There are a lot of things I love about winter in Florida, but high on the list is spotting the wonderful variety of wildlife here.
Of course, 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 trying. Here are some of my favorite widlife sites in Florida.
White pelicans, various locations around Charlotte Harbor and elsewhere
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 9 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.
While not common, 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. A good place to try is the boat dock at The Fishery restaurant, 13000 Fishery Rd., Placida, or the nearby fishing pier.
Boat tours run by the King Fisher Fleet out of Punta Gorda — www.kingfisherfleet.com – often provide good views of white pelicans. King Fisher Fleet recommends their half-day Burnt Store boat tour, where white pelicans often lounge on a sandbar, or the all-day tour to Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa, and Boca Grande.
You can also see 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.
Otters, Rainbow River, Dunedin
Of all the animals listed here, you probably have the worst odds of seeing the otters of the Rainbow River.
No question, they’re there. 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.
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, 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.
Crocodiles in Everglades National Park, Homestead
You should head to Everglades National Park to see all sorts of wildlife, 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.
Flamingo has re-opened after serious damage during Hurricane Irma, although as of late January, boat tours have not resumed and the campground is closed, said Everglades National Park Public Information Officer Denese Canedo.
You can see crocodiles elsewhere in the park. I’ve also seen a 15-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 seemed like regular.)
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.
Manatees, Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
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.
You can see manatees in all sorts of Florida locations, but springs offer the besting viewing because of the clarity of the water. (At non-spring locations, all you see is a nose, a back and perhaps a tale before the manatee sinks out of view.)
Blue Springs has a walkway that provides lots of vantage points along the spring run and the overall setting is beautiful year round.
Blue Spring also provides a variety of outdoor recreation — there is a 3.6-mile nature trail through pine flatwoods and you can rent kayaks to paddle the St. Johns River, into which the spring flows. Kayaking here is beautiful, with many birds and gators as well as opportunities for manatees to be swimming by as they enter and leave the spring.
There are also boat tours on the St. Johns, camping, outstanding cabins to rent (though they book up far in advance) and you can tour the 1872 Thursby House, once an inn for steamboat passengers traveling on the river.
Your best bet at seeing manatees is if the weather is cool. Here’s a view of what’s going on in the spring on the manatee cam. http://www.savethemanatee.org/savethemanateecam.html
Be aware that at times the park closes its gates when it reaches capacity. One year when that happened to us, we came back 45 minutes before closing time and managed to gain admission and see an incredible gathering of manatees. If possible, go on a weekday or arrive early.
Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Ave.
Orange City, FL 32763
Wild horses and bison, Paynes Prairie Preserve, Gainesville
The most surprising wild animals you have a good chance of seeing in Florida 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.
Here are two other good stops on your Florida wildlife safari:
It’s easy to book a dolphin-viewing cruise at various marinas around the state. We’ve had a good experience at the Fort Pierce marina seeing dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon and on boats out of Naples.
One of my favorite stops in the Florida Keys is Robbie’s Marina, 77522 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, where you pay $1 to go out on the dock to see sleek silvery tarpon, some longer than you are tall, waiting to be fed. For $3, you can buy a bucket of fish and watch them leap and compete for them. Florida Rambler on Robbie’s Marina.