Weekly “What is it?”: Coastal Plain Honeycombhead & Gulf Coast solitary bee

Weekly “What is it?”: Coastal Plain Honeycombhead & Gulf Coast solitary bee

Coastal plain honeycombhead blooms through the summer on local beaches. Photo credit, Bob Pitts, National Park Service

Over my years of leading people on interpretive trail hikes, I have learned it is particularly important to know the names of whatever happens to be in bloom. These flowers are eye-catching, and inevitably someone will ask what they are. In fact, one of my favorite wildflower identification books is categorized not by taxonomy, but by bloom color—with a rainbow of tabs down the edge of the book for easy identification.

Wildflower identification can be tough, but color-coded guidebooks are really helpful! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In our coastal dunes right now, several plants are showing off vibrant yellow blooms. Seaside goldenrod, coreopsis, and other asters are common. Rarer, and the subject of today’s post, is the Coastal Plain Honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). It has bright yellow flowers, but often gets more notice due to its unusual appearance when not in bloom. The basal leaves are bright green and similar in shape and arrangement to a pine cone or bottlebrush (albeit a tiny one), sticking straight up in the sand. The plants are typically found on the more protected back side of primary dunes or further into secondary dunes, a little more inland from the Gulf.

When not in bloom, the plant resembles a green pinecone planted in the sand. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The plant plays a special role in beach ecology, as a host plant for Gulf fritillary butterflies and the Gulf Coast solitary bee (Hesperapis oraria). The bee is a ground-dwelling pollinator insect that forages only in the barrier islands of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The species is currently the subject of a University of Florida study (they’re out at Ft. Pickens right now), as the endemic bee’s sole source of nectar and pollen is the honeycombhead flower. As of publication date, no bee nests have been discovered. Researchers are interested in learning more about the insect’s life cycle and nesting behaviors to better understand and protect its use of local habitats. Based on closely related species, it is believed the Gulf Coast solitary bee builds a multi-chambered nest under the soft sands of the dunes.

Adult female Hesperapis oraria foraging on coastal plain honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). Photograph by John Bente, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service.

While the honeycombhead plant is found in peninsular Florida and coastal Georgia, the bee has been identified only in a 100 km² area between Horn Island, MS, and St. Andrews Bay, FL. Luckily for the bee, large swaths of this land are preserved as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and several state parks. Nonetheless, these coastal dune habitats are threatened by hurricanes, sea level rise, and development (outside the park boundaries). Due to its rarity and limited habitat, a petition has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.unfilled heart 0

Wildlife on Our Barrier Islands in August

Wildlife on Our Barrier Islands in August

It has been a few months since we have posted an article on the changing wildlife over the course of a year on our barrier islands.  I took the month of June off and just could not schedule a hike in July.  But it is now August, and we DID get out this week. 

This is no surprise… it is hot and humid.  I think everyone has noticed this.  We are also in the rainy season.  Based on the NOAA site I track, we are currently at 45.73” for the year.  This is an average of 6.53 inches a month which would lead us to an annual amount of 78” if we keep that pace.  This would be another wet year. 

This rainfall does a lot to cover up tracks I am looking for.  It will spook some creatures into hiding waiting out the weather, but there are plenty of others who enjoy the rain and are more on the move. 

This rainbow indicates how wet this part of the year can be on our barrier islands.

Today I took my grandson with me on the hike.  He loves the outdoors and reptiles and amphibians especially.  We began, as we always do, walking a section of the Gulf beach to see what we could see. 

We immediately encountered a sea turtle nest.  I understand that it has been a good year for sea turtles in our neck of the woods.  The turtle patrol had roped this one off, but I did see human footprints inside the roped section.  We encourage people NOT to do this.  Compacting the sand can be a problem and if they hatch and detect vibrations they may not emerge.  It is cool to see one, but do not go past the roped section. 

The sea turtle patrols mark the nest with stakes and rope. People should not enter beyond the roped section.

We always search the wrack line for cool things and today we ran into a few.  First, there were hundreds of small dead anchovies washed ashore.  I am not 100% sure what happened but I am guessing a strong storm came and washed them in.  Anchovies are a great source of food for many marine fish and these dead ones will certainly feed the numerous birds and ghost crabs that live along the shores.  Anchovies play an important role in the ecosystem and, even though these were dead, it is nice to see them. 

