This beautiful scarlet kingsnake was run over near the author’s home
Snakes are some of the coolest animals on the planet but I’ll admit to something right up front; when a snake surprises me, I still jump, often. Even if I seem composed on the outside, something inside me almost always jumps. It does not matter if it is a venomous species or not. In spite of my basic understanding of and great appreciation for reptiles, snakes connect with a primal instinct that shouts “lookout” at some subconscious level. This human character trait is most-often the undoing of many an innocent serpent, happily going about its business when, WHAM, lights out. When a snake dares touch the human subconscious, our first emotion is often shock or fear; then perhaps anger; and in the end, payback for the offense. Many a good snake has met a very bad end when it has surprised a person.
Shock and fear are powerful emotions and I can almost (not totally) understand the outcome described above when someone is honestly shocked by a snake’s unexpected appearance. Nevertheless, even my wife, during a shocking encounter with a 5-foot oak snake while collecting eggs in the chicken house, was able gather her wits and shoo the critter out of the coop with a stick, rather than kill it. She did have me go the next evening to get the eggs though.
The one thing I have no empathy for however is when folks go out of their way to kill a snake that is trying to cross one of our roadways. About 90% of the dead snakes I see on the road are so close to the edge of the pavement that they were easily avoidable. C’mon people, that should be a “snake-safe” zone. These animals are likely never to encounter a human as they go about their business, performing important ecological functions in their natural habitat. Their great misfortune was that they had to cross an asphalt corridor used by humans. How about providing the same courtesy that most folks do when they see a turtle on the highway.
I see my share of cottonmouths smashed on the road (and that’s a shame too in my book) but other flattened species I’ve encountered include mud snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, racers, scarlet kingsnakes, green snakes, and many more; all harmless creatures. Recently, I stopped to look at a nice 4-foot coachwhip; a beautiful specimen, except for the fact that it was dead.
I get a thrill in seeing a living snake and having the chance to marvel at its form, function and beauty. If you ever have the chance to look closely at a pygmy rattlesnake in the wild (hopefully not in your turkey blind) you will be blown-away by its magnificent beauty. Black, velvety blotches on a gray background, with a rusty stripe running down the middle of its back. Same thing for a large diamondback rattlesnake (from a respectable distance). These have been some of my favorite natural encounters in the woods of North Florida, where we are truly blessed with a diversity of amazing animals and yes, super-amazing snakes. We should always use common sense of course when roaming the woods and enjoying our wild encounters, i.e. don’t ever catch venomous snakes (not worth the thrill), keep your hands out of hidden places, and watch where you put your feet. Oh, and work on cultivating a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to our scaly friends on the highway. They will oblige likewise.
The week prior to Halloween is officially designated as National Bat Week. In honor of this event, it’s worth considering some of the benefits bats provide to us.
Did you know there is a species of bat that lives nowhere in the world but within our state? It’s called the Florida Bonneted Bat, and occurs in only about 12-15 counties in south and central FL. These bats are so mysterious that we’re currently not even sure exactly where they occur. They are so rare that they’re listed as a federally endangered species.
The Florida Bonneted Bat lives nowhere in the world but Florida. Photo credits: Merlin Tuttle.
These bats were named for their forward-leaning ears, which they can tilt forward to cover their eyes. With a wingspan of 20 inches, they are the largest bats east of the Mississippi River: only two U.S. species are larger than they are, and these both occur out west.
We have been investigating the diet of Florida Bonneted Bats. To do this, we captured bats in specialized nets, and then collected their scat (called guano). Next, we processed the scat in a laboratory using DNA metabarcoding to determine which insect species the bats had recently consumed.
We found that the bats eat several economically important insects, including the following:
- fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda)
- lesser cornstalk borer (Elasmopalpus lignosellus)
- tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta)
- black cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon)
These insects are pests of corn, cotton, peanut, soybean, sorghum, tobacco, tomato, potato, and many other crops.
Furthermore, the bats did not eat these insect pests infrequently. In fact, 86% of the samples we examined contained at least one pest species. On average, each sample contained three pest species! This tells us that Florida Bonneted Bats should be considered IPM (Integrated Pest Management) agents.
Currently, a new student has begun investigating the diets of bats more commonly found in northern Florida, southern Georgia, and southern Alabama. By the time Bat Week 2019 rolls around we’ll have details on which insect pests these bats could eat on your property.
If you’re interested in helping bats or incorporating them into your Integrated Pest Management efforts, consider creating roosts for them (places where the bats can sleep during the day). Bats roost not only in caves, but also in cavities in trees, in dead palm fronds, and in bat houses.
