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Florida Wildlife: A Photographic Guide

The author has travelled extensively and writes illustrated articles about his experiences, with advice on must-see sights.

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Destination Florida

Every year millions upon millions of men, women and children pack their bags, lock up their houses, and head off into the skies in jet airliners, enticed by the thought of sun and fun. And they are all heading for the same place on Earth, all converging on one state in the nation of America, the state which has been described as the vacation capital of the world. And the object of the collective desire which drives this mass migration?... A cartoon mouse.

Well, of course it's not just Mickey Mouse. Today the state of Florida has much more than Disney World to offer: Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Cypress Gardens and any number of other theme parks. There are also coastal resorts, great golf courses, and the Cape Canaveral Space Centre.

But whatever your reasons for flying to Florida, and whatever celebrated human and man-made attractions you visit, most of us like a bit of tranquility and a bit of natural beauty, and these are facets of Florida which can add significantly to your enjoyment of time spent in the state. It is easy to forget that this sophisticated tourist haven, is also a subtropical haven for wildlife. This page is written to encourage anyone who visits the State of Florida to take time out from the creations of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Walt Disney, to see the more natural creations which are so easy to find, and which make this place such a rewarding vacation destination.

Please note: all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops.

Merritt Island on the Atlantic coast. This saltwater, marsh and scrub wildlife refuge lies just 5 miles across the bay from Cape Canaveral, home of the space centre

Merritt Island on the Atlantic coast. This saltwater, marsh and scrub wildlife refuge lies just 5 miles across the bay from Cape Canaveral, home of the space centre

Palm fronds on Caladesi Island. Green vegetation attracts wildlife. And green vegetation in the hot subtropics attracts the most wildlife of all

Palm fronds on Caladesi Island. Green vegetation attracts wildlife. And green vegetation in the hot subtropics attracts the most wildlife of all

Photography Note

All photographs on this page were taken by the author in the state of Florida. They were taken during the course of five short vacations in the state with amateur equipment. These were not wildlife photography themed vacations - they were trips in which a little time out was taken from normal tourist life to visit the places where wildlife lives.

Florida Environments

The natural history of Florida - and particularly the natural history likely to be encountered by the casual visitor - owes a great deal to its geographical location as a peninsula state in the south-east of the country. Three aspects of this are key to the wildlife which is found here:

  • First, the state is surrounded by water on almost all sides - the Gulf of Mexico to the west, the Straits of Florida to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
  • Second, the land throughout is low lying - the highest point of land is only 345ft (105m) above sea level.
  • Third, the state lies close to the Tropic of Cancer, and is prone to humid subtropical weather, rain-laden winds in the hurricane season, and torrential downpours during the spring and summer months.

The consequence of these factors is that this one-time swampish hell first encountered by the conquistadors in the 16th century is a land in which water is a key wildlife habitat, not only on the 1000 mile coastline, but also inland. Florida is a land of more than 7000 large lakes, more than 11,000 miles of waterways, and home to the great Everglades National Park.

This may seem like a rather simplistic overview, but for the tourist visiting Florida, these are the environments which are most likely to yield the most sightings of wildlife - the beaches, the islands of the Florida keys, the lakes and rivers and the wetlands. They are not, however, the only places. There are animals to be seen in recreational parks, on golf courses, in residential gardens, and even in the well-known Florida theme parks. Wherever one goes in Florida, keep your eyes peeled and something exotic may be seen.

Palm trees form a backdrop to the grasslands near Bayport, Hernando County

Palm trees form a backdrop to the grasslands near Bayport, Hernando County

A long causeway leads out to Fred H Howard Park and its pleasure beaches. Along the sides of this causeway, one can stop the car and walk and watch the many varieties of shore bird at close quarter

A long causeway leads out to Fred H Howard Park and its pleasure beaches. Along the sides of this causeway, one can stop the car and walk and watch the many varieties of shore bird at close quarter

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Driving Along the Roads

Whilst I would never suggest taking your eyes off the road, any journey between cities, towns and theme parks in Florida opens up all kinds of possibilities for the alert tourist. Birds on the ground, birds in the sky, the occasional mammal or tortoise risking life and limb as they dash across the road. There is much to see and enjoy. Most prominent will be large birds - the vultures soaring high in the sky, hawks and storks in the trees, and if you're lucky, sandhill cranes in the fields. And when driving, keep an eye open for likely wildlife habitats and stop if you can. Travel a few miles down the side roads. Walk along the riversides. Wander on the beaches.

