Our “Seahawk”; the Osprey

Our “Seahawk”; the Osprey

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.

 

 

References

 

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.

Panhandle Ecotourism: Blackwater River State Park

Spring has sprung and it is time to get outside and explore this great Florida Panhandle area.  In neighboring Santa Rosa County, a terrific destination for a variety of outdoor activities is Blackwater River State Park.  Visitors can canoe, kayak, tube, fish and swim the river.  Hikers can enjoy trails through nearly 600 acres of undisturbed natural communities.  Bring a picnic and hang out at one of several pavilions or white sand beaches that dot the river (restroom facilities available).  Near the pavilions, stop and see one of the largest and oldest Atlantic white cedars, recognized as a Florida Champion tree in 1982. The park also offers 30 campsites for tents and RVs.  Park entry is $4.00 per car, payable at the ranger station or via the honor system (bring exact change, please).

The Blackwater River is considered one of the purest and pristine sand-bottom rivers in the world. The water is tea-colored from the tannins and organic matter that color the water as it weaves through the predominantly pine forest.  The river is shallow with a beautiful white sandy bottom, a nice feature for those tubing or paddling the trail. The river flows for over 50 miles and is designated as a Florida canoe trail.  Multiple small sand beach areas line the river and provide plenty of space to hang out, picnic, or throw a Frisbee.  Blackwater eventually flows into Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico bringing high quality freshwater into this important estuary.

A favorite trail in the Park is the Chain of Lakes Nature Trail.  Parking for this 1.75 mile loop trail is at South Bridge on Deaton Bridge Road.  The trail head is well marked and has a boardwalk that leads into the floodplain forest.  The trail winds through a chain of shallow oxbow lakes and swamp that dot the former route of the river.  If you are lucky and it is a clear, blue-sky day, you may see a beautiful rainbow effect as the sun hits the water.  We call this the pastel swamp rainbow effect.  This is a result of the natural oils from the cypress cones settling on the surface of the water and associated trapped pollen.

The trail then turns to sneak through the sandhill community in the park with giant longleaf pines, wiregrass and turkey oak.  Evidence of prescribed burning shows management efforts to maintain the forest.  Cinnamon ferns, bamboo and other natives appear in pockets along the trail.  The trail in this section is blanketed with a mosaic of exposed root systems, so be careful as you step.  Finally, pack some bug spray and a water bottle for this fun hike.

For more information, visit the park page: https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blackwater-River

Sandhill pine forest at Blackwater River State Park

2737 – Chain of Lakes trailhead at Blackwater River State Park

“Rainbow Swamp” on the Chain of Lakes trail at Blackwater River State Park

Beautiful sandy beaches along the Blackwater River in the State Park.

Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail

Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail

A great walk or ride is close at hand on this trail which once supported a critical 19th century transportation link.

The typical image of a state park is that of a place where visitors enter through a front gate and enjoy the wonders of nature or some historic structure. The Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, which is run by The Florida Division of Recreation and Parks, is truly an exception to the typical model.

While many parks have trails, this one runs 20.5 miles from Tallahassee to the coastal community of St. Marks. This area is the first rail-trail in the Florida’s system of greenways and trails to be paved providing a scenic experience for running, walking, bicycling and skating.

Additionally, horseback riding occurs on the adjacent unpaved trail. Because of its outstanding qualities, this state trail has been selected as a National Recreation Trail.

The origins of this 21st century recreational site date back to before Florida was a state. The Tallahassee Railroad Company was approved in 1835 by the territorial legislative council and received the first federal land grant to a railroad for construction of the line.

Cotton and other commodities moved from the Tallahassee region to the port of St. Marks for shipment to the north east U.S. and to Great Brittan. Raw cotton was the major generator of foreign exchange during the antebellum years, so this railroad was a critical economic link in the area’s development.

Fast forward to 1983, that is when the Seaboard Coastline filed the papers to abandon the line and end service. After 147 years, the longest-operating railroad in Florida was deemed economically unfeasible to operate.

It was not out of service for long. In 1984 the corridor was purchased by the Florida Department of Transportation, and the rest is history.

Visitors can access the trail in multiple locations along the way. Parking areas are provided at many locations along the trail with mileage markers make available distance information and the trail corridor is lined with trees providing plenty of shade.

Restroom facilities are placed at intervals along the trail. There are picnic pavilions and a playground at the Wakulla Station Trailhead.

The trail is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year and there is no use fee required. Donations which aid with the promotion and upkeep are accepted.

For more information on the St. Marks Trail, contact the park office at (850) 487-7989 or Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail.

While the historic structures are gone, it is a great way to enjoy nature’s wonders close to the coast.