North Florida buck feeding on acorns at the edge of a food plot. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
It’s that time of year when landowners, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts begin to plan and prepare fall and winter food plots to attract wildlife like the nice buck in the photo.
Annual food plots are expensive and labor intensive to plant every year and with that thought in mind, an option you may want to consider is planting mast producing crops around your property to improve your wildlife habitat. Mast producing species are of two types of species, “hard mast” (oaks, chestnut, hickory, chinkapin, American Beech, etc.), and “soft mast” (crabapple, persimmon, grape, apple, blackberry, pears, plums, pawpaws, etc.). There are many mast producing trees and shrubs that can be utilized and will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife species. This article will focus on two, sawtooth oak (or other oaks) and southern crabapple.
Oaks are of tremendous importance to wildlife and there are dozens of species in the United States. In many areas acorns comprise 25 to 50% of a wild turkeys diet in the fall (see photos 1, 2, and 3) and probably 50% of the whitetail deer diet as well during fall and winter. White oak acorns average around 6% crude protein versus 4.5% to 5% in red oak acorns. These acorns are also around 50% carbohydrates and 4% fat for white oak and 6% fat for red oak.
The Sawtooth Oak is in the Red Oak family and typically produces acorns annually once they are mature. The acorns are comparable to white oak acorns in terms of deer preference as compared to many other red oak species. Most red oak acorns are high in tannins reducing palatability but this does not seem to hold true for sawtooth oak. They are a very quick maturing species and will normally begin bearing around 8 years of age. The acorn production at maturity is prolific as you can see in the photo and can reach over 1,000 pounds per tree in a good year when fully mature. They can reach a mature height of 50 to 70 feet. There are two varieties of sawtooth oak, the original sawtooth and the Gobbler sawtooth oak, which has a smaller acorn that is better suited for wild turkeys. The average lifespan of the sawtooth oak is about 50 years
Photo 1 – Seventeen year old planting of sawtooth oaks in Gadsden County Florida. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 2 – Gadsden County gobblers feeding on Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 3 – Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns in Gadsden County. Notice the smaller size compared to the regular sawtooth oak acorn which is the size of a white oak acorn.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Southern Crabapple is one of 25 species of the genus Malus that includes apples. They generally are well adapted to well drained but moist soils and medium to heavy soil types. They will grow best in a pH range of 5.5 – 6.5 and prefer full sun but will grow in partial shade as can be seen in photo 4. They are very easy to establish and produce beautiful blooms in March and April in our area as seen in photo 5. There are many other varieties of crabapples such as Dolgo that are available on the market in addition to southern and will probably work very well in north Florida. The fruit on southern crabapple is typically yellow green to green and average 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. They are relished by deer and normally fall from the tree in early October.
Photo 4 – Southern crabapple tree planted on edge of pine plantation stand. Photo taken in late March during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 5 – Showy light pink to white bloom of southern crabapple in early April during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
A good resource publication on general principles related o this topic is Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources.
If you are interested in planting traditional fall food plots check out this excellent article by UF/IFAS Washingon Couny Extension Agent Mark Mauldin: Now’s the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots .
For more information on getting started with food plots in your county contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office
A buck chases a doe through plots of wildlife forages being evaluated at the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center. Photo Courtesy of Holly Ober
I know it feels too hot outside to talk about hunting season or cool-season food plots, but planting time will be here before you know it and now’s the time to start preparing. The recommended planting date for practically all cool-season forage crops in Northwest Florida is October 1 – November 15. Assuming adequate soil moisture, planting during the first half of the range is preferred. Between now and planting time there are several factors that need to be considered and addressed.
Invasive and/or Perennial Weed Control – Deer and other wildlife species utilize many soft/annual “weeds” as forage so controlling them is usually not a major concern. But from time to time unwanted perennials (grasses and woody shrubs) need to be controlled. An unfortunate and all too common example of and unwanted perennial is cogongrass – a highly invasive grass that should always be controlled if found. Effective control of perennial weeds, like cogongrass generally involves the use of herbicides. Late summer/early fall is a very effective time to treat unwanted perennials. Fortunately, this coincides well with the transition between warm-season and cool-season forages. If you have unwanted, perennial weeds in your food plots get them identified now and controlled before you plant your cool-season forages.
Cogongrass shown here with seedheads – more typically seen in the spring. If you suspect you have cogongrass in or around your food plots please consult your UF/IFAS Extension Agent how control options.
