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How to spot eight Florida animals in the wild in winter

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Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 09:59 am

There are a lot of things I love about winter in Florida, but high on the list is spotting the wonderful variety of Florida animals you see when it cools down here.

I can’t guarantee you’ll hit the jackpot and see an otter on the Rainbow River or a crocodile in the Everglades, but I can guarantee you’ll visit wild and beautiful places while trying.

Here are some of my favorite widlife sites for seeing Florida animals and wildlife. 

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes
Among Florida animals, the white pelicans is among the most spectacular. It is much larger than our year-round residents, the brown pelican. Only the California condor has a larger wingspan among North American birds, . This pelican was spotted in Charlotte Harbor near Placida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

1. White pelicans, various locations around Charlotte Harbor and elsewhere on both coasts

We see brown pelicans along Florida beaches all the time, but white pelicans are another story. They are two to three times larger than brown pelicans and they go to extraordinary efforts to get their winter in the sun. Thousands migrate to Florida from the mountains and plains of the U.S. northwest – and they fly non-stop! By spring, true snowbirds, they head north.

White pelicans have a wingspan of nine feet, making them one of the largest birds in North America.  They are graceful in the air, often flying in a formation.

All this means these are the sort of big, dramatic birds that even folks who don’t consider themselves birders will enjoy spotting.

You can find white pelicans on both the Gulf and the Atlantic Coast in winter if you know where to look.

One the largest populations of white pelicans in Florida is in the Charlotte Harbor area near the island of Boca Grande. These white pelicans are from the Grand Tetons and they return each winter to an island that serves as a rookery and night-time roost in Charlotte Harbor.

Called White Pelican Island, it’s a long, long paddle for kayakers and the birds are there primarily at the start and end of a day, so your best bet is to look for them in the area’s waterfront locations during the day.

One recommended vantage point is Placida, an out-of-the-way location far from the Interstate and 25 miles from Punta Gorda — the sort of off-the-beaten-path spot that’s fun to discover. It’s located at the start of the causeway to Boca Grande (a great place to visit) and Gasparilla Island.

Here are a few other good places to look for white pelicans:

  • At Seminole Rest in the Canaveral National Seashore.  A flock of white pelicans spends the winter loafing on a shell bar directly behind the historic Goodrich’s Seafood Restaurant, 253 River Road, Oak Hill, which is just north of Seminole Rest, according to spacecoastbirding.com. Goodrich’s is a classic Old Florida fish shack, so this makes a great outing.
  • On a Thanksgiving 2023 visit to Sanibel, we saw eight or 10 white pelicans in ponds along Wildlife Drive in Ding Darling National Wildlife Preserve, where they are routinely in residence in winter.
  • White pelicans are seen in Everglades National Park, both in Florida Bay off Flamingo and sometimes in the ponds within the park, such as Eco Pond in Flamingo, most winters.
  • A Florida Rambler reader commented on this story that you can see them right in downtown Lakeland, where they take up residence in Lake Morton.

Here’s more on seeing white pelicans around Florida. 

Kayaking the Rainbow River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Rainbow River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

2. Otters, Rainbow River, Dunedin

Not everybody sees on otter on the Rainbow River, but there’s no question, there are plenty. Nature photographers have traveled from Great Britain to the Rainbow River specifically to document the otter population, according to the folks at Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak.

It’s the only place I’ve kayaked where I’ve seen otters in two different locations on the same river and the kayak outfitter says otters are seen so often that the charming animal is part of their logo.

Still, if you don’t see otters on your visit, I guarantee you’ll still be wowed by the beauty of the Rainbow River.

Rainbow Spring, Florida’s fourth largest spring, has dozens of bubbling vents and water so clear that when you peer into the water, the fish look like they’re in an aquarium, and they cast shadows on the sandy bottom.

While the Rainbow isn’t a wild river – there are houses along the west bank the entire run – it is an aquatic preserve and is full of wildlife.

The Rainbow is full of people on inner tubes from April to October, but in the winter, kayakers are king. Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak runs a shuttle service so that you can paddle the river downstream with the flow. I suspect this elusive Florida animal is easier to see in the winter, when the Rainbow isn’t as busy. 

More about kayaking the Rainbow River from FloridaRambler.com.

Key deer approach bike, No Name Key, Forida Keys
An endangered Florida animal: A not so shy Key deer approaches me on my bike. (Photo: David Blasco)

3. Key deer, No Name Key

For years I drove through Big Pine Key, slowing down so as to avoid colliding with the tiny, endangered Key deer indigenous to the island, but I never spotted one.

Eventually, we booked a weekend at a bed and breakfast on Big Pine Key and instantly my family saw Key deer all day every day.

