Florida Vacation: A Photographic Guide to Wildlife in the Tourist Paradise
The Companion Page to this Photographic Guide to Florida's Wildlife
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.
Each year, and throughout the 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 to the tourist. 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.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
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.
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. Where ever one goes in Florida, keep the eyes peeled and something exotic may be seen.
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.
There now follows 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 get 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 swinmming 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.
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 guide book 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).
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. However, I have many more and that is the reason why this particular group of Floridian birds form the basis of a companion page to this piece. (See above).
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.
What to Take With You - A Checklist
This is a brief list of all you require to add nature to the unforgettable experiences of a Florida vacation.
- 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.
- 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.
- Binoculars. You can't identify the birds if they are small dots in the distance.
- A 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.
- 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 tred.
Florida is a great place to visit for so many reasons. Many who travel here may see it as just a fun capital, 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, of colour and of intricate design.
Future articles in this short series will look at water birds, nature reserves on the Gulf Coast, and selected other photographs from my visits to Florida
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
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