Wood ducks could use your help this time of year

Wood ducks could use your help this time of year

Wood ducks are one of the most colorful ducks in North America. Breeding males showcase an unbelievable combination of colors including a red bill and eyes, a metallic purplish-green crested head, black cheeks with thick white stripes, a maroon chest and rump, black and blue wings, dark yellow sides, and a white belly. The drab grayish-brown females are most easily recognized by their white eye ring and crested head.

 

A brightly colored male wood duck. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

A brightly colored male wood duck. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

 

A pair of wood ducks with the more drably colored female in the foreground.  Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

A pair of wood ducks with the more drably colored female in the foreground. Photo: USFWS National Digital Library

 

Another distinguishing characteristic of wood ducks is their habit of nesting in Florida. Few species of ducks do this.

In Florida, wood ducks begin laying eggs in cavities during late January. They prefer cavities located within a half mile of permanent water bodies. They like cavities in large trees that have clear access to a large entry hole, and shrubs nearby to offer protection for newly-hatched ducklings.

In areas with few large cavity trees, nest boxes can provide alternative locations to nest. Nest boxes intended for wood ducks should be made of natural wood: cedar is a good option because it weathers well. Boxes should be mounted with the entrance hole 6 or more feet above the ground or the surface of the water (if placed over a pond or swamp). Nesting hens will appreciate you placing some cedar wood shavings in the bottom of the box to serve as nesting material. Adding a predator guard below the nest box will greatly increase the chances the hen and her eggs/ducklings don’t get eaten by snakes or raccoons.

It’s best to have nest boxes in place before egg laying begins, which is right about now: late January. However, it’s never too late in the year to put up a new nest box. A box put out later in the year may be useful for a late-nesting hen. Many females have more than one brood during the long nesting long season which won’t end until late summer, so opportunities exist for a nest box installed later in the year to get used.

Wood ducks were given their name because they spend much of their time in wooded swamps, ponds, creeks, rivers, and freshwater wetlands. They prefer bodies of water that have 25-50% open water with 50-75% vegetative cover (a mix of shrubs, emergent plants, and trees) where they can hide and feed.

Wood ducks are sometimes called the “acorn duck” because of their fondness for these treats that fall from oak trees. They have a special preference for acorns from water oaks, laurel oaks, and shumard oaks. They also enjoy duck weed, smartweed, waterlily, seeds from many sedges, rushes, and grasses, as well as fruits from native trees and shrubs and occasionally invertebrates (spiders, insects, snails, crawfish).

Several adaptations differentiate wood ducks from other waterfowl and equip them for life in both woods and water. Well-developed toes and claws allow them to grab onto tree branches while perching. The placement of their legs near the center of their bodies allows them to walk on land more gracefully than most other ducks. Their broad wings and long wide tail increase maneuverability while flying to their cavity nest.

To learn more about wood ducks and what you can do to provide habitat for them, see this publication from UF/IFAS Extension.

Author: Holly Ober – holly.ober@ufl.edu

I am an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. My research covers wildlife ecology, habitat management, and identifying creative ways to cope with nuisance wildlife.

Dirt is just dirt, or is it?

Dirt is just dirt, or is it?

Soil Profile in Gadsden County.  Photo by Jennifer Bearden

Soil Profile in Gadsden County. Photo by Jennifer Bearden

Many of us walk around daily and give no thought to what is under our feet. We do not consider soil a vital natural resource, but it is. And as with water and air, soil quality is very important to our society. Soils perform 6 functions in our ecosystems.

First it is a medium for plant growth. Plants root into the soil structure and stabilize the plant above ground. It holds nutrients, air, and water which the plants need.

Next, our soils regulate water supplies. Soil quality affects water quality. Contaminants and excess nutrients in poor soils can leach into groundwater. On the other hand, soils can purify poor quality water before it recharges groundwater supplies such as in septic tanks or rain gardens.

Soils also recycle nutrients needed for plant growth. If soils did not perform this function, plants and animals would exhaust the nutrients and there would be an increase in waste in our ecosystems.

Soils provide habitat for numerous organisms. An amazing amount of soil organisms exist hidden from our view. Earthworms, microscopic worms, bacteria, fungi and more call our soils home. These organisms play an important role in keeping our soils productive and our fields yielding crops.

Soils are also used as an engineering medium. For many years, humans have used soils to build and construct homes, roads, pottery and more. Just think of the roads and buildings that would not be here if we did not have soils.

Lastly, soils actually modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Air is a major component of our soils and it exchanges gases that are necessary for plant growth and microorganism survival. Also, dry, small soil particles can be picked up by winds causing human health concerns due to dust in the air we breathe.

So, is dirt just dirt or is it much more? I contend that without it, we would not be here today. So when you walk around today, consider the soil under your feet. It will not take long and you will see that soil surrounds us every day and is a very important natural resource.