Below is a selection of photos of some of the creatures you are most likely to encounter if you spend time in Florida, visit the right places, and open your eyes.

Anisomorpha buprestoides, the two-striped stick insect (walking stick). I keep stick insects as a hobby, so it was a delight to find this species in Port Richey.

Anisomorpha buprestoides, the two-striped stick insect (walking stick). I keep stick insects as a hobby, so it was a delight to find this species in Port Richey.

Syntomeida epilais, the Oleander Moth caterpillar, which - as the name suggests - feeds on leaves of Oleander plants. This was seen in a residential garden

Syntomeida epilais, the Oleander Moth caterpillar, which - as the name suggests - feeds on leaves of Oleander plants. This was seen in a residential garden

The Insect World

Insects are of course among the most numerous of creatures likely to be seen on any visit to the nature parks of Florida. Many human beings feel the need to avoid insects. But whilst even I can see a case for avoiding mosquitoes, the majority of insects are inoffensive, and many of Florida's species are intriguing to watch, and some are beautiful - most notably, of course, the butterflies. If you have the equipment, they make great subjects for photography.

Among the most attractive butterflies are the large winged swallowtails and the narrow-winged heliconids such as the familiar black and yellow striped Zebra Longwing. My advice for any interested visitor is to get hold of a simple guide to the more common and colourful species of insect which can be found here. Identifying these will add interest to anyone's vacation.

Southeastern Lubber Grasshoppers - beautiful residents of Florida

Southeastern Lubber Grasshoppers - beautiful residents of Florida

A Golden Silk Orb-Weaver clings to its web with the remains of some of its victims. These large and attractive spiders are among the most prominent of the invertebrates to be found in Florida

A Golden Silk Orb-Weaver clings to its web with the remains of some of its victims. These large and attractive spiders are among the most prominent of the invertebrates to be found in Florida

Orb Weaver Spiders

Anyone travelling along the back roads of Florida will sooner or later come across the huge and impressive silk webs of the orb weaver spiders. These webs are sometimes so big they will actually stretch across a two-lane road from trees on one side to trees on the other. Even from the car, the spider at the heart of these webs will often be clearly visible, because the spider - as befits the web - is also often pretty big. They are also very colourful, as can be seen in the two images here.

The spiders of course tend to stay put in their webs and will usually allow a close approach so photography is relatively easy, so long as you have the ability to take close-ups. Even if you don't, the orb weavers are well worth seeing, as they are some of Florida's most distinctive creatures.

Argiope aurantia - The Black and Yellow Argiope - a beautiful Floridian spider

Argiope aurantia - The Black and Yellow Argiope - a beautiful Floridian spider

A small tree frog poses for me

A small tree frog poses for me

Floridian Amphibians

Florida is a state with a warm and humid climate, and that makes it a paradise for frogs and salamanders. Many of these are colourful creatures worth seeking out at night when they are most active. The frog illustrated here was seen in the Jay B Starkey Wilderness Park close to New Port Richey on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

A gopher tortoise, photographed in Boyd Hill Nature Park

A gopher tortoise, photographed in Boyd Hill Nature Park

An Anole lizard in a garden in Port Richey. Anoles are quite easy to find, but not quite so easy to photograph

An Anole lizard in a garden in Port Richey. Anoles are quite easy to find, but not quite so easy to photograph

Reptiles of Florida

Not everybody's favourite animals, but reptiles - crocodiles, snakes and lizards, tortoises and turtles - are fascinating creatures to watch, and Florida has more than its fair share. Lizards such as the anole abound in gardens and parks, and are easy to see. If you are lucky (yes, I do mean lucky), you may see one of Florida's 50 species of snakes. Of course one has to air a note of caution to be wary of getting too close to a snake, as some - a tiny minority - are very poisonous, but snakes by nature will keep out of your way, given half a chance. Visit any of the state parks and wild areas and one is also likely to see one of Florida's numerous species of tortoise or terrapin. It's not unusual for box turtles and gopher tortoises to cross the path as you walk along a nature trail.

