11 Best Places to Spot Florida’s Iconic Wildlife

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We all know and love and head to America’s National Parks these days. However, many don’t realize that the National Wildlife Refuge System, which numbers more than 560 people, is an entirely separate entity from the US Department of the Interior, whose mission is to put wildlife first.

Florida’s 30 sanctuaries are home to some of the nation’s rarest, most beloved, and most important creatures. Although wildlife is a priority, most refuges also offer recreation to complement and facilitate wildlife viewing. Listed with their iconic wildlife, these 11 sites (listed in no particular order) take you straight to where the Sunshine State’s most charismatic creatures live. Note that in some cases the iconic creatures are nocturnal, protected or reclusive and not so easy to spot. You can, in any case, visit their habitat and often, if you are observant, find signs of their presence such as droppings, tracks, fur and feathers.

manatee at Crystal River (Photo credit: Thierry Eidenweil ​​/ Shutterstock.com)

1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: Manatees

I scratched the baby manatee with one hand (like all that is allowed) under his chin as he hung vertically in front of me in the clear waters of the spring. Then perhaps the sweetest moment of my entire life happened. He crossed his two fins on my forearm and hugged me to his chest, to his heart.

They are the teddy bears of the marine world. These gentle giants are known as sea cows or manatees. The 3,000 pound prehistoric creatures are actually more closely related to elephants and just as delicious. In Crystal River NWR, about an hour and a half north of Tampa, you can see them from above along the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk, but an immersive snorkeling experience with manatees is the ultimate. . The spring shuttle service operates during peak manatee season, from mid-November through late March, when marine mammals arrive from the Gulf of Mexico to warm up in the 72-degree Fahrenheit spring waters.

Pro Tip: A number of local charters offer regulated snorkeling trips during the season. I personally recommend Bird’s Underwater Dive Center.

Florida Key Deer in its natural habitat.
Florida Key Deer (Photo Credit: Arend Trent / Shutterstock.com)

2. Key Deer National Refuge: Key Deer

North of Key West on Big Pine Key, the National Key Deer Refuge was created specifically to protect its eponymous subspecies of tiny, endangered deer (about the size of a golden retriever), whose hunters had decimated the population in the 1940s. Leave the main roads to explore the secondary roads of the refuge, which will lead you to a blue hole, where alligators and waterfowl congregate, and the habitat of white-tailed deer the size of of Bambi, which is off the beaten track. Morning and evening are the best times to see them feeding.

Pro Tip: Truth be told, some of the best sightings are in local neighborhoods, where they munch on hibiscus and other garden delicacies. Be respectful and do not trespass on private property if you see one.

Roseate Spoonbills at JN "Ding" Darling NWR.
pinkish spatulas “Ding” darling (Photo credit: Chelle Walton)

3. JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: Roseate Spoonbill

Which bird is big and pink and eats with a spoon? Although often mistaken for flamingos, roseate spoonbills are more common in Florida, especially in Everglades habitat like that found at “Ding” Darling NWR on Sanibel Island – one of the hotspots for coastal bird species. Although most prevalent during the migration months of fall through spring, spoonbills hang out in these areas year-round, but tend to move away from the spotlight in summer. At “Ding” Darling, you can usually and easily spot them from Wildlife Drive, on hiking trails, and on a kayaking trip.

Pro Tip: Ask at the free Visitor and Education Center, the fee booth at Wildlife Drive, or the rovers that volunteer along the ride. Word spreads quickly about Spoonbill sightings, and anyone on the hotline can tell you.

Monarch butterfly in front of St. Mark's Lighthouse in Tallahassee, FL for monarch migration.
monarch butterfly in front of St. Mark’s Lighthouse (Photo credit: Tawny Martinez / Shutterstock.com)

4. Saint-Marc National Wildlife Refuge: Monarch Butterflies

October brings a different blaze of orange and yellow to St. Marks NWR, near Tallahassee on the Florida Panhandle. Namely, monarch butterflies. They gather in thick, winged, breathtaking flocks that make the trees and even the refuge’s historic lighthouse seem to come to life as butterflies cover them all. St. Mark’s, perched on the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, is also known for other varieties of butterflies as well as the red cockade woodpecker which it helped save from extinction.

5. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge: Sea Turtles

A quarter of the world’s loggerhead sea turtle population and a third of its green sea turtles nest at Archie Carr NWR near Melbourne, named after an early endangered sea turtle champion.

