A walk in nature is the perfect antidote to feeling stressed, fatigued, and generally unhappy. Breathe in the fresh air, and take some time to find something cool and unusual. There’s always something interesting to see, you just have to look a little more closely sometimes. Scavenger hunts are a great way to train your brain to look deeper and seek out hidden nature treasures.
I’ve made a scavenger hunt for you to use in any uplands habitat in Florida. Most of the things on the list are here year round and are relatively easy to find. Grab the kids and see what all you can find! Or go by yourself and enjoy the search.
Check out the gallery below for the things you’ll be looking for:
The scavenger hunt can be downloaded as a pdf here:
Wood storks are a threatened species of bird that can be found hanging out in wetlands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. They are occasionally seen in all states along the Mississippi River and as far north as Ontario. Mostly they stay in the Southeast though.
In the 1930’s, there were estimated to be about 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks in the U.S. Now, there are around 8,000 pairs, which is an improvement from a low of 5,000 pairs in the 1970’s. The decline is attributed mostly to loss of habitat and the altering of the water flow in the Everglades.
Wood storks have a very specific feeding strategy that requires certain conditions to be met to ensure an adequate food source. The water has to be just the right depth, and the concentration of fish in the water needs to be rather high. They use a technique known as tacto-location to catch their food. In water that’s 6-10 inches deep, the stork will keep its bill partly open as it probes the water searching for prey. When a fish touches its bill, it snaps it closed with an amazing reaction time of 25 milliseconds!
Over the course of the nesting season, wood stork pairs and their chicks require an estimated 443 pounds of fish to be successful. In order for this to be possible, there has to be just the right amount of rain to make the water deep enough for the fish to reproduce adequately, and then a perfect amount of evaporation of water during the dry season for the fish to become concentrated in water that’s the preferred 6-10 inches deep. For this reason, only about 42% of nests successfully fledge at least one chick.
The wood stork is a colonial species. They nest in big colonies, particularly at two protected locations in South Florida. In Florida, wood storks lay their eggs in the fall and the baby birds fledge in February or March. During a successful breeding season, there are dozens of nests full of squawking, hungry babies in a rookery during late winter and early spring. 2018 was a phenomenal year for fledglings due to the heavy rains Florida received during the rainy season that year followed by an adequate dry season. Subsequent years have not been nearly as successful. It’s incredible how dependent these birds are on rainfall being just right. Wood storks’ rookeries are shared with anhingas, great blue herons, great egrets, and other wading birds. It’s an amazing sight to behold!
Wood storks are one of Florida’s most fascinating birds. It’s vitally important for Everglades restoration projects to continue forward progress to help protect and defend these and other wading birds in South Florida. The wood stork is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but this isn’t enough. Their roosting sites need to be protected from development, and water quality needs to be monitored and vastly improved to help them continue to live and thrive here in Florida. This is one of the reasons the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project is so important. You can find more information about this project on Audubon Florida’s website.
Turtle or tortoise? If you want to get technical, all tortoises are turtles, meaning they belong to the order Testudines. However, not all turtles are tortoises. Tortoises are land animals, and they can’t swim. Though there are land turtles that are not tortoises, like wood turtles and box turtles. Are you confused yet? An easy way to tell the difference is to look at their feet. Tortoise feet look a bit like elephant feet, which is interesting because they’re called “elephantine.” That just means they’re columnar and not webbed like turtles’ back feet are. Turtles’ front feet are like flippers. Tortoises’ are not.
Another way to tell the difference is by checking out what they eat. Tortoises are herbivores, whereas turtles are omnivores. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why gopher tortoises are so awesome! They’re considered a keystone species. That means that their existence helps other life exist. Their amazing burrows can be up to forty feet long and ten feet deep. There up to 350 other species that will benefit from a gopher tortoise burrow. Some of the critters that will share their burrows are indigo snakes, pine snakes, burrowing owls, skunks, rabbits, armadillos, quail, opossums, foxes, mice, and a whole lot of insects, frogs, and toads.
During prescribed burns (which are necessary to maintain biodiversity), many animals will take cover in gopher tortoise burrows until the fire is finished.
In the wild, gopher tortoises can live up to eighty years. Males reach adulthood at about 9-12 years. Females reach adulthood at about 10-21 years of age, and they lay 5-9 eggs per year, during early summer. Their eggs look like ping pong balls. Baby gopher tortoises are adorable! They’re tiny and their coloring is much brighter than adults.
Gopher tortoises are a protected species. Like so many other animals, their main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation (where their habitat is broken up by roads and other obstacles). It’s illegal to handle these tortoises without proper permitting. The only time it’s okay and legal to touch one is when you’re moving them to safety off of a road. Always move them in the direction they were headed, otherwise they’ll walk right back into the road.
If you hike near water in Florida, chances are pretty good you’re going to see an alligator at some point. Those of us who are on the trails a lot are used to it, but it can be scary if you haven’t had much experience sharing the trails with these reptiles. Something that’s important to remember is that a healthy, wild alligator will most likely want nothing to do with you; so the best course of action is to just ignore them and let them go on their way. Alligator attacks in Florida are extremely rare. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission there have only been twenty-four fatal alligator attacks in Florida since 1973. Statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by a cow than you are an alligator.