A Floridian diamond back terrapin. This is one of just two photos on this page which was not taken under natural conditions - the photo was taken at the Florida Aquarium

A Floridian diamond back terrapin. This is one of just two photos on this page which was not taken under natural conditions - the photo was taken at the Florida Aquarium

Snake in the grass. Not all Florida's wildlife lives in the wild - this was photographed in a residential garden. As far as I am aware, this was a harmless species?

Snake in the grass. Not all Florida's wildlife lives in the wild - this was photographed in a residential garden. As far as I am aware, this was a harmless species?

Alligators

Florida must be one of the very few ultra sophisticated 21st century localities, where ordinary people in their own houses with their swimming pools and gardens, motor cars and shopping malls, live in close proximity to a genuinely very big and potentially dangerous animal, the American Alligator. There are over a million of these reptiles in Florida alone. Most live well away from towns and cities in wild areas, but smaller individuals may be found in community lakes and ponds (once they get too big, they may be removed by the authorities).

Alligators aren't much of a problem as long as humans are sensible, don't feed them, and don't go swimming in alligator pools! There are one or two fatalities most years in the state, but alligators will normally steer clear of humans if they possibly can.

The American Alligator - perhaps the best known of all Floridian residents

The American Alligator - perhaps the best known of all Floridian residents

A bathing bird makes a splash in a puddle in one of the Orlando theme parks. Water attracts land birds in need of a clean up and a cool down

A bathing bird makes a splash in a puddle in one of the Orlando theme parks. Water attracts land birds in need of a clean up and a cool down

A cormorant spreads its wings and goes for a paddle on the shoreline at Howard Park. These are among the most visible of all the water birds

A cormorant spreads its wings and goes for a paddle on the shoreline at Howard Park. These are among the most visible of all the water birds

Birdlife in the State

As in most parts of the world, it is the bird life which is most apparent and most welcome to the majority of tourists in Florida. Most cannot be easily approached, but some birds in domestic surroundings and in the very public theme parks will come close as they become so used to the human presence around them.

Every visitor who spends more than a few days here can easily see dozens of species. Anybody with a keen eye, a pair of binoculars, a guidebook and the desire to seek out a few natural places will see and identify a lot more. The bird book is something I almost always carry with me wherever I go on holiday, because birds are always clearly visible, and - even if one is not particularly interested in wildlife - bird spotting will add something extra to any vacation (and may give children something to do on a long drive).

A limpkin - a large wading bird - fishes for snails at Cypress Gardens

A limpkin - a large wading bird - fishes for snails at Cypress Gardens

The brown pelican - one of the easiest of Floridian birds to photograph

The brown pelican - one of the easiest of Floridian birds to photograph

Water Birds

Unsurprisingly in Florida, water birds are many in number, large and easy to see, and often quite tame and approachable because mankind - like the water birds - tend to frequent the seaside, the rivers and lakes, so a familiarity develops. Birds also know that where tourists and fishermen are, there may also be food coming their way. For anyone with a love of birds, a visit to water-plentiful Florida, will be a rewarding experience.

During my visits to Florida, more than half of all wildlife photos taken were of water birds, including pelicans, gulls and waders, herons and cormorants, and distributed throughout this article are a few selected photos of these.

A marsh rabbit feeding on a coastal patch of grass near Port Richey

A marsh rabbit feeding on a coastal patch of grass near Port Richey

The raccoon - perhaps the largest mammal the casual visitor is likely to see

The raccoon - perhaps the largest mammal the casual visitor is likely to see

The Mammals

Mammals, sadly, are not the wildlife most likely to be encountered by the casual tourist though squirrels, rabbits and raccoons are commonly seen on the roadside. Off the coast of Florida you may well be fortunate enough to see wild dolphins. Unfortunately, the most likely way to see other wild mammals - as in many parts of the world today - is in the form of roadkill.

