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Image: Rob Jones

All sorts of wildlife, from dangerous reptiles to exotic birds, flourish in Southwest Florida. You can spot some species right in your own back yard, but the farther you get from civilization, the more you’ll see. We asked naturalist John McCarthy to tell us about some common—and uncommon—animals to look for on your next

PILEATED WOODPECKER. The largest of the local woodpeckers, with a hammer-like iridescent red head (think Woody Woodpecker). Often heard and seen in pairs, knocking loudly on trees and power poles as they seek insects.

RACCOON. Native Americans and distantly related to bears, these bold, nocturnal critters thrive everywhere. You might spot them with their babies inside a mangrove forest or even swimming across a waterway.

BOBCAT. A rare sighting along woodland trails early in the morning or near sunset (stay back or it will disappear into the brush). It’s about 18 inches tall—bigger than a tomcat—and prefers to eat rabbits but can take down a deer. 

WILD TURKEY. You may (rarely) spot turkeys in the wild or even some local parks. Despite their size, they are excellent fliers. You may hear them gobble before you see them.

BLACK BEAR. This mostly shy mammal with a distinctive brown nose feeds on everything from sabal palm berries to bumblebees and carpenter ants. An exciting but rare sight in Sarasota’s ranch and park lands.

WHITE TAILED DEER. A fairly common sight in natural areas like Myakka River State Park. Best time to see: mornings and evenings. If you see one, others may be around, so be quiet and patient.

NINE-BANDED ARMADILLO. Armadillos, who made their way here from their native South America, are sometimes heard scurrying around in the saw palmettos, and are easily startled by hikers. Their leathery shell makes them look a bit like a strange turtle. 

GOPHER TORTOISE. Look for the burrows of this threatened species in elevated places, including along the Legacy Trail. They come out to feed during the hot part of the day to avoid predators. 

RIVER OTTER. Sleek black river otters live in our rivers and in mangroves along our salt water and estuarine bays. Energetic and athletic, they’re often hard to spot but a joy to watch feeding and cavorting.

SOUTHERN BLACK RACER. Agile, swift black racers are often seen in woodlands and back yards. Harmless to humans, they eat frogs, lizards and rodents (a good reason not to kill them) and are hunted by hawks. 

ALLIGATOR. These ancient reptiles are common in rivers and lakes, sunning themselves on shorelines or hidden below the surface with only their eyes exposed. They appear lazy and slow but can exhibit incredible bursts of speed. Keep your distance!

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