A Wild Florida Trip

Recently, I went to Florida with my boyfriend, and we decided to visit as much as Florida as we possibly could in the short time we were there. When I say ‘visit Florida’, I mean see as much of Florida’s wildlife as we could.

My boyfriend, Matt, is a birder, but I am more inclined to reptiles and amphibians (herps). When planning our trip around both of our interests, we discovered it is difficult to schedule herping compared to birding. For birds we went to ebird.org, a citizen science website where birders report bird sightings and anyone can see the location. This makes it very easy to plan short pit-stops at a location and see a rare bird that has been reliably reported for the past couple days, and the reportings usually have helpful notes such as “usually seen feeding at the first pavilion on the left at 10 in the morning”.

For herps it is not that easy. Herp locations are very hush-hush due to collection issues. There are people who will find out where a herp is and just take it out of the wild for various reasons (i.e. pet trade). There is a website called herpmapper.org where herpers submit observations, but it purposely hides location information. In order to get information to target certain species, I made a forum post on fieldherpforum.com asking Floridians to throw me a bone. I only had two replies. The first one was very timely and told me to check out a separate part of the forum where people talked about their herping trips to Florida. That was very nice. I had some idea of what to expect in different regions after browsing trip summaries but locations were still not forthcoming. The second reply was perfect, coming in the form of a private message telling me exactly which places to go to see my target species; however, they sent it the day I returned to Maryland.

I was really confounded by the same hush-hush attitude being applied to exotic, non-native species of herps. Florida has many, many species of invasive reptiles and amphibians. Invasives actively destroy our ecosystem and out-compete native species, though many reptiles, such as the brown basilisk, are not known to have any adverse effects. I, personally, think we should not apply the same protection to exotic species as we do to natives and give location information freely. These species are not of conservation concern in the United States nor should they be treated as such. My frustration for lack of knowing where to go was unfounded when it comes to invasives, because apparently there is a website that functions like ebird for invasives in Florida (http://www.eddmaps.org/florida/). Thank you second replier for letting me know about this.

Most of my herping was done at birding locations. While Matt tracked down a target bird, I would flip logs and debris looking for absolutely any herp. We did make two specific herp trips, however. One was for a dusky pygmy rattlesnake (because a birder gave us a specific location) and the other was the highly recommended road cruising of the Everglades.  

snail kite
Snail Kite by Matthew Anthony

As soon as we touched down in Orlando, we hurried to see this really endangered snail kite. If you look closely you will see it carrying an apple snail in its beak, which is what they eat!

soft shelled turtle
Soft shelled turtle

This is unfortunately the best picture we got of a soft-shelled turtle. I take the blame for this one. Zoom AND focus is a kind a multi-tasking I just haven’t grasped yet.

ani
Smooth-billed Ani by Matthew Anthony

This is a smooth billed ani we saw on our first full day in Florida. See ebird.org for a reliable location.

Curly tailed 2
Northern Curly Tailed Lizard by Matthew Anthony

My lifer curly-tailed lizard (an exotic species from the Bahamas) was found at Hugh Birch Taylor State Park at the first pavilion on your left. But these guys are abundant in south Florida, so you’d have no problem seeing one without specifically targeting them.

scrub jay
Florida Scrub Jay by Matthew Anthony

The Florida scrub jay was actually really neat. We spent a whole afternoon looking for them only to find them on our way out of the park frolicking in a ditch and flying up to perch in the edge habitat along the road. They are NOT shy. Here this one is eating a cocoa dusted almond I fed it. Supposedly, they prefer peanuts, but dirty, car-floor almonds was all I had. I tried to get it to land on my hand (as a passing photographer said they would do), but I only managed to get it a five feet away from me.

crocodile
American Crocodile

We unexpectedly happened across an American crocodile in the Everglades; though I later found out where we were is a reliable spot for them. Nice to know in hindsight.

shiny
Shiny Cowbird by Matthew Anthony

We were waiting for the sun to go down in order to road cruise the everglades for herps and saw this shiny cowbird among a flock of brown-headed cowbirds. Shiny cowbirds are a species of cowbird common in South America, but can be found in the Caribbean and certain locations in Florida.

banded watersnake
Banded water snake by Matthew Anthony

A banded water snake in the Everglades

chuck
Chuck Wills Widow by Matthew Anthony

Chuck wills widow hunting on road in the Everglades. We saw three. They didn’t seem to mind the light and kept hunting.

frigate
Magnificent Frigate Bird by Matthew Anthony

We spontaneously drove to the keys after road cruising out of the Everglades and saw this magnificent frigate bird the next day.

iguana
Male Green Iguana by Matthew Anthony

Green Iguanas are abundant in southern Florida, but this guy on Marathon Key was huge.

nanday
Nanday Parakeet by Matthew Anthony

Nanday Parakeets are considered an invasive species. They stick to urban areas such as cities and aren’t known to have much of an impact on natives. They’re very cool to see.

runners
Six-lined Race Runners by Matthew Anthony

And let’s not forget these gorgeous six-lined race runners we saw in the keys! They flush differently than anoles I noticed. Anoles will make some noise then jump on a tree or something. These guys just keep running. Once I noticed the difference I could usually tell which species was flushing just by listening (though I did verify).

spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbills by Matthew Anthony (or me. Honestly, I have no idea who took this photo)

Roseate spoonbills were one of my most wanted species, so I was very happy to see them. So pink! We saw a couple nesting on islands we boated past on the Banana River. 

pygmy
Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake by Matthew Anthony

And I did get my dusky pygmy rattlesnake – exactly where the birder said it would be. He was very helpful. This is the smallest rattlesnake in the world.

passion
Passion Flower

During the last few days in Florida, I went on a wild flower photography spree with Matt’s camera. This is the flower I am most passionate about – the passion flower. My favorite flower.

We saw tons more species than I show here including manatees, green sea turtles, caracaras, some geckos I haven’t bothered to ID yet, needle fish, a yellow rat snake, and many more exotic parakeets, but showing you the almost 200 pictures we have of this trip is way too long for a blog. This is more a really short trip summary and a word to the wise when it comes to planning wildlife trips in Florida.

I learned for herps it is best just to know their habitat and range and go from there. It sure is nice when people give you exact locations but don’t count on it. This trip humbled me in that I now know I should really look at field guides ahead of time. I saw 2 new subspecies of black racer and didn’t get a picture of them, because I wasn’t aware subspecies existed. Look at your field guides before you go!

Birders, the browsing field guides advice also applies to you, but you have ebird, so go have a blast knowing exactly where you should go to see what you want to see! 


Follow my twitter for species descriptions of all the herps I see in my outings and for more of my writings!

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