The Florida state wildflower, coreopsis, in bloom atop the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension
Most of us don’t think much about our roofs until there is a problem—a storm blows off shingles, causing a leak, necessitating a giant blue tarp to hold off the rain until we can get a contractor to replace the roof. But “a roof over your head” is one of those basic needs, perhaps only slightly less necessary for safety and survival than food and water.
Stormwater engineers and landscape architects have been thinking a lot about rooftops. Along with hard surfaces like roads and parking lots, roof area in a community is one of the biggest contributors of stormwater runoff. Those impervious surfaces don’t absorb any rainwater, contributing both to the volume and pollution potential of runoff from any given storm.
The skyline of downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, as viewed from their City Hall green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
While only applicable in specific situations, green roofs can provide a practical and beautiful solution to this problem. Escambia County has been home to the state’s largest green roof since 2009, housed atop the county’s Central Office Complex (COC). At over 33,000 square feet, it can absorb nearly 20,000 gallons of water during a rain, reducing flooding in a flood-prone area and allowing rain to soak into soil instead of becoming runoff. The COC roof was part of the building’s design from the beginning, but many commercial and government buildings have added green roofs as part of a retrofit. The rule of thumb is that if the building is sturdy enough to support an additional story, it can handle the weight of a green roof—including soil, vegetation, and water storage.
Last month, I visited the green roof atop Kalamazoo, Michigan’s City Hall. The imposing art deco building was constructed in the 1930’s, but the green roof on the building’s perimeter was added in 2011. Green roofs add tremendous environmental benefits but can be cost prohibitive, so many communities find grant funding (like the state of Florida’s Nonpoint Source Management grants) to help cover the expense. The Escambia County and Kalamazoo green roofs were both funded by grants. Besides the runoff reductions, a green roof can provide significant energy savings. Vegetation buffers a building from the incredibly hot summer rooftop temperatures, reducing the use of air conditioning and stabilizing indoor temperatures. This is the case for the Escambia County roof, in which an audit showed a 33% reduction in energy needs when compared to a conventionally designed building.
Green roofs can be built on flat-topped home roofs, and many European countries use them regularly. Plant selection for green roofs varies widely based on climate. Our local roof is mostly planted with beach dune species, while cooler, less humid regions make ample use of succulents like sedums. Low growing grasses and native wildflowers are great choices everywhere, providing color with limited maintenance.
A hummingbird gathering nectar from a firespike (Odontonema strictum) flower. Photo Credit: Knolllandscapindesign.com
Do you enjoy watching a variety of birds and butterflies in your landscape? Have you ever watched squirrels get into the birdfeeder? Children may learn about wildlife by watching through a window. Food, water, cover, and space are four essential elements that will create the best habitat for wildlife. Food could be as simple as adding feeders to attract birds to your yard but having a habitat that sustains them is important. Florida wildlife and Florida native plants evolved together and are often interdependent. It is a must to understand what sustains the species you are wanting to attract to your area. Different species prefer different food/plants. Insects also provide birds a food source for their young.
Water can be bird baths, man-made ponds, and natural bodies of water such as streams, lakes, ponds on your property. When relying on a bird bath for your water supply make sure the water is fresh and clean. Shallow water (1-1.5 inches) is better than deep (over 3 inches). Birds like sloping sides and a textured surface; they prefer to walk into water rather than dive in headfirst. Place the bath 5 to 10 feet from a protective cover like shrubs or trees. This needs to be close enough for the birds to be able to reach safety if there is danger from predators. A small outpost for birds to land on near the bath can help them check for predators before heading to the bath.
Cover will provide a place to raise young and should have vertical layers for animals to use for safety, shelter, and nests. Examples of cover that could be added to the landscape are snags that give food for woodpeckers and nesting perches. Or build your own nesting boxes that are species specific for owls, bees, and bats. All bats eat insects and substantially reduce the number of nocturnal insects in a neighborhood.
The permanently wet detention pond lined with cypress trees and sawgrass also provides habitat for fish, birds, and reptiles. Photo Credit: Carrie Stevenson, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Escambia County
Lastly it is important to think of your space. Create large patches of good habitat that span several landscapes or consider working with your neighbors to link the backyard habitats and create a larger area. It is all about the “Right Plant, Right Place” concept and understanding the area you are working with and the possibilities. When you go into the last step of planting and attracting wildlife have a plan and know what you would like to attract. Do your research on what you will need for that wildlife and use your resources, ask your local extension agent for ideas and suggestions!
Many plants in our native landscape provide much of what attracts wildlife and provides them with at least one of the four essential elements. The article “Planting for Wildlife Habitat!” will give you some ideas of plants and trees that do well in the North Florida area and will help to attract the wildlife you desire!
Bald eagles and other large birds of prey have made a comeback in Florida.
