Five Year old Shumard Oak. Photo courtesy the author.
One of the keys to bagging a deer or mess of squirrels or just enjoying an afternoon viewing wildlife is to locate their preferred food source. In the Panhandle, this often means finding a natural stand of oaks or other mast producing trees. However, the concept of attracting animals to mast trees isn’t exclusive to natural areas; it can be replicated by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to attract whitetail deer, squirrels, turkeys or any other game. (Don’t let the terminology confuse you, “mast” is just a term meaning “fruit from a tree”. “Hard” mast refers to nut producing trees -think Oak, Hickory, etc. Soft mast is just that, soft-fleshed fruits – think Pear, Plum, etc. This piece will focus on hard mast trees.) Regardless of semantics, the takeaway is that planting mast producing trees as winter wildlife attractants have several benefits.
- Enhanced habitat. Planting diverse groups of hard mast producing trees provides wonderful cover for deer to browse, squirrels to nest, and turkeys to roost. Also, groups of trees planted in open areas can help to create desired edge effects, see this publication on benefits of “edge” from Auburn University.
- Excellent nutritional supplement to winter food-plot forages (winter food plots are defined here as open areas planted in the cool season with small forage grains like oats, clover, or ryegrass). If a diversity of species is planted, hard mast trees are an excellent, season-long (approximately October-January) source of proteins and fats. They produce high-energy nutrients deer and other critters need to get through the winter months.
5 year old Sawtooth Oak in December 2019, inter-planted in winter forage plot. Photo courtesy the author.
- Reduction in time and money needing to be spent maintaining annual food plots. A well-designed grove of mast producing trees can be as effective in attracting deer and other animals as winter grazing plots and a whole lot cheaper. A study done by the University of Tennessee Extension in 2008 found that hunters spent about $200 per acre on winter food plots (seed, fertilizer, equipment, time, etc.), an expense that will happen EVERY year. And as many of you know from personal experience, $200 is a VERY conservative number, particularly if you value your personal time at all. Replacing half an acre of cultivated winter forage with mast trees will likely be more expensive in year one when you initially buy and plant but remember, if you do it right, you only have to do it once.
With those benefits of mast trees for wildlife attraction in mind, let’s address what and how to plant. Always select trees with desirable characteristics: long-lived, disease-free, and high-quality mast production at an early age (you don’t want your heirs to get all the benefit!). In the Panhandle, Oaks (Quercus spp.) fit this bill best. There are two groups of Oak to pick from, Red and White. Red Oaks generally have dark, ridged bark, leaves with pointed lobes, small to medium-sized acorns that mature in two seasons, and tend to crop reliably each year. White Oaks possess lighter colored bark, leaves with rounded lobes, large, “sweet” acorns maturing in one season, and tend to produce heavily in alternate years. Plant some of each group to ensure an acorn crop each year and maximize wildlife benefit! However, not just any old oak will do; the Oaks that most closely fit all the above characteristics are:
5 year old Nuttall Oak. Photo courtesy the author.
Nuttall Oak (Quercus nuttalli) – Red Oak Group. Rapidly growing, attractive tree, very early producer of good-sized acorns (5-6 years). Drops acorns late, providing needed fats and carbohydrates for bucks through much of the “rut” in the Panhandle (Late November-early February). Tolerates flooding and bottomland areas well.
White Oak (Quercus alba) – White Oak Group. Long-lived, stately tree. Relatively early producer of very large, sweet acorns. Acorn drop is earlier than Nuttall Oak. Grows best on moist upland soils.
Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) – White Oak Group. Large tree with flaky white/gray bark. Relatively early producer of massive, prized acorns. Acorn drop occurs around the same time as White Oak. Prefers moist upland soils like its cousin the White Oak but will tolerate periodic flooding.
Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) – White Oak Group. Non-native. Medium-sized tree with heavy branches, often full to the ground. Very early and reliable producer of large, sweet acorns (begins producing at 5-6 years). Begins to drop acorns in September – often the first Oak to produce mast in the season. Grows best on moist upland soils.
Chinese Chestnut mast in October. Photo courtesy the author.
Chinese Chestnut and Chinese/American Hybrids (Castanea spp.) – Not oaks but worthy of inclusion. Non-native or native hybrids. Medium-sized, spreading trees. Earliest producer of mast (3-4 years from seed germination). Highly sought-after by deer. Tolerates poor soils well but best production is in moist upland areas. I’m particularly partial to the newer American/Chinese Chestnut hybrids like ‘Dunstan’ and ‘AU Buck’.
