Stretching out over 67,000 acres of undisturbed slash pine flatwoods, cypress-laden marshes, and barren palmetto and oak scrub, lies Babcock Ranch Preserve, one of Florida’s largest and most biodiverse swaths of undeveloped land. Numerous creatures call these habitats their home, from the regal looking black swallowtail butterfly, to the endangered Florida panther. Because of its close proximity to the preserve, lots of these animals inhabit the myriad hiking trails and parks that lace the community, and residents are often treated to interactions with these incredible critters. So grab a friend (human or canine), and step outside for an intimate look at old Florida.
Hiking the gorgeous Bill Hammond Trail is almost always a surefire way to observe some of these animals, if you know where to look. Running through miles of rugged terrain, the Bill Hammond Trail provides a striking example of Florida’s vastly varied ecosystems, and an awesome place to exercise your dogs. In the dense palmetto scrub sprinkled with long leaf and slash pine, keep your eyes peeled for the gopher tortoise and marsh rabbit. Gopher tortoises are large, land dwelling reptiles that make their homes underground, in deep and complex burrows. These burrows are often coinhabited by many other creatures, and play an important role in the ecosystem. Juvenile tortoises appear brighter in color, sporting black-bordered orangish tan splotches on their shells that dull with age and sun exposure. Male tortoises can be identified by a concave dip in their “tummies”, whereas females have flat bottom plates. A remarkably long life span of 60 years allows these reptiles to grow up to 15 inches and weigh over 10 pounds. Pups love to investigate the tortoises as they lumber loudly through the brush. Just make sure that Fido shows some respect to his shelled brethren, these reptiles are federally listed as threatened!A beneficiary of the tortoise’s hard work, the marsh rabbit is a Florida native mammal that likes to dwell in the tunnels dug by the gophers. Dogs love to watch them dart out of their holes and through the dense underbrush. These rabbits are typically smaller than their relative the cottontail, usually weighing around 2.5 pounds. They are tawny in appearance, perfectly camouflaged for their surroundings. Strictly herbivorous, they consume anything from the bulbous roots of cattails, to several species of native grass. These critters are a common sighting even within the community of Babcock, frequenting the native grasses planted along sidewalks, and sometimes the backyards of lucky residents. They can get your canine pretty excited, so be sure to keep a firm grip on the leash, and be prepared for some doggy vocalization!
When the trail snakes by one of the many ponds or lakes dotted throughout Babcock, be on the lookout for the Sunshine State’s largest reptile. Needless to say, move with caution around gently sloping lakeside banks and murky waters when with your pets. The American alligator, which makes its home across 10 southern states, is Florida’s most notorious pond dweller. Growing in excess of 15 feet and weighing over 1,000 pounds, the American alligator has inspired fear and awe across generations. The creature is capable of exerting almost 3,000 PSI through its hydraulic press-like jaws, and has even been known to haul bears into the depths before devouring them. Apart from their lethal attributes, these animals are reputed to make extraordinary mothers. When the young alligators first emerge from their eggs, the mother will collect her brood atop her long scaly snout, and keep them there, ensuring their safety from predators (which include other alligators). The mating pairs will also demonstrate fidelity, with one pair sticking together from 1997 to 2005! As long as a safe distance is maintained, and a short leash is kept on your dog, these animals make for exceptional viewing in the wild.
With all of these remarkable creatures quite literally living in your backyards, make sure you make time to see them this summer. It’s worth cutting through the sultry humidity and the ubiquitous mosquitoes to get an unadulterated taste of old Florida. Your dogs will thank you!