By: Karuna Eberl
Gentle and curious Key deer graze next to prehistoric-looking green iguanas and 4-foot-tall lanky great herons. Here, wildlife is intertwined with daily life, where nature puts on a spectacular array for anyone curious enough to observe.
The Keys are home to more than 250 species of local and migratory birds, 40 species of reptiles and even several mammals found nowhere else on earth. It is a delicate and unusual ecosystem unlike any other in the United States, with mangrove forests, salt ponds, tropical hardwood hammocks and shallow tidal flats all working together to house one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world.
Some species are plentiful, and require little looking to spot. Others are more elusive, but so rewarding to find, such as the iconic Key deer and great white heron. Here are some common and remarkable ones worth looking for.
The smallest deer in the whitetail family grows up to 3 feet tall and 85 pounds.
See them: Big Pine and No Name Keys in neighborhoods, forests and fields
Diet: grazes on 150 native plants
Lifespan: 3 years for males, 6 for females
Noteworthy: An endangered species found only in the Keys, there are nearly 1,000 alive today. Visit the National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Big Pine Key for advice on daily sightings.
Precautions: Feeding Key deer is strictly prohibited. It introduces dangerous elements into their diet and makes them accustomed to humans and roadways. If you see an injured Key Deer, call FWC to report at (305) 470-6863.
Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
The smallest subspecies of marsh rabbit, they grow to 15 inches long and 3 pounds, with short, dark-brown fur and a grayish-white belly.
See them: Big Pine Key in grassy wetlands and salt marshes. They are nocturnal but can be spotted in the early morning, especially near the Blue Hole.
Diet: grass, shrubs, trees
Lifespan: 4 years
Noteworthy: Another endangered species endemic only to the Keys, they are good swimmers and received their latin name “Sylvilagus palustris hefneri” in honor of playboy bunny creator Hugh Hefner and his generous research funding for helping the little hoppers.
Key Largo Woodrat
Medium-sized brown or grey rodent, growing up to 16 inches long.
See them: hardwood hammocks on northern Key Largo, especially at night
Lifespan: 3 years
Noteworthy: These critically endangered creatures build 6-foot-long stick nests tucked in the forests, which are used for generations to come. They are a keystone species in the ecosystem, and help plant diversity by spreading seeds and aiding in forest decomposition.
West Indian Manatee
These gentle, bulbous aquatic mammals can grow more than 10 feet long, weighing in at 1,200 pounds.
See them: canals, harbors and seagrass beds
Diet: sea grasses and other aquatic plants, 150 pounds daily
Lifespan: 60 years
Noteworthy: Manatees can hold their breath up to 20 minutes and are related to elephants.
Precautions: Boat propellers helped put these slow-moving giants on the endangered species list, where they still are classified as threatened. Slow speeds should be observed in any area with manatee potential. If you see an injured, dead or tagged manatee, call FWC at (888) 404-3822.
Gray to white, slender with a rounded backward-hooking dorsal fin, they grow up to 9 feet long and 500 pounds.
See them: Dolphins play throughout the waters but are easiest seen on tours and encounter trips.
Diet: fish and other sea creatures, up to 50 pounds daily
Lifespan: 50 years
Noteworthy: One of the smartest animals in the world, dolphins often present each other with “gifts” of seaweed and other underwater trinkets while playing and courting.
Precautions: Dolphins often surf boat wakes, and while collision are rare, to prevent injuries from propellers and hulls, slow down when they’re around.
The Keys do not have an overabundance of land mammals, but you might also catch a few familiar faces here, such as raccoons, possum and mice.
REPTILES, AMPHIBIANS, CRUSTACEANS
These large lizards look like little dinosaurs, and come in bright green to orange, gray and black, growing up to 7 feet long and 20 pounds.
See them: grassy roadsides, sunny cement patches, tree branches near water
Season: year-round, especially on sunny days
Diet: leaves, flowers, fruit
Lifespan: 20 years
Noteworthy: Though iguanas have been around for 140 million years, they first arrived in the Keys as stowaways on ships from South America, with a recent population boost from released pets. Precautions: Despite their appearance, iguanas are not harmful or aggressive unless cornered and harassed. Their feces can contain bacteria and should not be handled.
They don’t get as big in the Keys, but they have been spotted up to 11 feet long and 500 pounds.
