Over the last two years I have been surveying snakes in a local community on Perdido Key. The residents were concerned about the number of cottonmouths they were seeing and wanted some advice on how to handle the situation. Many are surprised by the number of cottonmouths living on barrier islands, we think of them as “swamp” residents. But they are here, along with several other species, some of which are venomous. Let’s look at some that have been reported over the years.
The dune fields of panhandle barrier islands are awesome – so reaching over 50 ft. in height. This one is near the Big Sabine hike (notice white PVC markers).
In the classic text Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes (published in 1981), Ray and Patricia Ashton mention nine species found on coastal dunes or marshes. They did not consider any of them common and listed the cottonmouth as rare – they seem to be more common today. In a more recent publication (Snakes of the Southeast, 2005) Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas echo what the Ashton’s published but did add a few more species, many of which I have found as well. Their list brings the total to 15 species. I have frequently seen four other species in Gulf Breeze and Big Lagoon State Park that neither publication included, but I will since they are close to the islands – this brings the total 19 species that residents could encounter.
Leading us off is the one most are concerned about – the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous). Though listed as “rare” by the Ashton’s, encounters on both Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key are becoming common. There is more than one subspecies of this snake – the eastern cottonmouth is the local one – and that the water moccasin and cottonmouth are one in the same snake. This snake can reach 74 inches in length (6ft). They are often confused with their cousin the copperhead (Agkistrodon contorix). Both begin life in a “copper” color phase and with a luminescent green-tipped tail. But at they grow, the cottonmouth becomes darker in color (sometimes becoming completely black) while the copperhead remains “copper”. The cottonmouth also has a “mask” across its eyes that the copperhead lacks. Believe it or not, the cottonmouth is not inclined to bite. When disturbed they will vibrate their tail, open their mouth showing the “cottonmouth” and displaying their fangs, and swiveling their head warning you to back off. Attacking, or chasing, rarely happens. I find them basking in the open in the mornings and seeking cover the rest of the day. Turning over boards (using a rake – do not use your hand) I find them coiled trying to hide. MOST of the ones I find are juveniles. These are opportunistic feeders – eating almost any animal but preferring fish. They hunt at night. Breeding takes place in spring and fall. The females give live birth in summer. As mentioned earlier, they seem to be becoming more common on our islands.
Eastern Cottonmouth with distinct “mask” and flattened body trying to intimidate.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
This year, while surveying for cottonmouths, I encountered numerous Eastern Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum). These long slender snakes can reach lengths of 102” (8ft.), move very fast across the ground – often with their heads raised like a cobra – and, even though nonvenomous, will bite aggressively. They get their name from their coloration. They have a dark brown head and neck and a tan colored body – resemble an old coachwhip. They like dune environments and are excellent climbers. They consume lizards, small birds and mammals, and even other small snakes. They are most active during the daylight, but I usually find them beneath boards and other debris hiding. They have always been on the islands but encountered more often this past year. They lay eggs and do so in summer.
Their close cousin, the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constricta) is very similar but a beautiful dark black color. They can reach lengths of 70” (6ft.) and are also very fast. Like their cousin, they are nonvenomous but bite aggressively – often vibrating their tail like cottonmouths warning you to stay back. They are beneficial controlling amphibian, reptile, and mammalian animals. They are also summer egg layers.
The southern black racer differs from otehr black snakes in its brillant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.
There are a few freshwater snakes that, like the cottonmouth do not like saltwater, but could be found on the islands. These are in the genus Nerodia and are nonvenomous. There are two species (the Midland and Banded water snakes) that could be found here. They resemble cottonmouths in size and color and are often confused with them. They differ in that they have vertical dark stripes running across their jaws and have a round pupil. Though nonvenomous, they will bite aggressively. One member of the Nerodia group is the Gulf Coast Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii clarkii). This snake does like saltwater and is found in the brackish salt marshes on the island. It is dark in color with four longitudinal stripes, two are yellow and two are a dull brown color. It only reaches a length of 36” (3ft.), is nocturnal, and feeds on estuarine fish and invertebrates.
This banded water snake is often confused with the cottonmouth. This animal has the vertical stripes extending from the lower jaw, which is lacking in the cottonmouth.
Photo: University of Georgia
Other species that the guides mention, or I have seen, are the small Crowned Snake, Southern Hognose, Pine Snake, Pine Woods Snake, and the Rough Green Snake. I will mention here species I have seen in either Gulf Breeze or Big Lagoon State Park that COULD be found on the island: Eastern Coral Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Pigmy Rattlesnake, Eastern Hognose, and the Corn Snake (also called the Red Rat Snake). Only two of these (Eastern Coral and Pigmy) are venomous.
