Birds of a feather flock together, at least that’s how the saying goes. Floridians embrace the native wildlife. For those who appreciate the Sunshine State’s fauna, here’s a short list of the best festivals celebrating Florida wildlife.
Florida Manatee Festival, Crystal River, in January
Crystal River is recognized for its abundant manatee population and the Florida Manatee Festival celebrates all that is wonderful about the lovable sea cows.
The two-day festival includes two stages with musical performances, entertainment, food vendors, kid zone, boat tours of King’s Bay, and bus tours to the Three Sisters Springs property to view the manatees from the boardwalk. An admission fee is collected. Tours to Three Sisters Springs is free. (Historic Downtown Crystal River, N. Citrus Ave., Crystal River, Fla., 34428; Tel: (352) 795-3149; www.gomanateefest.com)
Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, Titusville, in January
Recognized by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeastern U.S., the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is one of the largest birding and wildlife festivals in the country. The five-day event includes field trips, workshops, and presentations. Learn tips from professional photographers or join a biologist for an on the water field trip. An admission fee is collected. (Eastern Florida State College, adjacent to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, 1311 U.S. 1, Titusville, Fla. 32796; Tel: (321) 268-5224; www.scbwf.org)
Note about the 2019 festival: The partial federal government shutdown may impact activities and organizers are working on alternative options.
Florida Scrub-Jay Festival, Titusville, in February
The Florida Scrub-jay is the state’s only endemic bird and it’s estimated fewer than 8,000 remain in the world. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce host the free Florida Scrub-Jay Festival in downtown Titusville. The one-day festival includes https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/ nature exhibits, refuge tours, hikes, watercolor art exhibit, children’s area, and live music. (Titusville Welcome Center, 419 South Hopkins Ave., Titusville, Fla. 32780; Tel: (321) 861-0668; www.fws.gov/merrittisland)
Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival, Sopchoppy in April
The early bird gets the worm and so does the worm grunter. The Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival attracts thousands of visitors curious in seeing the famed Sopchoppy worms rise from the ground. Also called worm charming or worm fiddling, a worm grunter vibrates the ground causing the worms to rise and they are collected to be sued as fishing bait.
A wooden stake, called a “stob” is driven into the ground and rubbed with a “rooping iron” to cause the vibration. A worm grunting competition and demonstrations are scheduled early in the day because the worms dig deeper as the soil heats up with the rising sun. The day also includes a 5k run, vendors with food and arts and crafts, crowning of the Worm Gruntin’ King and Queen and Worm Grunters Ball. Admission is free. (Downtown Sopchoppy one block from U.S. 319, Sopchoppy, Fla. 32358; www.wormgruntinfestival.com)
Gatorama’s Hatching Festival, Palmdale in August
Watch life emerge from the palms of your hands during Gatorama and Crocodile Adventures’ annual Hatching Festival. Participants can watch a baby alligator emerge from an egg while holding it in the palm of their hands. at Gatorama in Palmdale. The Old Florida attraction harvests American alligator eggs from their farm and public wetlands under permits from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Eggs incubate between 60 – 72 days and the Hatching Festival is held the last two weeks of August, right when the eggs are ready to hatch. An participation fee is collected in addition to park admission. (Gatorama and Crocodile Adventures, 10665 N. US Hwy 27, Moore Haven, Fla. 33471; Tel: (863) 675-0623; www.gatorama.com)
Read this post about my experience at the Hatching Festival.
GeckoFest, Gulfport on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend
About a dozen species of geckos are found in South Florida yet only one is native to the state. Celebrate Gulfport’s unofficial mascot and the end of summer, the gecko, during GeckoFest.
The one-day event includes music, food and craft vendors, children’s activities, and street performers such as dancers, fire eaters, and costumed characters. Don’t miss the quirky parade, costume contest, and dueling street dances. For the adults, there’s the Gecko Bar Crawl and Gecko Ball, both typically prior to GeckoFest. (3101 Beach Blvd. S., Gulfport, Fla. 33707; Tel: (727) 322- 5217; www.geckofest.com)
Florida Wildlife Festival, Formerly the Black Bear Festival, Umatilla in October
Native Florida wildlife and humans can safely coexist and the Black Bear Festival began as a way to educate residents how to live safely in bear country. Over the years, the festival has grown to provide information about living with other native wildlife and the festival changed its name to Florida Wildlife Festival.
Family-friendly guided and self-guided activities are scheduled throughout the day and include nature walks, talks, and paddling trips. It is not guaranteed that you will see a black bear during the festival but hop on the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway and keep your eyes open. Located on State Road 19, Umatilla is the Southern Gateway City to the byway. Admission is free. (Cadwell Park, 4 Cassady St., Umatilla, Fla. 32784; Tel: (352) 669-3511; www.floridawildlifefestival.org)