Florida Critters

Critters out in the wild depend on plants just like we depend on a well-stocked pantry and a tall stack of pillows to provide rest and comfort when we’re maybe not feeling our best.

Animals both large and small, though, can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look, and there’s also a tendency to be ungrateful for the unseen. So let’s take a moment and show them some gratitude.

Florida’s four-leaf clover

Green Anole Lizards

If a Green Anole crosses your path, you’ll have good luck for the rest of the day. I don’t know if that’s a real Florida-ism, but it oughta be, so we’re gonna make it one.

Like most lizards, they are crazy territorial. That means if you see one on your back porch, chances are it’ll still be on your back porch 9 months from now. You can recognize the females by the white stripe they have running down their back.

These vivid reptiles embody the Florida spirit: unlike their brown Cuban cousins, they are remarkably chill. They almost don’t mind being caught, but they’ll turn brown after being caught. The really just want to sit around all day and relax, and I have the utmost respect for that.

Bunny Bunny Swamp

Eastern Cottontail

I always keep an eye open for swamp bunnies while winding my way past the lakefront. On cloudy mornings, it’s normal to see whole bunny families cautiously munching the grass.

These little fellows love to make their burrows in dense cover near water. I’m impressed by their ability to live at the intersection of cat territory and gator territory; surely it’s their quick legs and sharp wits that keep them safe in the swamp.

Jungle Ghost cats

The Florida Panther

Of all the animals on this list, the Florida Panther has suffered the most from the settling of Florida. At one time, as many as 3,000 of these big cats roamed the Southeast. Early pioneers to the Floridian peninsula waged an extermination campaign against the panther. Over the last hundred years, the panthers have battled their way back from the brink of extinction more than once.

In 2022, Florida conservationists released Path of the Panther, a documentary that captured Florida Panthers in the travels through the trackless jungle of Southwest Florida. Photographer Carlton Ward Jr. was able to get incredible footage of panthers by taking educated guesses on where to place his camera traps. Ward had to contend with more than his fair share of adversity, from inquisitive animals knocking over the cameras, to Hurricane Ian, which knocked out a number of camera boxes entirely. But the hard work paid off, and we are rewarded with a front-row seat to some of this elusive cat’s secrets.

For me, the Florida Panther embodies Florida’s own story of sorrow. We’ve lost so much of what used to be Florida, and we’re losing more all the time. Will the path of progress plow through the last parts of Old Florida like how South Florida motorists make roadkill out of the panthers? There is so much to treasure about the Florida way of life; but we must protect it, or else it will all turn to dust.

Milkweed munchings galore

Monarch Butterflies

The humble Monarch is a remarkable species. Often called “America’s Butterfly,” these iconic insects are one of the few migratory butterflies. They travel across North America, ranging as far north as Canada and as far south as the mountains of Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of Monarchs hibernate together in the tall trees found along their route.

Even more interesting, not every generation of Monarchs migrate! It’s only about every fourth or fifth generation that makes the transatlantic trek, and these butterflies are noticeably bigger and stronger than their ancestors. Perhaps that explains why Monarch caterpillars have such large appetites. I have not yet discovered how much milkweed is “enough,” but I’m game to keep adding to it until I do.

speedy snakes

Black Racers

The Black Racer is a small and goofy snake. Most snakes are pretty goofy, when you look past the fangs, but the Black Racer excels in this area. Perhaps it’s because they’re easily recognizable as “not a threat to my life” that makes them feel comfortable around humans.

I once had one follow me across the yard as I mowed. Back and forth I’d go on the push mower, and every time I went down and back, the snake would move over a lane. He kept on poking his head up to check where I was like a little periscope, which was amusing to watch.

If you’ve got a Black Racer in your yard, then you’ve stepped up from a simple insect habitat into the small reptile tier, so good job! You’ve given this snake a place where they feel safe and where they can find enough food to survive.

Friendly Sand Birds

Scrub Jays

I have not yet seen a Scrub Jay in my life, but it’s on the bucket list. They are noted for being small and friendly birds that like to live in the dry scrub habitat that stretches through Central Florida. If you’re not familiar with “the scrub,” think: white sand a long ways away from the beach, saw palmettos and pine trees, dry and hot.

Scrub Jays that get bird seed from people tend to reproduce earlier in the year, but their fledglings need caterpillars that are only present in late summer and fall. So if you are lucky enough to have a Scrub Jay visit your place, try to feed them around their normal nesting time.

As the scrub habitat has dwindled over the years, so have Scrub Jay populations; they need the scrub-specific acorns, nuts and berries to survive. On the bright side, there’s an effort out there to christen the Florida Scrub Jay as the state bird. If we all sign the petition, maybe it’ll help bring more conservation efforts to this friendly little bird.

