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Natural Habitats in Florida
The East Coast of Florida is protected from the Atlantic by a string of barrier islands. These taper off like giant stepping stones into the gentle curve of the Florida Keys, to Key West which is just 90 miles from Cuba. The southern tip of the peninsula holds the Everglades, a vast swampland region stretching over 10 million acres which crumbles into the labyrinthine waterways of the Ten Thousand Islands region nestled in the lee of the lower West Coast. A smattering of sandbars and islands line the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico’ while the northern Gulf shore, bordering the Panhandle, offers some of the finest barrier island beaches of all, sparkling white quartz sand washed down from the Appalachian Mountains going back over thousands of years. Areas of these magnificent coastal dunes are protected as part of the Gulf National Seashore.
The Everglades are marooned amid the waving sea of grass, patches of brilliant green denote the presence of hardwood ‘hammocks’ which is the local name for stands of trees which have found a slightly elevated limestone outcrop on which to take root. Just a few feet or several acres in size, they are a refuge for bobcats, deer, hawks, owls and other wildlife. Pinelands and areas of cypress swamp (one of the finest for sightseeing purposes is Corkscrew Swamp) also provide useful animal habitats. Coastal mangrove forests flourish where the Everglades meet the Gulf. The nutrient rich brackish water trapped in the mangroves’ complex root system creates an ideal habitat for numerous native animals and birds.
The mangrove lined back bays of the West Coast are a fascinating unofficial wildlife refuge teeming with fish and wading birds. This is a favourite haunt of manatees too. These 3, 000lb sea cows enjoy a plentiful supply of river weed and water hyacinths in the warmer waters. On the Gulf, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva are renowned for their seashell beaches, as is Cayo Costa State Park, where sea turtles lay their eggs. Pine Island South is a favourite of the friendly bottle nosed dolphin.
The Florida Keys are a 150 mile chain of fossilised coral rock islands, short on beaches but fringed by reeefs. Vegetation is sparse with pockets of tropical hardwoods, slash pine, mangroves and prickly pears. Midway up the East Coast naturalists should not miss two exceptional protected areas; the Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Absolutely wonderful.
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