Searching for Mangroves in the Florida Panhandle

Searching for Mangroves in the Florida Panhandle

In 2005 I was leading a field trip with high school students in a salt marsh on Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola Beach.  As we explored a brackish water creek, we came across a three-foot red mangrove tree, prop roots and all.  To say we were surprised and excited would be an understatement.

Most know that mangroves are trees that can tolerate seawater and grow along estuarine shorelines across the tropics, including south Florida.  They can form dense forests that support all sorts of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.  They need calm protected waters to establish themselves but once established are excellent at protecting shoreline communities during hurricanes.  However, they cannot tolerate cold weather, only surviving freezing temperatures for one or two nights.

The red mangrove.
Photo: University of Florida

Growing up in Pensacola we would often find red mangrove propagules (seedlings) washed ashore arriving from the tropical parts of the Gulf.  They were generally on the Gulf side of Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key but never germinated.  If they were carried into the estuary, and found a protected lagoon to begin germination, they would not survive our winters.  This is what made finding an established three-foot mangrove in a lagoon off Santa Rosa Sound in 2005 so surprising.

 

Mangrove propagule washed ashore. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Historically mangroves were not found north of Tampa Bay.  However, in recent decades they have become established as far north as Cedar Key.  Trying to determine whether the mangrove we found was the northern most in Florida I found that they were also expanding along the east coast of Florida as far north as St. Augustine, and there were records in the Jacksonville area.  Many attribute this to climate change.  Our winters are milder than they were when I was a kid, and this may be leading to what many are calling the “tropicalization of northern Gulf of Mexico”.  Not only mangroves, but other historically south Florida species, such as snook and bonefish, have been reported along the panhandle.

In 2017 I was leading another high school group on a field trip in a salt marsh in Big Lagoon State Park.  We found a germinated seedling of a red mangrove doing very well.  We explored more and found seven others in the nearby area.  How many more were growing in the Pensacola Bay area?

A small red mangrove growing in Big Lagoon near Pensacola FL
Photo: Rick O’Connor

We partnered with a research team from Dauphin Island Sea Lab who was looking into this as well.  The team included extension agents and specialists from Florida and Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, as well as biologists from the National Estuarine Research Reserves in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida panhandle.  Each county/region selected 10 transect sites that had the highest probability of mangroves to monitor each year.  Mangroves appear to be established on some of the Mississippi barrier islands, as well as in St. Joe Bay.  Individuals have been reported from Bay County.  A ninth mangrove was found in Escambia County but a hard freeze in 2018 killed them all.  Since then, one young multi-year red mangrove was found on NAS Pensacola.  It died in the hard freeze of 2023.  Despite the hard freezes, those established in St. Joe Bay seem to be holding on.  I decided to make a visit and see.

A red mangrove growing at NAS Pensacola. Photo: Whitney Scheffel.

 

Black mangroves growing near St. George Island in Franklin County.
Photo: Joshua Hodson

Wading out from the buffer preserve with Gulf County Sea Grant Agent Ray Bodrey, we found relatively large patches of mangroves, and seeds suggesting active expansion was ongoing.  But I noticed the species we were seeing were black mangroves.  I mentioned to Ray that what we had seen in Pensacola were red mangroves.  He said that the red mangroves have a hard time here as well.  Black mangroves are more tolerant of cold weather, and it is they who are establishing these large patches.  There are reports of large patches of mangroves on the Mississippi barrier islands – and they are the black mangroves as well.  I know that black mangroves have been established in the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana for decades.  I am convinced that if black mangroves seeds were to reach protected lagoons in Pensacola Bay, they would probably do well here as well.

I continue to conduct our transects each year in the Pensacola Bay area.  I have a couple of trained volunteers helping me but could always use more.  If you think you have seen a mangrove growing in the Florida panhandle, we would love to know and document their location.  We know they are established in Gulf County, so our focus is now Escambia to Bay counties.  If you think you have seen one, contact me at roc1@ul.edu or your county Sea Grant Agent.

The Swallow-tailed Kites are Back

The Swallow-tailed Kites are Back

I was having dinner with my family on a cool March evening when one said “I have not seen any Swallow-tailed Kites yet.  We usually see them this time of year”.  To which I replied, “I saw one today!” – and I had.  It was March 23, a very windy afternoon, and I saw it briefly zip over our backyard.  The Swallow-tailed Kites were back.