We were charmed by their diminutive size — you see people walking bigger dogs. They are disturbingly friendly; again, the analogy to dogs comes to mind, and you know that can’t be good for them. Rustle a potato-chip bag and the deer coming running. Of course, we didn’t feed them, but plenty of folks must have. The deer live in such proximity to people they have no fear. What they should fear are our cars — that’s what kills them.

In 1957, there were only 27 Key deer left, but with the establishment of the refuge and its efforts, the population has rebounded. Prior to Hurricane Irma in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 1,100 deer on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. After Irma, wildlife staff estimated the population at 949 Key deer in the same areas.

Bucks range from 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 pounds. Does stand 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 pounds, according to refuge information.

So, if you’re an animal lover, how do you see a few Key deer?

If you get lucky, you might see them by the side of the road on the Overseas Highway.

We found one approach that I think is good bet: We bicycled through No Name Key, an island that is part of the refuge, in early evening and saw countless Key deer. If you don’t bring bikes, drive on No Name Key slowly in late afternoon, perhaps parking and taking a walk. (We sprayed ourselves with insect repellent, and mosquitoes did not bother us. The poor deer were bedeviled by flies.)

A good addition to your outing is a stop at No Name Pub, a 1930s bar and restaurant on Big Pine Key with a colorful history and close to $100,000 in dollar bills stapled to its ceiling. Expect long lines at peak times at this classic rustic “dive” serving pizza, sandwiches and wings.

To get to No Name Key (and No Name Pub), turn right at the one major intersection in Big Pine Key. There are two roads heading east off of U.S. 1. One, Wilder Road, is clearly labeled No Name Key. Follow it (and the signs) to Watson Boulevard, which eventually crosses the scenic bridge to No Name Key.

How to spot key deer, an article from Florida Rambler.

Crocodile near Flamingo in the Everglades
A threatened Florida animal: Crocodiles are much rarer than alligators but are often seen near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. (Photo by Adam Fagen.)

4. Crocodiles in Everglades National Park, Homestead

You should head to Everglades National Park to see all sorts of Florida animals, many of which can be seen in other places around Florida. But if you want to see the American Crocodile in the wild, this is the only place in the United States where you have a good chance.

To see crocodiles, you head to the very southern tip of the park, Flamingo, where the road ends and Florida Bay begins. Here, the crocodile has thrived, so much so that it has come back from the brink of extinction and has been moved off the endangered species list to a status as a threatened species. 

The best way to see crocodiles is to hang out around the marina and docks in Flamingo. This is salt water, so there will be little question if you see a member of the crocodilian family floating here, that it will be the rarer crocodile rather than the common alligator, who prefers fresh water.

How you can tell them apart? The easiest test is whether it has a pointy snout and a triangular head (crocodile) or a broad U-shaped snout (alligator). Also: crocodiles are lighter colored and a single tooth on each sides of the lower jaw is visible when the mouth is closed.

You can see crocodiles elsewhere in the park too. I’ve also seen a 14-foot crocodile while kayaking at Nine Mile Pond, which is eight miles from Flamingo along the main park road. (We heard kayak-tour guides call him Croczilla; he has been a regular resident for several years.)

While you’re in Everglades National Park, also look for: alligators and wading birds along the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, the first stop after the Homestead visitor center. Alligators are the classic Florida animal that is not hard to see during your travels. 

Visitors guide to Everglades National Park

Endangered Florida animals: A manatee at Blue Springs State Park
Endangered Florida animals: A manatee at Blue Springs State Park

5. Manatees in Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, and throughout Florida

Florida’s springs offer some terrific manatee viewing opportunities and the best of all is Blue Spring State Park.

The park is a popular swimming and tubing destination in the summer, but in the winter, it belongs to the manatees, and sometimes, when the weather is chilly, there are hundreds of them nearly wall to wall.

Blue Spring State Park is at 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City, FL 32763. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Blue Spring State Park. Also helpful if you’re considering a trip: Here’s a view of what’s going on in the spring on the manatee cam.

Blue Spring isn’t the only place to see manatees, though. In fact, we list 18 places to see manatees in the winter.

The best viewing is where the water is the clearest, and that’s in Florida’s springs. At non-spring locations, all you see is a nose, a back and perhaps a tale before the manatee sinks out of view.

florida animals Paynes Prairie wild horse How to spot eight Florida animals in the wild in winter
Wild horse in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

6. Wild horses and bison, Paynes Prairie Preserve, Gainesville

The most surprising Florida animals you have a good chance of seeing are at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where you can spot both wild horses and bison from the park’s many trails.

When we visited, we hoped to see them both. We never saw a bison, but were surprised by how close we were to the horses. At one point, we had to share a 10-foot-wide trail one.  (A previous hiker had said one horse was “nasty” so we edged carefully past it.)

Excellent wildlife viewing is available at the north end of the park on the La Chua Trail, where the trail starts with a boardwalk with good views over a wetland and its wading birds. Beyond the boardwalk, a grassy trail extends 1.5 miles into the prairie with a wildlife viewing platform at the end. This is the area where wild horses are frequently spotted.