We did find several catfish heads.  Saltwater catfish are not prized by Gulf fishermen.  Many prefer to cut their heads off and leave them on the beach.  The thing is that this does little to deter the population of this unpopular fish and the spines can be dangerous for beach combers walking barefoot.  But the ghost crabs usually collect and feed on them. 

The serrated spines of the hardhead catfish are still on this discarded head. beach combers should be careful when walking near these.

We also found a few comb jellies.  These are members of a different phylum (Ctenophora) than the classic jellyfish (Cnidaria).  They lack stinging cells and move using their rows of ctenes (cilia) that resemble the bristles of a comb as you run your finger over it.  This is where it gets its common name.  They do produce blue colored bioluminescence in the evening and are beautiful to watch.

Comb jellies do not sting and they produce a beautiful light show at night.

As we crossed the road and enter the dunes, I explained to my grandson how the foredune is dominated by grasses.  These plants can tolerate the strong winds off the Gulf and the salt spray as well.  On the other side of the road, you enter in the secondary dune field.  This region is a mix of grasses and small shrubs, which can grow due to the primary dunes blocking some of the strong Gulf winds. 

Today we saw several species of flowers in bloom.  Different plants bloom at different times of the year and it is neat to see who is blooming at different times.  The low swale areas were full of growing plants and flowers.  There were plenty of sundews and ground pine.  Some standing water but much was dry.  We did find a plant in one of the wet swales I did not know.  I am listing it here as redroot but I am not confident in that identification and would love if someone who knows it will share its name.    

This once barren flat of sand is now full of grasses and flowers.
This common secondary dune plant is what I call “square flower”.
I am not sure what type of plant this is. I am calling it red root and hope someone with a better identification will let us know.

There were numerous tracks of armadillos but little else from the animal world.  Again, the rains wash them away.  The milkweed was still blooming awaiting for the now listed monarch butterflies.  And the beach side rosemary was releasing its characteristic odor that says “Pensacola Beach” to me.  The plants looked great and seem to enjoy the rain.  FYI – we did get rained on during the hike, but not too bad.  We had seen the parasitic dodder earlier in the year and the vine was still evident in August. 

Though many of the tracks were washed away in the rain, some are still there. The animals are still moving.
We first saw milkweed blooming in April. Here in August some are still in bloom.
Seaside rosemary is one of the more aromatic plants on our barrier islands.
Dodder is a parasitic vine often called “Love Vine”.

In the tertiary, or back dunes, is where I always hope to find tracks or animals of some kind.  Today there was little evidence of any.  There were raccoon tracks moving along the edge of tallest dunes and along the trails leading to Santa Rosa Sound.  But not much else.  The pines were bearing their cones and the sweet bay magnolias had their young blossoms forming.   

Many of the pine trees growing in the back dunes are now producing cones.
Sweet bay is in the magnolia family and produces a similar blossom.

One species my grandson did not enjoy were the numerous devils’ joints.  This branching cactus has very sharp spines and were all over the back dunes.  We had to stop and remove them several times.  He definitely wanted to find a different way back! 

The Devil’s Joint is not one of the more pleasant plants to encounter in our dunes. We encountered plenty today!

We did reach the Sound and walked along its edge towards the old fish hatchery.  He saw TONS of fish (as he put it) and the grass looked thick and healthy.  We did get to explore and talk about the old fish hatchery.  And then headed back towards the Gulf and our truck. 

I think we got started a bit late to see a lot of the wildlife.  This time of year, they will be hunkered down somewhere early in the morning to prepare for another hot day.  With the overhead clouds I was hoping to see some movement, but we did not.  We will try earlier in the day in September. 

I hope you get out and explore our barrier islands.  They are fascinating places.  But plan to get into the water this time of year.  We did.  It was hot.  We went snorkeling and saw numerous pinfish, a flounder, and snapper, and a nice sheepshead.  This is a good way to spend the hot parts of the day.  Let’s see what September may bring. 

