5 places in Polk to see gopher tortoises
POLK COUNTY — Gopher tortoises are probably the most accommodating creatures to be found in Florida.
They share their homes with spiders, skunks and even rattlesnakes.
Unfortunately for the rugged reptiles, their required habitat — high and dry land — is the territory most prone to human development in a low-lying and watery state. Much of their habitat has been bulldozed and paved in recent decades, and the declining population has led gopher tortoises to be listed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a threatened species.
That means the animals and their burrows are protected under state law.
Gopher tortoises, lumbering creatures with rounded and patterned shells ranging in hue from yellowish tan to dark gray, reach a length of about 12 inches. The reptiles use their powerful forelimbs and sharp claws to dig burrows extending as far as 40 feet and reaching depths of 10 feet.
The football-shaped hole serving as the burrow’s entrance typically has a fringe of excavated sand.
Though less plentiful across Florida than they used to be, gopher tortoises still abound in many of Polk County’s undeveloped areas. Here, in no particular order, are some of the publicly accessible places you’re most likely to see one.
NO. 1: Lakeland Highlands Scrub
This 551-acre conservation area in South Lakeland is part of the Polk County Environmental Lands network. It lies along the Lakeland Ridge, one of several remnants of the prehistoric peninsula forming what is often called Florida’s backbone.
The ridge setting makes Lakeland Highlands Scrub relatively elevated land typified by the sandy soil in which gopher tortoises can build their burrows.
Burrow openings can be seen near sections of the property’s two trails. The Shady Oak Trail, beginning near the parking area, is only six-tenths of a mile long and winds through a xeric hammock dominated by short varieties of oak trees. The Tortoise Trail covers a 2.2-mile loop through flatwoods marked by open, sandy land dotted by saw palmettos and longleaf pines as well as scrub habitat typified by thick, white sand.
The details: Lakeland Highlands Scrub, 6998 Lakeland Highlands Road, Lakeland, is open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.
NO. 2: Tiger Creek Preserve
The Nature Conservancy owns and manages this 4,869-acre property, situated on the eastern edge of the Lake Wales Ridge in Babson Park. The varied landscape includes scrubby flatwoods, pine flatwoods, sandhill and longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, ecosystems in which gopher tortoises thrive.
Tiger Creek also provides habitat for the Florida scrub jay, the state’s only endemic bird species.
The property has enough trails for hours of hiking. The 7.2-mile Highlands Trail traverses open pine woods and other uplands ecosystems, and the 2-mile Heron Pond Loop Trail passes through longleaf pine and turkey oak territory on some of the preserve’s highest points.
The half-mile George Cooley Trail passes through scrubby flatwoods as well as wetter areas.
The details: Tiger Creek Preserve, 674 Pfundstein Road, Babson Park, is open during daylight hours. Admission is free.
NO. 3: Bok Tower Gardens
The 50-acre attraction in Lake Wales is best known for its carefully cultivated flowering gardens (and its centerpiece, the stately Singing Tower). Yet the property also preserves a portion of the sandy habitat that once covered the area.
The three-quarter mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail winds through rolling terrain dominated by longleaf pine and turkey oak, species that thrive in the upland habitat preferred by gopher tortoises. The trail also offers glimpses of saw palmetto, scrub oak and wiregrass.
Hikers are likely to see the openings of gopher tortoise burrows in the reddish soil of the sandhill areas. The reptiles can sometimes be seen near the main road leading to the visitor center.
The details: Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd. in Lake Wales, is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $3 for children ages 5 through 12.
NO. 4: Crooked Lake Sandhill
This 25-acre preserve in Babson Park is another segment of the Polk County Environmental Lands network. With a top elevation of 215 feet, the property overlooks its eponymous lake.
As its name suggests, the property is an example of sandhill habitat, an expanse of grasses and wildflowers with scattered growths of longleaf pine and turkey oak.
The site has a single hiking path, the Turkey Oak Sink Trail, covering eight-tenths of a mile. Many endangered species of plants live in the yellow sands of the preserve, where gopher tortoise forage among the vegetation.
The details: Crooked Lake Sandhill, 801 Hollister Road, Babson Park, is open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.
NO. 5: Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park
The name is lengthy, as befitting a vast property. The park near Haines City covers more than 8,000 acres along the Lake Wales Ridge.
The mixed terrain includes scrub, sandhill and flatwoods ecosystems, along with small areas of wetlands. Like other preserved lands along the ridge, the park provides habitat for many rare and imperiled plants, such as pygmy fringe tree, and animals, such as Florida scrub jays and sand skinks.
The park has about 6 miles of hiking trails.
The details: Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, 4335 Firetower Road in Haines City, is open daily from 8 a.m. until sundown. Admission is free.
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. He blogs about tourism at http://tourism.blogs.theledger.com. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.