Wildlife in Florida: Where, When and How to See an Array of Creatures
From the coral reefs of the Keys to the cypress swamps of the Panhandle, Florida's diverse habitats are home to an incredible cavalcade of wildlife. Nowhere else can you see reclusive alligators, playful manatees and beautifully plumed water birds all in a single day.
Hike through our enchanted forests - havens for black bears, Florida panthers and bobcats. Canoe or kayak along riverbanks dotted with exotic waterbirds, or relax on a guided nature cruise. Take a moonlit summer walk with nesting sea turtles; dive sunlit waters for a colorful show of sea life.
You'll no doubt have chance encounters with our creatures, great and small. Follow this guide to wildlife sites and seasons, and you're sure to meet with success - and some real Florida natives.
Note: A comprehensive, month-by-month list is available from The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (http://fwc.site-ym.com/events/event_list.asp).
An alligator can chomp down its toothy jaws with a 3,000-pound snap. This official state reptile averages six to twelve feet in length and can sprint with blurring speed. Alligators can be safely sighted at many of our parks and wildlife refuges, including Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (east of Titusville on Florida's east coast) and Myakka River State Park (in Sarasota on the Gulf side of the state). They are most abundant during May, the peak of mating season. They are dormant and least likely to be seen in cool, winter months.
Crocs have narrower snouts than alligators, grow slightly larger and shy from human contact. Crocodiles inhabit salt or brackish water, unlike alligators, which prefer fresh water. This rare prehistoric animal lives in the upper Keys at Key Largo's Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and in the Everglades, the only American crocodile habitat remaining in the U.S. Breeding season is March through October.
If at night you hear a sound like an elephant crushing palmetto fronds underfoot, chances are it's a five-pound armadillo. Armadillos look like tiny dinosaurs, and thousands of years ago stood 3-1/2 feet tall and weighed about 600 pounds. Because they lack the protection of a fur coat, they prefer temperate weather and burrow in extreme cold or heat. In summer, they are most active during the cool of the evening, and in winter, during the warmest part of the day. Myakka River State Park in Sarasota is an armadillo family favorite and a good place to see the identical quadruplets that make up each litter.
You'll fawn over these tiny deer, just 90 pounds and 2 1/2 feet tall. They are a subspecies of and the smallest of the white-tailed deer, and are only found in the Keys of southern Florida. Key deer are visible throughout Big Pine and No Name Keys, and are scattered on surrounding islands. About two-thirds of the remaining 700 - 800 live in the hardwood hammocks of Big Pine Key, most at the National Key Deer Refuge. They are more likely to be seen at dusk and dawn, when they are most active.
"A wonderful bird is the pelican, his bill will hold more than his belican." So begins a famous limerick, and it's true! The pelican has a large throat pouch that holds three times more fish than its stomach. Brown pelicans are here year 'round; American whites are winter visitors. These feathered friends flock to our beaches and waterways, and congregate in large numbers at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Florida's "real" pink bird has a brilliant fuchsia body with a bright red shoulder patch and a long, flat bill. A roseate sighting ranks high in a birdwatcher's pecking order and occurs largely in South Florida, but also throughout the state in summer. The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is home to many of these blushing beauties.
Tiny tracks leave telltale signs of turtle tikes on Florida's shores. Sea turtle moms migrate great distances to return to nesting sites on both coasts, though most are located from Titusville to Sebastian Inlet. The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, stretching from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso, has the densest population of nesting Loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. Sea turtles nest from May to October and may be seen on public turtle walks, mainly in June and July, throughout the state.
West Indian Manatee
When Christopher Columbus first saw a manatee, he thought it was a mermaid. These gentle vegetarians grow to ten feet long, weigh 1,000 pounds and are related to the elephant. Manatees head for warm waters in winter and can be seen in rivers, inlets, springs and near power plants. Choice viewing locations for these "sea cows" include Blue Spring State Park, Three Sisters Springs and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin
Dolphins are warm blooded, air-breathing mammals with communication skills and social style. They wear a perpetual smile and playfully frolic alongside fast moving boats. Dolphins are routinely spotted from our shores year 'round. You can get up close and personal on an organized dolphin watching cruise or dolphin swim program at an aquarium, or see them at parks and sanctuaries from Northwest Florida to the Everglades.
A national symbol since 1782, this true American bird is the only eagle unique to North America. The southern variety favors feathering its nest in Florida - we support more breeding bald eagles than any other state. They mate for life, building huge nests in the tops of large trees near rivers, lakes, marshes or other wetland areas. See them year-round at Marco Island, an official Bald Eagle sanctuary, or nesting at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
If you're wild about cats you'll be fascinated by these beautiful felines. Named for their short or "bobbed" tail, they are about twice the size of house cats and sport razor sharp teeth and claws. Shy and elusive, the bobcat prefers woody or grassy areas, but can be sometimes be seen along deserted roads at dawn and dusk hunting for small rodents. They are active year 'round, but are rarely seen during the day except during breeding season, December to April. Look for them at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Wekiwa Springs State Park.
More than 160 species of these winged wonders of the insect world breed here, and about another 200 have been recorded as passing through. A large number of them are not found anywhere else in North America. From the Panhandle to the Keys, there are many sensational spots to see our beautiful butterflies, among them, The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at Key Largo and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, home to migrating Monarch butterflies. Also, there's a butterfly rainforest habitat at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, home to several hundred native and exotic butterflies on any given day.
Florida Black Bear
Like Winnie the Pooh, Florida black bears love honey; but also honeybees, fruits, nuts, twigs and small animals. These timid teddies have curved claws for climbing the trees of our national forests. You might also see them at Wekiwa Springs State Park near Orlando. The most bountiful bear-sightings occur in May, followed by June, August and September.
Biologists use radio collars to study the small number of panthers remaining in South Florida. The Florida panther is one of the most rare and endangered mammals in the world. They are active at night and rest during the day, and are usually found in the pinelands, hardwood hammocks and mixed swamp forests of the Everglades, at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and at the Florida panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. This cool cat is actually a subspecies of cougar.
These Florida natives are much less common then gray squirrels, which makes a sighting a special occasion. They have a heftier body, a longer tail and fur that ranges in color from tawny to gray to dark brown to completely black. A white nose and ears give the fox squirrel's face a mask-like appearance. They are most common in the northern and northwestern parts of Florida. See them in our state parks and forests, including Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy along and along the Withlacoochee State Trail in west central Florida.
Great Blue Heron
Long-necked, lanky and large, this big bird grows to four feet tall with a six-foot wingspan. It uses its great bill to spear fish, frogs and snakes in oceans, rivers, marshes and lakes. Not only is it blue, but its eggs are, too. Great Blue Herons forage by day and by moonlight, but are most active just before dawn and at dusk. See them throughout the year near bodies of fresh and salt water and at our parks and sanctuaries, including the Sebastian Inlet State Park at Melbourne Beach.