Sunshine State safari: Wildlife spotting in Florida
For many visitors, the first animal that comes to mind when thinking about Florida is a mouse called Mickey or a duck called Donald. Or maybe a snowbird, one of the vast number of retired Americans who overwinter in the state. But for all its theme parks, attractions, glittering cities and urban sprawl there’s also a wild and unspoiled side to Florida.
The Sunshine State is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life. The award-winning state park system encompasses 175 state parks spanning 800,000 acres, including 20 major rivers, 100 miles of beaches and 2000 miles of trails. If you’re a wannabe Attenborough, a budding wildlife photographer, or just fancy some respite from the noise and popcorn of the theme parks, plenty of Florida destinations offer peace, tranquillity and nature at its best.
Wildlife and wilderness
Florida’s balmy position at the convergence of the tropical and temperate zones has created a vast number of diverse habitats, all of them brimming with an astonishing variety of plant and animal life. Dunes, salt marshes, estuaries, mangroves, tidal pools and coral reefs can all be found along the 1,300 miles of coast, as well as the glorious white-sand beaches for which the state is best known.
But it’s not all about the coast. Florida forests include tropical hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and dense stands of oak and elm, and the Florida panhandle is home to some of the last remaining longleaf pine forests in the southern USA, which support around 300 bird and 500 plant species. These forests need fires to survive, which are managed by the local nature conservancy to reduce the risk to local residents and protect the natural cycle of the area. Everything, including native gopher tortoises, has a strategy to survive the fires, mostly by burrowing. You’ll also find open, treeless grasslands known as dry and wet prairies (the latter become flooded in the winter). And finally, there’s Florida’s most important habitat, the Everglades, one of three National Parks in the state. Comprised of nine distinct eco-systems on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, this 1.5-million-acre wetland is a slow-moving river made of mangroves, sawgrass and pine flatwoods. It’s one of the most wild and remarkable places on Earth.
Manatees (best seen in winter)
Manatees should be right up there near the top of every nature lover’s must-see list. These gentle giant aquatic mammals are also known as sea cows but are more closely related to elephants. There are four species (if you count the Eastern hemisphere’s dugong) with the Florida manatee being a subspecies, and they can pop up pretty much anywhere there’s water. They’re easiest to spot when the water temperature drops during the winter months, as they’ll seek out specific warm spots to congregate. During summer when the water is warmer everywhere, they spread out throughout the state (some even make it to Georgia) and this can make them harder to find.
Two of the most popular manatee viewing sites are Blue Spring State Park, which runs seasonal manatee programmes during the winter months (check out their marvellous webcam) and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge where you can see the manatees near warm water sanctuaries in Kings Bay or from a boardwalk near Three Sisters Spring.
Although not huge by bear standards, the Florida black bear is the largest land mammal in the state. You’re most likely to spot these timid creatures from May to September in the Ocala National Forest, Osceola National Forest-Okefenokee Swamp, Apalachicola National Forest, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Eglin Air Force Base. If you’re lucky, you might see a mother with cubs which they nurse until they’re 16 months old.
The chances of seeing the Florida panther are slim. There are barely any left in the wild (approximately 120), they’re mainly active at night, and they live in the dense swamp forests of the Everglades. But you can always try, and along the way learn more about this enigmatic but critically endangered cat which is actually a subspecies of the cougar. Head to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge located within the heart of the Big Cypress Basin.
Although most of the Refuge lands are closed to the public, two hiking trails are accessible to visitors: a short 1/3 mile loop trail and a longer 1.3-mile trail. These easy trails offer a glimpse of the different panther territories, where you can enjoy carefully protected habitats and the hundreds of birds, animals and plants that share the panthers’ space. And who knows? You may just get lucky.
If you hear something crashing through the undergrowth at night, chances are it’s an armadillo. These extraordinary creatures prefer temperate weather and burrow in extreme cold or heat, which means in the summer you’re most likely to see one during the cool of the evening, and in winter, during the warmest part of the day. Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County is a favourite destination for armadillo-spotting. Sadly, you’re also quite likely to see them as roadkill. They have an unusual strategy for avoiding predators which is to jump up, sometimes a couple of metres high. This works well when being attacked by an animal, but not so good when faced with a car.
This tiny deer is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and exists only in the lower Florida Keys, with 75% of the population living on Big Pine and No Name keys. For all its rarity – there are only about a thousand in the world – they’re remarkably easy to find. The National Key Deer Refuge ask that you don’t feed them as this affects their health.
Close to the Disney and Universal theme parks you can see some of nature’s most magical reptiles: nesting turtles, and those real living relics from prehistoric times, the Florida alligator.