Last, but not least, is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotolus adamateus). This is the largest venomous snake in the United States, reaching 96” (8ft.). It is a diurnal hunter consuming primarily small mammals, though large ones can take rabbits. They prefer the dry areas of the island where cover is good. Palmettos, Pine trees, and along the edge of wetlands are their favorite haunts. Despite their preference for dry sandy environments, they – like all snakes – are good swimmers and large rattlesnakes have been seen swimming across Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon. They tend to rattle before you get too close and you should yield to this animal. The have an impressive strike range, 33% of their body length, you should give these guys a wide berth. I have come across several that never rattled, I just happen to see them. Again, give them plenty of room when walking by.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola.
Photo: Sue Saffron
It is understandable that people are nervous about snakes being in popular vacation spots, but honestly… they really do not like to be around people. We are trouble for them and they know it. Most encounters are in the more natural areas of the islands. Staying on marked trails and open areas, where you can see them – and be sure to look down while walking, you should see them and avoid trouble. For more questions on local snakes, contact me at the county extension office.
Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. 1981. Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes. Windward Publishing, Miami FL. Pp.176.
Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 253.
Over 1.8 million Monarch butterflies have been tagged and tracked over the past 27 years. This October these iconic beauties will flutter through the Florida Panhandle on their way to the Oyamel fir forests on 12 mountaintops in central Mexico. Monarch Watch volunteers and citizen scientists will be waiting to record, tag and release the butterflies in hopes of learning more about their migration and what the 2019 population count will be.
This spring, scientists from World Wildlife Fund Mexico estimated the population size of the overwintering Monarchs to be 6.05 hectacres of trees covered in orange. As the weather warmed, the butterflies headed north towards Canada (about three weeks early). It’s an impressive 2,000 mile adventure for an animal weighing less than 1 gram. Those butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains headed up California; while the eastern insects traveled over the “corn belt” and into New England. When August brought cooler days, all the Monarchs headed back south.
What the 2018 Monarch Watch data revealed was alarming. The returning eastern Monarch butterfly population had increased by 144 percent, the highest count since 2006. But, the count still represented a decline of 90% from historic levels of the 1990’s. Additionally, the western population plummeted to a record low of 30,000, down from 1.2 million two decades ago. With estimated populations around 42 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the process of deciding whether to list the Monarch butterfly as endangered or threatened in 2014. With the additional information, FWS set a deadline of June 2019 to decide whether to pursue the listing.
Scientists estimate that 6 hectacres is the threshold to be out of the immediate danger of migratory collapse. To put things in scale: A single winter storm in January 2002 killed an estimated 500 million Monarchs in their Mexico home. However, with recent changes on the status of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has delayed its decision until December 2020. One more year of data may be helpful to monarch conservation efforts.
Individuals can help with the monitoring and restoring the Monarch butterflies habitat. There are two scheduled tagging events in Panhandle, possibly more. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge is holding their Butterfly Festival on Saturday, October 26 from 10a.m. to 4 p.m. Henderson Beach State Park in Destin will have 200 butterflies to tag and release on Saturday, November from 9 – 11 a.m. Ask around in the local area. There may be more opportunities.
There is something more you can do to increase the success of the butterflies along their migratory path – plant more Milkweed (Asclepias spp.). It’s the only plant the Monarch caterpillar will eat. When they leave their hibernation in Mexico around February or March, the adults must find Milkweed all along the path to Canada in order to lay their eggs. Butterflies only live two to six weeks. They must mate and lay eggs along the way in order for the population to continue its flight. Each generation must have Milkweed about every 700 miles. Check with the local nurseries for plants. Though orange is the most common native species, Milkweed comes in many colors and leaf shapes.
Ospreys, or fish hawks, build their nests from sticks atop dead trees. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension
Big hurricanes like Dorian (Bahamas) and 2018’s Michael (central Florida Panhandle) were devastating to the communities they landed in. Flooding, wind, rain, loss of power and communications eventually made way for ad hoc clearing and cleanup, temporary shelters, and a slow walk to recovery. Among the most striking visual impacts of a hurricane are the tree losses, as there are unnatural openings in the canopy and light suddenly shines on areas that had been shaded for years. In northwest Florida, pines are particularly vulnerable. After any hurricane in the Panhandle, you can drive down Interstate 10 for miles and see endless pines blown to the ground or broken off at the top. During Hurricane Ivan 15 years ago, the coastal areas in Escambia and Santa Rosa lost thousands of trees not only due to wind, but also to tree roots inundated by saltwater for long periods.
