Florida Wildlife: Birds, Gators, Butterflies, and Blooms
By Dawn S.
The entire state of Florida is a year-round birding paradise. Just look up and you are likely to see soaring bald eagles, wood storks, or the acrobatics of a swallow-tailed kite. Be observant near any large or small body of water, including roadside retention ponds, neighborhoods, and golf courses, and you will probably see a heron, ibis, ducks, moorhens, or sandhill cranes year round. But, the months of November through April stand out as exceptional for seeing Florida wildlife. Winter brings large migrating flocks that visit on their route across the East Atlantic Flyway. Springtime is nesting time, and visiting a wild bird rookery is a yearly treat my family and I look forward to. Make it even better by picking up an Escape campervan from their Miami depot!
My birding highlights while living in Florida
- Whooping Crane: Spotted near Narcoossee Road, south of the Orlando Airport
- Crested Caracara: Seen frequently in Kissimmee
- Roseate Spoonbill: My neighbor called to tell me to look out back because she spotted several of those “pink flamingos!” Only twice in 14 years have they stopped over to roost at the lake behind our house.
- Limpkin: A very noisy limpkin visited us one spring, we were praying he would find a mate or move on to search elsewhere. The night of its arrival, it woke me up before dawn with its awful cry, I went outside with a flashlight thinking it was a wounded animal. “The Call of The Limpkin” once you hear it, you will instantly know it forever after.
- Nesting Brown Pelicans: Rookery Island – Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Sandhill Cranes: Watching hundreds of cranes fly in to roost on our lake at sunset, and observing them nest and raise their chicks each spring.
- Bald Eagles: Observing a mating pair of mature eagles teach their offspring how to hunt by swooping down after coots, moorhens, and baby ducks.
- Owlet: While on an after-dinner walk with my husband, I heard an owl, and I tried to call back to it. As the road looped and we turned toward home, his call got louder again, so I kept calling and looking up into the trees. That’s when we spotted a large, fuzzy owlet in a tiny nest swaying back and forth in the breeze at the very top of a pine tree. The light was fading fast, but I found the silhouette of its large bodied parent perched on a nearby branch. It was hard to tell in the growing darkness, but I think it was a barred owl.
- Fuzzy Pink Spoonbill Chicks: My all-time favorite birding moment was getting to witness roseate spoonbill chicks in the nest at the wild bird rookery in St Augustine.
Where the Wild Birds Are
Great Florida Wildlife and Birding Trail
This is an online resource of where to see birds and wildlife in Florida. Don’t forget to check out their Trip Planner with its interactive map that sorts the State by region, and lets you choose birding and wildlife locations with amenities such as restrooms and camping. http://floridabirdingtrail.com/
St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
999 Anastasia Boulevard, St Augustine, FL 32080
Wading Bird Rookery
Best time to visit is March through June when you will see nesting wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and many species of herons and egrets. Read the Rookery Blog for frequent updates on which species are displaying, nest building, incubating eggs, or raising chicks during your visit. http://www.alligatorfarm.com/rookery/?p=1345
Other exhibits include crocodiles from around the world, pythons, albino alligators, lemurs, and many other exotic birds and mammals. Camp at the beautiful Anastasia State Park.
Gatorland – Alligator Capital of the World
14501 S Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, FL 32837
Natural Bird Rookery
In the spring, egrets, herons, cormorants and anhinga nest in the trees above the gator breeding marsh. Other attractions include reptile shows, gator wrestling, zip line, off-road vehicle swamp adventure, and the Gator Night Shine tour after dark. Excellent camping is available at Moss Park.
DID YOU KNOW?
Wild birds naturally choose to nest in the trees above alligator breeding ponds, because they know the gators will keep away any tree-climbing predators. These two Alligator Zoos offer many other exhibits, shows, and activities, so allow at least a half day when you visit. Their accessible boardwalk gets you so close to the nesting action, you can observe the parents tirelessly feeding their giant chicks, or see a heron stand and turn her bright blue egg. So bring your camera, sunscreen, binocs… and wear a hat!
Audobon Center For Birds of Prey
1101 Audubon Way, Maitland, FL 32751
This is where injured or sick raptors go to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, when possible. Visitors can learn about and get an up-close look at bald eagles, owls, falcons, ospreys, and kites. Closed on Mondays. The nearby Wekiwa Springs State Park has a campground.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Black Point Wildlife Drive – Titusville, FL
This 7-mile auto tour is a one-way loop, and worth the $10.00 fee. It is an excellent place to view the Florida scrub jay, migratory ducks, ibis, roseate spoonbills, brown and white pelicans, ospreys, hawks, bald eagles, and eight types of herons and egrets. Other wildlife you may spot includes alligators, and the occasional raccoon, deer, bobcat, hog, or coyote. Best time to visit is October to March, in the early morning or late afternoon.
Nearby camping options: http://www.brevardfl.gov/ParksRecreation/Home/Campgrounds/Home
When visiting the MINWF, grab a brew or bite to eat at Playalinda Brewing Company or the world famous Dixie Crossroads Restaurant in Titusville.
J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
1 Wildlife Drive Sanibel, FL 33957
Ding Darling offers exceptional birding and wildlife viewing on the Gulf coast. Don’t miss the visitor’s center, wildlife drive, guided nature tours, bike, kayak, and boat rentals. Sanibel Island offers beautiful white sand beaches and outstanding shelling. Camping is available at Periwinkle Park & Campground, home to exotic birds including macaws and toucans.
Butterflies and Blooms
A stroll through one of Florida’s beautiful gardens is sure to delight. They are great places for walking, picnicking, relaxing, photography, butterfly and bird watching. You can do a web search for more botanical gardens in Florida, but here are some great ones to get you started.
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park
3540 Thomasville Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32309
Bok Tower Gardens
1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, 33853
Harry P. Leu Gardens
1920 North Forest Ave., Orlando, 32803
Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden
5210 College Rd., Key West, 33045
Lake Eola Park
512 E Washington St, Orlando, 32803
Mead Botanical Gardens
1300 S. Denning Drive, Winter Park, 32789
Naples Botanical Garden
4820 Bayshore Drive Naples, 34112
Ravine Gardens State Park
1600 Twigg St., Palatka, 32177
1825 4th St. North, St. Petersburg, 33704
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park
6400 N. Oceanshore Blvd., Palm Coast, 32137
HIDDEN GEM: Kraft Azalea Gardens
This lakeside park is tucked away in Winter Park, Florida. To get there, you must travel down windy bricked streets, and past the upscale homes of a charming “old Florida” neighborhood. The Exedra can be reserved for intimate wedding ceremonies. This secret garden has giant cypress trees, a great egret rookery, and a large banyan tree (very rare this far north in Florida). Best time to visit is Late February to early June, but the sunsets are breathtaking year round. https://cityofwinterpark.org/departments/parks-recreation/parks-playgrounds/parks/kraft-azalea-garden/
I hope this has inspired you to get outside and enjoy Florida’s year-round mild weather. You never know what sights, sounds, and smells you may discover if you are willing to explore somewhere new.