The last week of February is National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW). Each year we post several articles about invasive species that are established in the panhandle, and those that are potential threats.
As most of you know, invasive species can be quite problematic. By definition, they are non-native creatures that arrived in Florida via human transportation. Whether intentional or non-intentional, their arrival has caused either an environmental problem, an economic one, or both. Research shows that the most effective method (both with eradication and cost) is detect and treat them early – what we call EDRR species (Early Detection Rapid Response). However, many of these invasives that “hover” just outside of our area do not make our radar until they have become established. It is at this time we begin to recognize their harmful impacts and demand action to battle them. In many cases, it is too late, and you find yourself in a management mode trying to keep the current population under control.
Though south Florida is ground zero for many invasive species problems, the panhandle is not without its issues. The articles will begin posting Feb 25 and run the rest of the week. For those in the Santa Rosa and Escambia County, we will end the week with an invasive species workday – the Weed Wrangle. For this years’ Weed Wrangle, we will be assisting the Florida state park service by removing the invasive Chinese Privet from the Blackwater Heritage Trail in Milton. The Weed Wrangle will be Mar 2 from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM. We will meet at the Heritage Trail Visitors Center for a brief orientation and then begin to remove privet. The address is 5533 Alabama Street in Milton FL. You can park next to the library or the playground. Please wear closed toed shoes, bring gloves, loppers, and a water bottle.
Members of the Six Rivers CISMA remove Chinese tallow from a city park in Pensacola.
Photo: Kristal Walsh.
Remember if you ever have questions concerning local invasive species, you can contact your county extension office for more information.
On a recent trip to Santa Rosa Island, my wife saw two bald eagles flying down the shore of Santa Rosa Sound. Wanting photos of the nest, we searched and found two individuals in a small nest (for an eagle) in a tall pine. One individual was an adult, the other a juvenile.
Bald eagle nest on Santa Rosa Island.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
Seeing bald eagles is like seeing bottlenose dolphins. I do not care how many times you have seen them over the course of your life, it is always exciting. Growing up here, I do not remember these animals in our area. Of course, their numbers suffered greatly during the DDT period, and poaching was (and still can be) a problem. But both the banning of DDT and the listing on the Endangered Species List did wonders for this majestic bird. They now estimate over 250,000 breeding populations in North America and 88% of those within the United States. Florida has some of the highest densities of nests in the lower 48 states. Though the bird is no longer listed as an endangered species, it is still protected by the Florida Eagle Rule, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty, and the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
It was shortly after Hurricane Ivan that someone told me they had seen a bald eagle in the area. My first reaction was “yea… right… bald eagle”. Then one afternoon on my back porch, my wife and I glanced up to see two flying over. Now we see them every year. The 2016 state report had 12 nesting pairs in the Pensacola Bay area. They were in the Perdido Bay area, Escambia Bay area, Holly-Navarre area, and Pensacola Beach area. Many locals now see these birds flying over our coastlines searching for food and nesting materials on a regular basis.
An adult and juvenile bald eagle on nest in Montana.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
Bald eagles are raptors with a thing for fish. However, they are opportunistic hunters feeding on amphibians, reptiles, crabs, small mammals, and other birds. They are also notorious “raiders” stealing fish from osprey, other raptors, and even mammals. They are also known scavengers feeding on carrion and visiting dumps looking for scraps. Benjamin Franklin was in favor of the turkey for our national emblem because the bald eagle was of such low moral character – referring their stealing and scavenging habit.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology list the bald eagle as a year-round resident along the Gulf coast, but most of us see them in the cooler months. Their nesting period is from October through May. They select tall trees near water and build their nest just below the crown of the canopy. One local ecotourism operator has noticed their preference for live trees over the dead ones selected by osprey. Eagle nest are huge. A typical one will be 5-6 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet tall. The record was a nest found in St. Pete FL that was 10 feet in diameter and over 20 feet tall! The inside of the nest is lined with lichen, small sticks, and down feathers. One to three eggs are typically laid each season, and these take about 35 days to hatch. Both parents participate in nest building and raising of the young.