Dead trees left by hurricanes serve as ideal nesting ground for large birds like ospreys. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Nature always finds a way, though. Because of all those dead (but still-standing) pines, our osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population is in great shape in the Pensacola area. How are these two things related? Well, ospreys build large stick nests in the tall branches/crooks of dead trees, known as snags. They particularly prefer those near the water bodies where they fish. When I first moved here 20 years ago, I rarely saw ospreys. Now, it’s uncommon not to see them near the bayous and bays, or to hear their high-pitched calls as they swoop and dive for fish.
If you are not familiar with ospreys, they can be distinguished by their call and their size (up to six foot wingspan). It is common to see them in their large nests atop those snags, flying, or diving for fish. I usually see them with mullet in their talons, although they also prey on catfish, spotted trout, and other smaller species. They have white underbellies, brown backs, and are smaller than eagles but larger than your average hawk. One of their more interesting physical adaptations (and identifying characteristics) is their ability to grip fish parallel to their bodies, making it more aerodynamic than the perpendicular method most birds use.
Ospreys mate for life, and cooperate to build nests and care for young. The species has overcome many complex threats—including DDT damage to eggs and habitat loss—but the sight of them flying is always inspiring to me. They are a living embodiment of resilience amidst adversity.
The recent attacks on swimmers in North Carolina have once again brought up the topic of sharks. And of course, “Shark Week” is coming up. It is understandable why people are concerned about swimming in waters were animals weighing several hundred pounds with rows of sharp, sometimes serrated, teeth are lurking. It is also understandable that local tourism groups are concerned that visitors are concerned. Sounds like the movie Jaws all over again.
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
So, what is the risk?
It is good question to ask for anything we feel uncomfortable with. Hiking in Rockies where bears might roam. Hiking in wetlands of Florida or deserts of the American southwest where venomous snakes may lurk. Paddling the creeks and rivers of the American southeast where alligators could be basking. All are concerns.
According to G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman, a risk is the probability of suffering harm from a hazard that can cause injury, disease, death, economic loss, or damage. There is a difference between possibility and probability. There is always the possibility of a shark attack, but what is the probability it will happen? Unfortunately, media blast can create a scare over a highly unlikely possibility without discussing the data driven probability of it happening. We all take risk every day – riding in a car, smoking, drinking alcohol, eating bad food – which can lead to heart issues and the number one killer of humans worldwide, and more. Many of these we do not consider risky. We feel we are in control, understand the risk, and are managing from them. Those risk we have little control over – shark attacks – seem more of a risk than they really are. The car is far more dangerous, yet we do not hesitate to get in one at zoom onto the interstate.
Let’s conduct a simple risk assessment of shark attacks…
What is the hazard of concern?
Being attacked by a shark
Dying from the shark attack
How likely is the event?
The International Shark Attack File was first developed after World War II to address the issue of shark attacks on US Navy personnel, but expended to everyone. It was originally housed at the Smithsonian Institute but is currently housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Based on their records of unprovoked shark attacks (the ones we are truly interested in) there have been 3103 attacks on humans since 1580. 46% of those were in the United States, ranking us #1. Number two and three are Australia and South Africa. So as far as nations go, we are number one for attacks. However, this equates to 7 attacks / year – worldwide. And not all of those died. Most did not.
Since 1837, 828 attacks (57%) occurred in Florida. This equates to 4.5 attacks / year. Florida is number one, followed by Hawaii and California.
What about counties in Florida?
Since 1882 there have been 303 attacks (36%) in Volusia County. This equates to 2.2 attacks/year. The total number of attacks in Florida panhandle counties since 1882 have been 25 – this is 0.2 attacks/year for the entire panhandle.
What were these Floridians and visitors doing when they were attacked?
Surface recreation (surfing, boogie boarding), swimming, and wading top the list, the other activities were logged.
So, there have between 8-10 shark attacks each year, and two fatalities, worldwide.
The white shark is responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species. It is found in the Gulf of Mexico in the winter months but there are no reports of attacks in Florida.
Photo courtesy of UF IFAS
The Risk Assessment is used to develop a Risk Management Plan
First, How do these shark attack data compare with other risks?
I wondered how many car accidents occur each year worldwide?
According to USA Insurance Coverage, who got their data from the National Highway Traffic Administration – 5,250,000 each year in the United States alone. About one every 60 seconds.
