The Wacissa River offers paddlers the opportunity to see north Florida unfiltered.
Being off the beaten path has many advantages. In the case of a spring-fed river, it translates to less pressure from human use and a great opportunity for those who do visit to experience the “real Florida”.
The Wacissa River, located in the southern half of Jefferson County, Florida, is near the crossroads identified as the town of Wacissa. There is a blinking light, a post office, and two small convenience stores where beer, ice and snacks can be purchased.
Access to the river is about two miles south of the blinking light on Florida 59, just after the state road veers to the southwest. The blacktop spur quickly become a dirt parking lot after passing several canoe and kayak rental businesses.
A county maintained boat landing with pick-nic tables, a manmade beach, and a tiny diving platform with a rope swing are the only signs of civilization. The cold, clear water extends to a tree line several hundred yards south of the landing with the river moving to the southeast.
The river emerges crystal clear from multiple limestone springs along the first mile and a half of the 12 mile waterway. The adjacent land is flat and subject to being swampy, especially in wet years like 2018.
The river terrain stands in contrast to the Cody Scarp just a few miles to the north. This geologic feature is the remnants of an ancient marine terrace and is hilly, rising 100 feet above the river in some spots.
Cypress, oak, pine, and other trees cover the bottomlands adjacent to the river. The river quickly enters the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area which results in a wide variety of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The wildlife viewing varies by season. Many migratory birds use the river’s shelter and resources on their annual trips.
Canoeing and kayaking are popular in the gentle current. Powerboats and fan boats can use the area also, but must be on constant alert for shallow spots and hidden snags.
For the adventurous paddler who wants to follow the river’s course, there is a debarkation point at Goose Pasture Campgrounds and another near St. Marks after the Wacissa merges with the Aucilla.
Be prepared when taking this journey. This is the real Florida, no fast food restaurants or convenience stores. Only clear water, big trees and the calls of birds will be found here.
As a kid growing up here along the Gulf Coast, I had never heard of an osprey. Now, there is at least one mating pair on almost every body of water in the Pensacola Bay area. Where did this once unknown bird come from? How has it successfully colonized our coastal waterways?
Osprey nesting sites are commonly near water, and their food source.
The osprey, like many other fish eating birds, was a victim of the DDT story. This miracle pesticide was developed to battle insects attacking food crops but was found to be useful against mosquitos and many other unwanted pests. It was sprayed everywhere using planes, trucks, and tractors. With an extremely long half-life, wherever it landed it was going to be around for a while – it can still be found in the sediments of the Pensacola Bay System. It was one of those compounds that was difficult to excrete through an organisms excretory system – thus it accumulated within their tissues, and as organisms fed on other organisms, it was passed up the food chain – bioaccumulation. Birds of prey who fed on fish would accumulate DDT as well. It caused the shells of their eggs to become thinner – so nesting was not successful – and many of the aquatic birds of prey (pelicans and eagles alike) declined in number. DDT was banned in 1970s and many of these fish eating birds have made a remarkable recovery – a true success story.
So who is this fish eating bird of prey that can be found on dead trees and light posts all over the bay area?
Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are members of the family Accipitridae – the hawks and eagles.
They are predators with hooked bills and sharp talons to grab and dispose of prey. Ospreys can be identified by the hawk like silhouette hovering over a local waterway searching for fish – their primary food. They are usually in pairs and, at times, the young are hovering nearby. Their call is a high pitch chirping sound and if seen on a tree, or on their nest, they are brown on top and white beneath. These birds are common along both fresh and saltwater bodies of water.
Ospreys prefer waterways where fish are plentiful. For more successful hunting, they like waters that are relatively shallow and nesting locations that protect the young from mammalian predators. Many local osprey prefer large dead trees for their nests, and will often use manmade structures – such as power poles, navigation markers, and special platforms on poles placed there for the purpose of osprey nesting.
Osprey feed almost exclusively on fish. They are unique in the hawk world in that their talons can adjust so that the captured fish can be turned parallel to the osprey’s body – making it more aerodynamic when returning to the nest. Hunting osprey hover over the water searching and then dive, talons first into the water. They can only reach depths of about three feet so they typically hunt for surface schooling fish, or in shallow waters. Most of their captures are between 8-10 inches and include such fish as speckled trout, mullet, and catfish.
These birds are monogamous (mating pairs breed for life). During the breeding season, the male will collect sticks for the construction of their large nests. Bringing them back to the female, she will begin to arrange and construct the nest. The male provides seagrass and flotsam for the inner lining. There is a pre-courtship dance where the returning male flies over the nest with a fish. The pair produce between 3-4 eggs. Both parents will incubate the eggs but the female does the lions share. She will incubate while the male hunts. Returning with a fish for her, she will fly to a nearby branch to feed while he incubates the eggs – though they have seen the males incubate even without feeding the female. Evening incubation is always the female.
