Two Kites Over North Florida

Two Kites Over North Florida

Mississippi kites are smaller but impressive aerialists as well. Photo by Andy Reago, Flickr Creative Commons.

Dime store kites were never very expensive, but it still seemed like a luxury when I was growing up and it was a rare thing for us kids to see a store-bought kite flying over our neighborhood. An old paper grocery bag (remember those), some cotton string for the corner loops, and two dog fennel sticks cut from the back field provided the basic ingredients for us to make our own. With a little creative cutting and gluing, and the attachment of a tail made from torn strips from a worn-out shirt, it was a thing of grace and beauty and was soon aloft on the wind. On a good day, with the right breeze (not too light, not too gusty), we could run out two full rolls of kite string until the kite was just a speck in the distance. The real challenge was winding all of that string back in after the kite came down across houses, powerlines and fields.

Please forgive the digression but thinking about the topic for this article sent me on a little trip down memory lane. We are fortunate to have two very interesting avian species of kites that grace our summer skies over North Florida. Both are exceptional aerialists but one of them in particular will leave a visual image that is hard to shake. The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is one of the most impressive birds on the planet with its stark white belly and under-wing coverts, outlined in bold black trim. Its deeply forked tail gives rise to several descriptive names such as split-tailed hawk and fork-tailed hawk, among others. Each spring, swallow-tailed kites migrate in small groups back to their breeding range that extends into the Florida Peninsula and sections of the Panhandle, including several North Florida counties. I’ve seen up to 21 kites flying over the Apalachicola River floodplain during this time of year. Forested swamp habitats along river corridors are particularly valuable for foraging and nesting areas but these graceful flyers are also observed over agricultural fields and pastures where they catch dragonflies and other bugs on the wing; usually dining in the air. Nesting takes place in treetops and young are fed a mixed bag of insects, tree frogs, lizards and small snakes, most snatched from the treetops in flight. Occasionally, the young of other birds are taken from their nests and added to the menu.  After the young have fledged from the nest, it isn’t long before our kites head back to their wintering grounds in South America. Young birds can be identified by their less-deeply forked tail, due to the short outer tail feathers.

The other kite that graces our area during summertime is the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis); not quite as flashy as its fork-tailed cousin but beautiful in its own right. Adult Mississippi kites are a pearly gray color with darker wings and tail. They are significantly smaller, with a wingspan of about 3 feet (swallow-tailed kites have a wingspan up to 4.5 feet). Wintering grounds are in South America also but the breeding range in the US includes several western states such as Texas, Oklahoma and even sparsely in New Mexico and Arizona. This species is known to vigorously defend its nest by dive-bombing trespassers who get too close.

I see both species flying around my house in Wakulla County and without fail, I pause to appreciate the grace, beauty and tremendous distances covered during annual flights by these long-distance migrants. Keep looking up during our summer months and you may well be rewarded by a glimpse of these two “kites over North Florida.”

Prescribed Fire: Habitat Management Tool Number One

Prescribed Fire: Habitat Management Tool Number One

bright yellow flower

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.

white plume of flowers

Crow poison, also know as Osceola’s plume shows up in wet flatwoods, most noticeably after a fire.

Roadkilled Reptiles: What a Shame

Roadkilled Reptiles: What a Shame

Roadkilled scarlet kingsnake in hand

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.

Hurricane Michael Devastates Regional Seafood Industry

Hurricane Michael Devastates Regional Seafood Industry

Floating mesh oyster grow bag hanging in a tree

Oyster grow bag left hanging by Michael’s storm surge.
Erik Lovestrand, UF/IFAS Franklin County Extension

It may be a long time before the memories of Hurricane Michael begin to fade in the mind’s eye for residents of the Florida Panhandle. A record-breaking tropical cyclone in many respects, Michael caught a lot of people in the region off guard as it continued to gain strength on its rapid path through the Northern Gulf of Mexico. When many people went to bed the night before landfall, they had no idea what terrifying news would greet them upon hearing that a still-strengthening category 4 hurricane was about to rumble ashore.

It was not long after the wind slackened that folks began looking around and realizing the devastation left behind. Cotton crops in the path of the storm in North Florida and South Georgia suffered near 100% losses. Peanut crops were also severely impacted just at the time that harvest was beginning. The estimated damage to timber harvests alone were coming in around 1.3 billion dollars for Florida as virtually entire forests had been leveled. Even more damage was realized near the coastline where storm surge across the region ranged from 8 to 14 feet above normal water levels; smashing or flooding structures near the coast and carving new inlets across St. Joseph Peninsula near Cape San Blas.