See them: where there is fresh or brackish water, especially Blue Hole on Big Pine Key
Diet: mammals, fish, birds
Lifespan: 50 years
Noteworthy: Though 1.2 million of these reptiles live in Florida, there are very few in the Keys because of a lack of fresh water.
Precautions: Do not approach or feed. They can be dangerous, though tend to shy away from people in the Keys.
These reptiles have been spotted in the Keys up to 15 feet long and 900 pounds, but are very rare.
See them: Upper Keys, in closed canals and brackish water
Diet: mammals, fish, birds
Lifespan: up to 70 years
Noteworthy: The Keys and Everglades are the only places in the world where crocodiles and alligators coexist. Crocs can be distinguished from alligators by their longer and thinner snouts and two long teeth that are still visible with its mouth is closed.
Precautions: Do not approach or feed. They can be dangerous, but are reclusive and shy away from humans. There have been no documented cases of crocodiles attacking people or pets in the Keys.
Anoles (Green & Cuban Brown)
Many of the little lizards common throughout the Keys, growing up to 7 inches but normally smaller.
See them: widespread, on fences, walls, trees
Diet: insects and spiders
Lifespan: 8 years
Noteworthy: Green anoles are native, while brown ones were introduced in the late 1800s. They are particularly veracious cockroach killers.
Geckos (Reef & Giant Day)
Reef geckos are brown wth dark spots and rarely longer than 2 inches. Days reach 8 inches, and are bright green, with orange spots and stripe between the eye and nostril.
See them: Suburban neighborhoods, on exterior walls and trees from Grassy Key south
Diet: insects, pollen, sap, fruit
Lifespan: 8 years
Noteworthy: The tiny reef gecko is native to the Keys. The giant day gecko, famous as the Geico insurance mascot, has only recently been found in the Keys. Originally introduced by escaped/released pets, their populations are quickly becoming established.
Sea Turtles (Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley)
Five of the world oceans’ seven species of sea turtles are found in the Keys, ranging in size from the 2-foot, 100-pound Kemp’s Ridley to the 12-foot, 2,000-pound Leatherback.
See them: on the surface of the water, as they come up for air or warm themselves, or at animal rescue locations.
Diet: greens are vegetarian, while others eat squid, jellyfish and other aquatic animals
Lifespan: 50 to 100 years
Noteworthy: All species are threatened, some critically endangered. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon rescues injured and sick turtles in the Keys, often with their distinctive turtle ambulance. If you find a dead, sick or injured turtle call FWC at (888) 404-3922.
Precautions: When boating, especially over shallow seagrass and patchy reef, maintain a close lookout and slow speed to avoid a collision with turtles on the surface. Never approach a turtle on a beach, as it may be nesting.
Giant Land Crab (a.k.a. Blue Land Crab)
Crabs grow up to 6 inches long with one pronounced claw, in colors ranging from dark brown, purple, orange, blue, gray and pale white.
See them: in low-lying sandy mangrove trails, also scurrying around lawns, towns, roads, especially after a rain.
Diet: leaves, fruit, berries and sometime carrion and insects
Lifespan: 13 years
Noteworthy: Giant land crabs only return to the ocean to mate, otherwise they make burrows on land that are 3 to 5 inches wide and up to 5 feet deep, often in colonies, such as in Long Key and other state parks.
Precautions: can deliver a painful pinch if captured
The Keys are home to many snakes, but sightings are rare. Most are non harmful, and range from the 11-foot indigo snake to the tiny 11-inch Key ringneck snake. Four species of venomous snakes also call the Keys home, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, the Eastern coral snake and the cottonmouth. Any species of snake should be avoided as a precaution, though chances of encountering a dangerous snake are extremely low.
This raptor’s wings form an M shape as seen from below. They have pronounced white and dark color patterns with a white head and a black stripe through the eye and a 6-foot wingspan.
See them: circling over coastal waters, perched on bridges and in nests atop telephone poles.
Lifespan: 20 years
Noteworthy: Excellent anglers, ospreys average a catch every 12 minutes, diving up to 3 feet under the water. Ospreys mate for life, though they don’t see each other during migration seasons. Through a lifetime, some migrate 160,000 miles, though others prefer to skip the trip and live in the Keys year-round.
A 2-foot tall white wading bird with a pink face and long downward curving bill.
See them: on grassy lawns, shallow shorelines and parking lots.