It is important to remember that success starts at planting. Select healthy container or bare-root trees in the dormant season (December-February) and plant soon after to ensure the rootball doesn’t dry out. Dig planting hole the same depth plants are in containers or to depth of topmost root and backfill with native soil. Do not amend with compost or potting soil! After planting, the trees will need supplemental water, a few gallons per week, unless significant rainfall is received. Water regularly until establishment (when they no longer need your help, generally three-six months after planting).
4′ tree grow tubes are effective at protecting young trees from deer browsing. Photo courtesy the author.
Also, recently planted seedlings will need protection from deer browsing. Unfortunately, deer don’t realize these trees will directly benefit them in a few years and will do their best to destroy them by eating the tender new growth or “rubbing” with their antlers, girdling the trees in the process. I’ve found that either a small 4’ high wire cage held together with zip ties works well, as do plastic grow tubes sold by many wildlife providers. If you opt to use grow tubes, secure them with a substantial staking material such as PVC, always carefully look inside when working around the trees as tubes are magnets for wasp nests, and be vigilant in keeping fire ants out (they enjoy building their homes inside the tree tubes, the nests will often reach several feet up the tube, causing major problems for the tree!) Finally, to maximize growth rate of your trees and expedite the mast-producing process, remove competition from the base of trees by pulling weeds or herbicide application and fertilize regularly (when growth emerges in the spring, again in early summer, and again in late summer to early fall).
As always, if you have any other questions or want more information, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office. Happy planting!
‘Bobwhites in Pine Savanna’ Workshop Set
For Jan. 30 in Marianna, Florida
The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and partners will host the Tri-State Bobwhite Symposium for professional land managers and landowners Thursday, January 30, 2020, in Marianna, FL.
It is the second Working Lands for Wildlife–Bobwhites in Pine Savanna workshop funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and is expected to draw attendees from three states. The program goal is to restore pine savanna on 82,000 acres across seven states using thinning, prescribed fire, and native grass restoration. Federal funding is available to landowners who choose to pursue pine savanna management on that designated landscape.
Bobwhite quail are popular with many hunters and management is trying to restore them.
“Private lands are a critical and necessary component for landscape-scale restoration of wild bobwhites, which is what NBCI is all about,” said NBCI Forestry Coordinator Steve Chapman. “Active management of pine forests on those lands, while still meeting landowner objectives, is a key NBCI strategy, and 82,000 managed acres will show the dividends of this approach.”
Dr. Jess McGuire, Quail Forever’s Working Lands for Wildlife bobwhite coordinator, added that “in order to achieve this level of restoration, wildlife professionals must be trained in the nuances of bobwhite management.”
The workshop will be from 9am–2pm at the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) office, located at 2741 Penn Avenue, Suite 3, Marianna, FL 32448. Preregistration by January 23 is required by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or online at http://bit.ly/tristatequail.
Additional partners include Quail Forever, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, University of Florida Extension, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Through multiple agreements, NBCI, in collaboration with Quail Forever and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources/University of Georgia, will provide at least one of these workshops in each of the seven states identified in the project geography. Those states include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Partners will also produce educational materials detailing management techniques and the results of intentional, targeted pine savanna management for bobwhites as part of the overall project.
Headquartered at the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture/Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, NBCI is a science and habitat-based initiative of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) to elevate bobwhite quail recovery from an individual state-by-state proposition to a coordinated, range-wide leadership endeavor to restore wild bobwhites on a landscape scale. The committee is comprised of representatives of 25 state wildlife agencies, various academic research institutions and private conservation organizations. Support for NBCI is provided by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, state wildlife agencies, the Joe Crafton Family Endowment for Quail Initiatives, the University of Tennessee, Park Cities Quail and Roundstone Native Seed.
Daikon Radish and Buck Forage Oats Plot
When people put in food plots and are not successful, I normally see the following three problems as possible cause. First, they didn’t consider soil pH or fertility. Second, they didn’t choose the right plant varieties for our area. Third, they didn’t manage weeds properly or at all. So following these three steps can help establish a successful food plot.
- Soil pH and fertility
Often wildlife enthusiasts ignore soil pH and fertility. If the soil pH isn’t right, fertilization is a waste of time and money. Different plants have different needs. Some plants need more phosphorus than others. Some need more iron or zinc or copper. The availability of these elements not only depends on whether they are present in the soil but also on the soil pH. Test, Don’t Guess! It takes a week or two to get the full soil sample results back and costs only $10 per sample. That’s a pretty cheap investment to insure a successful food plot.
