On the trail to find Florida’s rare wildlife…
Dana Benner takes us to the Florida Keys region – in search of its rare and elusive wildlife. 2 out of 3 sightings ain’t bad.
Florida is a great place. Among the beaches and resorts is a vast natural ecosystem. My goal during this visit was to spot and hopefully photograph three rare animals: the Florida Key deer, Florida panther, and the manatee. I was successful with two of the three.
My first stop was the National Key Deer Refuge located on Big Pine Key. While the main attraction and purpose, is the Endangered Florida Key deer and its protection (there are only about 800 left in the wild), like all National Refuges, the protection of the environment as a whole, is equally important. Despite the human population growth in the Keys, they are doing a very good job.
The Florida Key deer is a sub-species of white-tail deer and they display the same habits of their larger cousins back on the mainland. Like deer everywhere, Key deer are best observed in the early morning and late in the afternoon, but even then they can be hard to spot, especially in the dense cover of the refuge. Happily, I was able to find and photograph three of these elusive animals. I give credit to a huge amount of luck.
The refuge offers so much more than just deer. It shows how the entire ecosystem works together with each other, with each part being equally important. I parked the car and started hiking the trails. I came to a freshwater pond where I heard an alligator calling. It wasn’t long before an alligator emerged. Along with the alligators, this pond was home to numerous turtles and birds. As I continued my hike I came upon a Black racer sitting contently in the leaf litter. Other than the deer, this snake was the highlight of my visit.
Leaving the Keys my next stop was the Gulf Coast near Naples. Here I hoped to see both the manatee and the Florida panther. The Florida manatee, which until recently was listed as endangered, is now considered threatened – it has few predators or threats apart from humans. It is estimated that there are about 5,076 animals living in the wild.
On the other hand, the Florida panther, a sub-species of the cougar, is in much more trouble. There are only 80-100 panthers still in the wild in Florida making it one of the most rare and endangered mammals in the world.
My search started with Captain Kent of Manatee Sightseeing Eco-Tourism Adventures. Captain Kent took me out into the canals and waterways of Port of the Islands, a place that the manatees call home. This trip was amazing. Within the first 15 minutes we had seen at least three manatees. As we motored our way through the different canals we came upon a small group of Bottlenose dolphins herding and feeding on fish found in the brackish water of the canals. Captain Kent informed me that we were only about seven miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Other animals seen along the way included a Red-shouldered hawk, an alligator, an osprey and many different wading birds.
My second adventure to search for the Florida panther was a visit to the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Blair Center. The sanctuary covers 13,000 acres, with a 2.25 mile boardwalk that allows the visitor to experience the different environments that make up this unique place. The wildlife seen here changes all of the time. When I arrived there were numerous reports of water moccasin sightings and while I knew they were there, I never saw any during my visit.
Corkscrew Swamp is also known as Florida panther territory and this animal was the one I wanted to see today. As it turned out I never did see a panther that day sadly. However, what I did see were numerous non-venomous snakes, frogs, turtles and birds of all sorts. The sanctuary is also home to white-tailed deer and alligators, but I didn’t see them on this visit – maybe next time.
WORDS & IMAGES: DANA BENNER
Dana Benner has been writing about all aspects of the outdoors for over 30 years with his work appearing in both regional and national publications in the U.S. He holds a M.Ed. in Heritage Studies and teaches Sociology, History and Political Science at the university level. Dana is based in the USA and is a regular guest writer for Our Planet Travel.
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