This beautiful scarlet kingsnake was run over near the author’s home
Snakes are some of the coolest animals on the planet but I’ll admit to something right up front; when a snake surprises me, I still jump, often. Even if I seem composed on the outside, something inside me almost always jumps. It does not matter if it is a venomous species or not. In spite of my basic understanding of and great appreciation for reptiles, snakes connect with a primal instinct that shouts “lookout” at some subconscious level. This human character trait is most-often the undoing of many an innocent serpent, happily going about its business when, WHAM, lights out. When a snake dares touch the human subconscious, our first emotion is often shock or fear; then perhaps anger; and in the end, payback for the offense. Many a good snake has met a very bad end when it has surprised a person.
Shock and fear are powerful emotions and I can almost (not totally) understand the outcome described above when someone is honestly shocked by a snake’s unexpected appearance. Nevertheless, even my wife, during a shocking encounter with a 5-foot oak snake while collecting eggs in the chicken house, was able gather her wits and shoo the critter out of the coop with a stick, rather than kill it. She did have me go the next evening to get the eggs though.
The one thing I have no empathy for however is when folks go out of their way to kill a snake that is trying to cross one of our roadways. About 90% of the dead snakes I see on the road are so close to the edge of the pavement that they were easily avoidable. C’mon people, that should be a “snake-safe” zone. These animals are likely never to encounter a human as they go about their business, performing important ecological functions in their natural habitat. Their great misfortune was that they had to cross an asphalt corridor used by humans. How about providing the same courtesy that most folks do when they see a turtle on the highway.
I see my share of cottonmouths smashed on the road (and that’s a shame too in my book) but other flattened species I’ve encountered include mud snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, racers, scarlet kingsnakes, green snakes, and many more; all harmless creatures. Recently, I stopped to look at a nice 4-foot coachwhip; a beautiful specimen, except for the fact that it was dead.
I get a thrill in seeing a living snake and having the chance to marvel at its form, function and beauty. If you ever have the chance to look closely at a pygmy rattlesnake in the wild (hopefully not in your turkey blind) you will be blown-away by its magnificent beauty. Black, velvety blotches on a gray background, with a rusty stripe running down the middle of its back. Same thing for a large diamondback rattlesnake (from a respectable distance). These have been some of my favorite natural encounters in the woods of North Florida, where we are truly blessed with a diversity of amazing animals and yes, super-amazing snakes. We should always use common sense of course when roaming the woods and enjoying our wild encounters, i.e. don’t ever catch venomous snakes (not worth the thrill), keep your hands out of hidden places, and watch where you put your feet. Oh, and work on cultivating a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to our scaly friends on the highway. They will oblige likewise.
Oyster grow bag left hanging by Michael’s storm surge.
Erik Lovestrand, UF/IFAS Franklin County Extension
It may be a long time before the memories of Hurricane Michael begin to fade in the mind’s eye for residents of the Florida Panhandle. A record-breaking tropical cyclone in many respects, Michael caught a lot of people in the region off guard as it continued to gain strength on its rapid path through the Northern Gulf of Mexico. When many people went to bed the night before landfall, they had no idea what terrifying news would greet them upon hearing that a still-strengthening category 4 hurricane was about to rumble ashore.
It was not long after the wind slackened that folks began looking around and realizing the devastation left behind. Cotton crops in the path of the storm in North Florida and South Georgia suffered near 100% losses. Peanut crops were also severely impacted just at the time that harvest was beginning. The estimated damage to timber harvests alone were coming in around 1.3 billion dollars for Florida as virtually entire forests had been leveled. Even more damage was realized near the coastline where storm surge across the region ranged from 8 to 14 feet above normal water levels; smashing or flooding structures near the coast and carving new inlets across St. Joseph Peninsula near Cape San Blas.
Another industry that took a hard hit in much of the area was the seafood industry; everything from the producers to the dealers, processors, retail markets, restaurants, fueling and ice house facilities that service fishing vessels. Governor Scott requested a fisheries disaster declaration from the Federal Government and on November 1 the Secretary of the Department of Commerce granted the request. This determination provides an opportunity for Congress to appropriate fishery disaster assistance for the new fiscal year, which began in October. To further facilitate recovery efforts in Florida and beyond, the Department of Commerce can look to the Economic Development Administration, which spearheads the Federal government’s efforts to deliver economic assistance and support long-term growth after natural disasters.
Oyster growers in the region who had equipment and a crop of shellfish in the water took some losses as well. For those who were able to scramble to their leases before the storm and sink their floating baskets or cages to the bay bottoms, losses of gear were minimal as storm waves above the submerged gear had less impact. Gear that was unable to be submerged was more prone to break loose and drift away. However, even the growers that sunk gear experienced some significant oyster mortality due to sediments from churned up water smothering the shellfish in a layer of mud. Shellfish leases in Alligator Harbor were dealt another blow by an incredible field of debris that was washed off Alligator Point and blown through the lease area. Everything from boats to large sections of docks, structural walls, refrigerators and freezers was in the mix. These items were caught up in oyster long-lines and broke some while pulling up anchor poles on others, leaving quite a mess for growers to untangle.