After hatching, the male will bring food to both the female and young. She does not leave the young at all for about 14 days. Afterwards, they will be left alone for periods of time, and are usually fledged by 50 days. Data shows that young fledglings rarely disperse more than 30 miles from the nest they hatched from – suggesting slow dispersal of this species. The mating pair will return to the same location for nesting every year for up to 30 years.
There are few predators of osprey due to their nesting habits. In some locations, where they nest on the ground, coyotes have been a problem. Locally, bald eagles are known to try to grab hatchlings and, occasionally, adults. There have been reports of crocodiles taking adults from the water in South Africa; this may be the case in South America as well, but no reports of American Alligators doing the same.
This is now a common bird along our shores and is a true conservation success story.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds; Eastern Region. Ed. J. Bull, J. Farrand Jr. pp. 795.
Osprey. Neotropical Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/osprey/overview.
Hydrologic cycle and geologic cross-section image courtesy of Florida Geological Survey Bulletin 31, updated 1984.
With more than 250 crystal clear springs in Northwest Florida it is just a short road trip to a pristine swimming hole! Springs and their associated flowing water bodies provide important habitat for wildlife and plants. Just as importantly, springs provide people with recreational activities and the opportunity to connect with the natural environment. While paddling your kayak, floating in your tube, or just wading in the cool water, think about the majesty of the springs. They are the visible part of the Florida Aquifer, the below ground source of most Florida’s drinking water.
A spring is a natural opening in the Earth where water emerges from the aquifer to the soil surface. The groundwater is under pressure and flows upward to an opening referred to as a spring vent. Once on the surface, the water contributes to the flow of rivers or other waterbodies. Springs range in size from small seeps to massive pools. Each can be measured by their daily gallon output which is classified as a magnitude. First magnitude springs discharge more than 64.6 million gallons of water each day. Florida has over 30 first magnitude springs. Four of them can be found in the Panhandle – Wakulla Springs and the Gainer Springs Group of 3.
Wakulla Springs is located within Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. The spring vent is located beneath a limestone ledge nearly 180 feet below the land surface. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have utilized the area for nearly 15,000 years. Native Americans referred to the area as “wakulla” meaning “river of the crying bird”. Wakulla was the home of the Limpkin, a rare wading bird with an odd call.
Over 1,000 years ago, Native Americans used another first magnitude spring, the Gainer Springs group that flow into the Econfina River. “Econfina”, or “natural bridge” in the local native language, got its name from a limestone arch that crossed the creek at the mouth of the spring. General Andrew Jackson and his Army reportedly used the natural bridge on their way west exploring North America. In 1821, one of Jackson’s surveyors, William Gainer, returned to the area and established a homestead. Hence, the naming of the waters as Gainer Springs.
Three major springs flow at 124.6 million gallons of water per day from Gainer Springs Group, some of which is bottled by Culligan Water today. Most of the springs along the Econfina maintain a temperature of 70-71°F year-round. If you are in search of something cooler, you may want to try Ponce de Leon Springs or Morrison Springs which flows between 6.46 and 64.6 million gallons a day. They both stay around 67.8°F. Springs are very cool, clear water with such an importance to all living thing; needing appreciation and protection.
As the heat indicies rise, there a number of organizations that offer great learning experiences about our local Natural Resources!! While it is great to have the outdoor hands-on learning, the afternoon heat can feel suffocating. Here are a couple of nature centers that you can visit to get out of the heat.
Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve is home to the Reserve’s Nature Center, located at 108 Island Drive, in East Point Florida. Inside the air-conditioned Nature Center are many interactive displays and tanks with live local animals. At one end of the center, there is a large mural that takes you from the upper-parts of the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico, There are many native animals identified on the mural. There is an area with plenty of artifacts to keep the young and old naturalist busy.
The interactive cultural displays are really interesting and provide much information about the fishing industry that Apalachicola is known for throughout Florida.
The Reserve features a many trails that lead throughout the property and many to the water. The Apalachicola National Estuary Reserve is one of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the U.S. Each reserve is protected for “long-term research, water quality and habitat monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship.”
The Reserve is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am until 4 pm, admission is free.
