3. “Extinct” Bird Hunt, southern United States
It was a shocking moment in the birding world when a kayaker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas reported spotting a bird that fit the description of an ivory-billed woodpecker in 2004. That magnificent bird had not been seen for 60 years and was believed to be extinct. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Nature Conservancy, and others launched a search for the woodpecker that continues to this day. After countless outings with teams of ornithologists and large groups of volunteer birders, they have reported glimpses of the ivorybill, analyzed a short video of it in flight, and recorded a double knock that might have come from the rare bird. Between November 2006 and April 2007, searchers logged 24 possible encounters with the woodpecker.
The challenging part: Although it takes only basic canoeing and hiking smarts to traverse the ivory-billed woodpecker’s traditional territory—the old woods and swamps of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina—the odds are remote that you will actually see this lauded bird.
4. Mammalogy Tour, New York City
The Behind the Scenes Tour of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History ushers you into the world of scientists who spend their days studying dead animals. Highlights include a look at preserved animal specimens that zoologists and other scientists are still analyzing and a visit to the department’s room-size walk-in freezer, where everything from new items for an upcoming exhibition to elephant skins are kept. You might even see a large mammal, like a fully mounted mountain lion in standing position. “We put specimens in the freezer to kill any insects that might be on them,” explains Neil Duncan, collections specialist for the museum’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology. Duncan oversees another strange site in the tour: the room where dermestid beetles nibble tiny bits of flesh left on the bones of fish, mammals, and birds.
The challenging part: The museum offers this tour periodically, to members only. The two dozen or so slots go quickly, so watch for the tour’s posting in the members’ newsletter or the members section of the museum’s website. Because specimens move in and out of the giant freezer regularly, what will be in it for any given tour is a matter of chance. (However, the beetles are almost always active.) Warning—the odors can be intense.
5. Trinity Site, White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
What does it feel like to stand at the spot where the nuclear age began? You can get some idea by visiting Trinity Site, where the first explosion of an atomic bomb occurred on July 16, 1945. The detonation unleashed the colossally destructive power of a fission chain reaction and changed the world forever. A plaque marks the explosion site, and a museum documents the life and culture of the Manhattan Project bomb builders.
The challenging part: Located in the sparsely settled desert of southern New Mexico, the site is open to visitors only twice a year (on the first Saturdays of April and October), though the museum is open year-round.