No matter how many times I see them, the sight of a white pelican or bald eagle will make my day. I’ll happily hike or paddle for hours on just the prospect of a thrilling Florida wildlife viewing.
Winter is the best of times because migrating birds are here and the dry season concentrates the wildlife.
Florida wildlife is all over the state; even in urban Miami, you’ll see dolphins in Biscayne Bay or an occasional crocodile.
There are a few reliably great places to spot wildlife, however, that I will return to as often as I can.
These are my favorites. This list isn’t comprehensive, but all of these locations have a record of outstanding wildlife viewing over a long period of time. Several make it so easy, you barely have to leave your car. Some offer miles of hiking into the wild.
Florida wildlife in South Florida
Bird Rookery Swamp in Naples
Few South Florida hiking or biking trails rival this 12-mile-long trail near Naples for scenery and wildlife. It’s free and deserves to be known outside the Naples area.
Bird Rookery Swamp is a birding hot spot that is full of wildlife. We saw dozens of gators, some sunning on the pathway so close we gingerly walked around them, some in ponds alongside the trail, including one pond with 13 baby gators about 18 inches long.
Visitors have seen deer, bobcats, otters, black bear and even Florida panthers. (This is prime panther habitat.) Most of the trail is lined with forested wetland dominated by exquisite bald cypress and red maples trees.
Admission is free.
CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail
1295 Shady Hollow Blvd. West, Naples.
Map to Crew Bird Rookery Swamp Trail
Shark Valley in Everglades National Park west of Miami
One of the best ways to see Florida’s Everglades is via the Shark Valley entrance off the Tamiami Trail. It’s home to a terrific bike trail and abundant wildlife.
At Shark Valley, the alligators and birds that line that trail in winter will amaze. The wildlife seems used to humans and goes about its business just steps from visitors.
Here, you may have to walk around the alligators, who sometimes sun themselves with body parts extending onto the trail. In the first mile of the trail on a sunny winter day, you’re likely to count a dozens of alligators, plus myriad birds, often right next to the gators.
As the flow of water through the Everglades has been improved through a massive multi-year restoration project, wildlife in some places you reach from the Homestead entrance has diminished as the animals have spread out. That hasn’t happened at Shark Valley, where wildlife sightings have been stronger than ever in the 2023-24 winter.
Admission to Everglades National Park is $35 per car.
36000 SW 8th St.
Three manmade wetlands in Palm Beach County
Urban dwellers from Broward and Palm Beach County have the good fortune to have these wildlife hotspots so accessible to so many. Each is a boardwalk over a manmade wetlands system designed to filter treated wastewater. The water depth and vegetation is managed to create ideal conditions for wildlife. And they show their appreciation.
Located close to the Everglades in the western-most areas of Palm Beach County, each of these sites has become just as popular with birds and wildlife as with people.
My favorite is Wakodahatchee because dozens of wood storks (once a rare site in this area) build nests here in the spring on tree islands just yards off the boardwalk. The stork nests are joined by cormorants and great blue heron building nests. Observing the whole process over the winter to spring is a remarkable experience.
Green Cay Wetland, only minutes away, has a longer boardwalk and a bigger marsh, with bird life more spread out. But we’ve had some outstanding sightings here.
Wellington’s Peaceful Waters is not huge, but the birding can be tererific, with white pelicans soaring overhead and a flock of roseate spoonbills fishing the shallows as we gawked and snapped photos one winter day.
Admission to all three facilities is free.
13026 Jog Road
Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center
12800 Hagen Ranch Road
Wellington’s Peaceful Waters
11676 Pierson Road
Florida wildlife in Central Florida
Orlando Wetlands, 20 minutes off I-95
Orlando Wetlands Park is off the beaten track, but it’s a must-stop for birders and wildlife fans. It’s home to over 100 roseate spoonbills, 1,700 alligators and 200 species of bird. What’s even better: A half-mile boardwalk opened last year providing great views of nesting birds in a cypress island.
Orlando Wetlands is yet another example of a manmade wetlands that wildlife loves. The park has 18 water-filled cells filled with the necessary plants to create three ecological communities: deep marsh, mixed marsh and hardwood swamp.
Admission is free.
25155 Wheeler Road
Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland
If you don’t live near it, you probably don’t know about Circle B Bar Reserve, a Polk County park that is just as impressive as many of Florida’s state parks. (And Florida state parks are award-winners.)
It is especially terrific for birding from fall through spring, when nature photographers flock here to capture images of the huge white pelicans, pink spoonbills, leggy sandhill cranes, iconic bald eagles and dozens of other birds. It’s also famous for its alligator residents, who have been stars of YouTube videos.