Situations that cause human deaths annually in the United States
Heart disease 652,486 1 in 5 people
Cancer 553,888 1 in 7
Stroke 150,074 1 in 24
Shark attack 1 1 in 3,748,067
Between 1992-2000 there were 2 shark attacks in Florida. In that same time period, there were 135 drownings.
Between 2004 and 2013, 361 people drowned in rip currents. During that same period, 8 people were attacked by sharks.
Between 1990 and 2009, in Florida, 112,581 people were involved in bicycle accidents; 2272 died. In that same period, there were 435 shark attacks in Florida; 4 died.
And my favorite…
Between 1984 and 1987, 6339 people had to visit a hospital in New York City because they were bitten by a human. This was 1585 / year. In that same period there were 45 shark attacks in the entire United States. This was 11 / year.
Second, How should we reduce the risk of shark attack?
Well… as you can see from the assessment and comparative risk analysis, many would say you did not need to develop a plan to reduce risk because the risk is too low to fool with. You should spend time on hazards that are of a more real concern. That said, there are some things you can do.
– Avoid excessive splashing; it is known that sharks are attracted to this. It is also known that more often than not, they move away when they detect the source of the splashing.
– Avoid swimming when bleeding or in water with strong smells (like fish bait); this too will attract them.
– Most unprovoked attacks occur between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. But honestly, that is when most people are in the water. This could be different if most of us swim after sunset. That said, we recommend that you reduce swimming at dawn and dusk.
I hope this clear up some of the concerns about shark attacks. Yes, they do happen – but infrequently. There are some things you can do to reduce your risk, but these should not keep you from enjoying water related activities. Enjoy your time here on the Gulf coast. Be careful driving and try to eat healthier.
International Shark Attack File. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/.
Miller, G.T., S.E. Spoolman. 2011. Living in the Environment. 16th Edition. Brooks and Cole, Cengage Learning. Belmont CA. pp. 121.
USA Insurance. https://www.usacoverage.com/auto-insurance/how-many-driving-accidents-occur-each-year.html.
I found one in Escambia County, near Perdido Key. It was dead, roadkill, and was quite large. Needless to say, working with invasive species and trying to stay ahead of any new potential problems, I was surprised. I immediately turned around to confirm what I saw as I drove by – it was a nutria.
A dead nutria found along a roadside in Escambia County.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
Many of us have heard of this large rodent (Myocastor coypus), and all the problems it has caused in the state of Louisiana. With the loss of their marshes at stake, it was “all hands” to battle this guy. From reading, it appears it was released across the United States as a potential fur product. I found statements that they may have been brought here from their home in South America as early as the 19th century. Certainly, by the 1920s and 1930s they were here. Today there are records in 18 states across the southeast, the Chesapeake Bay area, and the Pacific northwest – a widespread release and distribution.
It is another classic invasive species story. A nonnative creature is brought to the United States for some specific reason, sometimes accidentally; escapes into the local environment, or is intentionally released; has no natural predators so begins to reproduce at a high rate; and causes environmental and/or economic problems. The United States spends hundreds of millions of each year battling such species.
In the nutria’s case, it is from South America. It was hard to determine whether they were brought over here in small increments to different locations over time, or whether they were brought here in bulk and released into habitats they could survive in, but they were released. It is a large rodent and resembles a beaver except that its tail is round, and not flat, and the profile of their back has an arch to it. They can reach two feet in length, not counting tail, and can weigh up to 20 pounds.
They are herbivores, and some used this animal to control aquatic plants in their ponds. Like many rodents, they have an aggressive reproductive rate to overcoming predation. Nutria become sexually mature within 4-6 months and can produce their first litter at eight months. They breed year-round and typically have three litters / year with 2-13 young / litter. Gestation is 128-130 days and the females are ready to breed within 48 hours of birth.
Nutria like water and can survive in brackish conditions. They live in small social groups that typically have a dominant male, 2-3 females, and the young. Activity is usually at night, moving through the habitat consuming 25% of their body weight in plants each day. They can be seen during daylight hours if food is scarce.
Photo Courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife National Digital Library
So, what’s the problem?
They eat a lot and burrow for denning. Many waterways are endangered due to their destructive habits. The tunneling and burrowing can compromise the integrity of banks and shorelines around these waterways. Louisiana, being a state with many levees holding water back from communities, you can understand their concern; but communities in Washington, Oregon, and Maryland are facing the same issues. They are carries of certain pathogens and parasites, such as tuberculosis, septicemia, and liver flukes which can be a threat to humans and pets. They also carry nematodes which can trigger a condition known as “nutria itch” in waterways where they are found.