Photos provided by Chris VerlindeHeading to the west, near the town of Freeport Florida, you will find the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Nature Center. This amazing place will keep you and your family entertained for hours. If you plan to go, the center is only open to the public on Thursday and Friday during June and July from 9 am until 2 pm. The cost is $8.00 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 3-12 and free for those 2 and under. The rest of the year, the staff are dedicated to teaching local students from surrounding school districts about biodiversity in Northwest Florida. As you enter the exhibit building there is a tribute to the famous naturalist E.O Wilson, whose work is the inspiration for center. Dr. Wilson is dedicated to teaching others about the importance of conservation of biodiversity. He coined the term “biophilia” which means “the love of all living things.” The exhibit hall features many different displays on the cultural and natural resources in the area. The center features a reptile room, classrooms, an amphitheater, porches to enjoy your lunch and the “World of Wonder Exhibit.” which is a Science on a Sphere – a giant globe that utilizes technology to teach about the planets, our weather, and more.
Animals that can be found at the center include: birds of prey, bobcats, turtles and snakes, a red-cockaded woodpecker, a fox, and chickens. A short walk outside, you will find an authentic cracker house (with snakes!) and an organic garden.
The E.O. Wilson Biophilia center is a wonderful place to visit, check it out soon!!
It is now late May and in recent weeks I, and several volunteers, have been surveying the area for terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and monitoring local seagrass beds. We see many creatures when we are out and about; one that has been quite common all over the bay has been the “stingray”.
The cownose ray is often mistaken for the manta ray. It lacks the palps (“horns”) found on the manta.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant
These are intimidating creatures… everyone knows how they can inflict a painful wound using the spine in their tail, but may are not aware that not all “stingrays” can actually use a spine to drive you off – actually, not all “rays” are “stingrays”.
So what is a ray?
First, they are fish – but differ from most fish in that they lack a bony skeleton. Rather it is cartilaginous, which makes them close cousins of the sharks.
So what is the difference between a shark and a ray?
You would immediately jump on the fact that rays are flat disked-shape fish, and that sharks are more tube-shaped and fish like. This is probably true in most cases, but not all. The characteristics that separate the two groups are
- The five gill slits of a shark are on the side of the head – they are on the ventral side (underside) of a ray
- The pectoral fin begins behind the gill slits in sharks, in front of for the ray group
Not all rays have the whip-like tail that possess a sharp spine; some in fact have a tube-shaped body with a well-developed caudal fin for a tail.
There are eight families and 19 species of rays found in the Gulf of Mexico. Some are not common, but others are very much so.
Sawfish are large tube-shaped rays with a well-developed caudal fin. They are easily recognized by their large rostrum possessing “teeth” giving them their common name. Walking the halls of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, you will see photos of fishermen posing next to monsters they have captured. Sawfish can reach lengths of 18 feet… truly intimidating. However, they are very slow and lethargic fish. They spend their lives in estuaries, rarely going deeper than 30 feet. They were easy targets for fishermen who displayed them as if they caught a true monster. Today they are difficult to find and are protected. There are still sightings in southwest Florida, and reports from our area, but I have never seen one here. I sure hope to one day. There are two species in the Gulf of Mexico.
Guitarfish are tube-shaped rays that are very elongated. They appear to be sharks, albeit their heads are pretty flat. They more common in the Gulf than the bay and, at times, will congregate near our reefs and fishing piers to breed. They are often confused with the electric rays called torpedo rays, but guitarfish lack the organs needed to deliver an electric shock. They have rounded teeth and prefer crustaceans and mollusk to fish. There is only one species in the Gulf.
Torpedo rays can deliver an electric shock – about 35 volts of one. Though there are stories of these shocking folks to death, I am not aware of any fatalities. Nonetheless, the shock can be serious and beach goers are warned to be cautious. I once mistook one buried in the sand for a shell. Let us just say the jolt got my attention and I may have had a few words for this fish before I returned to the beach. We have two species of torpedo rays in the Gulf of Mexico.
Skates look JUST like stingrays – but they lack the whip-like tail and the venomous spine that goes with it. They are very common in the inshore waters of the Florida Panhandle and though they lack the terrifying spine we are all concerned about, they do possess a series of small thorn-like spine on the back that can be painful to the bare foot of a swimmer. Skates are famous for producing the black egg case folks call the “mermaids’ purse”. These are often found dried up along the shore of both the Gulf and they bay and popular items to take home after a fun day at the beach. There are four species of skates found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stingrays… this is the one… this is the one we are concerned about. Stingrays can be found on both sides of our barrier islands and like to hide beneath the sand to ambush their prey. More often than not, when we approach they detect this and leave. However, sometimes they will remain in the sand hoping not to be detected. The swimmer then steps on their backs forcing them to whip their long tail over and drive the serrated spine into your foot. This usually makes you move off them – among other things. The piercing is painful and spine (which is actually a modified tooth) possesses glands that contain a toxic substance. It really is no fun to be stung by these guys. Many people will do what is called the “stingray shuffle” as they move through the water. This is basically sliding your feet across the sand reducing your chance of stepping on one. They are no stranger to folks who visit St. Joe Bay. The spines being modified teeth can be easily replaced after lodging in your foot. Actually, it is not uncommon to find one with two or three spines in their tails ready to go. Stingrays do not produce “mermaids’ purses” but rather give live birth. There are five species in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atlantic Stingray is one of the common members of the ray group who does possess a venomous spine.
Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History
Butterfly ray is a strange looking fish and easy to recognize. The wide pectoral fins and small tail gives it the appearance of a butterfly. Despite the small tail, it does possess a spine. However, the small tail makes it difficult for the butterfly ray to pierce you with it. There is only one species in the Gulf, the smooth butterfly ray.
Eagle rays are one of the few groups of rays that actually in the middle of the water column instead of sitting on the ocean floor. They can get quite large and often mistaken for manta rays. Eagle rays lack the palps (“horns”) that the manta ray possesses. Rather they have a blunt shaped head and feed on mollusk. They do have venomous spines but, as with the butterfly ray, their tails are too short to extend and use it the way stingrays do. There are two species. The eagle ray is brown and has spots all over its back. The cownose ray is very common and almost every time I see one, I hear “there go manta rays”… again, they are not mantas. They have a habit of swimming in the surf and literally body surfing. Surfers, beachcombers, and fishermen frequently see them.
Last but not least is the very large Manta ray. This large beast can reach 22 feet from wingtip to wing tip. Like eagle rays, they swim through the ocean rather than sit on the bottom. They have to large “horns” (called palps) that help funnel plankton into their mouths. These horns give them one of their common names – the devilfish. Mantas, like eagle and butterfly rays, do have whip-like tails and a venomous spine, but like the above, their tails are much shorter and so effective placement of the spine in your foot is difficult.
Many are concerned when they see rays – thinking that all can inflict a painful spine into your foot – but they are actually really neat animals, and many are very excited to see them.
Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M. College Station, TX. pp. 327.
Shipp, R. L. 2012. Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. KME Seabooks. Mobile AL. pp. 250.
In recent weeks, volunteers and I have been surveying local estuaries counting terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and monitoring seagrass. One animal that has been very visible during these surveys is the relatively large snail known as the crown conch (Melongena corona). Its shell is often found with a striped hermit crab living within, but it is actually produced by a fleshy snail, who is a predator to those slow enough for it to catch.
The white spines along the whorl give this snail its common name – crown conch.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
The shell is familiar to most who venture to the estuary side of our beaches. Reaching around five inches in length, crown conch shells are spiral with a wide aperture (opening) and brown to purple to white in color. Each whorl ends with white spins giving it the appearance of a crown and – hence – it’s common name. They are typically seen cruising along the sediments near grassbeds, salt marshes and oyster reefs – their long black siphons extended drawing in seawater for oxygen, but also to detect scents that will lead them to food.
These snails breed from winter to early summer. Females, larger than males, will develop 15-500 eggs in capsules, which they attach to hard structures within the habitat; such as wood, seagrass blades, and shell material.
Crown conchs are subtropical species and have a low tolerance for cold water. They are common in the panhandle and may expand further north along the Atlantic coast if warming trends continue. They have a higher tolerance for changes in salinity and can tolerate salinity as low as 8 ppt. The salinities within Pensacola Bay can be as low as 10 ppt and Santa Rosa Sound / Big Lagoon are typically between 20-30 ppt. The developing young require higher salinities and thus breeding takes in the lower portions of our estuaries.
These are guys are snail predators – seeking prey slow enough for them to catch. Common targets include the bivalves such as oysters and clams, but they are known to seek out other snails – like whelks. Crown conchs are known to feed on dead organisms they encounter and may be cannibalistic. As with all creatures, they have their predators as well. The large thick shell protects them from most but other snails, such as whelks and murex, are known predators of the crown conch.
These conchs tend to stay closer to shallow water (less than 3 ft.) due the large number of predators at depth. They are common in seagrass meadows and salt marshes and – if in high numbers with few competitors – have been considered an indicator of poor water quality. There is no economic market for them but they are monitored due to the fact they affect the populations of commercially important oysters and clams.
The “snorkel” is called a siphon and is used by the snail to draw water into the mantle cavity. Here it can extract oxygen and detect the scent of prey.
Photo: Franklin County Extension
It is an interesting animal, a sort of “jaws” of the snail world, and a possible candidate for a citizen science water quality monitoring project. Enjoy exploring your coastal estuaries this summer and discover some of these interesting animals.
Masterson, J. 2008. Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory: Crown Conch Melongena corona. Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce, Florida. http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Melongena_corona.htm.