 

Back in the sense they were back from their long migration from South America.  The Swallow-tailed Kite resides there and ventures north to Central and North America during the summer for the breeding season.

The Swallow-tailed Kite.
Photo: Cornell University

It is a magnificent bird, described as “one of the most awesome birds in the U.S.”.  Their long slender bodies are sharp in contrast with a brilliant white head and a deep black body.  They have long pointed wings which they use to soar with grace, rarely flapping their wings, and their key feature of the scissor-looking forked tail.  They are a relatively large bird somewhere between the size of a crow and a large goose.  Swallow-tailed kites are often seen soaring just above the treetops searching for food but can also be seen at higher elevations gliding along with the wind.  It is a bird that many get excited about when they see it.

 

Arriving in the United States in late February and March, they seek out opportunities for nesting habitat.  Their preference are tall trees, usually 60 feet or taller, and most often select pine trees, though have been known to nest in cypress and other large trees.  They usually select trees close to water or open fields.  These locations provide an abundance of their favorite prey – insects.  They can be seen zooming close to the trees to grab unwary prey and will, at times, take larger creatures like treefrogs, lizards, and small snakes.  Their beaks are small however, and so prey selection is limited.

 

Both the males and females participate in nest building.  Swallow-tailed kites are monogamous and mate pairing often occurs during the migration.  They usually build a new nest each season but often is the same location.  Males are territorial of these nest locations and defend them with local vocalizations.  Despite this, many swallow-tailed kite nests can be found near each other.

The Swallow-tailed Kite.
Photo: Rodney Cammauf – National Park Photo.

Once the young hatch, the female remains with them while the male forages for food.  He typically brings it back to the nest in his talons, perches and transfers the food to his beak, and the provides it to the female who in turn feeds the chicks.  After fledging, around August or September, it is time to head back to South America and they leave our area until next spring.

 

Swallow-tailed kites were once common all along the Mississippi River drainage as far north as Minnesota.  However, the numbers declined significantly, primarily due to humans shooting them, and today they are only found in the lower coastal regions of the southeastern U.S.  Today they can be found, but are uncommon, in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Caroline.  In Florida they are considered uncommon in the panhandle but common in the peninsula part of the state.  Their numbers seem to be increasing but the loss of tall nesting trees is a major issue today.  The clearing of these tall trees due to agriculture and urban development have kept them from reestablishing their original range.  But for now – the swallow-tailed kites are back.

 

For more information on this amazing bird read the following.

 

Swallow-tailed Kite.  All About Birds.  Cornell Lab.  Cornell University.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swallow-tailed_Kite/id.

 

Swallow-tailed Kite. Bird Guide – Hawks and Eagles.  Audubon Society.  https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/swallow-tailed-kite.

Beach Wildlife Walk – Late Winter

Beach Wildlife Walk – Late Winter

Though this is titled late winter, it did not feel like winter on this walk.  The air temperature was 75°F.  There was a blanket of fog over the beach, and it felt slightly humid and sticky, but with a cooler feel than we have in summer.  It is true that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this year – signaling an early spring, and the weather today supported this, but spring does not officially begin until the equinox on March 21.  So, this is a late winter walk. 

This walk was near Big Sabine on Pensacola Beach.  As I crossed the road at Park East and headed into the dunes there was a breeze from the south creating surf that could be heard across the island.  The fog made things damp and chilled.  And there was no sign of wildlife anywhere.  The numerous songbirds I had encountered during early and mid-winter were gone.  There were flowers in bloom but no insects pollinating them.  Literally no wildlife was to be seen. 

A foggy day on Pensacola Beach. Photo: Rick O’Connor

So, I turned my focus to the environment, noticing plants and the stages they were in.  As you move from the primary dunes of the Gulf side into the more shrub covered secondary dunes, you cross through low areas in the dune field called swales.  Here water collects during rain events forming ephemeral ponds and the plants associated with this habitat are more wetland than upland.  In the boggy portions of the swale, I found sundews large and in a brilliant red color.  These carnivorous plants produce tiny droplets of sugar water on threads at the tips of their leaves that attract the pollinators of the beach.  Though sweet and delicious, they are also sticky and trap unaware insects which become a meal for them.  Along with the sundew were numerous strands of ground pine, another carnivorous plant of the swale. 