Diet: invertebrates, crustaceans, snails, fish
Lifespan: 15 years
Noteworthy: Ibis are very social creatures. They travel and feed in flocks, but are also notorious for stealing one another’s meals and even their nesting material.
These water birds are black with an orange bill and 4-foot wingspan, and are often seen striking a triumphant pose while drying their wings.
See them: perched on power lines, channel markers, bridges and swimming on the water
Diet: small fish and crustaceans
Noteworthy: Cormorants are expert divers, staying submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time while they chase and spear fish. Unlike some water birds, they’re feathers are not waterproof, which gives them speed underwater, but requires drying afterward.
A seabird about the size of a plump seagull, terns are distinguished by their slim, orange bill and black-crested head.
See them: resting on channel markers, beaches, docks and bridges.
Diet: fish, crabs
Lifespan: 30 years
Noteworthy: Just a few days after they hatch, chicks leave their nest and join the other hatchlings in group called a “creche,” designed to provide safety from predators. Though there can be many chicks in a creche, parents always recognize their own, especially when it comes to feeding time.
Great White Heron
The largest of all herons, this white wading bird can be 4 feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan. Its yellow legs distinguish it from the great egret.
See them: wading in shallow tidal flats and perching along mangrove shorelines.
Diet: fish, frogs, reptiles, insects
Lifespan: 20 years
Noteworthy: Unlike their cousin, the far-migrating great blue heron, the whites are specific to south Florida, and especially the Keys. They are the largest in the heron family and were nearly wiped out at the turn of the 20th Century when their feathers were coveted for hat decorations. Now they live peacefully in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Keys.
This dark-colored water bird is easily distinguishable with a long-forked tail, pointed- bent wings and 7.5-foot wingspan. The mails also sport a bright red throat pouch for impressing the ladies.
See them: circling high above water, roosting in mangroves and resting on power lines.
Diet: fish, squid, jellyfish, crustaceans
Lifespan: 20 years
Noteworthy: With the largest wingspan vs. body of all birds, frigates are excellent pilots, sometimes staying in the air for a week or more at a time. Though they spend most of their time flying over the water, they cannot fly when wet, so they catch their meals on the surface or force smaller seabirds to drop theirs.
These Caribbean locals look similar to traditional pigeons, but are dark or gray in color with a white cap on their heads and green iridescent feathers on the back of their necks.
See them: flying through neighborhoods, perching on wires and trees.
Diet: fruit and berries
Lifespan: 14+ years
Noteworthy: These pigeons come only as far north as Florida and are classified as a threatened species in Florida thanks to hunting and habitat loss. An excellent flyer, it is known to cover dozens of miles a day in search of its favorite fruit, berries from the poisonwood tree.
All reddish egrets sport a pink and black bill, blueish legs, and a long neck, but some have a reddish neck and gray body, while others are entirely white. They can grow to almost 3 feet tall with a 4-foot wingspan.
See them: feeding in calm, shallow water, like salt ponds.
Noteworthy: The rarest of Florida herons, the reddish egret puts on an energetic show while catching its meal, running, leaping and spinning acrobatically with its wings spread.
These long-billed seabirds are unmistakable, with their goofy-yet-graceful stocky bodies. They grow to 4 feet tall with a 6.5-foot wingspan, and are distinguished from their white cousins by their gray-brown coloring, white necks, yellow heads and fishing style.
See them: resting on fishing piers and bridges, perched in mangroves outcroppings, gliding close to the water
Lifespan: 25 years
Noteworthy: Brown pelicans often fly in squadrons, diving head-first from 65 feet in the air, then filling their pouches with 2.6 gallons of water and fish.
A common seagull, they are mostly white with a black head during the summer months.
See them: nearly everywhere in the Keys.
Diet: just about everything, including fish, berries, insects, handouts from people
Lifespan: 22 years
Noteworthy: A chattery, social bunch who often sound like they are laughing, these gulls are familiar to most everyone, though in the Keys they are much more polite than the ones living on more crowded coastlines. While they will take a human handout, they are just as happy to try to pluck a catch out of a pelican’s mouth.
A large, dark raptor with a bald, red head and 6-foot wingspan.