Marinas, docks and vessels were also not immune to Hurricane Michael’s wrath in Gulf and Bay Counties. Government agencies estimate the number of damaged vessels in both Gulf and Bay counties to exceed 400. It will take some time for charter boat and commercial fishing operations to rebound. Scallop restoration projects in both St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrews Bay have suffered setbacks, as well. The hurricane has not only devastated coastal Gulf county economically and ecologically, but also geographically. There are two sizable inlets that have now been carved into the St. Joseph Peninsula. T.H. Stone State Park is closed until further notice.
Overall, the impacts from this storm will take a long time to recover from for many segments of our regional economy. Lessons learned by industries as well as individuals should improve our chances to reduce the loss of life and property in the future. The name of the game is “resiliency,” both in the spirit of the people who call this place home and in the way we learn to better adapt to what Mother Nature throws at us. Hang in there. Day by day.
If you have not seen the news yet, the US Supreme Court provided a ruling on June 27, 2018 regarding the decades-long conflict between Florida and Georgia over water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint tri-state river basin. Guess what; the battle continues. Following the previous findings of the court-appointed Special Master and his recommendation to deny Florida relief in the dispute, there were many disappointed people south of the border between the two states. The recent decision to remand the case back to the Special Master for further consideration has taken many by surprise; happy surprise south of the border and not so happy as you look northward (unless you talk to the attorneys litigating the case, maybe).
The resulting decision kept Florida’s hopes alive for an equitable allocation of water resources in the basin that spans nearly 20,000 square miles of the Southeastern US. At stake, from Florida’s perspective, is the productivity and ecosystem integrity of the Apalachicola River and Bay ecosystem. For Georgia, enough water to supply its growing population and thirsty agricultural interests in the Flint River Basin south of Atlanta.
The Court’s 5–4 decision, found that the Special Master had applied too high a standard regarding “harm and redressability” for Florida’s claims. They ordered the case to be reheard so that appropriate considerations could be given to Florida’s arguments. “The amount of extra water that reaches the Apalachicola may significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has suffered,” said Justice Breyer, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor. “Further findings, however, are needed.”
The Court’s opinion does not actually outline any specific solutions for the water battle, and it in no way guarantees a win for Florida, but it does keep the legal challenge alive – along with the hope of better days for Florida’s oyster industry, which has suffered a major fisheries collapse that began around 2012. Visit this link if you would like to read the syllabus, as well as the full opinion of the High Court.
We should all consider the magnitude of the importance of the Apalachicola River and Bay for our region, due to its connection to the larger Gulf of Mexico. Estuaries like this are crucial links in the life-stages of countless marine organisms, including many we depend on for food and recreation. Blue crabs migrate tremendous distances to spawn in our near shore estuaries. Their young then disperse to populate large areas of coastline. Post-larval shrimp move into our estuaries to grow up after being spawned offshore. Later they swim out as adults to begin the cycle again. It is no wonder the shorelines of our Florida estuaries are dotted with prehistoric shell middens from peoples who thrived near these resource-rich ecosystems. Who knows if the Apalachicola Bay will ever recover to the productivity of its glory days, when a hard-working person could harvest 20 bags of oysters in a day? Regardless, we should all be thankful for what Apalachicola Bay has meant to so many generations of people over such a wide expanse of our Northern Gulf of Mexico coastline. Take just a moment to think about it, please.
You might get that impression from the movies but if you look at the data you will see quite a different story. With nearly fifty species identified in the Gulf of Mexico, an encounter with a shark is eminent if you spend much time in our coastal waters. So, let’s get the “scary” stuff out of the way first and finish with the more interesting facts for our much-maligned “toothy” friends.
The Bull Shark is considered one of the more dangerous sharks in the Gulf. This fish can enter freshwater but rarely swims far upstream. Photo: Florida Sea Grant
The most recent data from the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File shows that unprovoked attacks have occurred in 26 of Florida’s 35 coastal counties, from 1882 to present. Florida is the hotspot in the U.S. which makes sense with our 1,300-plus miles of coastline. Volusia County has recorded the most incidents at 299. Brevard County is second (144) and Palm Beach County third (75). Do you have any idea how many people have been in the water in these three counties since 1882? Let’s just say, a lot; if sharks were hunting for people, they would have found more of us by now.
In the coastal counties of the Florida Panhandle, numbers are much lower with Bay County having the most incidents at 9. Numbers drop from there with Escambia at 6, Okaloosa at 4, Gulf and Franklin at 2, Santa Rosa and Walton at 1 and none from Wakulla down through Pasco; remember, since 1882. Species most often involved have been bull or blacktip sharks (20% each), spinner at 16% and hammerhead at 13%. Believe it or not, the next highest is nurse sharks at 7%. Compared to drowning fatalities from 1992-2000, sharks loose, 2 to 135.
