Now is the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots

Now is the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots

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.

Your Christmas Tree Could Benefit Winter Wildlife

Your Christmas Tree Could Benefit Winter Wildlife

A christmas tree decoration hanging upon a Christmas tree at a tree farm

Christmas trees can provide benefits to wildlife long after they have served as holiday decoration indoors. Credits: IFAS photo database.

Americans purchased approximately 30 million live Christmas trees last year. If you plan to have a live tree this winter, and you’re wondering what you could do with your tree once it has finished its role as holiday decoration in your home, read below. Rather than simply dragging your tree to the curb for the waste disposal truck to pick up, you could prolong the life of your holiday tree by repurposing it to benefit wildlife.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE FOOD FOR WILDLIFE 

Many of the needles may have dropped from your Christmas tree as it dried out while indoors, but the branches should still be intact. This means your tree could be used as a frame to present food for wildlife. After removing your indoor decorations, consider propping the tree up in your yard (perhaps using the same stand you used indoors), and adorning the branches with food enjoyed by wildlife visitors. Some low-budget options include mesh bags filled with bird seed (black oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, and thistle (nyjer) are favorites of many common backyard birds), pine cones smeared with peanut butter, home-made suet cakes, and strings of fruit such as apple slices, orange slices, or grapes. If you choose this option, beware that you may attract not only birds, but mammals such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and others.

If you’d like to watch your wildlife visitors, be sure to attach the food items with string so that the animals must eat the food at the site of the tree rather than carrying it away to eat or store elsewhere out of view. Consider using a biodegradable string (i.e., cotton) to secure the food items to your tree so you can eventually compost the tree without worrying about needing to remove the string.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE SHELTER FOR WILDLIFE

If you’re tired of seeing your holiday tree in its upright position, consider taking it outdoors, laying it down, and heaping other vegetative debris loosely on top to form a ‘brush pile’. Brush piles are mounds of woody vegetation created specifically to provide shelter for wildlife.

The lower portions of a brush pile can offer cool, shaded conditions that allow small mammals such as rabbits to hide from the weather and from predators. Meanwhile, the upper portions can serve as perch sites for songbirds. The entire pile may be used as resting sites for amphibians and reptiles. In yards with few understory trees or shrubs, and at times of year when many trees and shrubs have limited foliage, these brush piles can provide much-appreciated cover for many kinds of wildlife.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE SHELTER FOR FISH

Your retired Christmas tree could be used to make long-lasting habitat improvements for fish. In artificial ponds with little submerged vegetation, the addition of one or more Christmas trees could upgrade the quality of refuge and feeding areas for fish. Small fishes may hide among purposely submerged Christmas trees for protection, and larger fishes may follow them. If you’ve got an artificial pond on your property, consider adding discarded trees to create a place where fish can hide and find food, and also to concentrate fish for angling. Simply secure a cinder block to your holiday tree using heavy wire or thin cable and place it far enough from shore that water covers the top of the tree by a couple of feet. When constantly submerged, Christmas trees can persist for many years underwater.

Not only can your tree offer enjoyment to you when decorated with lights and ornaments indoors, but it can also allow you to provide post-holiday gifts to the wildlife and fish on your property.

Discovering the Panhandle… Barrier Islands… September

Discovering the Panhandle… Barrier Islands… September

I am not going to lie… I skipped August… It was hot…

September however was nice. The day I made the hike the skies were clear and the temperature was 75°F! wonderfully… truly wonderful.

If you are like me you probably begin your day around the same time – and have probably noticed that it is darker when you get up. September 22 is the fall equinox and the length of our day will be exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. We then enter the “dark side” of the calendar year – the days will become shorter… and already have. As we move into autumn on our beaches we will notice some changes. One, fewer visitors, but we will also notice changes in wildlife.

The steep incline of a winter time beach scarp. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The steep incline of a winter time beach scarp.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The remnants of moon jellyfish near a ghost crab hole. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The remnants of moon jellyfish near a ghost crab hole.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Many counties in the panhandle have lighting and barrier ordinances to protect wildlife and workers. Photo: Molly O'Connor

Many counties in the panhandle have lighting and barrier ordinances to protect wildlife and workers.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