Viewing bald eagles is amazing, but approaching nests with eggs, or hatchlings, can be stressful for the parents. Hikers and motorized vehicles should stay 330 feet from the nests when viewing. Bring a distance lens for photos and be mindful of your presence.
An adult and juvenile bald eagle are perched in a dead tree near their nest.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
No matter how times you see these birds, it is still amazing. Enjoy them.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Bald Eagle Management. 2018. https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/bald-eagle/.
Jimbo Meador, personal communication. 2017.
Williams, K. 2017. All About Birds, the Bald Eagle. Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/overview.
As we begin our wildlife series for 2019, we will start with a snake that almost everyone has encountered but knows little about – the southern black racer.
The southern black racer differs from other black snakes in its brilliant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.
This snake is common for many reasons.
- It is found throughout the eastern United States
- It is diurnal, meaning active during daylight hours when we are out and about
- It can be found in a variety of habitats and is particularly fond of “edge” areas between forest and open habitat – they do very well around humans.
The southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) is one of eight subspecies of this snake found in the United States. This local variety is a beautiful shiny black. The shine is due to the fact that they have smooth, rather than keeled, scales. It is a long snake, reaching up to six feet, but very thin – and very fast! Most of us see it just before it darts away.
They are sometimes confused with the cottonmouth. It can be distinguished in having a long “thin” body, as compared to the cottonmouths shorter “thick” body. It has a brilliant white chin and the top of the head is solid black. Cottonmouths can be mottled, usually have a cream-colored chin with a dark “mask” extending from the lower point of the chin through the eye. Cottonmouths also have the wide delta shaped head compared the finger-shaped head of the racer. They are also confused with the eastern indigo snake. The indigo is very long (up to eight feet) large bodied snake, and the lower chin is a reddish-orange color. The coachwhip is a close cousin of the racer, found in many of the same habitats. It has a similar body shape, and speed, but is a light tan color with a dark brown-black head and neck.
The juvenile black racer looks more like a corn snake, and is sometimes confused with a pygmy rattler.
Photo: C. Kelly
The juvenile looks nothing like the adult. The young racers hatch from rough covered eggs laid in late winter and early spring. They typically lay between 6-20 eggs and hide them under rocks, boards, bark, and even in openings in the side of homes. In late spring and early summer, they hatch. Their body resembles adults, but their coloration is a mottled mix of grays, browns, and reds – having distinct patches on their backs. This helps with camouflage but often they are mistaken for pygmy rattlesnakes and are killed.
They are great climbers and are found in our shrubs and trees, as well as on our houses and in our garages. Though sometimes confused with the cottonmouth, this snake is non-venomous and harmless. Harmless in the sense that a bite from will cause no harm – but it will bite. Black racers are notorious for this. If approached, it generally freezes first – to avoid detection. If it believes it has been detected, it will flee at amazing speeds. If it cannot flee, it will turn and bite… repeatedly. Again, the bites are harmless, but could draw blood. Cleaning with soap and water is all you need.
They are opportunistic feeders hunting a variety of prey including small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and eggs. They also hunt snakes, including small venomous species. Unlike the larger venomous snakes, black racers stalk their prey – many times with their heads raised similar to cobras. When prey is detected, they spring on them with lighting speed. Despite the scientific name “constrictor”, they do not constrict their prey, rather pin it down and wait for it to suffocate.
They do have their predators, particularly hawks. When approached they will first freeze to avoid detection, they may release a foul-smelling musk as a warning, and sometimes will vibrate their tails. In leaf-litter, this can sound very similar to a rattlesnake – not helping with the juvenile identification confusion. One paper reported finding a dead great horned owl with a black racer in its talons. Apparently, the owl grabbed the snake too far back. It killed the snake but not before the snake was able to strangle the owl.
They are hibernating this time of year but will soon be laying another clutch of eggs and we will once again encounter this most common of snakes.
