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Wildlife holidays in Florida
If you’re not coming to Florida ready for a wildlife extravaganza, you are in for a major surprise when you arrive and travel out beyond the immediate tourist areas. This is not only a great place to enjoy the native fauna, it is also somewhere that will startle and amaze you in equal measure, with some species that might you not expect and others that are more populous here than anywhere else in the world.
And that is true both on land and at sea. The waters around Florida are an incredibly rich playground for all kinds of marine life, from hundreds of varieties of fish to sharks, dolphins and manatees. It’s hard NOT to encounter some form of sealife along every part of the coast, while dolphin-watch cruises are one of the most popular attractions in places like St Pete Beach, Daytona Beach and up in the Panhandle. Many of Florida’s beaches, right around the coast, are also prime sea turtle nesting grounds, and it’s possible to sign up for a nesting watch tour from mid-May to the end of October in some places. Nests are often marked by wildlife officials, and must not be interfered with in any way.
At the same time, the birdlife is nothing short of spectacular. With dozens of exotic species, a great variety of migratory birds and some truly startling examples – if you get to hear sandhill cranes at any stage, it sounds like some kind of prehistoric creature! – this is definitely the place to come for an ornithological treat. Just to start with, this is the place for pelicans, herons, egrets and ibis, plus bald eagles, ospreys and turkey vultures. There are unique types like the anhinga – in the cormorant family – and roseate spoonbills. The pink flamingo is rarely seen in the wild these days, but it remains common at many of the parks and zoos. And the varieties of wading birds are completely unusual for European visitors, including the American bittern, wood stork, American avocet and long-billed curlew. Other obvious birds to look out for are the brightly-coloured Cardinal, Blue Jay, Indigo Bunting, Oriole and the woodpecker.
The Great Florida Birding Trail extends from the Panhandle to Key West, and there are numerous bird-watching hotspots along its length and breadth.
Alligators & Crocodiles
Florida has alligators – lots of alligators. This used to be a threatened species going back to the 1960s and 70, when hunting was widespread, but now the gator is king of the native wildlife once more, and they can be found by the thousand in the largest lakes, where they are largely harmless but should never be approached. Gators are largely indolent, but they will attack if they feel threatened or during mating season (April-June), and it is illegal to feed them in the wild, with serious penalties for offenders. They usually hunt in the early morning and at dusk, when it is wise to give them a wide berth.
In addition to the gators, Florida also has crocodiles, in the southern parts of the Everglades, and this is the only place in America where you will find both species in the wild together. There are snakes, too, including several venomous types, including the cottonmouth or water moccasin, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the Eastern coral snake. You are unlikely to encounter any of these, but do be aware of them if you go hiking in the countryside.
Of far more interest to visitors are the more benign creatures you are likely to see throughout the state, including armadillos, white-tail deer, possums, fox squirrels, raccoons, otters, wild pigs, foxes and bobcats. The 164 state parks are great places to catch a glimpse of any of the above, while rare species include the Florida black bear and the endangered Florida panther, of which only a few hundred survive in the wild.
Zoos, aquariums & wildlife parks
Florida is home to plenty of zoological organisations. Places like Disney’s Animal Kingdom and SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa have great animal programmes, with a strong conservation message, while the Central Florida Zoo (Sanford), Brevard Zoo (Melbourne), Jacksonville Zoo, Miami Seaquarium, Palm Beach Zoo, Gulf World Marine Park (Panama City Beach), Jungle Island (Miami) and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and Florida Aquarium all have fabulous opportunities to see more exotic species up close and personal.
Wildlife in the Panhandle
As well as the fun Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, the stretch of coast from Apalachicola to Pensacola is one of the richest for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, hence it’s hard not to see them here. Sharks, stingrays and turtles are also common, while September to October usually sees thousands of cow-nose rays mass for their annual southern migration, which is an amazing sight to see. There are plenty of state parks that offer the chance to see wildlife on land, too, and possibly the best is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, with a good cross-section of the typical flora and fauna, as well as the possibility to glimpse a manatee or two, especially from October to February, with daily guided riverboat cruises.
Northeast Florida wildlife
The Atlantic coast hereabouts is not quite so rich in its dolphin and manatee sightings (although you will find them in the warmer months), but the area off the beaches of Amelia Island do boast a rare claim to fame in that they are the birthing grounds for the extremely endangered North Atlantic Right Whale from December to March. Sightings have become more infrequent in recent years, but they can still be seen occasionally. Along the coast you’ll also find Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is a great place to soak up the natural beauty of the area and catch some of the local wildlife. On a smaller scale, Anastasia State Park in St Augustine highlights more estuarine animal activity.
Wildlife in Orlando
While Orlando itself is mainly about the theme parks, shopping and other entertainment, you will still find some worthwhile animal opportunities that are worth pursuing, with Gatorland being one of the best, as well as Wild Florida, out in the rural countryside south of Kissimmee, where you can take an airboat ride, walk the boardwalk and see a lot of the native animals up close and personal, in addition to some exotic species like lemurs, sloths and macaws. By the same token, Forever Florida, just further south, has a fabulous Swamp Buggy ride that trundles out into the surrounding ranchland, with its woods and swamps, supplying plenty of that real Florida atmosphere for several thousand acres in all directions.
