Sandhill Cranes are often seen foraging in pairs.
Visitors are likely to see white-tailed deer that frequently wander by the Conservation Center. The more secretive bobcat often leaves telltale scat on the boardwalk that leads through the swamp to May’s Prairie. Higher up in the surrounding sandhill, gopher tortoises, one of many protected species found here, browse near their half-moon-shaped burrows.
Listen for the pinewoods treefrog and its Morse-code-like “dot and dash” from high in the trees. Observant viewers can sometimes see wild turkey disappearing among the oaks and pines or roosting in the cypress that fringes May’s Prairie. Watch for the striking red and black plumage of the red-headed woodpecker. Because May’s Prairie occasionally dries out, fish are rare, making it a sanctuary for thousands of amphibians, including pig and bull frogs, barking treefrogs, squirrel treefrogs, dwarf sirens and tiger salamanders. After heavy fall and winter rains, you can hear the snoring-like call of the gopher frog, a species of special concern.
A stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail site, Chinsegut’s May’s Prairie is also home to the sandhill crane, white ibis, wood duck, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, hooded merganser, herons and egrets. Chinsegut is a choice location for seeing migratory as well as resident birds. Migrants include the black-and-white warbler, indigo bunting, blackpoll warbler, redstart and Cape May warbler. Nesting species include the summer tanager, white-eyed vireo, eastern towhee, pine warbler and northern parula warbler.
Wildlife Spotlight: Gopher Tortoise
Regular prescribed burning benefits gopher tortoises
and the many organisms that share their burrows.
Within the dark, cool, tunnel-like burrows of the gopher tortoise, more than 350 kinds of organisms find food and protection from predators, temperature extremes and fire. The list includes insects, snakes, frogs, mammals, and birds, some of which could not survive without the gopher tortoise. This reptilian earthmover uses its strong, flattened forelimbs like hoes to excavate the burrow, approximately 15 feet long (but may be more than 40 feet long) and seven feet deep. Females lay eggs in May and June in the sandy mounds surrounding burrows or in nearby open, sunny spots.
The gopher tortoise is found in parts of all 67 counties in Florida. Unsuitable habitat and increased urbanization restrict its distribution in the southern parts of the peninsula. Though found in a variety of habitats, natural stands of longleaf pine and scrub oaks are favored. Loose, sandy soils for burrowing, an abundance of low-growing herbs for food, and open, sunny areas for nesting characterize the best habitats.
Over the last 100 years, the gopher tortoise population has been reduced by an estimated 60-80 percent. Habitat loss or destruction from urbanization, agriculture and forestry practices; human predation; and habitat degradation from the exclusion of fire are the primary culprits. In the past, gopher tortoises in Florida were captured for use in tortoise races or were killed and eaten. Such harvesting is prohibited today and the tortoise is listed by the state as a Threatened species, protected under state law. The gopher frog, eastern indigo snake, and Florida mouse are some of the other state or federally listed burrow residents.
Regular prescribed burning is essential to provide tortoises with open sites for nesting and with low growing grasses and herbs for forage. Protection of the gopher tortoise and its habitats extends a measure of protection to hundreds of other creatures as well.