Florida Museum of Natural History. Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus). http://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-snakes/list/coluber-constrictor-priapus/.
Gibbons, W., M/ Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. pp. 253.
Perry, R.W., R.E. Brown, D.C. Rudolph. 2001. Mutual Mortality of a Great Horned Owl and a Southern Black Racer: a Potential Risk for Raptors Preying on Snakes. The Willson Bulletin, 113(3). http://doi.org/10.1676/0043-5643(2001)113[0345:MMOGH0]2.0.CO;2.
Willson, J.D. Species Profile: Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus). SREL Herpetology. www.srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/colcon.htm.
“The Gulf of Mexico provides food, shelter, protection, security, energy, habitat, recreation, transportation, and navigation – playing an important role in our communities, states, region, and nation. To highlight the value and the vitality of the Gulf of Mexico region, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance conceived an awareness campaign “Embrace the Gulf” for the entire year 2020. The awareness campaign will culminate in a multi-stakeholder, cross-sector celebration of the importance of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the year 2020.” (https://embracethegulf.org/about/)
Join the Gulf of Mexico Alliance as we celebrate the importance of the Gulf of Mexico during the year 2020. The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a regional partnership that works to “sustain the resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Led by the five Gulf States, the broad partner network includes federal agencies, academic organizations, businesses, and other non-profits in the region. Our goal is to significantly increase regional collaboration to enhance the environmental and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.” (https://gulfofmexicoalliance.org/about-us/organization/).
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) was established in 2004 by the Governors of the Gulf states, as a response to the President’s Ocean Action Plan. It began as a network of state partnerships that worked together on various strategies related to the GOMA priority issues identified by the Governors of each state. It had strong support from the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Today GOMA is led by the EPA and NOAA, with 13 federal agencies support the effort. Learn more.
A great blue heron enjoying the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: Chris Verlinde
To celebrate the year 2020 and the importance of Gulf of Mexico, the Embrace the Gulf campaign was created by the Education and Engagement Priority team. The GOMA leadership supports the idea and the campaign has gathered support from the other priority areas.
There are many ways for you and or your organization to get involved. You can plan an event to celebrate the Gulf of Mexico. You can utilize GOMA marketing resources to promote the campaign. Click here to learn about the available marketing resources.
The E& E team is collecting 365 facts to promote the Gulf of Mexico. You can support this effort by submitting Gulf of Mexico facts using the online form that is located here. Facts will be used on social media, the GOMA website and more. Please support this effort by submitting today!!
Check out this You Tube video GOMA produced to promote the beauty and importance of the Gulf of Mexico. Join us as we celebrate 2020 to Embrace the Gulf!!
Those of us who enjoy wildlife viewing do not see much this time of year. The days are shorter and colder. Most creatures have left or are hiding from the winter air. We grew up learning about hibernation and winter life for animals. But why do they do this? And are all of them doing so?
The spectacular dunes of south Walton County.
It is all about temperature. Our bodies have an internal temperature that must remain within a specific range for us to survive. Some creatures can survive at much higher temperatures than others, such as the desert pupfish. This fish lives in pools out west where water temperatures average 93°F. Others can live in very low temps, such as the Antarctic icefish – who live in water in the 28°F range. But most live with body temperatures in the 85-95°F, and most prefer to keep their body temperatures near the upper limit of their tolerance range.
How do they do this when it is cold outside?
Well, the can absorb heat externally – from the sun, the ground, being in contact with warm solid objects, and even from the air. For some creatures, this is their primary method of absorbing heat. We call them “ectotherms” – or “cold blooded”. These “cold bloods” have low metabolism, so they do not generate enough internal heat to help. Many also have an outer covering (scales) that is not a good insulator, so they cannot hold on to the heat they do produce. Most “cold bloods” are no where to be found this time of year. It is far too cold outside. Their food (the source for internal metabolic heat) is nowhere to be found either. Some of the “cold bloods” will find a burrow, or some location out of the elements and go into torpor (sleep). Torpor will allow them to slow their metabolism, which is going to happen anyway, to where their heart and respiration rates drop dramatically. This reduces the chance of losing more heat during breathing (which happens) and the low metabolism allows them to survive on stored energy until spring.