- Variety selection
Cool season food plots are generally used as attractants for hunters. It does provide some nutrition for the wildlife as well. The goal is to select forages that are desirable to the animals as well as varieties that grow well in our area. Some great choices include: oats, triticale, clovers, daikon radish and Austrian winter peas. We recommend a blend because it extends the length of time that forages are available to the animals as well as decreased risk of food plot failure. For a more information on recommended cool season forages, go to https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag139.
Tetra Treat Clover Mixture Plot
- Weed management
Often tilling the food plot prior to planting is enough to manage most weeds. This is okay when you have native weeds on relatively flat land. If erosion is an issue, or if more problematic weeds such as cogongrass are present, a different weed management strategy is recommended. Glyphosate is a good choice as it is a broad spectrum herbicide that will not negatively affect the food plot. Spray the area with glyphosate 3-4 weeks prior to planting to give it time to kill the weeds. Also, remember that many herbicides are not effective during droughts, so you either need to wait until we have rainfall or work with your extension agent to find a solution that will work for your situation.
These three steps are crucial to successful food plots. First, get your soil pH right and then fertilize properly. Next, choose the right forages and varieties to plant. Then control the weeds so they don’t choke out your food plots. The next step is to enjoy this hunting season. For more information on wildlife food plots, you can contact your local county extension agent.
Protecting and promoting plants that produce soft mast, like this wild persimmon, can be a crucial step in improving wildlife habitat. Note: This time of year persimmons will be orange, the picture was taken earlier in the summer.
Photo Credit: Mark Mauldin
Landowners frequently prioritize wildlife abundance and diversity in their management goals. This is often related to a desired recreational activity (hunting, bird watching, etc.).
In order to successfully meet wildlife related management goals, landowners need to understand that animals frequent specific areas based largely on the quantity, quality and diversity of the food and cover resources available. Implementing management strategies that improve wildlife habitat will lead to greater wildlife abundance and diversity.
Herbivorous wildlife feed on plants, mostly in the form of forages and mast crops. All wildlife species have preferences in terms of habitat, especially food sources. Identifying these preferences and managing habitat to meet them will promote the abundance of the desired species.
Herbaceous plants, leaves, buds, etc. – serve as forages for many wildlife species. Promoting their growth and diversity is essential for improving wildlife habitat. Three common habitat management practices that promote forage growth include:
1) Create forest openings and edges; forested areas with multiple species and/or stand ages, areas left unforested allowing for increased herbaceous plant growth.
2) Thinning; open forest canopy allowing more light to hit the ground increasing herbaceous plant growth and diversity.
3) Prescribed fire; recycle nutrients, greatly improve the nutritional quality of herbage and browse, suppress woody understory growth.
Mast – the seeds and fruits of trees and shrubs – is often one of the most important wildlife food sources on a property.
Hard mast includes shelled seeds, like acorns and hickory nuts and is generally produced in the fall and serves as a wildlife food source during the winter.
Soft mast includes fruits, like blackberries and persimmons, and is generally produced in the warmer months, providing vital nutrition when wildlife species are reproducing and/or migrating.
Making management decisions that protect and promote mast producing trees will encourage wildlife populations.
Landowners can make supplemental plantings to increase the quantity and quality of the nutrition available to wildlife. These supplemental plantings (food plots/forage crops and mast producing trees) can be quite expensive and should be well planned to help maximize the return on investment.
Key points to remember to help ensure the success of supplemental wildlife plantings.
- Select species/varieties that are well adapted to the site.
- Take soil samples and make recommended soil amendments prior to planting.
- Make plantings in areas already frequented by wildlife (edges, openings, etc.).
- Food plots should be between 1 and 5 acres. Long, narrow designs that maximize proximity to cover are generally more effective.
Habitat management and other wildlife related topics are being featured this year in the UF/IFAS building at the Sunbelt Ag Expo. Make plans to attend “North America’s Premiere Farm Show” and stop by the UF/IFAS building, get some peanuts and orange juice and learn more about Florida’s Wildlife.
If you have any questions about the topics mentioned above, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office or check out the additional articles listed on the page linked below.
EDIS – Wildlife Forages
A significant portion of this article was summarized from Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources by Chris Demers et al.
Common Salvinia Covering Farm pond in Gadsden County
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension
Close up of common Salvinia
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS Gadsden County Extension
Aquatic weed problems are common in the panhandle of Florida. Common Salvinia (Salvinia minima) is a persistent invasive weed problem found in many ponds in Gadsden County. There are ten species of salvinia in the tropical Americas but none are native to Florida. They are actually floating ferns that measure about 3/4 inch in length. Typically it is found in still waters that contain high organic matter. It can be found free-floating or in the mud. The leaves are round to somewhat broadly elliptic, (0.4–1 in long), with the upper surface having 4-pronged hairs and the lower surface is hairy. It commonly occurs in freshwater ponds and swamps from the peninsula to the central panhandle of Florida.
