The Peace River watershed is home to an extraordinary assortment of plants and animals. Some are common; some are extremely rare.
The riverbanks are lined with palmettos, cypress, water locust, sweet gum, cabbage palm and live oak. Some of the trees have dark, muddy skirts, the high-water marks of the seasonal floods. Coreopsis, the state wildflower, is widespread; its delicate yellow blooms brighten the banks year-round. Nearing the estuary, red, black and white mangroves appear, increasing in abundance as the water becomes more salty, outcompeting other vegetation until the forest consists almost entirely of mangroves.
A handful of Florida black bears still prowl the swamps and flatwoods, though they’re secretive, solitary and rarely seen. Raccoons, opossums, armadillos and white-tailed deer, on the other hand, are plentiful, providing prey for the Florida panthers that occasionally wander up from the Everglades or the Big Cypress Swamp, driven by some ancient instinct.
Gray foxes are among the watershed’s more successful predators. Blessed with an impartial, undiscriminating palate, they’ll eat just about anything they can catch. They’re expert tree climbers, sometimes hiding in live oaks or the crowns of cabbage palms during the day, descending to hunt when night falls.
Gopher tortoises find the watershed’s sandy soil ideal for their long, deep burrows, which they’re known to share with over 350 other animal species, including birds, insects, small mammals, snakes and frogs.
Sandhill cranes are a common sight in the watershed’s pastures and grasslands. Most are migratory, but a small number choose to remain here year-round.
The limpkin is another permanent resident. A peculiar wading bird with mottled brown plumage, its eerie cry, a high-pitched “keerrowwww... keerrowwww...,” was often heard in old Tarzan movies. For Peace River limpkins, the living is easy. They eat mostly applesnails, and there’s always a good crop.
But of all the native species that make their living in the Peace River and its tributaries, none is more spectacular than the Florida manatee.
Researchers believe the Florida manatee population is approximately 2,500 and although they’re critically endangered, manatees are common in the Charlotte Harbor estuary, where they congregate during the winter. In January they journey up the Peace or one of its sister rivers, seeking warm, tranquil waters and tasty aquatic weeds. In the spring they wander back to the estuary and into the Gulf. Then they follow the coastline north or south, for reasons that are still a mystery.
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