The Space & Treasure Coasts wildlife
Heading east brings you into some of the most popular beach territory on the Atlantic coast, but it is also where you can often see sharks of several different kinds, especially on the stretch between Ormond Beach and Melbourne. The Brevard Zoo is Melbourne’s other claim to wildlife fame, while the nearby Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands are a good place to spot gators and other local wildlife. Birders should definitely make a note of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Kennedy Space Center, which boasts an astounding variety of different types, including some of the big herons, egrets and storks, as well as the rarer roseate spoonbills, plus the inevitable gators. Just inland, Blue Spring State Park, which feeds in to the St Johns River, is a reliable place for manatee-spotting, as is Canaveral Lock, on the western edge of Port Canaveral.
Much of what applies to the Space Coast is also true for the Treasure Coast’s marine life, with more dolphins, manatees and sharks. For something more exotic, McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary in West Palm Beach rescues various big cats (22 at the last count) and also acts as a rehabilitation centre for a variety of local wildlife, from sandhill cranes to foxes and bobcats. Just to the west, the hugely family-friendly Lion Country Safari offers more animal encounters, with a genuine safari experience transplanted direct from Africa, including the chance to feed giraffes and take a boat ride. By contrast, Grassy Waters Nature Preserve is a pleasant small-scale experience in Florida nature.
Wildlife on the Gold Coast
Continuing the coastal theme, this is where you will find more dolphin-watch tours, as well as some more notable highlights on the Florida Birding Trail, such as the West Lake Park and Anne Kolb Nature Center and Snake Warriors Island Natural Area. In Fort Lauderdale, the South Florida Wildlife Center is another wonderful rescue and rehabilitation centre that showcases a slice of the local animal population, with a view to releasing it back into the wild, hence their line-up can vary from week to week, but is always worth seeing and supporting. This is also the eastern gateway to the great Florida Everglades, so be ready to take advantage of all the nature tours, airboat rides and other natural opportunities that are so plentiful there.
Gulf Coast wildlife
Just switching to the other side of the state to complete that southerly tour, this is where you’ll find some of the best coastal nature-watching, notably in the St Pete Beach and Clearwater areas, where Dolphin Landings – among others – offers wonderful sail-cruises for wildlife spotting on the intracoastal waterway, and Tampa’s Florida Aquarium showcases the whole range of the marine environment in this region. In addition to the exotic style of Busch Gardens in Tampa, Big Cat Rescue is a non-profit organisation geared towards saving unwanted ‘pets’ that simply grow too big or troublesome, with a terrific array of tours and programmes designed to educate and inform as well as merely showcase their lions, leopards, tigers, bobcats, cougars and many more large felines.
For the completely natural aspect, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is a great setting for the bird population, as well as being home to many alligators, with a four-mile one-way drive that you can take at your leisure. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples offers more simple nature and bird-watching, while Myakka River State Park near Sarasota appeals to the more active, with its kayaking and canoe tours that get you fully into the unspoiled countryside.
Wildlife in Miami
If there is a great centre for all things marine in south Florida, it is the Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, with amazing shows, dolphin interactions and educational programmes that are especially well geared for children. But you should also look out for Jungle Island, with its excellent animal interactions, the Zoological Wildlife Foundation and Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue, both of which are set up to rescue unwanted and injured animals. For a more gentle approach, the 90-year-old Flamingo Gardens is a great set-up for seeing many of the state’s most iconic birds, as well as the inevitable alligators. They also provide for injured animals that cannot be released, hence you can see panthers and bobcats as well as the birdlife.
Florida Everglades and Keys
These two areas are as much about the wildlife and nature as anything else. They are superbly geared for adventures on the mild or wild side, whether you like a bit of gentle paddling or a full-on scuba-dive experience. The Keys are Scuba Central as far as Florida is concerned, and there are all manner of tours that will get you a great view of the extensive marine life that swarms in the bath-warm waters hereabouts. You will also find a series of small, non-profit animal rescue and rehab centres through the Keys that specialise in everything from pelicans to manatees, and will happily let visitors in to see what they do for just a few dollars.
The Theater of the Seas in Islamorada is the other great set-piece adventure in the Keys, with a wonderful array of animal experiences, including the chance to swim with dolphins. The Everglades are all about the land-based wildlife, with the densest populations of alligators, crocodiles, turtles, snakes, bears and just about every other critter that calls the Sunshine State home. The Billie Swamp Safari, in the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, is the ideal way to get a close look at just about everything that moves out here, while Shark Valley Visitor Center has a series of more sedate tours that can also showcase the animal activity. It is impossible to go wrong for a genuine Floridian experience in the Everglades, with the airboat tours here being some of the best in the world.
Watch out for the Florida wildlife
As a final thought on Florida’s wildlife, it pays to keep your eyes open when driving just about anywhere. Armadillos and raccoons are seemingly omni-present, even in built-up neighbourhoods, while the birdlife is definitely not confined to the Florida Birding Trail, and one of the great delights you might spy is in seeing an osprey swoop down to snatch up a fish from a lake or pond. Now that’s REAL Florida!
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