Florida has all the elements of a wild animal’s paradise. The state has abundant rain and water sources, lush vegetation, plenty of food, and tons of nesting and hiding places. In our state and national parks, conservation easements, open waters, and acres of ranch land, large populations of animals can thrive. Particularly in areas with fewer people, healthy populations of even large animals like black bears, alligators, and panthers can maintain substantial territories. However, human migration into and throughout Florida is increasing at as steady a rate as ever. Retirees have long fled their cold northern winters to move part or full time to Florida. Now, the ability for many working people to telecommute from anywhere has made it attractive for younger families from all over the country to join us.
A black bear helps himself to a drink from the swimming pool of a Florida home. Photo provided by Patty Underwood/FWC
With more people comes the need for more housing. Some are content with high rise condos that leave a smaller footprint, but these are often located right on the water and can displace coastal wildlife and vegetation. For the thousands of families moving in weekly, more subdivisions, roads, stores, and schools are necessary. Inevitably, these lead to human-wildlife interactions that may or may not be positive experiences. In fast-growing south Santa Rosa County, I see almost daily reports of large black bears in backyards and trash cans. For smaller mammals, the threat of being hit by a car is unfortunately very common. For nearly every call we get about an exciting manatee sighting, we get word of a nerve-wracking interaction with a snake. As civilization moves closer to forested, once-wild areas, wildlife can be squeezed out, left without the protection of natural cover and drawn to human food and habitat.
A lush backyard landscape surrounds a recognition sign from the National Wildlife Federation. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
There are plenty of ways we can co-exist, though. A Florida-friendly yard is a wildlife-friendly yard, and those who go the extra mile can even be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for their efforts. There are several steps one needs to take to become wildlife-friendly. The most important include providing food, water, and cover, so the animals’ basic needs are met. Actions like removing invasive species, keeping pets supervised when outdoors, and adding layers of vegetation are also excellent ways to attract and protect native creatures.
While small and medium sized animals can find shelter in a single yard, it takes neighborhood cooperation to be a haven for something larger, like deer, bears, birds of prey, or large tortoises. Some neighborhoods are designated from the beginning to include conservation easements that serve as amenities to the neighborhood. They include trails, shady waterfront areas, and plenty of space for wildlife. It is important when moving into one of these neighborhoods that each homebuyer understands and respects the purpose behind conservation areas. Residents of older, existing neighborhoods can also work together to designate common areas and stretches of adjoining yards as wildlife-friendly corridors, allowing more animals to use the space safely.
A gopher tortoise burrow is noted by a sign in a local city park. The tortoise is co-existing peacefully with its neighbors! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
In my own neighborhood in the city limits, a gopher tortoise has moved in and become a neighborhood mascot of sorts! When alerted to the presence of its burrow, the city brought in a sign explaining the animal’s protected status and crucial role in the environment. Floridians share their citizenship with thousands of other species. These breathtaking birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and insects are integral to the health of our land and water. By taking steps to look out for their well-being, we are also providing for our own.
Here in Florida, we have snakes. Some may say we have lots of snakes. While their presence may be something to be expected out in wild areas, homeowners often find it alarming when these creatures show up near places where we live. The reaction is often a simple one: if it is a snake, kill it.
Dealing with snakes should not be like this, however. Although some are venomous, many others are harmless to humans and make valuable contributions to the local ecology. As more natural areas become developed, wildlife such as snakes are increasingly pushed into close contact with people, so learning to live with them is important.
Of the 46 species of snakes found in Florida, only 6 are venomous. The chances of being bitten by one of these venomous snakes is very low; there are only 7,000-8,000 bites in the entire U.S. each year. Fatalities are even more rare, with less than ten people typically dying across the country annually from venomous snakebites. In a country with a population of around 330 million, that’s not a lot.
A venomous Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake.
Snakes, especially venomous ones, should be treated with respect, however. Knowing how to identify a snake can be an important step in knowing how to react to them, and understanding their behavior can help avoid unfortunate encounters. The venomous snakes we have in Florida are the copperhead, the coral snake, the cottonmouth or water moccasin, the Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake, the pygmy rattlesnake, and the timber rattlesnake. For help in identifying these species, see our guide on EDIS at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW229.
A harmless hognose rattlesnake.
Understanding snake behavior, including their feeding habits and preferred habitats, is also important. If you can make the areas you live in less hospitable to snakes, especially venomous ones, they’ll be less likely to move in. This doesn’t mean getting rid of every snake out there – some snakes that are harmless to humans may be predators that consume other snakes (including venomous ones) or rodents. Because venomous snakes often consume rodents and other small animals, allowing the nonvenomous ones to control populations of prey can help keep dangerous snakes out!
Watch out for areas where snakes may shelter, including tall grass, overgrown shrubs, piles of brush and wood, or debris. There is no need to remove all such things from a property, as other wildlife use them as well, but keep them away from houses and areas where people frequent. Also be sure to keep rodents under control in and around buildings to avoid attracting snakes that feed on them. You can find more information on managing habitat to deal with snakes at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW260.