Mangroves in the Western Panhandle

Mangroves in the Western Panhandle

Mangroves in the northern Gulf of Mexico are a relatively new thing for most coastal counties.  Some residents are aware they are arriving and are not concerned.  Some are aware and are actually excited about it.  Some are aware and are concerned.  Some are not aware.  And others have no idea what a mangrove is.  Let’s start with that group.

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

Mangroves are salt tolerant trees that are found all around the globe within the tropics.  They grow along the shorelines in areas where they are protected from ocean wind and waves – they like estuaries.  There are several species and their location along the shore depends on how long they can be submerged in water.  There is a definite zonation of these trees.

 

The red mangrove with their distinct prop roots.
Photo: University of Florida

The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is found closest to the waters edge.  They can be identified by their prop roots which are designed to keep it standing when the water is moving and shifting the sediment below it.  These prop roots also useful during tropical storms when the wave energy increases.  The have distinct looking propagules, which are elongated floating seeds which allows the plant to disperse their offspring using the currents and tides.  The propagules often wash ashore on northern Gulf beaches but usually in locations not conducive to growth, or they do not survive the winters.  These plants can tolerate temperatures in the 30sF for a night or two, but when it drops into the 20sF, and certainly into the 10sF, they will not survive.  Despite not being cold tolerant, they have been found growing in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  All the mangroves found in the Pensacola area have been of this species.

 

Black mangroves with their pneumatophores.
Photo: University of Florida

The black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) is found higher in the intertidal zone.  It lacks the prop roots of the red but rather has what are called pneumatophores, which resemble the knees of the cypress trees.  These pneumatophores have structures that help increase the oxygen uptake for the plant, being that the sediments they live in are quite hypoxic.  The seeds of the black mangrove are not elongated but rather resemble a bean.  These trees are more tolerant of cold weather than the red mangrove and it is they that have led the march north.  There are large stands of these trees in the Apalachicola area as well as barrier islands in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.  We have not found a black mangrove growing in Pensacola as of yet.

 

The larger white mangrove.
Photo: University of Florida

White mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa) grow more inland than the other two.  This species can grow into a large tree (up to 40 feet).  Their leaves can excrete salt allowing them to live in saltier conditions.  There are no records of this tree in the northern Gulf of Mexico to my knowledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why would anyone be concerned about mangroves dispersing into the northern Gulf?

 

Those who are concerned are aware that is a shoreline tree that will grow and possibly block their view of the water.  They also are aware that this tree is protected by the state, and they are not allowed to remove or trim the tree without a permit.  In south Florida trimming mangroves is allowed in some counties during certain times of the year and only by certified arborist.  Those concerned are not excited about potentially loosing their water view.

A red mangrove growing near the pass of Pensacola Bay.
Photo: Whitney Scheffel.

 

Why would anyone be excited about mangroves dispersing into the northern Gulf?

 

Folks who are excited about the possible coming of the mangroves are so because they have spent time snorkeling and fishing in and around them in more southern locations.  The prop roots of the red mangrove create an underwater wonderland of marine life.  Small fish, crabs, anemones, starfish, mollusk and more find the large openings formed by the roots as great habitat.  These in turn attract larger fish like snook, tarpon, rays, and flounder.  Many species of larger fish are popular targets for anglers.  Manatees are often found in mangrove swamps grazing on the algae and seagrasses growing nearby and enjoying the relatively calm water.  Those who have experienced this in south Florida are excited they may have it here in the north.

 

How many mangroves, and which species, have dispersed into the northern Gulf is still being studied.  Florida Sea Grant has partnered with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and three of the National Estuarine Research Preserves to survey for mangroves in our panhandle counties and along coastal Mississippi and Alabama.  Ten transects have identified in each that are surveyed once a year by volunteers using paddle craft.  The presence of a mangrove is documented, measured, photographed and shared with the team, which is overseen by Whitney Scheffel of the Pensacola-Perdido Bay Estuary Program.  If you are interested in participating in a survey, contact your county Sea Grant Extension Agent.

Wildlife on the Beach in May

Wildlife on the Beach in May

It is mid-spring and time of nesting for much of the wildlife in the area.  It is also noticeably warmer than our previous hikes.  Due to my work schedule, and the surveys for other nesting activity, I did this hike earlier in the month and later in the day, than I typically would have.  I began my hike at 1:00pm – near the hottest part of the day, and not the best time to see wildlife, but I definitely wanted to get a hike in this month and so this is when I could.

