish is none too exciting – something for a computer screensaver rather than an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. But if the fish are part of a swirling, silvery mass stretching more than seven kilometres long, it gets a lot more interesting. As millions upon millions of sardines dart and bunch their way around the Eastern Cape and along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, the waters boil with diving gannets and cormorants, along with thousands of hunting seals, dolphins and sharks. Whether you are watching from the safety of a boat or snorkelling near the embattled shoals, it is a phenomenal sight. The “sardine run” does not happen every year, and its location cannot be predicted, but it generally takes place between May and July.

The article 'The greatest wildlife spectacles around the world' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.