Two raccoons venture out of the scrub on Honeymoon Island. To some Americans these are considered pests - to a foreign tourist, they are delightfully exotic

Two raccoons venture out of the scrub on Honeymoon Island. To some Americans these are considered pests - to a foreign tourist, they are delightfully exotic

I couldn't resist this signpost by a lakeside in Boyd Hill. With the 'Do not Feed or Molest' warning in place, is the 'No Swimming' warning really necessary?

I couldn't resist this signpost by a lakeside in Boyd Hill. With the 'Do not Feed or Molest' warning in place, is the 'No Swimming' warning really necessary?

Checklist: What to Take With You

This is a brief list of all you require to add nature to the unforgettable experiences of a Florida vacation.

  1. A map. You may not need one for getting to the theme parks, but if you are self-driving, a good map which shows the beach roads and the parks will be invaluable to find the best nature sites.
  2. Nature books. A bird book would be essential. Interest is a hundred times greater if you can put a name to the birds you see. If you're really enthusiastic, then a book or a quick guide to the reptiles or the more common insects and invertebrates may be useful.
  3. Binoculars. You can't identify the birds if they are small dots in the distance.
  4. Camera and lenses. If photography is your thing, then clearly a good camera with telephoto lenses or zooms (for birds) and close-up focusing or macro lenses (for insects) is a must to preserve the memory and the images you see.
  5. Precautionary supplies. The 'wilds' of Florida are relatively tame, but any venturing off the beaten track inevitably may require some precautions - insect repellant (even I don't want to see mosquitoes), first aid, basic supplies such as bottled water, and some common sense about where you go and where you tread.
Reflections of Floridian wildlife

Reflections of Floridian wildlife

Even in Orlando's renouned theme parks, there is wildlife to be seen. This egret was making use of the water attractions in SeaWorld

Even in Orlando's renouned theme parks, there is wildlife to be seen. This egret was making use of the water attractions in SeaWorld

Florida: So Much to Offer

Florida is a great place to visit for so many reasons. Many who travel here may see it as just a fun destination, as a children's paradise, as a place of leisure and recreation. It is, of course, also a state in the subtropics, and as such Florida offers much which has existed long before mankind ever set foot in these parts. The advice on this page is not for dedicated naturalists or photographers - it's for ordinary travellers who like nature. Taking a few days, or even a few hours, out of your vacation schedule to appreciate these natural sights will enrich your stay with memories of beauty, colour, and intricate design.

The laughing gull - one of the most common species of gull - at Howard Park

The laughing gull - one of the most common species of gull - at Howard Park

Anole lizard

Anole lizard

Photograph Locations

Photographs on this page were taken in the following natural locations:

Brevard County - Merritt Island

Levy County - Cedar Key

Hernando County - Bayport

Pasco County - Green Key, Hudson Bay, Jay B Starkey Park

Pinellas County - Boyd Hill, Fred H Howard Park, Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

Sarasota County - Myakka Park

Also SeaWorld (Orange Cty), Silver Springs (Marion Cty), Homosassa (Citrus Cty), Cypress Gardens (Polk Cty), Port Richey, and the Everglades National Park

An egret at sunset stands quietly in the water, oblivious to the comings and goings of the tourists. The end of another day for the wildlife of Florida

An egret at sunset stands quietly in the water, oblivious to the comings and goings of the tourists. The end of another day for the wildlife of Florida

The Companion Page to this Photographic Guide to Florida's Wildlife

Florida Vacation; A Photographic Guide to the Water Birds in the Tourist Paradise

In this page I look at one particular aspect of wildlife in Florida - the wildlife which will be most conspicuous, most appealing and easiest to photograph for the majority of visitors. Florida has more than its fair share of water birds, and in this page I feature the most common, and most readily identified. Visiting the lakes, the wetlands and the coasts to see these birds will undoubtably enrich any visit to the Sunshine State.

References

© 2012 Greensleeves Hubs

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