For the vacationer hoping to see wildlife, you cannot do much better than Northwest Florida. The Panhandle lies between the temperate Appalachian region and the subtropical Florida peninsula. The mixing of these two ecosystems produces an area of diverse wildlife and unique species found nowhere else in the southern United States.
The upland habitats of the two county area were once dominated by longleaf pine forest. Deer, black bear, and bobcat are quite common. Though much of the longleaf is gone, many areas have been protected and visitors can view wildlife along miles of trails found in the Blackwater State Forest. This is the home of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. Nature lovers can view the man-made boxes built to help the recovery of this bird and, if you visit at the right time of day, you may even see this elusive fellow. Sherman fox squirrels are increasing and are often seen by hikers. The threatened gopher tortoise’s burrows—the dwelling of over 300 other species—can be found throughout the region. This region highlighted by four species of carnivorous pitcher plants and many butterfly and hummingbird-attracting wildflowers.
There are over 100,000 acres of wetlands along the river systems in EscaRosa. They are dominated by cypress swamp where the wildlife searcher can find a wide variety of birds, including Mississippi kites and the bald eagle. Alligators, snakes, and 17 different species of aquatic turtles (one of the highest species richness you will find in Florida) can be found here. Numerous blooming flowers and interesting insects can be found here as well. Along with hiking trails many of these locations can be accessed by canoe/kayaks and there are several outfitters in the area to assist.
These wetlands blend with the coastal communities when you enter the bay. Cypress swamp becomes salt marsh, and in the open bay, seagrass meadows. Salt marshes are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the coastal community. Here you can find a wide variety of birds including the osprey and brown pelicans. For those with a sharp eye this is the haunt of the elusive diamondback terrapin. Alligators can still be found in these brackish waters and occasionally bottlenose dolphin will be seen. Along the barrier island the conditions become more marine and dolphin are more common. Shorebirds such as terns and black skimmers are frequently seen. Though you are away from the woodlands, many woodland birds are found on the island and there is nothing like a beach walk to find interesting creatures. For those willing to enter the water, both counties now have nearshore artificial reefs for snorkelers to view interesting submerged marine life. Santa Rosa Island is the beginning of the Florida Trail and there are easy access and walking conditions to be found here. There are kayak/paddleboard outfitters for those who wish to get a bird’s eye view of the bay bottom and dive shops where mask and snorkels can be rented.