Five species of turtle can be found in Florida, all but one of which are endangered. There’s always a chance you’ll see one while snorkelling or diving down in the Keys, but for greater success and perhaps a more enriching experience, join a guided walk to find turtles nesting on the Atlantic beaches. These ancient creatures make a once-a-year foray onto land to lay their eggs, the exact location revealed by tell-tale tracks on the sand. It’s an incredibly special thing to witness. If you’re especially lucky, you might get to see the hatchlings start their perilous journey to the sea.
The majority of turtle watch programmes take place during June and July (and sometimes in April and May) on Florida’s Atlantic coast, which has the highest concentration of nests. The beaches in the Melbourne area are the most heavily visited and spaces fill quickly, so call as early as possible. Rules are in place to protect the turtles, who are all very sensitive to light, especially torchlight. Hatchlings navigate to the sea using the breaking waves as a source of light and even the smallest light from any type of tech device or camera can send them off course. Many of the communities along this strip of coast have no lights on the beach-facing side of their homes for this reason.
Turtle watching takes place in the evening and involve lots of walking (and mosquitoes). So wear comfy shoes and repellent! You won’t be disappointed. This is one of Florida’s most unforgettable experiences. Learn more on the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge website
Crocs and ‘gators
Florida offers excellent opportunities to get up close (but not too close) to the prehistoric masterpiece that is the American alligator. Behold these incredible creatures, virtually unchanged for 150 million years, who survived the dinosaur extinction and have come back from being almost wiped out by humans.
Considered a conservation success story, they were protected in 1967 and are now classified as ‘least concern’. They can grow to over 3.4 metres long! Our advice is to avoid the tourist gator parks and get out in one of the many parks and wildlife refuges where they’re most easily spotted. The best time to visit is during May, the peak of mating season. They’re dormant and least likely to be seen in cooler winter months.
Much rarer is the American Crocodile. These grow a bit bigger than the gators, but the combination of their rarity and shyness make them much harder to find. Your best bet is in the upper Keys at Key Largo’s Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge; the only American crocodile habitat remaining in the U.S. The breeding season is March through October.
With such a diverse mix of habitats, Florida is heaven for birdwatchers. Pelicans skimming across the sea, herons fishing in the wetlands and eagles soaring overhead are all common sights. But look closer, and you’ll spot many more of the 330 native birds in the state. One of the best birding locations, not just in Florida but the whole United States, is the Space Coast – home to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Canaveral National Seashore, and Kennedy Space Center. Proximity to the rocket launching facility means this area has remained wild and undeveloped, with some amazing beaches. The coastline boasts a variety of habitats: dunes, scrub, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks where you can find more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 15 endangered species. A perfect oasis for nature lovers.
One of the superstars to watch out for is Florida’s “real” pink bird, the roseate spoonbill, famously painted in all its rosy glory by ornithologist and artist John James Aubudon. This beautiful bird has a brilliant fuchsia body with a bright red shoulder patch and a long, flat bill. Once hunted almost to extinction, it can now mostly be seen in South Florida, though occasionally further north in the summer. The excellent Florida wildlife viewing site has a great list of locations. .
For a crash course on Florida’s wildlife, the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival runs from January 22 to 27 and is an ideal day out for nature enthusiasts of all ages and experience.
The small stuff
If you’re one of those people into bugs, Florida has plenty for you! Even if you’re nonplussed by wasps and ants, one tiny creature puts on a world-class show.
These tiny sea creatures called dinoflagellates give out an eerie blue glow when disturbed. The effect is mesmerising. The best time to see the bioluminescence is during the warm summer months from mid May until early October, five days after the full moon when the skies are dark. Day Away Kayak Tours offer a number of trips to see the phenomenon.
Starting at dusk, you’ll take an easy paddle to the designated paddling area in order to reach the bioluminescent effect at dark. Everything sparks the blue, from a simple paddle stroke or the swirling of your hand, to the darting trails of nearby fish and the torpedo-like aura of a dolphin swimming by. Being on a wildlife refuge means other visitors are likely to make an appearance too, including manatees, dolphins, herons, and other endangered species of birds, and even the occasional gator.
Florida’s fascinating south
The Everglades is the most captivating of Florida’s wild lands. It’s also a great starting point for a trip down the Keys
Rather than the noisy airboats used on many Everglades tours, Everglades Area Tours offer a naturalist-guided way to explore this extraordinary region that’s off the tourist trail and closer to nature, giving you a deep understanding of the environment. A number of boating, kayaking and walking eco tours are available, with an emphasis on how to protect this unique ecosystem. The tours often encounter dolphins, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles and various hawks, as well as white pelicans, owls, sea turtles, kites and black vultures. There’s also a chance you could see a much rarer wild hog, a bobcat, white-tail deer and even a black bear.
Florida really is one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth. Whether you’re heading for the theme parks or you’re a nature lover looking for your next fix, consider a trip to one of Florida’s National Parks or State Parks on your next visit to the Sunshine State.