Reproduction is by spores, or fragmentation of plants, and it can proliferate rapidly allowing it to be an aggressive invasive species. When these colonies cover the surface of a pond as pictured above they need to be controlled as the risk of oxygen depletion and fish kill is a possibility. If the pond is heavily infested with weeds, it may be possible (depending on the herbicide chosen) to treat the pond in sections and let each section decompose for about two weeks before treating another section. Aeration, particularly at night, for several days after treatment may help control the oxygen depletion.
Control measures include raking or seining, but remember that fragmentation propagates the plant. Grass carp will consume salvinia but are usually not effective for total control. Chemical control measures include :carfentrazone, diquat, fluridone, flumioxazin, glyphosate, imazamox, and penoxsulam.
For more information reference these IFAS publications:
Efficacy of Herbicide Active ingredients Against Aquatic Weeds
For help with controlling Common salvinia consult with your local Extension Agent for weed control recommendations, as needed.
Yellow asters such as sneezeweed bloom profusely during summertime in the flatwoods.
Our coastal habitats are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Where else can you have the breathtaking, wide open vistas of our salt marshes, the incredible productivity of our nearshore bays, and the expansive pinelands in the adjacent uplands. Year-round opportunities abound to be outside and enjoy the natural resources we are blessed with. Just go prepared for the inevitable encounter with some of our bloodsucking flies and midges that are part of the package deal. A pair of binoculars, snacks, water and proper clothing provide the makings of a great day out, but I would also recommend a picture-taking device of some sort. I’ve basically given up on the heavier camera gear and the notion of getting long-distance close-ups. I now rely on my cell phone or a small digital camera; mainly for taking photos of flowers, bugs, and anything else that doesn’t require stealth and patience to shoot.
One of the best habitats to explore during this time of year for capturing memorable images is the upland pine flatwoods that is so abundant in the Florida Panhandle. There is no shortage of public lands that display some of the most well-managed pineland landscapes in the nation. Pineland ecosystems in the Southeast have been intimately linked with a natural fire regime, long before Europeans came on the scene. Successional cycles of increasing shrubby growth over time and the ability of the landscape to carry a fire after a lightning strike, have allowed these areas to develop with the “park-like” vista of a pine tree savanna in many cases. When fire is excluded by people, these ecosystems gradually convert to more hardwood species that tend to shade-out herbaceous growth on the ground and reduce the opportunity for new pine seedlings to become established. Professional land managers who work hard to mimic natural fire cycles on the lands they manage produce some astounding results. I can attest, as many of the areas where I hunt turkeys each spring are chosen more for the beauty of the landscape than the abundance of gobblers. Although fewer gobblers is not typically the ideal hunting scenario, the silver lining comes in the form of less competition with other hunters.
This spring I hunted in part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and had a nice mix of fairly recently burned pinelands to explore. Some were burned this spring, and was just starting to green-up with newly emerging grasses and forbs. Other areas were burned a year or two ago and you would never know it except for the charred bark on tree trunks. These areas recover to full greenery in a very short time. The foot-high wild blueberry bushes were loaded with green berries for summer wildlife feasts to come, and the photo opportunities for wildflowers abounded. Fire is so important in retaining a high species diversity in these habitats. Opening up the canopy allows sunlight to filter through to the forest floor and the recycling of nutrients in the ash supports many unique plants. There are several terrestrial orchids that bloom in the wetter soils (grass pink, colic root, lady’s tresses, etc.), and yellow flowers are prolific right now (St. John’s wort, sneeze weed, candy root and many more). I even saw some parrot pitcher plants in one wet spot, noticeable mainly by their tall maroon flowers. Fetterbush and staggerbush are also blooming with small flowers that look similar to blueberry blooms. The difference in scent of these two Lyonia shrubs is an easy way to tell them apart with fetterbush having a strong musky (not totally unpleasant) smell, while staggerbush (rusty Lyonia) has one of the sweetest, most pleasant smells of spring in the flatwoods.
So, while I did have the opportunity to chase around a gobbler this spring (who easily out-maneuvered me), I truly enjoyed my week of annual leave spent reconnecting with something that we too often take for granted. Take time to locate the state parks, national wildlife refuges, state forests and other public lands in your region. Then go outside. I mean it; none of us should miss the chance of a lifetime to see what we really have here.
Crow poison, also know as Osceola’s plume shows up in wet flatwoods, most noticeably after a fire.