Discovering Florida’s Panhandle – Our Barrier Islands – January

Discovering Florida’s Panhandle – Our Barrier Islands – January

Beginning this month we will be posting a series of natural resource articles high lighting Florida’s Panhandle. The photographs and hikes presented in this series are from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties but the same natural places can be found anywhere between the Perdido and Apalachicola Rivers. We hope our readers will visit these places and DISCOVER FLORIDA’S PANHANDLE on their own.  This year we will begin at the Gulf of Mexico and visit our BARRIER ISLANDS. We will visit the same location on Santa Rosa Island in Escambia County each month over the course of a year. During this series we should see how things change each season and learn more about our natural places.

The Gulf of Mexico at sunrise.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The Gulf of Mexico at sunrise. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Here is the Gulf of Mexico.  The northern Gulf is primary sand but their are areas of hard bottom that provide habitat for many of our commercial important fisheries.  450 feet off the shore from this photo is an artificial reef placed by Escambia County for residents and visitors alike to explore.  These reefs attract a variety of reef fish and sea turtles and are great for wildlife viewing.  Notice how low the sun is in the sky on this winter morning.  The shortest day of the year was December 21 (when the sun was it’s lowest) and will be “climbing” as this series continues.  Many beach residents use this as their clock!

 

Our barrier islands are considered the “world’s whitest beaches” and this is because of the high amount of quartz deposited here.  In this photograph you can see the water is farther from shore than usual.  This is due to the strong north winds blowing water offshore; this happens every winter – but provides feeding opportunities for shorebirds.  The sand fencing is used by many of our counties to “kick start” dune restoration.

Primary dune line with sand fencing.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Primary dune line with sand fencing. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the primary dune on this portion of the island you will find low areas known as swales.  These “depressions” will fill with water during rain events and provide much needed freshwater for the organisms who live out here.  Barrier islands are xeric environments (meaning “desert like”) and freshwater habitats are very important for many creatures.  Some of these ponds are ephemeral (meaning non-permanent) and dry up during some periods of the year.

Swale with dead cattails.  Photos: Rick O'Connor

Swale with dead cattails. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Small pines on the edge of a swale.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Small pines on the edge of a swale. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

The water in most swales is freshwater.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The water in most swales is freshwater. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the primary dune and swales end the secondary dune fields begin.  Because of the primary dunes there is less wind and salt spray which allows different species to take root.  The secondary dunes are often identified by their small round shrubs – such as goldenrod and beach heather.  These larger plants will trap larger amounts of sand producing larger dunes.  On the secondary dunes I usually find lots of tracks.  Identifying tracks is difficult (especially in soft sand) but fun.  Most of what I saw this winter day were mammals.  Raccoons, opossums, and armadillos are very common.  Skunks were once common but have been scarce since the hurricane years.  Below are tracks of a canine.  Many people bring their dogs to the beach but coyote and fox are also found here.  These tracks measured about 3.5″ and more round than triangle shaped; suggesting this is a dog.

Small secondary dune with small pine trees.

Small secondary dune with small pine trees.

This secondary dune supports a saw palmetto.  Many forms of wildlife depending on these shrub areas.

This secondary dune supports a saw palmetto. Many forms of wildlife depending on these shrub areas.

 

 

These unidentified canine tracks are probably of a dog; though coyotes are on our islands

These unidentified canine tracks are probably of a dog; though coyotes are on our islands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the secondary dunes are the largest dunes on the island, some measuring over 50′, these are the tertiary dunes.  With the secondary dunes blocking wind and salt spray larger plants still are allowed to grow.  Here we find actually trees; pine, live oak, magnolia to name a few.  With the loss of primary and secondary dunes the tertiary dunes are exposed to the wind and salt spray of the Gulf side, which puts them at risk.  This is why sea oats and primary dunes are protected in most counties.

tertiary dune 2

The face of a tertiary dune. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Tertiary dunes are the largest dunes on the island; some reaching over 50'.

Tertiary dunes are the largest dunes on the island; some reaching over 50′.

Tertiary dunes support trees such as this magnolia and yaupon holly.

Tertiary dunes support trees such as this magnolia and yaupon holly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The large field of tertiary dunes blocks enough wind that forests and salt marshes can establish themselves on the back side of the island.  Here the diversity and abundance of wildlife increases.  We have found not only the mammals already mentioned but snakes, freshwater turtles and terrapins, and a variety of birds.  This winter day I found several small woodland and mocking birds.  Some of our islands have deer and alligators.

From atop a tertiary dune you can view the maritime forest, salt marsh, and sound beyond. Photo: Rick O'Connor

From atop a tertiary dune you can view the maritime forest, salt marsh, and sound beyond. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

Within the maritime forest you will find a variety of plants and animals.

Within the maritime forest you will find a variety of plants and animals.