The Gulf was relatively calm on this early afternoon in spring.

It was warm.  On this day it was 83°F and there was a light breeze from the southeast.  On the previous hikes I needed my fleece.  Though I had it in my backpack, I did not need it today.  My hike was at Big Sabine and as usual, I began on the Gulf of Mexico.  The first thing I noticed when I crossed over the boardwalk was the number of people.  I usually hike in the early morning or late afternoon and see few humans.  But at mid-day the beach was full of people, and I probably looked strange walking among them with my long pants, long sleeved shirt, and boots.  The second thing I noticed was mats of Sargassum on the beach.

 

Sargassum is a floating brown algae we see in the warmer months in our part of the Gulf.  It is first an algae, not a true plant.  Algae lack roots, stems, and leaves.  They produce no cones, fruit nor flowers with seeds.  They are nonvascular, meaning they lack a system of vein-like tubes that move water around the plant.  Plants usually do have these tubes.  They are not called arteries and veins as they are in animals, but rather xylem and phloem.  Because algae lack this circulation system, they live emersed in the water.  Since they lack true roots they anchor to hard substrate, like rocks and coral, using a suction type apparatus called a holdfast.  The flexible, herbaceous stipe, analogous to the stem, flows in the current extending their blades (analogous to leaves) into the light.  Like plants, algae require water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to photosynthesize their food.  Because of this they need to live in relatively shallow water, and they need a rocky bottom to attach their holdfast to.  We have little hard bottom and therefore less of the classic algae you read about in other parts of the world.

Notice the small air bladders on this Sargassum weed. These are used by the algae to remain near the sunlit waters of the open Gulf.

 

Sargassum has a different plan to deal with this problem.  They float.  When you look at this seaweed on the beach you will notice they have numerous small circular air bladders called pneumatophores.  These air bladders allow Sargassum to float in the sunlit waters of the Gulf and not worry about how, or where, they would attach their holdfast.

 

Large mats of Sargassum can be found floating out in the open Gulf and these mats provide a fantastic habitat for many small and large marine creatures.  There are sargassum crabs, sargassum shrimp, and even a sargassum sea horse.  There is a small filefish and a frogfish known as the sargassum fish.  It is the target for baby sea turtles that successfully made it from the beach, through the surf, and into the open Gulf without being consumed.  Here they will live and feed for many months at which time they are large enough to venture back out.  Larger fish often seek out these mats searching for food, and fishermen seek the mats knowing that larger fish are probably in the area.

 

These mats of Sargassum get caught in the large ocean currents and find their way to the middle of the Atlantic.  Here the ocean is calm, like the eye of a hurricane, and huge mats of Sargassum can be found piled up.  Christopher Columbus found this massive expanse of Sargassum while crossing the Atlantic.  Because it was calm here, and the Sargassum so thick, his ships became becalmed and he noted in his log to avoid this place, which was then called the “Sargasso Sea”.

 

On today’s hike there was quite a bit of this seaweed washed ashore.  Most of the marine life living in the seaweed sense the waves and the impending beaching, and jettison for mats further offshore.  So, you usually do not find many creatures in the seaweed washed ashore, but sometimes you do.  You can take a small dip net out deeper and grab some still floating and you may have better luck.  Today, I explored what was washed ashore and did not find much.  I did find a lot of plastic, and those who study Sargassum ecology will tell there is a lot of plastic debris caught up in the Sargassum mats.  Today I noticed a lot of bottle caps.  Not many bottles, but lots of bottle caps.  As many others do, we encourage everyone to dispose of the garbage properly.  I read this week of a manatee found near Mobile Bay earlier this year who died of cold stress but had swallowed a plastic bag, which was caught in his throat.  Marine debris kills.  Please dispose of your trash properly.

This crab pot float was one of several debris items washed in with the sargassum.