Swales are low areas of the dune field where water stands for periods of time and the more wetland plants can exist. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The carnivorous sundew inhabits more wetland locations. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Beyond the swale, the secondary dunes were a blanket of lavender.  The false rosemary, also called beach heather (Conradina), was in full bloom everywhere.  As I walked through the dunes of flowers I came across the signs of wildlife.  Armadillo dens were quite common.  There were tracks of animals, including the raccoon, and scat was found.  The scat contained seeds and, unlike the long-tapered shape of most carnivore scat, was blunt and rectangular shaped – suggesting a herbivore or omnivore.  I did encounter a couple of ephemeral ponds with very little water, but there were no animals, or animal sign, to be found there. 

The false rosemary was in bloom and the dunes were full of this lavender color. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Armadillo burrows like this one can be found all over our barrier islands. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The blunt ended and rectangular shape of this scat suggests it was from a herbivore or omnivore. It was full of seeds. Photo: Rick O’Connor

As you move from the secondary dunes into the maritime forest you pick up a section of the Florida Trail.  This 1,500-mile trail begins at Ft. Pickens on the western end of Santa Rosa Island and ends near the Everglades.  It was obvious that many of the animals who live in these dunes use this trail as well, there were numerous tracks covering it.  Over the ridge into the maritime forest, you encounter marshes.  The plants you find growing there help indicate whether the marsh is fresh or salt water.  Pausing here to see if something stirred or moved, I saw and heard nothing and continued on. 

The orange blaze indicates this is part of the Florida Trail. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The maritime forest was full of healthy pine and oak trees, creating a completely different habitat for the wildlife out here.  You get the feeling when you enter the forest that this is where the creatures prefer to be.  Raccoons, skunks, coyote, snakes, birds, lizards, exist here and I was hoping to find something.  And then it happened.  Glancing up into one of the pine trees I saw a great horned owl – bingo!  These are amazing birds and there have been a few reports of nesting great horned owls around the area.  I did not see the nest but was happy to see the owl. 

The maritime forests of our barrier islands is a completely different environment than the open dune fields. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Using the nests of other raptors, great horned owls raise their young this time of year. This one is in the “extended” position suggesting it is alarmed. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I eventually reached the shore of Santa Rosa Sound and walked along for half a mile or so.  I did see a great blue heron in the marsh, and some wharf crabs under a plank of wood – but there was nothing visible in the clear water of the Sound.  There was evidence of armadillos digging.  One section of the beach they had basically destroyed digging for grubs and other invertebrates to eat. 

All in all, it was a quiet day.  I am guessing that the foggy conditions moved the animals into their hiding places waiting for the sun to come out.  Our next walk will be in early spring, and we are hoping to see more wildlife.

You should get out and take a hike on our beaches, there are plenty of cool things to see and it’s great for your mind. 

Tis the Season…

Tis the Season…

It is March and spring is in the air.  Since we were kids, we all knew that spring was the time of flowers, nests, and new birth.  And now it is here. 

Our first experience with the season was the pollen.  Many plants mass broadcast pollen across the landscape.  Pollen are the male gametes.  The plants will use the high winds during the early part of season to spread the pollen as far as they can seeking the female eggs.  It is true that 80-90% of these pollen grains do not find female eggs but rather they land on leaves, sand, fences, cars, and us.  It seems like a huge waste, but fertilization does happen, and the next generation of these plants are born. 

Pollen grains are the male gametes in the plant world. Photo: University of Florida.

Other plants are more efficient at getting their pollen to the eggs.  They produce flowers.  These flowers house both the male pollen grains and the female eggs.  To increase cross pollination the flowers produce a sugar substance called nectar that attracts pollinators.  The most famous of these are the bees, but there are many other pollinators in the environment.  You might be surprised to learn that the seagrasses growing in Santa Rosa Sound do the same.  The flowers of these submerged grasses are very small, but they are there.  Many flowering plants have not produced their blooms yet, but the wildflower season will begin soon. 