The high season runs from June to October. In June and July, the turtles work on the same beaches where they were born to dig nests and lay a hundred eggs the size of ping-pong balls. State-regulated sea turtle walks allow participants to responsibly observe the comforting nesting process.

In August and September comes my favorite part – hatching season – when the adorable, comical babies emerge from the nest and scurry across the beach to the sea. The shelter’s group of friends conduct digs during these months to save hatchlings that did not survive and to educate program participants about turtle survival rates, lifestyles and conservation.

American alligator, Merritt Island.
American alligator at Merritt Island NWR (Photo credit: Chelle Walton)

6. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Alligators

This gigantic 140,000-acre refuge is home to more than 500 species of animals, including a variety of rare Florida creatures such as manatees and Florida scrub jays. You can find alligators in many areas of Merritt Island NWR, near Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center. Look along Wildlife Drive or one of its six hiking trails.

Pro Tip: Alligators stay immersed in cold temperatures and are more likely to be seen basking in the sun in the spring and fall. It goes without saying: keep your distance.

USA, Florida, Herd of crocodiles enjoying the sun in everglades national park.
crocodiles at Everglades National Park (Photo credit: Simon Dux Media / Shutterstock.com)

7. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Crocodiles

Alligators may be plentiful in Florida, but the Everglades Territory is the only place to find the American Crocodile, a saltwater species. They nest in Crocodile Lake NWR, headquartered in Key Largo. In adjacent local waters, their pointed snouts (distinguishing them from alligators with their more rounded front bumpers) can be seen floating like logs in the water, or perched on the banks with their mouths wide open to thermoregulate.

Pro Tip: For the protection of these endangered creatures, no public access is available except for a butterfly garden. A safe place to spot crocodiles in the water is Alabama Jacks, a popular and trendy waterfront restaurant north of Key Largo.

The red wolf or Florida wolf, an endangered species, belongs to the Canidae family and is native to the southeastern United States, with a reddish-brown color to its fur.
Florida Red Wolf (Photo credit: Next is nicer-K-R7 / Shutterstock.com)

8. St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge: Red Wolves

An island in the panhandle accessible only by boat, St. Vincent NWR has been breeding red wolves since 1990 to help replenish endangered populations in the southeastern United States. One breeding pair and no more than two subsequent annual litters roam freely on the island, equipped with radio telemetry collars to allow refuge staff to track them. Visitors more often hear than see the shy and reclusive wolves.

Pro Tip: Check with the nearby Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce for vendors who will provide boating services to visitors to and from the island hideaway for a fee.

Florida Panther walks through tall grass.
Florida panther (Photo credit: jo Crebbin / Shutterstock.com)

9. Florida Panthers National Wildlife Refuge: Florida Panthers

Critically endangered and requiring a long range of territories, Florida panthers benefit from the Florida Panther NWR for its vast expanses of wilderness (26,400 acres southeast of Naples connecting to other refuge lands), the research, population recovery and education. Sightings are rare because cats, the most endangered mammals in the eastern United States, are nocturnal. Two paths allow visitors to access the refuge. On the longer 1.3 mile trail, you are more likely to find panther tracks, as well as deer and black bears.

Pro Tip: Watch the shelter’s website for news of on- and off-site educational events, including an open house in March and a panther festival in November.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) in flight at Sanibel Island, Florida.
brown pelican (Photo credit: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com)

10. Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge: Brown Pelicans

America’s first National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1903 near Vero Beach during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. For its 100th anniversary, the government built the Centennial Trail with an observation tower overlooking the Indian River Lagoon and a boardwalk that commemorates each of the refuges that existed at the time. Pelican Island NWR takes its name from its iconic Flamboyant Bird which the sanctuary was created to protect from egg hunters and poachers. However, over 140 species of birds use the 5.5 acre colony island for roosting, nesting and feeding.

11. Arthur R. Marshall-Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: Swamp Kite

In eastern Palm Beach County, the kite population of Loxahatchee NWR is at risk of extinction as its main food source – the apple snail – is disappearing from its Everglades habitat. In the more than 145,000 acres of swamps and marshes, endangered raptors find their ideal habitat. Over 250 species of birds join in calling “Lox” their home. Keep an eye out to improve your life list of birders on nearly 80 km of trails for hiking, biking and paddling.

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