It’s a former cattle ranch (thus its name ) and is located in Lakeland, midway between Orlando and Tampa.
Admission is free.
Circle B Bar Reserve
4399 Winter Lake Road
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville
This wildlife refuge is big, beautiful and full of birds. From bald eagles majestic in tall pine trees to friendly scrub jays only a few feet away, visiting here offers awe-inspiring experiences.
Blackpoint Wildlife Drive is the highlight of the refuge. It’s a 7.7 mile long, one-way one-lane dirt road through areas of the refuge where the water level is managed to benefit wildlife.
On winter weekends, it may be full of cars moving slowly and quietly. Cars work like “blinds” allowing visitors to see wildlife up close. When you get out, as people do where there are good views of birds in the wetlands, you are urged to move carefully and quietly without slamming car doors.
There are plenty of expert birders here. Several helped us spot and appreciate a few rarer species — the cinnamon teal and a northern pintail duck. For me, the exciting sight was the flock of hooded mergansers because of their preposterous Mohawk head feathers and ridiculous hoods.
Admission is $10 per car.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
1987 Scrub Jay Way #32782, Titusville, FL
Florida wildlife in North Florida
Paynes Prairie Preserve in Micanopy
This Gainesville area state park is home to some of the most unusual wildlife you’ll find in Florida — bison and wild horses. The preserve is 21,000 acres with no roads across it, accessible only from its southern or northern end.
The wild horses at Paynes Prairie are descendants of those brought to Florida by the Spanish. They grazed on flowers and grasses in and along the trail we hiked on our visit.
Because the bison’s range once extended this far southeast, 10 bison from Oklahoma were introduced here in 1975. Today, there’s a herd of 50 to 70. We were not lucky enough to see bison, but walking the trails they are said to frequent, we found other evidence – bison patties, I guess you’d call them.
But there’s even more wildlife here, including many birds. In some years, huge flocks of migrating sandhill cranes winter here, and are occasionally joined by a few rare whooping cranes.
This park is in an area with many natural and historic attractions that are worth exploring. There is also great hiking and camping here.
Admission is $6 per vehicle.
Paynes Prairie Preserve
100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667
Florida wildlife in Tampa Bay area
Myakka River State Park in Sarasota
Myakka is one of the oldest and biggest state parks, a great place for seeing wildlife, from huge gators to hundreds of birds in winter. On our March visit, we saw flocks of roseate spoonbills, frequent sightings of limpkins, storks and all sorts of wading birds.
At the Birdwalk, a boardwalk extending into Upper Myakka Lake, friendly expert birders volunteer on winter mornings, locating birds in their scopes and helping visitors identify them.
At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences. There are log cabins, appealing camp sites, excellent kayaking, extensive hiking and good bike trails. It’s also a good spot for nature neophytes, who enjoy the boat ride and canopy walk.
Admission is $6 per vehicle.
Myakka River State Park from Florida Rambler
13208 State Rd 72
Sarasota, FL 34241
Celery Fields in Sarasota
Outside Sarasota, just five minutes off I-75, a storm-water collection zone and former agricultural area has become an excellent habitat for birds and wildlife in the winter.
While the preserve is more than 300 acres, the most convenient place for wildlife viewing are the two boardwalk. One is on the south side of south side of Palmer Boulevard and the other on Raymond Road.
On a February day, we found lots to see from the boardwalk on Palmer Boulevard: roseate spoonbills, blue-winged teals, an alligator actively swimming through a group of birds. The longer we stayed, the more birds we spotted, and the friendly birders nearby were helpful in pointing out and identifying species. In the water, we saw fish (big tilapia, not a native species) and soft-shell turtles.
On the north side of Palmer Boulevard there are restrooms, water, picnic tables, more trails and fun-to-watch purple martin birdhouses.
The area was indeed used for growing celery from the 1920s until the county acquired it in 1995.
Admission is free.
More Florida wildlife hotspots
Have a favorite place? Please add it by making a comment. (Scroll to the bottom.)
There are other types of wildlife too.
Want to see manatees? We know just the spot: Where to see manatees in Florida waters: Try these 18 spots
Want to see fish and underwater creatures? Here are the best places to go snorkeling without a boat.
All articles on FloridaRambler.com are original, produced exclusively for our readers and protected by U.S. Copyright law. Any use or re-publication without written permission is against the law.
This page contains affiliate links from which Florida Rambler may earn a sall commission when a purchase is made. This revenue supports our mission to produce quality stories about Florida at no cost to you.
The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.