In a garden with a variety of flowers, pollinators will be abundant. Sometimes we don’t always recognize the specific pollinator when we see it, but there are some native pollinators that leave other signs of their activity. One of our medium-sized native bees will leave a distinctive calling card of recent activity in our landscape.
Leafcutter bees have collected circular notches from the edges of a redbud tree. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
If you see some of the leaves of trees and shrubs with distinct circular notches on the edges of the leaves, you can be sure the Leafcutter bee is present. The females collect the leaf pieces to make a small, cigar-shaped nest that may be found in natural cavities, such as rooting wood, soil, or in plant stems. Each nest will have several sections in which the female places a ball of pollen and an egg. The emerging larvae then have a plentiful food source in order to develop into an adult bee.
When identifying a leafcutter bee in your landscape, look for a more robust bee with dark and light stripes on the abdomen. These bees also have a hairy underside to their abdomen where they carry the pollen. When loaded with pollen their underside will look yellow.
Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that are not considered aggressive. A sting would only be likely if the bee is handled. Your landscape will have many plants that a leafcutter may use for nesting material. The pollinating benefits of these bees far outweigh any cosmetic injury to the plant leaf margins.
Treefrog calls are often heard with each rain event. But, how about a “snoring raspy” call that begins after a day time light rain? That may be a male Cuban treefrog trying to attract the girls. Cuban treefrogs breed predominately in the spring and summer. Reproduction is largely stimulated by rainfall, especially warm summer rains such as those associated with tropical weather systems and intense thunderstorms.
Range of Cuban treefrogs
The Cuban treefrog, Osteopilus septentrionalis, was accidently introduced to Florida in the 1920’s as a stowaway in shipping crates from the Caribbean. Over the last hundred years, the invasive frog has managed to spread throughout Florida and the Southeastern U.S. by hitchhiking on ornamental plants, motorized vehicles, and boats. Though occasional cold winters have created temporary population setbacks, new generations of Cuban treefrogs continue to be reported in north Florida, including the Panhandle.
An invasive species is generally defined as a plant, animal or microbe that is found outside of its native range, where it negatively impacts the ecology, economy or quality of human life. Cuban treefrogs come out at night to feed on snails, millipedes, spiders and a vast array of insects. But, they are also predators of several Florida native frogs, lizards and snakes. Tadpoles of the invasive Cuban treefrog have been shown to inhibit the growth and development of native Southern toad and green treefrog tadpoles when all of the species are in the same water body. Additionally, a large female Cuban treefrog can lay over 10,000 eggs per season in very small amounts of water.
Panhandle citizens can help manage the invasive Cuban treefrog by learning to identify them and reduce their numbers. All treefrogs have expanded pads on the ends of their toes. Cuban treefrogs have exceptionally large toepads. They also have a “big eyed” appearance due to their oversized bulging eyes. Cuban treefrogs may exceed 6 inches in length, have warty-looking skin with possible blotches, bands or stripes, and vary greatly in color. However, they can be distinguished from other treefrogs. Cuban treefrogs have a yellowish wash where their front and rear legs are attached to their body. Juvenile Cuban treefrogs have red eyes and blue bones visible through the skin of their hind legs. The skin of the Cuban treefrog produces a sticky secretion that can cause a burning or itching sensation if it contacts the eyes or nose of certain individuals. It is recommended to wear gloves and wash your hands after handling Cuban treefrogs.
It is important to document the locations of Cuban treefrogs in the Panhandle. By placing short sections of PVC pipe in the ground around your home and garden will provide hiding places for treefrogs that enables you to monitor for Cuban treefrogs. Cut 10 foot sections of 1.5-inch-diameter PVC pipe into approximately three-foot-long sections and push them into the ground about 3-4 inches. To remove a frog from a pipe, place a clear sandwich bag over the top end, pull the pipe from the ground, and insert a dowel rod in the other end to scare the frog into the baggie. If you suspect you have seen one, take a picture and send it to Dr. Steve Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, date, and location. Dr. Johnson can verify the identity. If it is a Cuban treefrog, upload the information by going to http://www.eddmaps.org/ and click the “Report Sightings” tab.
Once identified as a Cuban treefrog, it should be euthanized humanly. To do that, the Cuban treefrog in a plastic sandwich bag can be placed into the refrigerator for 3-4 hours then transferred to the freezer for an additional 24 hours. Alternatively, a 1-inch stripe benzocaine-containing ointment (like Orajel) to the frog’s back to chemically anesthetize it before placing it into a freezer. After freezing, remove the bagged frog from the freezer and dispose of in the trash. Ornamental ponds should also be monitored for Cuban treefrog egg masses especially after a heavy rain. The morning after a rain, use a small-mesh aquarium net to scoop out masses of eggs floating on the surface of the pond and simply discard them on the ground to dry out. Various objects that can collect water found throughout your yard need to be dumped out regularly to reduce breeding spots for both Cuban treefrogs and mosquitoes.