Photo credit: Mark Mauldin
Soil Fertility Management – In my experience, the most common cause for poor plant performance in food plots is inadequate soil fertility. Before planting time collect and submit soil samples from each of your food plots. Laboratory analysis of the samples will let you know the fertilizer and lime requirements of the upcoming cool-season crop. It is very important to have the analysis performed prior to planting so performance hindering issues can be prevented. Otherwise, during the growing season, by the time you realize something is wrong, it will likely be too late to effectively address the problem. This is particularly true if the issue is related to soil pH. To affect soil pH in a timely manner lime needs to be incorporated into the soil. Incorporation is impossible after the new crop has been planted. Soil analysis performed at the University of Florida’s Extension Soil Testing Lab cost $7 per sample. Your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Agent can assist you with the collection and submission process as well as help you interpret the results.
Variety Selection & Seed Sourcing – Sometimes it takes some time to find the best products/varieties. Just because forage seeds are sold locally doesn’t mean that the crop or specific variety is well suited to this area. The high temperatures and disease pressure associated with Florida, even in the “cool-season” mean that many products that do very well in other parts of the country may struggle here. Below are some specific forages that are favored by wildlife (specifically white-tailed deer) and generally well adapted to Florida. You may discover that these varieties are not sitting on the shelf at the local feed & seed. Often local suppliers can get specific varieties, but they must be special ordered, which adds time to the process. Hence the need to start planning and sourcing seed early.
If you are debating trying food plots on your property for the first time, please carefully consider the following. Food plots are not easy – Making productive food plots that provide a measurable, positive impact to the wildlife on your property takes considerable time, effort, and money. Considering this, food plots really only make sense when viewed as habitat improvements that provide long term benefits to multiple wildlife species. If you are looking for nothing more than a deer attractant during hunting season food plots are not a very practical option. For more information on getting started with food plots contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office and check out the reference below.
Just a decade ago, few people would have known what a gopher tortoise was and would have hard time finding one. But today, because of the protection they have been afforded by the state, they are becoming more common. This is certainly an animal you might see visiting one of our state parks.
This gopher tortoise was found in the dune fields on a barrier island – an area where they were once found.
Photo: DJ Zemenick
The gopher tortoise is one of only two true land dwelling turtles in our area and is in a family all to its own. They are miners, digging large burrows that can extend up to a depth of 7 feet and a length of 15 feet underground. However, tortoises are not very good at digging up towards the surface, so there is only the one entrance in and out of the burrow. The burrow of the tortoise can be distinguished from other burrowing animals, such as armadillos, in that the bottom line of the opening is flat – a straight line – and the top is domed or arched shaped; mammalian burrows are typically round – circular. Tortoise burrows also possess a layer of dirt tossed in a delta-shaped fan out away from the entrance (called an apron). Many times the soil is from deeper in the ground and has a different color than the soil at the surface. The general rule is one burrow equals one tortoise, though this is not always true. Some burrows are, at times, shared by more than one and some may not be occupied at all. Many field biologists will multiple the number of burrows by 0.6 to get an estimate of how many tortoises there are in the area.
The tortoise itself is rather large, shell lengths reaching 15 inches. They can be distinguished from the other land dwelling turtle, the box turtle, by having a more flattened dome to the shell and large elephant like legs. The forelimbs are more muscular than the hind and possess large claws for digging the burrow. They are much larger than box turtles and do not have hinged plastrons (the shell covering the chest area) and cannot close themselves up within the shell as box turtles can. Tortoises prefer dry sandy soils in areas where it is more open and there are plenty of young plants to eat; box turtles are fans of more dense brush and wooded areas.
Tortoises spend most of the day within their burrows – which remain in the 70°F range. Usually when it is cooler, early morning or late afternoon, or during a rain event – the tortoises will emerge and feed on young plants. You can see the paths they take from their burrows on foraging trips. They feed on different types of plants during different type times of the year to obtain the specific nutrients. There are few predators who can get through the tough shell, but they do have some and so do not remain out for very long. Most people find their burrows, and not the tortoise. You can tell if the burrow has an active tortoise within by the tracks and scrap marks at the entrance. Active burrows are “clean” and not overgrown with weeds and debris. Many times, you can see the face of the tortoise at the entrance, but once they detect you – they will retreat further down. Many times a photo shot within a burrow will reveal the face of a tortoise in the picture. There is a warning here though. Over 370 species of creatures use this burrow to get out of the weather along with the tortoise – one of them is the diamondback rattlesnake. So do not stick your hand or your face into the entrance seeking a tortoise.