As you can see in the photograph the scarp of the shoreline is becoming more pronounced. As the sun begins to spend more time below the horizon the winds shift, the waves change, sand is moved more offshore and the shape of our beach changes as well. You may have noticed the purple safety flags have been flying a lot recently. These mean “dangerous sea life” and we have been seeing a lot of jellyfish as the summer comes to a close. Today I noticed a lot of ghost crab holes. These guys are always around but their presence seems more noticeable this time of year – possibly due to more available food. Over the last six months I have been working with CleanPeace and the Escambia County Division of Marine Resources monitoring marine debris. Our objective is to determine what the major local debris issues are and develop an education program to try and reduce these problems. Cigarette butts have been consistently the #1 item since January. Many of you probably remember the “Keep Your Butt off the Beach” campaign a few years back… apparently did not worked well. We will have to educate locals and visitors to please take their cigarette butts with them. For those in Escambia County you will now notice the new Leave No Trace signs. The Escambia County Board of County Commissioners passed a new ordinance this past month that requires all residents and visitors to remove items from the beach overnight. Not only have these negatively impacted nesting sea turtles they have become a hazard for evening work crews and the general public. Most panhandle counties have some form of “Leave No Trace”. Please help educate everyone about their ordinances.

The majestic monarch butterfly stopping along the panhandle on its way to Mexico. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The majestic monarch butterfly stopping along the panhandle on its way to Mexico.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The common sandspur. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The common sandspur.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

A snake skeleton found near the swale area on the island. Between the primary and secondary dune. Photo: Molly O'Connor

A snake skeleton found near the swale area on the island. Between the primary and secondary dune.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Fall is the time of the monarch movement. Typically they begin to show in numbers after the equinox but we did see a few on the island this week. Be ready, next month should be full of them. The sandspurs were beginning to develop their spiny seed pods. I would caution all to check their shoes and clothing before leaving the beach this time of year to avoid carrying these seed pods home and distributing them in your yard… uncool.

One of the many species of dragonflies that visit our islands. Photo: Molly O'Connor

One of the many species of dragonflies that visit our islands.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The tracks of the very common armadillo. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The tracks of the very common armadillo.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The invasive Chinese Tallow. Photo: Rick O'Connor

The invasive Chinese Tallow.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

We did see evidence of snake movement this week. There are several species, including the Eastern Diamondback Rattler, which will breed in the fall as well as the spring. I expect to see more activity as the days grow shorter. The dragonflies were very active this month. Actually my wife witnessed two of them consistently pestering a monarch butterfly until the butterfly moved away. I have seen armadillo activity every month of the year so far, this month was no different. The islands seem full of them. This lone Chinese Tallow has formed a small dune where other plants have established and many creatures have taken up residence. At this time there are no other Tallow in the area, and this one will need to be removed before the spread begins. But it is an interesting paradox in that there was an armadillo burrow found here and the sea oats have utilized this dune as well. Invasive species are a problem throughout the state and many have caused with economic or environmental problems – or both! Though this tree has participated in establishing a much needed dune on our hurricane beaten island – native plants do the same and should be favored over non-native. We will have to remove this tree.

 

An unknown track; possibly of a turtle hatching. Photo: Molly O'Connor

An unknown track; possibly of a turtle hatching.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

This tick was a hitchhiker on our trip through the dunes. Photo: Molly O'Connor

This tick was a hitchhiker on our trip through the dunes.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

This track was found in the tertiary dune system and could be an adult turtle. Photo: Rick O'Connor

This track was found in the tertiary dune system and could be an adult turtle.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This small track has the appearance of a “turtle crawl”. It certainly is not a sea turtle, in the middle of the dune field for one thing, but there are several freshwater ponds on our islands that harbor a variety of “riverine turtles”. I know that Cooters, Sliders, and Snappers live on Santa Rosa Island. Terrapins are found in salt marshes. Not sure if this is a turtle but all should be aware that now is hatching time. Many turtle nests began hatching about a month ago and young turtles can be found in a lot of locations. The track in this picture is from a very small animal.

 

Ticks… yep ticks… It is hard to do a lot of fun outdoor activity in the southeast without encountering these guys. They like to sit on top of tall grass and wait for a mammal to come rummaging through. After each hike we always do a “tick check”. I typically wash my hiking clothes AS SOON AS I GET HOME – in case they are harboring within… I would recommend you do the same. We have been following the “mystery track” since January. This “bed” we have seen each month is in the same location. I thought I had solved the mystery in July when I found armadillo tracks all around it but this month suggest this is not an armadillo. We are not sure what it is – we are leaning towards alligator or otter (both of which can be found – and have been found – on our islands). We will continue to monitor this and hopefully find the sculptor.