See them: circling and soaring over land, hanging out near dumpsters
Diet: scavengers, cleaning up the Keys
Lifespan: 30 years
Noteworthy: While they are one of the largest raptors, they fly in distinctive wobbly circles, riding the thermals, searching for decomposing animals. Despite their relative commonness, little is known about their nesting habits.
Roosters & Hens
Nearly every chicken in the Keys is wild and free-roaming, with roosters sporting notably colorful feather arrangements.
See them: in parking lots, neighborhoods and lawns around the Keys, with higher populations in Key West. If you see them crossing the road, ask them, “Why?”
Diet: native insets, worms, lizards, human handouts
Lifespan: 8 years
Noteworthy: The Keys are known for their wild “gypsy” chickens, which first came here with settlers in the 1800s as a food source, then but proliferated in the 1950s, coming over with the influx of Cuban immigrants and refugees. Cockfights were a popular human-organized activity during that time, but now only happen occasionally among males competing for hens and territory.
Help Protect the Birds
Stress harms birds, especially when they are scared from their nests, exposing their eggs and young to predators and the elements. To ensure the survival of our multitude of species, please enjoy birdwatching from a distance, especially in wildlife refuges. Fish and Wildlife recommends using binoculars and telephoto lenses, and keeping a distance of at lest 300 feet. If it looks like they are getting ready to take off, then that is a sure sign of being too close. Injured birds should be reported to FWC at (888) 404-3822.
WILDLIFE BY SEASON
Even though most of our wildlife lives here year round, there are times when certain species shine.
January & February
Just as humans flock to the Keys to escape the snowy months, so do many birds. While most of these species can be found year-round, their numbers are more plentiful this time of year.
Good time to see: white and brown pelicans, blue-winged teal, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, osprey, piping plovers and broad-winged hawks.
March & April
Spring is teeming with creatures — on land, underwater and in the sky. As the north warms, flocks of birds make a pit-stop in Florida during their migration home. If late storms persist, they stay longer, making for epic birdwatching. This is also still a good time to see the birds who call the Keys home all winter.
Good time to see: reddish egrets, great white herons, black-necked stilt, Cuban yellow warblers, sea turtles (they start nesting in April), Bartram’s Hairstreak Butterflies, Sawgrass Skipper Butterflies and Alligators.
May & June
The tiny, spotted Key deer fawn take their first wobbly steps around now. As the weather turns toward warmer summer temperatures, some of the Keys residents return from their winter hideouts, such as the mangrove cuckoos. As rains increase, tree snails begin to stir and the tarpon move from the ocean to the flats, delighting fishermen.
Good time to see: Key deer fawns, green and loggerhead sea turtles, magnificent frigatebirds, tree snails, red-bellied woodpeckers, American cardinals, black-whiskered vireo, gray kingbird and green herons. Tip: look for nesting green herons at Blue Hole on Big Pine Key.
July & August
Tiny sea turtles begin emerging from their sandy nests. Key deer fawns are still lanky and abundant, while the bucks begin to show off their velvety, growing antlers. Fruits from seagrapes, poisonwood and other trees keep birds busy, while frogs serenade all who will listen in the evenings.
Good time to see: white-crowned pigeons, southern leopard frogs and narrow-mounted toads and swallow-tailed kites stopping by on their way to South America.
September & October
It is the peak of fall migration season, and the Keys are a perfectly situated pit stop for birds headed further south. Some stay just a few days, while others settle in for the winter, joining our resident birds who are also out in force during this time. Meanwhile, things get downright tempestuous on land as Key deer bucks sharpen their antlers and begin the rut, challenging their peers for courtship rights.
Good time to see: Peregrine falcons, blue-gray gnatcatchers, a range of songbirds and wading birds, Sawgrass skipper butterflies.
November & December
Just as the year started, so it ends with new faces settling in for the winter. Local and winter residents enjoy the Keys breezes, cooler nights and good fishing.
Good time to see: American kestrels, belted kingfishers, turkey vultures, Swainson’s hawks, pelicans, ospreys.
WHERE TO SEE WILDLIFE
Wildlife is everywhere in the Keys, perched on piers, sunning by the highway, circling overhead. It’s hard to be on the islands more than a few minutes without spotting several species of bird, iguana or other interesting critter. But sightings don’t need to be limited to the highway. For more intimate natural settings, explore the Keys proliferation of national wildlife refuges, state and national parks and private nature and wildlife preserves and rescues.
by Karuna Eberl