An alligator at Wakulla Springs taking advantage of the sun to bask and maintain body temperature. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
There are different levels of torpor. Some “cold bloods” are in DEEP torpor (true hibernation) and are basically unresponsive to external stimuli. Others are not so “deep” and may move around during winter. Snakes may emerge on warm sunny days in January to bask near the burrow entrance and regain some heat. Other “cold bloods” may just pack up and move – migrate – where it is warmer. This happens more with fish than reptiles and amphibians.
Then there are the endotherms, or “warm bloods”. These animals can maintain a relatively high body temperature this time of year and remain active – even seek out and hunt hibernating creatures. How do they do this?
First, they have a higher metabolism rate than “cold bloods”, and thus generate more internal heat. There is a cost for this though – 80-90% of the food they consume goes to maintaining their body temperature (and I say they… that would be WE…). This means “warm bloods” must eat more often and this can be problematic in winter when your favorite prey is in hibernation or has migrated.
In addition to producing more heat, their body covering (fur or feathers) helps insulate them so they do not lose the heat they have produced. “Fluffing” the fur or feathers helps some as well. There is a biological principal known as Bergmann’s Rule that states, “larger animals can maintain their body temperature better than smaller ones”. This has to do with surface area : volume ratios, and an article for another day, but let’s just say bigger animals can maintain a warmer body and remain more active. That said, smaller mammals (beach mice) may still need to hibernate or enter some form of torpor to survive this time of year.
One mammal that some folks on the beach still encounter this time of year is the coyote. One of the larger mammals in the beach ecosystem, and a top predator, coyotes are still active in winter. Actually, it is breeding time for them. The females usually find a denning spot as it becomes cold and gestation will last about 60 days; so, the pups will be here soon. The average number of pups / female is six; a pretty big family to feed honestly. At that point, in a few weeks, she will be seeking food to produce milk to nourish her pups – who will be sexually mature and ready to reproduce by Thanksgiving.
A coyote moving on Pensacola Beach near dawn.
Photo provided by Shelley Johnson.
Many who have encountered, and I spoke with one beach resident who recently saw one, are still nervous around them and not sure what to do. Despite the group calls (howls) they are famous for, they are not as social as wolves and can be seen alone. They have a natural fear of humans and try to avoid us. They are fantastic consumers of rodents (their favorite prey) and this sometimes brings them close to homes and businesses. They are more crepuscular (dawn and dusk) and nocturnal, so encounters are not common, but they happen. Usually when a coyote spots us, they freeze and then slide off into the night. This is good, and normal. Animals that stand their ground or approach humans can be a problem. They usually only do this when (a) they are sick and not acting normal, or (b) they have been fed by humans. This is not always intentional. Sometimes folks place their cat food outside for their cats and turn in for the night. If the coyotes find this, they will be back. In other cases, it has been intentional, and we strongly recommend you do not do this. In one study they found in Chicago, where coyotes do live but encounters are rare, their stomach content only had about 2% human food. Compare this with coyotes in southern California, where human food content is around 25% and negative human encounters are more common.
There is also concern about coyotes taking small pets. This happens. All predators are seeking prey that is easy to kill – where they can feed and not expend a lot of energy to make the kill. Small pets are easy to kill, larger than rodents, and carry more energy for them. It is recommended that you bring your small pets indoors during the evening.
In Escambia County, the County Extension office provides a monthly program called SCIENCE HOUR each month. Next month (February 7) the topic will be coyotes and pet safety. The presentation will be given by Elizabeth Heikkinen from FWC. We encourage all who have concerns about coyotes to come hear the talk and ask questions. Science Hour is held at the Escambia County Central Office Complex in Pensacola. 3346 West Park Place. We begin at 6:00 PM and it is free.
Though we see less wildlife this time of year, it is great time to walk the beaches. Get out and enjoy.