World Wildlife Day is the perfect time to take a closer look at the inhabitants that make their home in Hillsborough County’s conservation parks, nature preserves, and even your backyard. Here are 10 of the mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish you might come across in the county’s untamed areas:
These large reptiles are found throughout Florida in fresh and brackish water. Adult alligators can run up to 35 miles per hour and have 80 teeth. Females seldom exceed 10 feet in length, but males can grow much larger. Their diet is fish, amphibians, mammals, and birds. Both admired and feared, alligators are a symbol of the state and the mascot of University of Florida athletic teams.
Barred owls are known for their distinctive playful hooting. Paired mates engage by calling back and forth to each other. They prefer living in swamp habitat but can also be found in woodlands. These owls usually hunt at dawn or dusk and prefer a diet of small mammals. Set your sights on a barred owl during the next Avian Adventure at
Lettuce Lake Conservation Park.
Although bobcats are common inhabitants of forests, hammocks, and swamps, they are rarely seen. Bobcats are double the size of domestic cats. Their territory in the wild ranges to about 6 miles but is minimized in urban and suburban areas. Their diet includes ground-dwelling birds and small mammals such as rodents. It’s a rare thrill to catch a glimpse of these finicky felines.
Fortunately, few venomous snakes call Florida home. One that does is the coral snake, which shares the same black, red, and yellow stripes as the nonvenomous king snake. The important distinction is that the red and yellow bands touch on a coral snake, and the red and black bands touch on the king snake. They are docile creatures and likely to be fearful of humans.
These gentle reptiles live in upland habitat throughout Florida. Their deep burrows provide refuge for more than 350 other species. They often are found on or near roads, where it is sunny and warm. Gopher Tortoises are frequently seen chomping on grass at the Bell Creek and Camp Bayo nature preserves.
These major mammals typically grow to 9-10 feet long and weigh about half a ton. They eat aquatic plants and breathe air, surfacing every 3-5 minutes when active. See them in the winter in warm Tampa Bay waters, most prominently at the Manatee Viewing Center, just north of Apollo Beach.
Florida Red-tailed Hawk
The Florida red-tailed hawk is a beauty to behold. As a non-migratory bird, they can be found year-round locally. They remain in the same 2- to 10square-mile territory throughout their life and are highly adaptive, living in various environments such as grasslands, parks, and woodlands while dining on small mammals and reptiles. A favorite is rattlesnake. Red-tailed hawks are master thieves who aren’t beyond stealing a snack from other raptors.
A big mouth with a protruding jaw that reaches past the eye, a high dorsal fin, slopping forehead, and a black line extending from gill to tail are the signature characteristics of Snook. The fish can grow up to 48 inches and reach 50 pounds. Their habitat is inshore waters such as beaches, mangroves, and seagrass beds. Fish and large crustaceans make up their diet. They can tolerate freshwater, but will not survive temperatures below 60 degrees.
Diamondback terrapin are distinguished by the concentric ring pattern on their shell with knobs lining their backs. Three of the five Florida subspecies can be found in local brackish habitats, such as coastal marshes, mangroves, and tidal creeks. Diamondback terrapin enjoy clams, crabs, fish, mussels, snails, worms, and plants. Learn more at the Diamondback Terrapin exhibit at
Upper Tampa Bay Park.
Though a common site, white-tailed deer add a bit of a thrill to outdoor time. When alarmed, they move their erect tails back and forth as if waving a white flag before running off. Most often seen at dusk or dawn in habitats where young, low-growing vegetation is found, it is easy to distinguish males from females. Males are often adorned with antlers. Many of Hillsborough County’s nature preserves have these mammals frolicking within.
Enjoy wildlife viewing at a distance. Get a closer look with binoculars or a camera’s zoom lens.
Many animals are most active at dawn or dusk, providing the best times for darkness viewing.
Move slowly, keep quiet, and don’t look directly at an animal.
If an animal stops its activity or moves away, you are too close.
Always keep dogs on a leash.
To read more stories about Hillsborough County conservation parks and preserves, subscribe to The Trailblazer