Another industry that took a hard hit in much of the area was the seafood industry; everything from the producers to the dealers, processors, retail markets, restaurants, fueling and ice house facilities that service fishing vessels. Governor Scott requested a fisheries disaster declaration from the Federal Government and on November 1 the Secretary of the Department of Commerce granted the request. This determination provides an opportunity for Congress to appropriate fishery disaster assistance for the new fiscal year, which began in October. To further facilitate recovery efforts in Florida and beyond, the Department of Commerce can look to the Economic Development Administration, which spearheads the Federal government’s efforts to deliver economic assistance and support long-term growth after natural disasters.

Oyster growers in the region who had equipment and a crop of shellfish in the water took some losses as well. For those who were able to scramble to their leases before the storm and sink their floating baskets or cages to the bay bottoms, losses of gear were minimal as storm waves above the submerged gear had less impact. Gear that was unable to be submerged was more prone to break loose and drift away. However, even the growers that sunk gear experienced some significant oyster mortality due to sediments from churned up water smothering the shellfish in a layer of mud. Shellfish leases in Alligator Harbor were dealt another blow by an incredible field of debris that was washed off Alligator Point and blown through the lease area. Everything from boats to large sections of docks, structural walls, refrigerators and freezers was in the mix. These items were caught up in oyster long-lines and broke some while pulling up anchor poles on others, leaving quite a mess for growers to untangle.

Marinas, docks and vessels were also not immune to Hurricane Michael’s wrath in Gulf and Bay Counties. Government agencies estimate the number of damaged vessels in both Gulf and Bay counties to exceed 400. It will take some time for charter boat and commercial fishing operations to rebound. Scallop restoration projects in both St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrews Bay have suffered setbacks, as well. The hurricane has not only devastated coastal Gulf county economically and ecologically, but also geographically. There are two sizable inlets that have now been carved into the St. Joseph Peninsula. T.H. Stone State Park is closed until further notice.

Overall, the impacts from this storm will take a long time to recover from for many segments of our regional economy. Lessons learned by industries as well as individuals should improve our chances to reduce the loss of life and property in the future. The name of the game is “resiliency,” both in the spirit of the people who call this place home and in the way we learn to better adapt to what Mother Nature throws at us. Hang in there. Day by day.

ACF Water War Update: US Supreme Court Rules on Florida v. Georgia

ACF Water War Update: US Supreme Court Rules on Florida v. Georgia

If you have not seen the news yet, the US Supreme Court provided a ruling on June 27, 2018 regarding the decades-long conflict between Florida and Georgia over water use in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint tri-state river basin. Guess what; the battle continues. Following the previous findings of the court-appointed Special Master and his recommendation to deny Florida relief in the dispute, there were many disappointed people south of the border between the two states. The recent decision to remand the case back to the Special Master for further consideration has taken many by surprise; happy surprise south of the border and not so happy as you look northward (unless you talk to the attorneys litigating the case, maybe).

The resulting decision kept Florida’s hopes alive for an equitable allocation of water resources in the basin that spans nearly 20,000 square miles of the Southeastern US. At stake, from Florida’s perspective, is the productivity and ecosystem integrity of the Apalachicola River and Bay ecosystem. For Georgia, enough water to supply its growing population and thirsty agricultural interests in the Flint River Basin south of Atlanta.
The Court’s 5–4 decision, found that the Special Master had applied too high a standard regarding “harm and redressability” for Florida’s claims. They ordered the case to be reheard so that appropriate considerations could be given to Florida’s arguments. “The amount of extra water that reaches the Apalachicola may significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has suffered,” said Justice Breyer, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor. “Further findings, however, are needed.”

The Court’s opinion does not actually outline any specific solutions for the water battle, and it in no way guarantees a win for Florida, but it does keep the legal challenge alive – along with the hope of better days for Florida’s oyster industry, which has suffered a major fisheries collapse that began around 2012.  Visit this link if you would like to read the syllabus, as well as the full opinion of the High Court.

We should all consider the magnitude of the importance of the Apalachicola River and Bay for our region, due to its connection to the larger Gulf of Mexico. Estuaries like this are crucial links in the life-stages of countless marine organisms, including many we depend on for food and recreation. Blue crabs migrate tremendous distances to spawn in our near shore estuaries. Their young then disperse to populate large areas of coastline. Post-larval shrimp move into our estuaries to grow up after being spawned offshore. Later they swim out as adults to begin the cycle again. It is no wonder the shorelines of our Florida estuaries are dotted with prehistoric shell middens from peoples who thrived near these resource-rich ecosystems. Who knows if the Apalachicola Bay will ever recover to the productivity of its glory days, when a hard-working person could harvest 20 bags of oysters in a day? Regardless, we should all be thankful for what Apalachicola Bay has meant to so many generations of people over such a wide expanse of our Northern Gulf of Mexico coastline. Take just a moment to think about it, please.