Grass Gobblers

Wild Turkeys

We live with a cow pasture in our backyard, so it’s not unusual to see wildlife passing through. I’ll never forget the time a whole turkey family showed up: the grass was long, the sun was low in the sky, and we could count 17 little turkey heads bobbing up and down in the distance. They came in all sizes, from full-grown adults to little baby poults.

Mark Twain once remarked on the cautious nature of the American turkey, and he was quite right. These birds live in a neighborhood with a lot of predators, like opossums, coyotes, and racoons. It takes between 12-18 wild turkey poults to get just 1 adult male gobbler. If you happen to see them on their travels, cheer them on, won’t you? They’re doing hard work, and I admire them for it.

swamp dinosaurs

Alligators

I keep hearing stories in the news these days like “man swimming in lake loses arm to alligator,” and my only reaction is yeaahh, they’ll do that. Everybody know God gave Floridians the beach so we wouldn’t have to swim in the lakes. The alligators have owned the lakes for thousands of years. Best to leave them to it.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Commission plays of never-ending game of cat and mouse with these overgrown lizards. They’ll go and drag a gator outta one lake, plop him down into some other lake, and then, under the cover of darkness, the gators go scampering around to whatever lake they want. I recall a professor from University of Florida told us stories about how the gators of Payne’s Prairie used to try and play a frantic game of Frogger on I-75 at night, before they put in wildlife tunnels under the interstate.

shiny silver wings

Gulf Fritillary

The Gulf Fritillary butterfly is the butterfly equivalent of “The Rainbow Fish.” Pictures can’t really do it justice; once you see it in person, you’ll be able to appreciate the silvery metallic spots on its wings.

The caterpillar is orange and spiky, and hosts on native passionvines. Like their Monarch cousins, they can chomp down on quite a bit of foliage, so plan accordingly. They make funny-looking cocoons that look exactly like brown crinkled-up leaves. I hosted a couple one time to learn more about them, and the oddest thing about the was how the cocoon would move throughout the day. Instead of hanging straight down, they stick out at odd angles, and adjust over time.

Floating on the tide

West Indian Manatees

In my research for this page, I discovered I’ve been living under the mistaken belief that Manatees live only in Florida waters. In reality, the West Indian Manatee ranges all across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Being able to switch from fresh water to salt water is a big advantage in that department.

When I was a kid, the conservation push for Manatees was “please stop running over the Manatees with your boats.” Fortunately, it seems we’ve all got that one down pat, meaning we can move on to the next one: red tide.

Red tide is a menace. It ruins everybody’s time at the beach, and that goes for you, me, manatees, that seagull that just ate half of your hotdog, everybody. This algae is like The Blob, vast, deadly, seemingly unstoppable. The Florida Man approach to solving this would involve jet skis and weedwhackers. Here’s to hoping we figure it out before another summer at the beach (and countless marine life) is put in peril.

On the other hand, one plant our Manatees do love is the mangrove. Nothing puts the “barrier” in “barrier island” like a mangrove grove. These dense, dark green ocean trees have huge root systems built up in the shallows. Not only do they make a good snack, but those same roots provide shelter and a place to raise their young.

Florida’s Ostritch

Sandhill Cranes

Now here is a bird that is Federally-Protected, and everybody swears that they know they’re Federally-Protected. They strut haughtily like they own the ground they walk upon. For a bird that walks a bunch, it might surprise you to learn that they do indeed fly at times. You’ll know they’re flying because a) they’re in the air and b) they yell their dang heads off while they’re at it.

You’ll usually see either pairs or quads of Sandhill Cranes when they’re out and about; they mate for life, so if there’s more than 2, you’re probably looking at 2 adults and their children. Count your lucky stars if you live near Sandhill Crane nesting grounds; getting to see the fluffy yellow “colts” grow up from nestling to full-grown is a sweet experience.

loves the sand more than us

Gopher Tortoises

The Gopher Tortoise is rarely seen in my natural environment (i.e., my front yard), but it’s worth braving the wilds to see them in person. The Gopher Tortoise, as I’ve learned thanks to Wikipedia, is a keystone species: the burrows it digs provide shelter to at least 360 other animal species. First and foremost among those, I’m guessing, is the gopher frog, which is just a hilarious mental picture; Gopher Tortoise goes and digs the hole, and Gopher Frog is, like, right alongside, helping, or something? Digging air vents and putting up brace poles as Tortoise chugs along? I don’t know, but I know I need some Nat Geo footage of this relationship.

Like everybody else here, the Gopher Tortoise relies on a specific ecosystem to survive. For them, it’s the longleaf pine flatwoods. One of Florida’s most stately trees, longleaf pines grow up to 120 feet tall and can live for several centuries in this part of the world. Conserving these forests would provide the natural habitats gopher tortoises need.