Wildlife Watching

Where the Wild Things Are

Enjoy watching feathered treasures at one of our many birding “hot spots,” trek through one of our many swamps, or cast away on one of our 554 lakes.

Our outdoor scene is like a box of chocolates - full of diversity and surprises – good surprises. Many amateur photographers have stepped up their game with the abundance of “subjects” there are to shoot in our lovely lands.

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.

Wildlife Watching in Central Florida
Wildlife Watching in Central Florida

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. 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.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
Lake Kissimmee State Park
  • 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.
Lake Wales Ridge State Forest Arbuckle Tract
Lake Wales Ridge State Forest Arbuckle Tract
  • 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.

Call of the Wild

As the fourth largest county in Florida, Polk County is home to diverse natural communities. Within a span of a few minutes you can go from a freshwater marsh on the shores of a lake, to a desert-like scrub habitat.

Poster Image for Deer at Lake Kissimmee State Park

If wildlife is what you’re searching for, take time to trek through some of our more distinct natural ecosystems, including:

The Lake Wales RidgeThousands 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 in our Central Florida ecosystems? Our 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.

Westgate River Ranch Resort Airboat Ride
Westgate River Ranch Resort Airboat Ride

Airboat Tours

Take an airboat ride and experience the Florida that few see. These fast, flat-bottomed boats can take you into shallow areas not usually accessible by other means. Spot turtles, birds and plant life as you glide across the water. Join an airboat tour with one of the many tour operators located in Polk County.

Wildlife Watching in Central Florida
Wildlife Watching in Central Florida

Our Top 6 Favorite Wildlife Viewing Areas

Insider Tip: The best time for wildlife viewing is at dawn or dusk, when animals are most active.