Best Places to See Wildlife in Central Florida
Enjoy watching feathered treasures at one of our many birding “hot spots,” trek through one of our many swamps to see alligators, or fish for bass on one of our 554 lakes.
Polk County's outdoor scene is full of diversity and surprises for locals who hit our trails on a regular basis, and people discovering our area for the first time during their Central Florida vacation.
More than 300 bird species have been recorded in Polk County, and since Florida is a winter home for many migrating bird species, visitors can see an assortment of birds no matter what time of year they vacation.
Birding Hot Spots
- Lakeland’s very popular Circle B Bar Reserve is 1,267-acres of marsh, cypress swamp and oak hammock and home to thousands of wading birds, ibises, ducks, shorebirds and bald eagles. (Circle B is also a popular place to see alligators in their natural habitat.) Recognized by USA Today Travel as one of the 51 Great Places to See Wildlife, Circle B Bar Reserve is considered one of the best places for birding in Central Florida.
- Most of the birds found in the Green Swamp, like summer tanagers and Carolina chickadees, can be found at Gator Creek Reserve in North Lakeland.
- South Lakeland’s Lakeland Highlands Scrub protects the largest remaining contiguous tract of the historic Lakeland Ridge. It’s also home to a small population of red-tailed hawks and palm warblers.
- In Lake Kissimmee State Park, one of Polk County’s three state parks, you might spot a wide variety of birds ranging from bald eagles to turkey and bobwhites. In the parks’ lake and picnic areas, spot wading birds and snail kites, as well as song bird migrants and crested caracara. With more than 200-species of birds, this state park is one of the best birding areas in central Florida.
- Situated on Polk County’s only state-designated “Outstanding Florida Water Body,” Crooked Lake Prairie in Lake Wales is home to the less common northern harriers and kingfishers.
- At SUMICA, a 4,031-acre wilderness preserve in Lake Wales, expect to see Florida wild turkey, Bachman’s sparrow, towhees and short-tailed hawks.
- In the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest you’ll find Florida scrub-jays and short-tailed hawks, towhees and migratory songbirds. Trails will lead you through songbird habitat to Lake Arbuckle for waders, eagles, limpkins and ducks.
- Saddle Creek Park in Lakeland is one of the finest fall birding sites in interior Central Florida, home to more than 36 different warbler species and it’s well-known by birders statewide.
See more illustration videos at Drawn to Central Florida.
Call of the Wild
As the fourth largest county in Florida, Polk County is home to diverse natural communities. Within a span of 30-minutes, visitors can go from a freshwater marsh on the shores of a lake, to a desert-like scrub habitat. We are in the middle of everything a nature lover would want to experience during a Central Florida vacation.
If wildlife is what you’re searching for, take time to trek through some of our more distinct natural ecosystems, including:
The Lake Wales Ridge – Thousands of years ago, nearly the entire Florida peninsula was covered by ocean. A central ridge remained above water, which allowed plants and animals on this ridge to evolve in isolation. This unique ecosystem continued to thrive once the oceans receded. Some believe that today, undeveloped areas of the ridge have the highest concentration of rare and endangered plants in the U.S. Many species that remain are found nowhere else on earth.
Floodplain Swamps – Ever wondered what those little nubby tree looking things are rising out of the soil of Central Florida wetlands? They are the “knees” of the bald cypress and tupelo, which are both native to our Floodplain swamps.
Wet Prairie – The transition from our freshwater lakes to uplands is home to our wet prairie habitat. This gently sloping-to-flat land is often dominated by dense wiregrass and spectacular wildflowers.
Scrubby Flatwoods – Scrubby Flatwoods are characterized by flat areas with an open canopy of widely spaced longleaf pine trees and an understory dense with saw palmetto, gallberry, scrub oak and wiregrass.
So what type of wildlife can you find while vacationing in Central Florida? Polk County's parks and wildlife management areas are home to gopher tortoise, turkey, great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, eastern indigo snakes, scrub lizards, Sherman’s fox squirrel, otters, and white-tailed deer.
Eco Sightseeing Tours
Book an eco tour and cruise Winter Haven's Chain of Lakes on a pontoon boat with Scott Taylor of TMC Guide Services. The Chain of Lakes tour begins on Lake Summit, near LEGOLAND Florida Resort, and allows visitors to see beautiful lakefront homes, ospreys, eagles, and occasionally visitors can catch a glimpse of an alligator.
TMC Guide Services also offers bass fishing charters on Lake Kissimmee as well as inshore flats fishing charters out of Charlotte Harbor.
Take an airboat ride and experience the real Florida that isn't visible in big cities and over-crowded attractions. Airboats are fast, flat-bottomed boats that take visitors into shallow areas not usually accessible by other means. Spot turtles, alligators, birds and plant life as you glide across the water. Book an airboat tour with one of the many tour operators located in Polk County.
Our Top 6 Favorite Wildlife Viewing Areas
- Circle B Bar Reserve
- Colt Creek State Park
- The Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area’s Hampton Tract and East Tract
- Lake Kissimmee State Park
- Lake Wales Ridge State Forest’s Arbuckle Tract and Walk-in-the-Water Tract
- Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park
Insider Tip: The best time for wildlife viewing is at dawn or dusk, when animals are most active.