Most of the creatures sharing the burrow are insects but there are others such as the gopher frog and the gopher mouse. One interesting member of the burrow family is the Eastern Indigo Snake. This is the largest native snake to North America, reaching a length of eight feet, and is a beautiful iridescent black color. It is often confused with the Southern Black Racer. However, the black racer is not as long, not as large around (girth), and possess a white lower jaw instead of the red-orange colored one of the indigo. The indigo is not dangerous at all, actually it feeds on venomous snakes and it is a good one to have around.
Federal and state laws protect the indigo, as with the gopher frog and mouse. All of these animals have declined in number over the past few decades. This is primarily due to loss of the needed gopher burrows, which have declined because the tortoises have declined, and this is due to habitat loss and harvesting. Again, tortoises like dry sandy soils for digging burrows. They prefer wooded areas that are more open and allow the sun to reach the forest floor where young grasses and flowers can grow. The longleaf pine forest is historically the place to find them but they are found in coastal areas where such open wooded areas exist. The lack of prescribe burning has been a problem for them. Florida is the number one state for lightning strikes. Historically, lightning strikes would occasionally start fires, which would burn the underbrush and allow grasses to grow. In recent years, humans have suppressed such fires, for obvious reasons, and the tortoise community has suffered because of it. Therefore, we now have prescribe fire programs on most public lands in the area. This has helped to increase the number of tortoises in the area and your chance of seeing one.
All of the members of the tortoise community are still protected by state, and – in the case of the indigo snake – federal law, so you must not disturb them if seen. Photos are great and you should feel lucky to have viewed one. Though they could be found anywhere where it is high, dry, and somewhat open – the state and national parks are good places to look.
Meylan, P.A. (Ed.). 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No. 3, 376 pp.
By L. Scott Jackson and Julie B. McConnell, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County
Northwest Florida’s pristine natural world is being threaten by a group of non-native plants and animals known collectively as invasive species. Exotic invasive species originate from other continents and have adverse impacts on our native habitats and species. Many of these problem non-natives have nothing to keep them in check since there’s nothing that eats or preys on them in their “new world”. One of the most problematic and widespread invasive plants we have in our local area is air potato vine.
Air potato vine originated in Asia and Africa. It was brought to Florida in the early 1900s. People moved this plant with them using it for food and traditional medicine. However, raw forms of air potato are toxic and consumption is not recommended. This quick growing vine reproduces from tubers or “potatoes”. The potato drops from the vine and grows into the soil to start new vines. Air potato is especially a problem in disturbed areas like utility easements, which can provide easy entry into forests. Significant tree damage can occur in areas with heavy air potato infestation because vines can entirely cover large trees. Some sources report vine growth rates up to eight inches per day!
Air Potato vines covering native shrubs and trees in Bay County, Florida. (Photo by L. Scott Jackson)
Mechanical removal of vines and potatoes from the soil is one control method. Additionally, herbicides are often used to remediate areas dominated by air potato vine but this runs the risk of affecting non-target plants underneath the vine. A new tool for control was introduced to Florida in 2011, the air potato leaf beetle. Air potato beetle releases have been monitored and evaluated by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers and scientists for several years.
Air Potato Beetle crawling on leaf stem. Beetles eat leaves curtailing the growth and impact of air potato. (Photo by Julie B. McConnell)
Air potato beetles target only air potato leaves making them a perfect candidate for biological control. Biological controls aid in the management of target invasive species. Complete eradication is not expected, however suppression and reduced spread of air potato vine is realistic.
UF/IFAS Extension Bay County will host the Air Potato Challenge on June 6, 2018. Citizen scientist will receive air potato beetles and training regarding introduction of beetles into their private property infested with air potato vine. Pre-registration is recommended to receive the air potato beetles. Please visit http://bit.ly/bayairpotato
In conjunction with the Air Potato Challenge, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County will be hosting an invasive species awareness workshop. Dr. Steve Johnson, UF/IFAS Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology, will be presenting “Exotic Invaders: Reptiles and Amphibians of Concern in Northwest Florida”. Additionally, experts from UF/IFAS Extension, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and the Science and Discovery center will have live exhibits featuring invasive reptiles, lionfish, and plants. For more information visit http://bay.ifas.ufl.edu or call the UF/IFAS Extension Bay County Office at 850-784-6105.
Flyer for Air Potato Challenge and Invasive Species Workshop June 6 2018