Holly's are famous for having the bright red berries around Christmas time.  Here in January the berries are still found on some of them.

Holly’s are famous for having the bright red berries around Christmas time. Here in January the berries are still found on some of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between the maritime forest and the salt marsh you may find freshwater ponds.  Like the swale ponds, these places are great places to find wildlife. Though I have not seen them in many years I have found alligators in this area.  These ponds support populations of amphibians and small fishes.

This freshwater pond has bull minnows, amphibians, snakes, and - in the past - alligators.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

This freshwater pond has bull minnows, amphibians, snakes, and – in the past – alligators. Photo: Rick O’Connor

With the dunes blocking offshore winds trees can grow much larger on the back side of the island; like this live oak.

With the dunes blocking offshore winds trees can grow much larger on the back side of the island; like this live oak.

This pond supports a stand of green algae which supports many of the aquatic animals that visit here.

This pond supports a stand of green algae which supports many of the aquatic animals that visit here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this winter day I primarily saw bird life.  The air temperature was 39 F and the wind was out of the north.  Many of the mammals move at night and the reptiles, being cold blooded, were hibernating somewhere; the bird life however was pretty active.  Many woodlands birds were out feeding on seeds and berries, herons and egrets were in the marsh hunting fish in the shallow waters, and shorebirds were picking through the beach wrack and some were diving.

This pelican is searching over Santa Rosa Sound for a fish to feed on.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

This pelican is searching over Santa Rosa Sound for a fish to feed on. Photo: Rick O’Connor

This unusual drag was found between the salt marsh and the sound side shoreline.  It looks like a turtle crawl but t his time of year more probable something being dragged by something.

This unusual drag was found between the salt marsh and the sound side shoreline. It looks like a turtle crawl but at his time of year more probable something being dragged by something.

Armadillo tracks can be identified by their "tail drags".

Armadillo tracks can be identified by their “tail drags”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salt marshes are one of the most productive systems on earth; and the target for another FLORIDA’S PANHANDLE series.  Crabs, shrimp, mollusk, worms, terrapins, fish, and birds are some of the wildlife that call this place home – and maybe we will find some as this series continues into the warmer months.  Today I found pelicans, herons, and egrets here eating.

A finger of a salt marsh on Santa Rosa Island.  The water here is saline, particularly during high tide.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

A finger of a salt marsh on Santa Rosa Island. The water here is saline, particularly during high tide. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The muck of a salt marsh.  This rich organic mud is very loose and the hiker can quickly sink!  Notice the tracks of a predator.

The muck of a salt marsh. This rich organic mud is very loose and the hiker can quickly sink! Notice the tracks of a predator.

Notice the low water levels typical of winter.  This congregates fish into smaller pools and makes it easier for birds and mammals to catch them.

Notice the low water levels typical of winter. This congregates fish into smaller pools and makes it easier for birds and mammals to catch them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound side of the island has wind but less wind than the Gulf side.  The wave energy here is also lower supporting seagrass and oyster communities.  Like the marsh these places are very productive; though all I really saw moving on this cold winter morning were the birds.  There are two species of seagrass common to our sounds; turtle grass and shoal grass.  However there have been reports of more tropical species appearing.  We may find some when the water warms up.  These waters support at least 100 species of fish and many invertebrates we enjoy eating.

The darker areas in the water are seagrasses.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The darker areas in the water are seagrasses. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I found this along the shore last winter.  These are cannonball jellyfish.

I found this along the shore last winter. These are cannonball jellyfish.

This is a sea nettle.  This species of jellyfish has a more painful sting.  I only saw one of these today but saw several cannonballs.

This is a sea nettle. This species of jellyfish has a more painful sting. I only saw one of these today but saw several cannonballs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People find this "sea foam" frequently when they visit the beach.  It is formed when the winds pick up and there are nutrients in the water.  It was up and down the beach today.

People find this “sea foam” frequently when they visit the beach. It is formed when the winds pick up and there are nutrients in the water. It was up and down the beach today.

It is not uncommon to find dead fish along the shore after a hard freeze as we have had in recent weeks.  When it warms these dead fish will attract scavengers including cottonmouths.  Maybe we will see one later in the year.

It is not uncommon to find dead fish along the shore after a hard freeze as we have had in recent weeks. When it warms these dead fish will attract scavengers including cottonmouths. Maybe we will see one later in the year.

There was very little trash on the island today but it was there.  These pieces of debris can cause serious problems for coastal wildlife.  We will discuss this issue more as this series moves on.

There was very little trash on the island today but it was there. These pieces of debris can cause serious problems for coastal wildlife. We will discuss this issue more as this series moves on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, for January we found the beach to be cold and windy.  Very little wildlife was out to be viewed other than birds and the numerous tracks in the dunes, but as the temperatures warm we will see more.  Take some time to visit our barrier islands and enjoy them.  Until February.