Beach Sunflower Photo: Evan Anderson

Animals are similar.  Many, like corals and scallops, mass spawn each season.  Like pollen they broadcast their male and female gametes into the water in hopes that fertilization will occur.  Like some plants, this mass broadcast often misses the mark but to increase the chance of fertilization something the environment triggers all members of the population to release at the same time.  Often this is the occurrence of the full moon.  Many times, it may be the female who is triggered by the environment and the males are triggered by the presence of the released female gametes. 

Mass spawning coral. Photo: NOAA.

Like some plants, many animals use a more efficient method of getting the gametes together.  The males will seek out the females and provide them with sperm (the male gamete).  Some animals, like some mollusk and crabs, the males provide their gametes in a sac which the female will carry until she is ready to fertilize her eggs.  Others, like horseshoe crabs, will congregate in areas where the eggs are placed in the environment and the males fertilize them.  Others, like many vertebrates, will congregate and fertilize the eggs internally. 

Horseshoe crabs breeding on the beach. Photo: Florida Sea Grant

In many of these examples there are long migrations to reach the congregation sites.  Horseshoe crabs, shrimp, blue crabs, sturgeon, sea turtles, and many birds are examples of such creatures.  There are several methods of navigating during these migrations.  Some use the chemical cues, others will use the earth’s magnetic field, and some actually use the sun and stars as we did in our early history.  Many of these annual migrations bring the creatures back to the same locations year after year.  Many return to find their nesting environment altered by humans.  Some who find this have learned to adapt and they nest on our houses or artificial nests we have provided for them.  Others do not adapt so well, and their populations suffer because of it. 

Tracks left by a nesting Green Sea Turtle. Courtesy of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

In my yard we have already experienced the pollen season, I am sure more is to come.  The wildflowers in our yard have not bloomed yet but they are coming soon.  The Extension Office promotes a program we call “NO MOW MARCH”.  This program encourages homeowners not to mow their lawns during the month of March to allow the flowers in their yards to bloom.  We see wildflowers growing along highways now and the pollinators are beginning to search for them.  I have also noticed squirrels and birds search for nesting materials; the nest building season is here.  Horseshoe crabs have already been spotted in Santa Rosa Sound, the shorebirds have arrived on the island, and the sea turtles are not far behind. 

Tis the season… let’s enjoy it. 

NISAW 2024 – Wrap Up

NISAW 2024 – Wrap Up

National Invasive Species Awareness Week

With our articles this week we hoped to make you more aware of what an invasive species is, why they need to be managed, and some of the threats that exist in the Florida panhandle.  We highlighted several species but there are many more.  Some, like Chinese Tallow and Japanese Climbing Fern, are well established and will never be eradicated.  Others, like giant salvinia and the Cuban treefrog, have been detected early enough that there MAY be a chance.  As with all of these species – we only know what we know.  It is likely that all locations of these species have not been reported. 

This is where you can help. 

Volunteers from the University of West Florida are removing beach vitex from Pensacola Beach. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The first thing you can do is become familiar with the invasive species in your area. 

The Six Rivers Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Homes, and Washington counties in the Florida panhandle.  It also includes Baldwin, Escambia, and Covington counties in Alabama.  On their website you will find a tab on the tool bar labeled EDRR.  Here you can see a list of EDRR species found for this CISMA.  We also have a list of what we call the “Dirty Dozen”.  These are the top 12 established invasive species in this management area.  The Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance CISMA includes Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Leon, Liberty, and Wakulla counties.  You can find the same information for that area at their website.   

Second, report any invasive species to the EDDMapS database. 

This is a national database used by resource managers to assess the status of invasive species in their area and develop management plans to address.  We need your help reporting.  You can do so on that website or download the app I’veGotOne from the website or your favorite app store.  This is a free app that will allow you to photograph and report invasive species from the field.  The data from this app populates the EDDMapS database. 

Third, help manage these species. 

You can do this on your property or participate in a community event that is removing invasive species in your area.  If you have questions on the best methods for managing your property, or where a local event is occurring, contact your county extension office or your local CISMA.

Fourth, help us educate more in the panhandle about this issue.  The effort to manage invasive species is similar to managing litter and debris.  The more groups that are engaged, the larger our impact will be.