I've hiked for years and have always wondered how you run into a bobcat for example - we've hiked so many days/hours/miles the past couple years I can actually answer questions like that. So that's what this is. Also it's Florida-centric for now though I think it covers a lot of universal info.
Right Frame of Mind
Like with birds I think the fundamental thing you need to see wildlife is to be "mindful". So I mean open yourself up to hearing all the sounds you normally tune out, pay attention to anything that seems to grab your attention and really look, etc. Very often you barely spot movement and then you spot the wildlife. If you hike over and over, especially in the same habitats, you get in tune with what is normal and what is not. Also it seems that once you see an animal your brain is tuned to notice it so you start seeing it much more frequently though it had to always have been around. We hiked around catbirds, wrens, and killdeer many times before we learned to listen and notice them calling - now we notice them very often.
What Habitats In General
I like hiking deep dark forests. The trouble with them is that animals can usually sense you well before you sense them and with trees in the way you just aren't going to get a chance. So the parking lot leaving the big trail is often where you see things. I can name a couple state parks where you might see deer once out of every five trips but it ironically the forest is not the best place to see wildlife in our experience.
At dusk and dawn we're more likely to see animals. Ones that like night traveling home or the day ones active starting out their day. I'd say that applies for several hours after dawn. If there is dew on the spiderwebs etc I think of that as a good time. We haven't done nearly as much nighttime hiking and camping as we would like and some animals that's when you should expect to see them from my understanding.
We tend to see venomous snakes more often - they seem bolder.
Both of these the best place to see them has always been at 3am with a flashlight in a city neighborhood going between trash cans. We see raccoons out on the trails but usually it's when near people or a clear food source like some wetlands. Fun fact about opossums - they eat a huge number of ticks - try not to hit them with your car.
These are tough! We've seen then twice
1) Golden Aster Preserve we were at the beginning of a long straight road here looking at the other end. So about 250 yards/m. It paused, we thought it must be a dog but then it slinked off with just the wrong body movement and you could tell the body shape was feline and way too big for a house cat. So that's bobcat number one - we asked a ranger there and he agreed.
2) Just driving through Polk county Florida there was a field and one went trotting across it next to the interstate.
I've known people to go hiking 3x per year and just see one 5 feet away - screw you you jerks*!
We've seen two. It's kind of random but I'd say they tend to be in water that ducks like. The only advice I could give is if you see the water moving on the surface as if some fish was swimming and it stays around for awhile pay attention because they like to barely pop their head out. Once was Lettuce Lake in Tampa, and again - another time was at Golden Aster.
In Florida virtually every pond over the size of a pool has one - though they tend to be small. They do wander around between ponds. Most rivers you hike I'd say there's a 60% chance of seeing one in an hour. Some lakes however have just hundreds and hundreds. Most water creatures are only a danger to things that are their size or much more likely smaller. So the official advice years ago I read was don't swim with them if they are bigger than 6ft long. If I had a child or a dog with me I'd always keep them very close - I've known people who've lost dogs to them. Some trails are along wetlands - Circle B Bar, Myakka State Park, Paynes Prairie (1,2,3), Orlando Wetlands, Sweetwater Wetlands - those are some that come to mind for seeing many or some on trail. Personally I feel comfortable 20ft away from even pretty large ones. Often the rules of a trail are walk away from them if they are on the trail because you don't want to interfere with them. But if that isn't the rule often if you just stand 20ft away and maybe tap a big stick on the ground they leave. I almost ran over a 10+ foot one on a mountain bike and it did the hiss and swing it's tail thing you see on TV but I generally think of them as harmless unless really huge but always keep an eye on them. That child that was eaten at Disney was a big deal - a lot of signs seemed to pop up after that. I think the main issue was that the alligators were fed by tourists nearby without anyone stopping them so it's like feeding bears - they associate people and food. Plus the kid was small and standing in the water at dusk or night. It's amazing how few problems there are with alligators considering how often we interact with them compared to say dogs biting people.
I've never seen one or known anyone who has. They are only in the southern tip of Florida.
These are often really easy to see/find because they are very loud snuffling through the leaf litter in forests and they don't notice you until you are very close. At Paynes Prairie Bolen trail I had a family of them approach me and just treat me like a tree they were foraging around. Usually though they stop foraging to listen, hear you, then bolt (very loudly). I don't know how contagious it is but they can carry leprosy - I'd say don't touch them but I'd strenuously suggest not picking up any animal really.
We've seen scat on trails but the only place I've actually seen live coyotes was on desert highways out west.
This was our holy grail for awhile. Generally the places you see them are in grassy areas near forested ones. Certain front yards with a lot of tall non-shady pine trees and maybe horses in front yard we'll say - that would be a great place for fox squirrels. But it really is random when you will see them. I'd guess that we see one for every 8 full days out hiking and it's always driving to the trails not actually on the trails. When you do see them it's pretty striking. It looks like an eastern grey squirrel mixed with some ape DNA, or maybe like a little monkey, or sometimes I'll think we spotted a mink/ferret type thing. So keep an eye out and you'll spot one. Places I can think of specifically are Lockhardt Road, the parking lot for Lake Panasoffkee, a front yard near Soloman's Castle, and along Nobleton-Croom Rd. Never seen one in the same place twice.
