Central & Southern Florida, February 2019
The decision to repeat last year’s trip to Florida was based more on escaping the poor UK weather than trying to tick off a whole heap of new species. That being said, we thought we’d at least attempt our luck a bit further north towards Ocala to see if we could turn up anything different. We decided on a couple of nights around Ocala, a return to some spots around Sebring, and of course a few days in the southern and central Everglades.
Everglades National Park
As easy as it would be to spend all our time here, we limited ourselves to just two days and two nights. We figured this would be more than enough time to kick off our trip with the usual Nerodia-fest, plus leave a little wiggle room for any other species that felt like making an appearance.
Despite preferring the more hands-on, sharp-eyed approach to stealthily stalking habitat for coiled quarry, I still enjoy the building anticipation before a spot of road cruising, be it dirt or tarmac. Eyes will strain, necks will ache, and caffeine will be consumed, all in the name of the excitement of scanning each road-based blotch, shape or object as we trundle along. In the immortal words of Vin Diesel, ‘I live my life a 15mph quarter mile at a time’.
There were also a couple of occasions (as usual) where other road users were not bothered about causing animal fatalities. What’s weird is this often occurs on roads where surely the users can’t be in a particular rush to get anywhere: The main ENP road doesn’t exactly lead to a time-critical business meeting (and could benefit from stricter regulations - something we discussed with the park rangers on one evening), nor do any of the WMA dirt roads serve as vital commuting routes between anywhere, so why people are blasting about these places is beyond me. Some folks bang on about non-native invasive species, but during just a couple of trips over here it's fairly clear that it's humans that are causing more damage on a daily (and nightly) basis. Worryingly, a number of cars were clearly road cruising and were comfortably managing to add to the death totals - we witnessed at first hand herpers flattening smaller game including ribbons, brown snakes, cottonmouths, assorted juvenile Nerodia and a tiny scarlet king. Anyone can spot some of the larger snakes at higher speeds, but unfortunately some folks are unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) killing the little guys.
Ocala (via Clewiston)
As an excuse to explore a different area of the state we headed to Ocala for a couple of days, visiting one or two potential cane field locations enroute. As usual, any kings remained elusive but we did manage a nice Yellow rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) along with some great views of a number of Northern harriers (Circus hudsonius). A quick stop near Lake Placid also provided a healthy dose of racers in not-so-healthy habitat.
Day one in Ocala brought us quite a bit of rain and made the anticipated slow-going even slower. A flipped Eastern garter would be our only snake during the rains. Day two provided better weather but still none of the xeric specialists would show up. Following dirt roads and flipping the odd bit of trash provided a Gopher tortoise, a number of skinks and a nice Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), before our time was up and we headed back down towards Lake Placid.
Just like all visitors to Florida do at some point, we began our day with a morning visit to a trash site. The first flipped item of the day revealed a beautiful Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), followed by a further chunk of hours where absolutely nothing was found under cover – although a number of racers were spotted out and about amongst the assorted debris (which included hot tubs, a dishwasher, multiple toilets and a speedboat – all of which were no longer functional).
We concluded our trip with a couple of days around Everglades City, repeating some of the locations we checked in 2018 with some additional searching in a different State Preserve. Up until this point every single cottonmouth I’d spotted had been previously flattened, so it was nice to finally spot a nice chunky specimen in some natural swampy habitat.
There’s also something particularly delightful about a Floridian sunset. It’s almost easy to be distracted from happy-hour activities when the sky is glowing with pinks and golds. These canvasses provided the backdrop for our last two evenings, with the stand-out find being a splendid little scarlet snake (Cemophora c. coccinea) on the last night.
Somebody once told me that by searching for wildlife in places like Costa Rica, Borneo and North America it was like having a busman’s holiday. However, when one comes from a country with zero wilderness and more dogs and cats than common sense, it is nice to get a break from the norm and see what ‘natural’ actually looks like. If I wanted a busman’s holiday I’d go to Crufts. As I said last year, some parts of Florida still tick this 'natural' box, and I hope as much (or as little!) as possible can be done to ensure the wild places stay wild for long after I’m gone.
Thanks for reading/watching!
With thanks to Daniel (that coral was down to you!) and Bill (although I didn't make it to your suggested area, the advice was much appreciated - and hopefully I'll be back again!).