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Wakulla Springs is home to some of the best wildlife watching in all of northwest Florida. It’s not unusual to see manatees, alligators, and dozens of species of birds in one boat trip. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

What do you imagine when the word “ecotourism” comes to mind? I know  I usually daydream about a trip my husband I took to Costa Rica several years ago, surrounded by lush tropical rainforests as we ziplined through the canopy. I might also think about visiting a National Park, following a neatly maintained trail and stopping at signs placed at just the right spot so visitors can read and understand the special features of the place. Ecotourism, done right, brings a visitor to a unique place, tells its story, and immerses the visitor in the sights and sounds in a way that treads lightly on the location. I always know I’ve been on a good ecotour when I’m tired, happy, and have learned or seen something new.

A colleague with The Conservation Fund has stated that sustainable tourism includes: “Authentic experiences that are unique and specialized to the place (its culture, heritage, and natural resources), emphasizes quality over quantity, focuses on distinctive destinations, unspoiled landscapes, and historic buildings, and differs from mass-market tourism by favoring locally-owned businesses, thereby increasing circulation of money in the local economy.” The truly wonderful thing about ecotourism is that local touch; it exists solely because of the place, so it cannot be outsourced. The best storytellers about those places are usually the people who have lived there for many years, so by its very nature, ecotourism provides jobs for local residents.

Northwest Florida has hundreds of unique locations for visitors and locals to explore…we have centuries-old forts, clear-blue springs, endless rivers and creeks to paddle, trails on the coast and up our modest hills. We have caves and underground caverns, waterfalls, pitcher plant prairies, fishing, wildlife watching, and reefs for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. While millions come here for our quartz-sand beaches, other options that highlight our natural ecosystems deserve more attention and notoriety.

A few years ago, several Extension Agents received funding for a project called Naturally EscaRosa. The idea behind that project was to help promote and create businesses that sustainably used our agricultural and natural resources. The website (www.naturallyescarosa.com) has a list of over 100 businesses and locations where locals and out-of-town visitors can explore the less well-traveled areas of Escambia and Santa Rosa County. As you move east down the coast, Walton Outdoors, the local Visit Florida affiliates, and other privately managed media groups have done similar work, providing a showcase for these treasures in our midst.

This summer, try one of the local ecotourism or agritourism venues near you! Moreover, when your friends and family visit from out of town, encourage them to do the same. We cannot have a successful economy without a healthy ecosystem, and supporting these local and regional businesses is good for both.  

For more information on sustainable ecotourism, visit the Society for Ethical Ecotourism (SEE), and for information on starting or visiting an agritourism business, try Visit Florida Farms. And as always, reach out to your local County Extension agents, and we will be more than happy to point you in the right direction to discover to places to explore with your family.

 

 

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Some of the most picturesque and scenic natural areas along north Florida’s Gulf Coast are found in Bald Point State Park. The 4,065 acre park is located on Alligator Point, where Ochlockonee Bay meets Apalachee Bay.

Easy access to water activities at Bald Point State Park.
Photo: Les Harrison

Bald Point State Park offers a variety of land and water activities. Coastal marshes, pine flatwoods, and oak thickets foster a diversity of biological communities which make the park a popular destination for birding and wildlife viewing.

These include shorebirds along the beach, warblers in the maritime oak hammocks, wading birds, and birds of prey in and around the marsh areas.  The boardwalk and observation deck overlook the marsh near the beach.

During autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, along with monarch butterflies are frequently viewed heading south to a warmer winter.

Bald Point offers access to two Apalachee Bay beaches for water sports and leisure activities, and these facilities include a fishing dock and picnic pavilions at Sunrise beach, North End beach and Maritime Hammock beach.  Grills and restrooms are also available, but pets are prohibited on the beach.

Pre-Columbian pottery helped archaeologists identify the park’s oldest site, placing the earliest human activity 4,000 years ago. These early inhabitants hunted, fished, collected clams and oysters, and lived in relatively permanent settlements provided by the abundant resources of the coast and forests.

In the mid-1800s and late 1900s, fishermen established seineyards at Bald Point. These usually primitive campsites included racks to hang, dry and repair nets. Evidence of the 19th to 20th century turpentine industry is visible on larger pine trees cut with obvious scars.

Bald Point is an excellent location for both wildlife viewing and birding.
Photo: Les Harrison

Among the varieties of saltwater fish found in the brackish tidal waterway are redfish, trout, flounder and mackerel.

Today’s visitors may fish on the bridge over tidal Chaires Creek off of Range Road, and in Tucker Lake, by canoe or kayak. Sea trout, red fish, flounder and sheepshead are common catches, and this is an excellent area to cast net for mullet or to catch blue crabs.

Bald Point State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to sunset daily, with a charge $4.00 per car with up to eight people, or $2.00 per pedestrian or bicycle

More information is available at the Florida State Park site.

There are numerous trails where the visitor and explore Florida.
Photo: Les Harrison.