A mangrove tree crab clings to the branch of a mangrove tree on March 14, on Caladesi Island in Florida.  Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

The heat and brightness of the sun vanished as our kayak glided into a mangrove forest. A tangle of long, arcing roots bordered the narrow channel, reaching into the saltwater. Above, a canopy of brown branches and light green leaves formed a roof to the tunnel.

“Do you see the crabs? They’re climbing the trees,” said my husband, Derek, after several minutes of paddling.

With a blade of his paddle, Derek pointed to a crab creeping up the thick roots of a nearby mangrove. The googly-eyed creature froze for a few seconds, then zipped up the tree with alarming speed.

I glanced up, wondering just how many crabs clung to the branches over our heads and, more importantly, how often they fell. But I shrugged it off, too excited about our adventure to be worried about raining crabs.

A flamingo stretches its wings while standing with its flock on March 18, in the Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg, Florida. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Behind us, Derek’s mom, Geneva, paddled her own rented kayak. The three of us had traveled to Florida in search of sunshine and warmth, as many Mainers do in March. The mangrove forests of Caladesi Island State Park had been high on our list of places to visit.

Home to sandy beaches and plenty of wildlife, Caladesi Island is only accessible by boat or — as we would later discover — by foot, if you take a 4-mile walk at low tide from the nearby Clearwater Beach.

That morning, on the ferry ride to Caladesi, I photographed brown pelicans as they floated in the ocean. With a wingspan of about 6 1/2 feet, the massive birds are rarely spotted in Maine. In Florida, they are abundant. They remind me of pterodactyls.

We also glimpsed dolphins — a female and its baby, the ferry captain told us. He knew because the dolphins remained nearly attached at the hip, surfacing side by side. Dolphins have very small pelvic bones, which are technically hips. I Googled it. I Googled a lot of strange things for this column.

A white ibis stands in a mangrove tree on March 14, on Caladesi Island in Florida.  Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

When we arrived on the island, the first thing we did was rent kayaks to explore the 3-mile water trail through the mangroves. Following numbered signs through a maze of tunnels, we paddled the entire route.

In addition to spotting hundreds of mangrove tree crabs, we paddled past several white ibises perched in the trees. The birds’ long, bright red legs matched their curving bills, which — you guessed it — are great for snatching up tree crabs.

Other animals we spotted that day include little blue herons, tri-colored herons, double-crested cormorants and laughing gulls. But the star of the island was the large gopher tortoise that lived in a burrow by the gift shop. We watched as it lumbered across the lawn, eating grass at a surprisingly fast pace.

A large gopher tortoise crawls across the lawn near the gift shop on Caladesi Island on March 14, in Florida.  Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

“Do you think they even have to mow?” Geneva wondered.

Gopher tortoises are long-lived reptiles that dig huge burrows. On average, the burrows are 15 feet long and 6.4 feet deep, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but some as large as 40 feet long and 10 feet deep have been documented.

In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as threatened and protected. They’re also a keystone species, since they share their burrows with more than 350 other species.

Along the west coast of Florida, the places to view wildlife and tropical plants are numerous. It was difficult to decide among the many preserves, gardens, parks and zoos when we only had five days of vacation to fill.

I’m especially glad we chose to wander the 100-year-old Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg, home to some of the oldest tropical plants in the region. The gardens feature more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, as well as manmade waterfalls and a flock of flamingos. It reminded me of Pandora, the lush planet featured in the sci-fi movie “Avatar.”  

A spiny orb-weaver spider sits at the center of its web on March 18, in the Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg, Florida. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

While plants were our focus in the gardens, I couldn’t help but notice a black racer snake as it darted after a lizard. I also may have laid on the ground to photograph a spiny orb weaver from beneath its web. The small spider is covered with bright red spikes. We don’t get them in Maine.

When Derek asked me what my goals were for our Florida vacation, I could only come up with one thing: see a lizard.

It was an easily attainable goal. Florida is filled with lizards, but I find it special because we don’t have any lizards in Maine. We do, however, have salamanders and newts.

I photographed many lizards. Most, if not all, of them were brown anoles, which are common in Florida. The species can rapidly change the color of its skin. During our walk at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg, I saw them range in color from tan to nearly black. I also witnessed a male anole expand its throat pouch, which was orangey-red.

A brown anole lizard puffs out its throat fan on March 18, in Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Alligators were another highlight of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. Standing on wooden boardwalks and bridges, we found at least a dozen swimming through the preserve’s wetlands and small ponds. Compared with some of the massive alligators I’ve seen at the zoo, they were quite small — dare I say cute?

The preserve was filled with birds, some of which we rarely if ever see in Maine. American coots and gallinules, for example, swam among the alligators. Boat-tailed grackles cried out in the trees, joined by anhingas. A limpkin hid in the tall grasses.

An alligator sits just under the water. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

When it was time to return to Maine, I was a little sad to leave Florida’s unfamiliar wilderness behind. There, even the most common creatures and plants were new and exciting to me. Crabs that climb trees? Who knew?


Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...