Florida is home to two unique and endangered mammal species, the Florida panther and the tiny Key deer. Both have come quite close to extinction in recent decades. Preservation efforts have been effective in keeping the species around, but the numbers of both animals are still drastically limited. Somewhat more common in Florida are bobcats, which are smaller than panthers and can be seen in hardwood swamps and hammocks. The two mammals you’re almost certain to see while in Florida are armadillos and opossums. Sadly, both animals are often the victims of roadkill.
With the majority of the state nestled against either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, it’s none too surprising that Florida is a great place for spotting sea creatures. Pods of bottlenose dolphins are easy to spot from shore. Out on the sea, it’s possible to see pilot whales. Offshore snorkelers find an abundance of coral reefs and the attendant schools of colorful tropical fish that live in and around them.
Most iconic of all of Florida’s water creatures is the West Indian manatee. These gentle “sea cows” feast on the mangrove leaves, algae, and turtle grass that are common throughout Florida’s waterways. The state’s warm waters are the manatees’ preferred place for wintering and mating. Crystal River, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is a fantastic place to see manatees in the winter, as it has one of the greatest concentrations of the creatures. The rivers of South Florida are also home to a large number of manatees.
Florida is one of the best places in the United States for bird-watching. Numerous native species like kites, osprey, spoonbill herons, scrub jays, and even bald eagles call Florida home throughout the year. Scores of northern species make their winter homes here. The state’s nature preserves are ideal for bird-watching in the winter. Perhaps the best year-round spot is the J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.
Alligators and Other Lizards
Florida’s most famous reptile is the alligator. The Everglades are thick with them. Even lakeside residences in urban Miami, Orlando, and Tampa have been the sites of alligator encounters. These animals are incredibly dangerous, so you should use all due caution in or near any freshwater area in Florida. Venomous snakes are also common throughout the state, including native species like the diamondback rattler and foreign breeds that have been “liberated” into the swamps and forests. These dangerous species are far outnumbered by the ranks of nonvenomous snakes, though, and king snakes and black snakes are quite prevalent.
The most common reptiles in Florida are lizards and geckos, which can be seen skittering about during the day, sunning themselves, and chasing down food. They seldom grow to any great size. Most are less than six inches long. Salamanders are also bountiful, especially in South Florida.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Florida Road Trip.