In 1938, 20 nutria were released in Louisiana. By 1958 there were 20 million in the state. There did not seem to be any natural control and the state began losing its marshes. The interesting thing is there are records of releases in Florida as far back as 1955. There are records of this animal in the Pensacola area dating back to 1956. Yet, we do not see the overwhelming numbers found in Louisiana, or with lionfish in our area. I spoke with long time Mobile Delta natural historian Jimbo Meador about the problem there. He said there were lots of nutria at one time and they had hunting tournaments to control them. But when the state began protecting alligators the nutria problem went away – a natural predator after all. He said today you can still find nutria in the Mobile area, but they are restricted to the more brackish areas where alligators are not as common.
Which brings us back to the Pensacola issue.
Many believe that the best method for controlling a new potential invasive species is discover and manage them early before they become widespread and established. Even though this is the first one I have seen in Escambia County, they apparently have been in the area for over 60 years. Something seems to be controlling their populations, which is a good thing. That said, any populations found should be monitored so they do not become more widespread. Currently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considers them as one of the furbearers and manages them as such. Live trapping is allowed but you must have a trapping permit to do so. You can actually sell the fur, but you will need a license for this. This may be like the tiger shrimp story, an invasive we are aware of but is not becoming a widespread problem in the county, but I do recommend anyone seeing the creature report to the website data base www.EDDMapS.org so that we can all keep track of where they are and whether they are spreading.
California’s Invaders: Nutria (Myocastor coypus), California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Jimbo Meador (personal communication)
Maryland Mammals: Nutria (Mycastor coypus), Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Nutria Biology and Identification, Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Nutria (Myocastor coypus), Florida’s Nonnative Wildlife Species Detail, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
USGS, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species, Nutria (Myocastor coypus)
Mississippi kites are smaller but impressive aerialists as well. Photo by Andy Reago, Flickr Creative Commons.
Dime store kites were never very expensive, but it still seemed like a luxury when I was growing up and it was a rare thing for us kids to see a store-bought kite flying over our neighborhood. An old paper grocery bag (remember those), some cotton string for the corner loops, and two dog fennel sticks cut from the back field provided the basic ingredients for us to make our own. With a little creative cutting and gluing, and the attachment of a tail made from torn strips from a worn-out shirt, it was a thing of grace and beauty and was soon aloft on the wind. On a good day, with the right breeze (not too light, not too gusty), we could run out two full rolls of kite string until the kite was just a speck in the distance. The real challenge was winding all of that string back in after the kite came down across houses, powerlines and fields.
Please forgive the digression but thinking about the topic for this article sent me on a little trip down memory lane. We are fortunate to have two very interesting avian species of kites that grace our summer skies over North Florida. Both are exceptional aerialists but one of them in particular will leave a visual image that is hard to shake. The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is one of the most impressive birds on the planet with its stark white belly and under-wing coverts, outlined in bold black trim. Its deeply forked tail gives rise to several descriptive names such as split-tailed hawk and fork-tailed hawk, among others. Each spring, swallow-tailed kites migrate in small groups back to their breeding range that extends into the Florida Peninsula and sections of the Panhandle, including several North Florida counties. I’ve seen up to 21 kites flying over the Apalachicola River floodplain during this time of year. Forested swamp habitats along river corridors are particularly valuable for foraging and nesting areas but these graceful flyers are also observed over agricultural fields and pastures where they catch dragonflies and other bugs on the wing; usually dining in the air. Nesting takes place in treetops and young are fed a mixed bag of insects, tree frogs, lizards and small snakes, most snatched from the treetops in flight. Occasionally, the young of other birds are taken from their nests and added to the menu. After the young have fledged from the nest, it isn’t long before our kites head back to their wintering grounds in South America. Young birds can be identified by their less-deeply forked tail, due to the short outer tail feathers.
The other kite that graces our area during summertime is the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis); not quite as flashy as its fork-tailed cousin but beautiful in its own right. Adult Mississippi kites are a pearly gray color with darker wings and tail. They are significantly smaller, with a wingspan of about 3 feet (swallow-tailed kites have a wingspan up to 4.5 feet). Wintering grounds are in South America also but the breeding range in the US includes several western states such as Texas, Oklahoma and even sparsely in New Mexico and Arizona. This species is known to vigorously defend its nest by dive-bombing trespassers who get too close.
I see both species flying around my house in Wakulla County and without fail, I pause to appreciate the grace, beauty and tremendous distances covered during annual flights by these long-distance migrants. Keep looking up during our summer months and you may well be rewarded by a glimpse of these two “kites over North Florida.”