Alligators are ambush predators. That means they lay in wait, hiding beneath the surface of the water or near the water’s edge, then they quickly strike their prey. Never get closer than thirty feet from an alligator. Their striking distance is about fifteen feet, and they’re lightning fast when they want to catch their dinner!
The only safe way to get photos like this of an alligator is with a telephoto lens. You’ll often see videos of people getting dangerously close to alligators, hoping to get a memorable photo of one. This is definitely not advisable. While an alligator may seem docile and uninterested in you, they are wild and dangerous animals and deserve plenty of respect and distance.
A mama alligator with babies like this is the most dangerous kind of alligator, and you want to stay as far away as possible so she won’t feel the need to protect her adorable offspring.
So what do you do if you’re walking along and come upon an alligator in the middle of, or near the edge of the trail? If the alligator doesn’t seem to want to carry on and get itself back to the water, the best thing to do is just wait it out from a safe distance. Try walking heavily toward the alligator (but not too close!) and see if it will move off the trail. If it doesn’t, and you can’t pass safely, you’ll just have to turn around and leave it alone. Remember, this is his home. You’re just a guest.
Should you be afraid of alligators? It might help to remember that alligators have a very slow metabolism. That means they really don’t need to eat as often as you might think. In the wild, it’s common for them to only eat about once a week. The best way to avoid an alligator attack is to always assume there are alligators in any body of water in Florida. Most alligator attacks happen at the edge of bodies of water. Alligators are especially drawn to dogs, so never take your dogs where alligators may be present. They’re much more likely to turn and go away from full sized humans, but a smaller person or a dog could look like prey to them. Just be vigilant and respect their space, and you’ll be fine. Many alligator attacks are the result of alligators that have been fed by humans. These alligators learn to associate people with food, and that’s a death sentence for the alligator. A nuisance alligator will most likely be put down, and we don’t want to see that happen.
Alligators are an awesome part of life in Florida. We share our home here with about 1.25 million of them! The best thing we can do is be educated and learn to enjoy them, from a very safe distance.
When everything was shut down for a Covid-19, I decided it was a good time to check out some local birding hot spots. Ollie’s Pond is one of those places I put off going to because I didn’t think it would be all that exciting. It’s just a big pond in the middle of a neighborhood. My expectations were pretty low. I was pleasantly surprised! The first time I went, I saw seventeen species of birds. Not a huge number, but it was a fun variety. Yesterday, there weren’t quite as many birds, but the few I did see were pretty exciting. There were black-necked stilts, white pelicans, and a roseate spoonbill, along with the usual suspects like red-winged blackbirds and osprey.
There’s really not much to this small county park. There are no amenities, and there’s no fee. It’s just about a mile around the pond, with a couple of benches. The park is also dog-friendly, which my Rocco appreciates!
My short and sweet review: it’s a great place to see a good variety of birds and the occasional alligator, but I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for a visit. If you’re nearby, it’s definitely worth checking out.
A trip through Florida’s Big Bend area and into the panhandle is like a trip back in time. Urban sprawl has yet to infect this remote area of the state. Taking a drive across the 220 mile long Big Bend Scenic Byway will take you through miles of longleaf pine forests and along fabulously undeveloped white, sandy coastline. I didn’t know before I went, but apparently a detailed brochure exists to help you navigate this incredible highway and really take in all it has to offer. It can be found here: http://www.floridabigbendscenicbyway.org/sites/default/files/media/docs/Byway-Guide-20120319.pdf
A drive down the scenic byway is one of many things we did while we were in the area. We visited several state parks within a couple of hours of Ochlockonee, but here we’ll focus on this one incredible state park. I realized I was pronouncing it all wrong when a kind ranger gave me a tip to say it right. He said it’s O-Clock-Knee. Now you know.
Welcome to Ochlockonee! Driving down route 319 near the tiny town of Sopchoppy, you’ll end up here at the park. If you’re planning to camp here for awhile, it may be helpful to know that the nearest Walmart is about forty minutes away in Crawfordville. The nearest store is a Dollar General, about fifteen minutes away. There really is nothing around here!
You could drive around the state looking for brown signs indicating scenic areas and parks, or you could check out some of this info I’ve gathered here for you. I’ve spent an awful lot of time seeking out some of the best (in my opinion) places for exploring nature in Florida. This is not a list of every specific place to explore, but a list of ways for you to find those places for yourself and go explore. There are a lot of great resources available for finding things to do. It’s not always easy to find those resources though. This is a list of some of my favorites. I hope you’ll find this compilation helpful.
It was pretty easy deciding which place I wanted to share first. I have a lot of favorites, but my absolute favorite is easily Corkscrew Swamp. Cypress swamps are my favorite, and this place has the largest old growth bald cypress forest in the world. It’s also home to one of the largest nesting colonies of endangered wood storks in the U.S.