They are supposed to be around but I've never seen one.
There aren't many places that have wild horses or Bison. I've only experienced this at Paynes Prairie and the attached areas. Sweetwater Wetlands often has horses. Horses you tend to see at a distance of like 200 yards or more. I've gotten maybe 50 yards with them being okay with it but they are unpredictable and I wouldn't try to get closer personally. Bison I've only see once and it was just bizarre to round a corner in the forest on a mountain bike and see one illuminated in a tiny clearing like a character with a message in a video game. Very big and at a safe distance very cool.
I think they are nocturnal. We've only seen a roadkill one.
I saw them as a kid but as our area became less rural they departed. I'm sure they are out there when you hike but we've never seen any.
The gopher tortoise is pretty common. Some places you're guaranteed to see them but they can be about anywhere. Once you learn to spot their burrows you notice more. They tend to be in exposed sandy areas it seems. We've seen one box tortoise - never got a clear ID on it. The water turtles there's more or less cooters, softshell, and snapping. Snapping you don't see very often (mostly because they seem to like being submerged more than being on logs).
I've seen them as a child but I've only seen their diggings hiking. Usually it's exposed areas without a lot of roots.
Wild Boar / Pigs
They are an invasive species from the days of the conquistadors but they TEAR UP trails. I always thought they were doing something with a bulldozer to till soil for some environmental reason but no - those huge areas of dug up soil that are hard to walk over - that's feral pigs. I'd say we've seen them twice a year hiking every weekend. Some places are fairly reliable - especially Circle B Bar. Anyplace that is dug up by them just pay attention.
There are two kinds. Marsh rabbits like to hang out in the grass next to wetlands/ponds and have no fluffy white tail. Cottontail have the white fluffy tail and not so brown fur, and longer ears. The more we see them the more we tune into seeing them and it seems like the marsh rabbits are less shy - or at least we see more of them. Often they are down in the weeds, sometimes they are just nearby. We've seen them in urban areas by ponds and deep in the woods. The place with by far the most at one time is Largo Central Nature Preserve. Another good spot is at dusk at the south boardwalk across from Celery Fields. I think that marsh rabbits just like coming out from cover at dusk.
They are in most forests beyond a certain basic size but some I don't know if they are just much more numerous or they are more used to people but some places you're just much more likely to see them. Most often I'd say we see them on the road on the way in to an area with a forest. Sometimes you see them actually in the forest but I think we miss them more often. Often it's that there was a gap so we could see far enough to see it before it ran away, there are multiple deer so their collective noise cancels ours (that's probably the most common scenario). If there is an open patch near a not open patch - so edge of a forest or a powerline easement where you see them far away before they see you. Sometimes if they are busy drinking at a pond they miss you long enough for you to see them. Sometimes they know humans equal free food and they'll actually come check you out.
Your best bet is in the Winter at places where there is warm water. Several springs (Blue Springs State Park for example) have hundreds. Outlets of some power plants like in Apollo Beach, FL. In the wild I've seen them at random in different places. I want to say I've seen them somewhat near mangrove wildernesses and the outlets of rivers. They should be where the sea grasses grow so you can look at a map and see from satellite view that that tends not to be beaches for example.
If you go over a long tall bridge on a day that is somewhat calm - especially near dusk - you can often spot one. Certain areas like the seawall along Vinoy Park in St.Petersburg you can see them hunt, off the beaches in St.Pete, one likes to show off if you take the ferry to Caladessi Island State Park, often they will follow the bows of boats or hang out at bridges to eat while people fish.
Sharks and Rays
Jaws makes you think they cruise around near the surface but they almost never do that. I've often wished I had the power to see through water when on a tall bridge to see how many bull sharks are around - because I know they are in there. The only place I've seen sharks is while wading at night or dusk at Skyway Bridge Rest Areas with a huge light. I saw bonnet head sharks (very very small hammerheads that eat clams), guitarfish which are like a cross between a shark and a ray. Stingrays and manta rays you see anywhere in shallow water with a sandy bottom. They aren't so common at big sandy beaches - it's ones protected from surf with sea grasses. That's probably why most people I've known to be stung were water skiiing at causeways.
Florida Panther / Cougar
My understanding is that they are basically just in Big Cypress and related areas. I read males can roam a long distances however.
There is a good map here. The big hotspots are the national forests and areas connected to them. Ocala National Forest (1000 bears), Apalachicola (650), Big Cypress (800). Ocala is probably the most accessible for people. The Florida Black Bear is a subspecies but it's basically just a slightly smaller black bear. We're trying to go to places to see them or at least their tracks. We might have seen some tracks at Rock Springs Run but it was unclear. We have seen where they ripped the bark off trees at Juniper Springs in Ocala NF.
Only in the panhandle - never seen one.
You'll see them if you look up at bat houses at many parks and every night at dusk everywhere. As a child they came down our chimney and hung out on furniture a couple times - both times I thought they were rubber toys until they hissed at me. Other than that you don't usually get to see them. If they land on you see a doctor about a rabies shot because that is a thing that happens.
There are some rhesus macaques that live on an island in Silver Springs. One ran off and was a mascot for Tampa Bay as it was spotted all over for a year or two. I've heard of them being somewhere else - I want to say in the everglades but I can't seem to find any mention - I think they were Vervet monkeys.
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