The top of a pine tree within a tertiary dune. Photo: Molly O'Connor

The top of a pine tree within a tertiary dune.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The seagrass in the sound looked very thick and healthy this month. I have seen horseshoe crab here over the summer and Sea Grant conducted a scallop survey in Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon within Santa Rosa and Escambia counties in August. We found no live scallop but plenty of dead ones – and some of that shell material was relatively “new”. Since scallops only live a year or two this is a good sign. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of live ones in the area. REMEMBER THAT IT IS ILLEGAL TO HARVEST SCALLOP WEST OF PORT ST. JOE AND ONLY FROM JUNE 27 TO SEPTEMBER 24 (Learn More). We will continue to conduct these surveys each summer to determine if our area would be a good candidate for a scallop restoration project.

 

As the days shorten and cool – I am expecting more wildlife activity to begin. Until next month.

April Shows DO Bring May Flowers – Discovering the Panhandle – Barrier Islands

April Shows DO Bring May Flowers – Discovering the Panhandle – Barrier Islands

 

This month there were many more plants flowering… it is true that April showers do bring May flowers. May not only brings more flowers but more tourists. Everyone is out enjoying the weather, including some wildlife. I was happy to include Florida Master Naturalist Paul Bennett on this hike and he was very helpful identifying plants. Thanks Paul!

 

Tent set up on Pensacola beach to protect from the sun.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Tent set up on Pensacola beach to protect from the sun. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Sign altering and educating folks that this is a sea turtle nest.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Sign altering and educating folks that this is a sea turtle nest. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

It is sea turtle nesting season all along the Florida Panhandle. The season begins in May and ends in October. This time of the season the females are heading up the beach looking for good nesting locations near dunes. There are five species of marine turtles that inhabit the northern Gulf and there are records of each species nesting here. They emerge at night and move towards the dunes where they excavate a deep cavity to lay about 100 eggs. The nest is covered and she returns to the water. The incubation period is between 60-70 days and the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchling; the warmer eggs becoming females. It is illegal to disturb a sea turtle nest.

This tent was occupied when I was there but all too often they are left overnight so folks can return the same spot the following day. Tents and chairs are barriers for both nesting females and emerging hatchlings. If at all possible, remove these for the evening. In some counties it is required. Another problem is artificial lighting. Adult turtles are distracted, and many times abort the nesting activity due to bright lights. Most panhandle counties have a lighting ordinance that requires homes to use turtle friendly lighting. To learn more about the turtle friendly lighting program and local ordinances contact your county Sea Grant Agent at the local Extension office or visit http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/sea-turtles/lighting/.

 

This county sign marks a public snorkel reef and also educates everyone about lionfish.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

This county sign marks a public snorkel reef and also educates everyone about lionfish. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Mangrove seed washed ashore.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Mangrove seed washed ashore. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Summer means swimming and in many local counties there are interesting snorkel reefs nearby. We asked that everyone keep an eye out for the invasive lionfish as they enjoy their day. If one is spotted be aware they do have venomous, though not deadly, spines and please contact your local Sea Grant Agent at the county Extension office to let them know. If you are in Escambia County you can log your sighting at www.lionfishmap.org and FWC has a lionfish app for reporting; http://myfwc.com/news/news-releases/2014/may/28/lionfish-app/

The seed is of a red mangrove tree. These are common coastal plants in south Florida and elsewhere in the tropics. The red mangroves drops their seeds (propagules) into the water to drift in the currents to new locations. They frequently wash upon our shores and sometimes take root, but they do not last during our colder winters.

 

 

 

 

 

This Whitlow-Wort, also known as "square flower".  Common dune plant.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

This Whitlow-Wort, also known as “square flower”. Common dune plant. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Track of an unidentified snake crossing a dune.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

Track of an unidentified snake crossing a dune. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The flower to the left is the Whitlow-Wort, or as some locals call it… “square flower”. The track is of a snake but could not find it so I am not sure which species. The weather warms quickly here along the Gulf coast. A few months ago we may have been able to find this animal but with the increasing heat they were in a cool place somewhere. Snake encounters this time of year are typically at dawn and dusk.

 

 

 

 

 

The seed pod of a milkweed. Photo: Rick O'Connor

The seed pod of a milkweed. Photo: Rick O’Connor

An open seed pod of a milkweed releasing seeds.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

An open seed pod of a milkweed releasing seeds. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The milkweed bloomed a few months ago but here in May we find both the seed pods and, in the photo to the right, the “dandelion-like” seeds being released. This is one of the plants used by the migrating monarchs, which we should see later in the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marsh Pink, a flower found in the wetter areas of the island.

Marsh Pink, a flower found in the wetter areas of the island.

Narrow-leaved Sagittaria.  Another water loving plant.