The wild horses at Paynes Prairie are descendants of those brought to Florida by the Spanish. The bison were introduced here in 1975, brought from Oklahoma and justified because when the Spanish arrived, the bison’s range extended this far south. (Today there’s a herd of 50 to 70.)

Bison are said to be most commonly observed at the southern end of the park, where there is an impressive visitor center, a half dozen trails to explore and a 50-foot-high observation tower overlooking the prairie.

While you’re at Paynes Prairie, watch for flocks of sandhill cranes, too. Some winters, thousands of cranes winter in the fields in the park and surround areas.

Payne Prairie Preserve: Bison and wild horses in Florida

7. Right whales along the northeast Atlantic Coast

Not surprisingly, Florida’s most endangered mammal is a rare sight —  the northern right whale.

Right whales, which can grow to 70 tons and 55 feet long, are sighted every winter off the Atlantic coast between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of volunteers, plus visitors and residents of the northeastern coast, get the thrill out of about 75 whale sightings between December and March each year.

Scientists estimate there are only 340 right whales.

Right whales summer off New England and Nova Scotia. In November, some of the females, a few adult males and assorted juveniles migrate south for the winter. By December, they’re acting like tourists, lolling around the beaches off Florida’s northern coast. The whales, however, are here on serious business: Some of the females are pregnant and it is in these waters northern right whales give birth to calves and nurse them. In March, it’s time to head north again.

About 100 to 150 whales make the visit to Florida shores each year.

Why are they “right” whales? Because they were the right whales to hunt: Early whalers appreciated that their high blubber content made them float when dead. Whalers reduced the population to a few dozen by 1900.

Right whales can live 50 or 60 years and are slow to reproduce. Calves are born at about 2,000 pounds and 15 feet long.  They can’t hold their breath long so they and their mothers must spend more time at the surface while in Florida, Hampp said.

Unless you live near the beach in northeastern Florida, consider yourself blessed if you experience even one right whale sighting, experts say. There are no whale watching excursions: The whales are too hard to predict, plus boats could stress mothers and calves.

Here’s how to improve your chances of spotting whales, according to whale expert Joy Hampp:

  •  Keep binoculars handy, but scan the ocean without them from any higher vantage point.
  •  Whales are often in the company of dolphins with sea birds overhead, so if you see either of those, take a closer look for whales.
  •  The most likely way you’ll spot a whale?  First you’ll see a lot of cars and a clump of people on the shoreline pointing and looking at the sea with binoculars.  Since Flagler Beach has six miles of beachfront visible along A1A, it is a likely place to come upon a whale sighting in progress.
  •  You can identify right whales by these characteristics: They spout a V-shaped spray of water; they have no dorsal fin; they have whitish patches of raised and roughened skin (called callosities) on top of their heads.
  •  February seems to be the best month for whale sightings, though whales are present and observed from December to March.
  •  Three fishing piers make good whale-watching spots: The St. Augustine pier, the 800-foot-long pier in Flagler Beach and the Sunglow Pier in Daytona Beach Shores.

Here’s more about spotting right whales from Florida Rambler.

American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)
American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)

8. Flamingoes in Florida: Are they back?

 Flamingoes have popped up all over, especially after Hurricane Idalia in late September 2023.

A group of scientists in 2020 published a paper that made the case that the occasionally seen flamingo in Florida is evidence of a recovering species that disappeared from Florida in the early 1900s.

One example of the return of the flamingo is a flock of migrating flamingoes that have returned to the same spot in Palm Beach County for a decade, according to the Audubon Society.

Now several dozen more flamingoes are being seen in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Idalia, which swept through the Gulf.

One place flamingoes have been spotted since Hurricane Idalia is quite natural — in the area named for them, Flamingo in Everglades National Park, in the expansive mud flats east of Flamingo, accessible only by boat.

In early December, flamingoes were were spotted in the Haulover Canal area in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. One birder said she saw them across from Haulover Canal kayak launch.

Other locations where flamingoes have been sighted, according to news reports and e-bird.org rare-bird reporting web pages, are: Fort De Soto beach in St. Petersburg, Terra Ceia Preserve State Park on the Hightower Trail in Manatee and Ramrod Key in the Florida Keys in a wetland area west of Indies Road.

Shortly after the hurricane, flamingoes were seen along the Sanibel Causeway, Clearwater Beach, Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs and Treasure Island Beach. They are not necessarily staying in those locations, however.

Over the years, flamingoes have been sighted occasionally in the Florida Keys, in Everglades National Park and off Fort Myers Bunche Beach.

One place where a flamingo has been seen over several years in St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle. Pinky the flamingo has been spotted regularly since Hurricane Michael in 2018. The bird was joined by six more flamingoes after Hurricane Idalia, though there’s no guarantee they’ll stick around.

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