Okay, now for some more interesting facts about our Gulf of Mexico sharks. Some of you have heard about the encounter that Grayson Shepard (of Apalachicola) had with a great white back in 2015. If you want to see his amazing video visit this link. Even though great whites are considered a cold-water species, scientists have known for a long time that they do visit the Gulf of Mexico. Their incredible migratory nature has been studied in greater detail of-late. An 8.5 foot juvenile female that was radio-tagged off Hilton Head South Carolina travelled to Nova Scotia Canada before turning around and going south all the way around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. The most northerly “ping” picked up by the satellite receiver was north of Tampa on January 31, 2018. Savannah (her given name) is currently back on the east coast near where she was tagged by researchers. Vist this website to follow Savannah’s incredible journey.
The Great White shark.
Photo: UF IFAS
Another impressive shark species that occurs in our Gulf waters holds the title of “world’s largest fish!” Whale sharks can reach lengths of fifty feet and weigh around 20 metric tons. Most of the sightings in the Gulf have proven to be juveniles but occasional aggregations happen around abundant plankton resources. One chance encounter by scientists from the Mississippi-based Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, documented a large number of whale sharks feeding near the surface. Plankton samples revealed a rich concentration of fish eggs from recent spawning activity of little tunny and crevalle jack. Aggregations numbering near 150 individuals, feeding on abundant plankton, have been reported in the nutrient-rich waters near the Mississippi River drainage.
Sharks in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, just as alligators in our lakes and rivers, deserve our respect and a balanced conservation-minded attitude. They are an incredible resource that have vital connections to many other species in our marine environment. They are also one of the most thrilling creatures on the planet when you get to meet one up close. Just please use some good sense and mind those pearly-white teeth if you catch one on a line. Even a cute little wild mouse will bite you when handled but the outcome is slightly more concerning with sharks and alligators.
Have you ever eaten a wild mushroom and then wondered afterwards if you might have made a mistake? If you are prone to forage outdoors for tasty treats from nature, I’ll bet you have. The problem is, unless you are harvesting one of a few “foolproof” species of edible fungi, positive identification can be very challenging. Oft-times wild mushroom harvesters take a notion to branch out and seek new varieties that are outside of the identification capabilities of the novice mycologist. This is where folks begin treading on dangerous ground and may be at risk for gastrointestinal distress;
Properly inoculated shiitake logs can be quite productive
with symptoms that may range from a mild upset stomach to permanent damage or death.
Everyone has heard about poisonous mushrooms but few people realize that some of the deadliest species are look-alikes for some of the tastiest species. And you would not be able to distinguish the difference by nibbling a sample. Even a small sample of some of the “bad actors” can be lethal, leading to painful symptoms and organ failure. If this scares you out taking a risk then this article has served a good purpose.
If you wish to enjoy a safe, tasty experience with a highly-prized mushroom species, just take up the hobby of growing your very own shiitake mushrooms. Shiitake comes from the root Japanese “shii” (meaning oak) and “take” (for mushroom). Shiitake mushrooms are a billion dollar industry in Asia with 92% of the world production coming from Japan. Many culinary and medical uses have been identified. This species was only available as dried mushrooms in the US until 1972 but with the removal of a ban on importing live fungi a commercial industry has blossomed.
Hardwood logs are the key, with oak being a preferred tree species. There are six considerations if you are to be successful:
1. You must acquire living Shiitake inoculum (the mycelial or rooting stage) already growing on a wood medium, usually hardwood dowels or sawdust (internet search will yield many providers).
2. Proper cutting and handling of the logs to be inoculated is important. Cut trees close to the time of inoculation (2 weeks max.), 4-8 inch diameter and 3-4 feet long.
3. Inoculate by drilling holes in the logs, inserting the living inoculum/spawn and seal the holes with melted wax to retain moisture. A single log may have 30-40 holes drilled in it.
4. Place logs in a shady/moist environment (i.e. under the canopy in a woodlot with at least 75% shade).
5. Maintain logs by wetting during dry spells. A sprinkler or mister run for a couple of hours a day works well.
6. Proper harvesting and storage is most important and information is available in many places online.
Shiitake fruiting is usually triggered by changes in temperature and humidity so spring and fall are key times to check your logs. It does not take long for a mushroom to go from the early “pinning” stage to mature, so weekly checks are advised. Significant tropical weather events will also stimulate fruiting. Logs produce mushrooms for at least two years, until the nutrients in the wood are used up.
Don’t be in a hurry though, as the full colonization of the log by the mushroom mycelium will take up to 9 months before mushrooms begin to appear. Remember, beware the risks of harvesting wild fungi. A small-scale shiitake growing operation is a safe alternative for getting your “mushroom-fix.” Also, be ready to compete with a squirrel or two for your crop as they know a good thing when they see it too.