Narrow-leaved Sagittaria. Another water loving plant.

Here are two of the many flowers we saw today. Both of these were found in the freshwater ponds located in the swale areas of the barrier island. The flower to the left is known as Marsh Pink. The one to the right is Narrow-leaved Sagittaria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The yellow vine called "Love Vine"; correct name is Dodder.

The yellow vine called “Love Vine”; correct name is Dodder.

It is good to see bees on the island.

It is good to see bees on the island.

 

This orange-yellow stringy vine is called “Love Vine” but there is not much love here; this is a parasitic plant called Dodder. This is the first we have seen of it this year and expect to see more. Many residents on the island believe it to be an non-native invasive plant but it is actually a native and quite common out there. I have also seen it in the north end of Escambia County.

We did see a few bees today and this is a good sign. There have been reports in recent years of the decline of our native bees and the impact that has had on gardening and commercial horticulture. In addition to seeing bees Paul and I also came across the famous yellow fly. These were encountered near the marsh on the sound side of the island. Loads of fun there!

 

 

 

 

The "bed" made by an unknown animal that has been frequenting this location all year.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The “bed” made by an unknown animal that has been frequenting this location all year. Photo: Rick O’Connor

This scat pile was near the location of the "bed" and along the drag marks made by this animal.

This scat pile was near the location of the “bed” and along the drag marks made by this animal.

If you have been following this series since we began in January you may recall the strange “bedding” and drag marks we have encountered near the marsh (you can read other issues on this website). I have seen these drag marks, and apparent bedding areas, every month except last. I showed them to Paul and we are still not sure what is making them. Again, whatever it is seems to move from one body of water to another. We cannot find in foot tracks to help identify it… but we will!

The photo to the right is of a large scat pile approximately 15-16” across. It was relatively fresh and contained crab and shrimp shell parts. Not sure if it was left by the same animal that continually makes the drags but was in the same location so…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pretty, but invasive, beach vitex.  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The pretty, but invasive, beach vitex. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Many of the plants on our barrier islands are blooming now, and so is this one. This is Beach Vitex (Vitex rotundifolia). It is an invasive/not-recommended plant. Currently we are only aware of 22 properties in Escambia County that have it. Sea Grant is currently working with the SEAS program at the University of West Florida to assist in removing them. If you believe you have this plant and would like advice on how to remove contact your local Sea Grant Agent at the county Extension office.

 

Let’s see what shows up in June!

 

 

What can you do about a colony of bats in a building?

What can you do about a colony of bats in a building?

Bats are extremely beneficial, but they can be unwelcome guests when they choose to roost indoors, like this evening bat. Photo credit: LeiLani Davis.

Bats typically sleep during the day in natural structures such as trees and caves. In areas with few natural roost structures, bats may instead choose to spend their days in buildings.

 

Bats are beneficial because each bat consumes hundreds of insects per night. Bats save farmers billions of dollars annually by substantially reducing the abundance of insect pests. However, they can be unwelcome guests when they choose to live in buildings. The safe, humane, effective way to coax a colony of bats out of a building permanently is through a process called an ‘exclusion’.

 

A bat exclusion is a process used to prevent bats from returning to a building once they have exited. It is accomplished by installing a temporary one-way door. This one-way door can take many forms, but the most tried-and-true is simply a sheet of heavy plastic mesh screening (with small mesh size) attached at the top and along both sides of the sheet, but open on the bottom. The one-way door should be attached over each of the suspected entry/exit points bats are using to get in and out of the building.

 

It is illegal to harm or kill bats in Florida, but exclusions from buildings are allowed if you follow practices recommended by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). According to Florida law, all bat exclusion devices must be left in place for a MINIMUM of 4 consecutive nights with temperatures above 50 o F before each entry point can be permanently sealed to prevent re-entry by bats. Also, it is unlawful in Florida to attempt to exclude bats from a building between April 15 and August 15, which is bat maternity season. This is when female bats form colonies and raise young that are unable to fly for their first few weeks of life. If bats were excluded during this time period, young bats (called pups) would die indoors.

 

For more information on how to conduct a bat exclusion, check out this video that features interviews with bat biologists from the University of Florida, FWC, and the Florida Bat Conservancy: How to Get Bats out of a Building.

 

For additional information on Florida’s bats, visit University of Florida’s bat advice or FWC’s bat website.

 

Remember, bat maternity season in Florida runs from April 15 to August 15. If you have a colony of bats roosting indoors that you want to exclude, you must either act quickly or else wait until the middle of August to coax them out.