 

Heading inland to the dune field I heard sirens.  The beach patrol was answering a call.  I am not sure where, nor what the issue was, but these again are sounds I do not usually hear when hiking early and late in the day.  There are currents in the Gulf that can suck you out to sea, and each year we have visitors drown not knowing where these currents are, or how to get out of them if they are caught in one.  Pay attention to the colored flags and be careful.  I never saw, nor heard, an ambulance follow the beach patrol.  So, I am guessing everyone was okay on this call.

 

The dune field on this May afternoon was warm.  There was a light breeze from the southeast that kept things from getting too warm, but it was warm none the less.  As we move closer the hot days of summer the wildlife will move more at dawn and dusk, as well as in the evening.  I was not expecting to see a lot on this hike.

 

This flat area of the dune field was quite warm on this afternoon and made me think of crossing a desert.

This was an unusual site, a pigeon walking in the open dune field.

 

 

As always you can see what has been moving by searching for tracks and tracks, I did find.  Many of them were human, indicating the tourist season is upon us, but there were tracks of animals as well.  There were plenty from our friends the raccoon and armadillo.  I did notice more raccoon tracks this month.  I and my volunteers who survey nesting beaches notice more raccoon tracks this time of year looking for eggs.  I also noticed more snake tracks on this hike, they too are mating and moving much more.  The lizard tracks were fresh, and I have noticed these moving during the warmer parts of the day and their tracks running across the dune face told me they were very busy that day.

This straight line the sign of a tail drag by a lizard, most likely the six-lined skink.

Many who visit the dunes of our barriers find these burrow looking trails. These are made by beetles.

I followed this snake track until I found this – what appears to be a “tussle” the snake had with a possible prey.

 

Being spring you would expect flowers, and there were some, just not as many as you might expect.  Most of them were white and were blooming on plants near the boggy areas of the swales.  The conradina that blooms more in the winter, was done and the blossoms were gone.  I did see the early stages of the magnolia flowers trying to come up, but the bright green shoots of new growth on the pines were not visible.  There were bees, lots of bees.

The lavender blossoms of the false rosemary, which appeared in winter, are now gone.

White flowers were common on this spring afternoon. Such as this one on the spiny bull nettle.

Another white flower is seen on this Sagittaria growing in one of the swales between dunes.

 

I hiked through a small pine scrub area thinking I might someone in the shade avoiding the heat of the day but did not find anything.  I went along the edge of the tertiary dunes where they meet the maritime forest looking for the same thing.  Nothing, but there were tracks.  The cactus seemed to be more abundant this month.

 

The pine scrub offered one of the few places with shade.

The dune field of a Florida panhandle barrier island.

From atop of one of the higher dunes you can see the steep drop towards the marsh.

 

 

Along the ridge between the maritime forest and the salt marsh is where I found the otter slide last month.  I did not see any evidence of otters today.  The bird action was slower today as well.  Maybe because of the heat they too had settled somewhere.  I did not see an osprey, which is unusual.

Big Sabine as seen from atop one of the larger dunes.

 

As I reached the beach of the Sound, I did notice a LOT of digging by armadillos.  They had been very active.  There were no snakes or marsh rats.  There were again people, these were on jet skis.  There were a few fishing from small boats.  With no rain over the last week or so the visibility in the Sound was amazing, but I only saw one small blue crab.  No hermit crabs and not any fish.  However, the lagoon of the marsh the killifish, also known as bull minnows, were abundant and the males all aglow with their iridescent blue colors of breeding season.  The males were chasing each other all over the tidal pools and open water of the lagoon designating their territories for current breeding that would follow.  I did notice more crows than I usually do and what made me catch their attention was the constant calling at me and the hovering over me suggesting they too were breeding, and an active nest was nearby.

A blue heron is seen sitting in a pine overlooking Santa Rosa Sound.

A small Seserma crab is seen hiding under grass along the beach of the Sound.

The crows were numerous and active on this spring afternoon.

 

I was not expecting much hiking in the middle of the afternoon, but it is always good to do these just to see what is moving.  I hope to do another hike this month either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Maybe we will see more.

It may be hard to see, but there was a small duck enjoying the Sound.

With little rain over the last few days the water clarity was excellent and you could see the seagrass very well.

Wildlife on the Beach in April

Wildlife on the Beach in April

It is now spring, and wildlife is beginning to stir more.  However, on this April day another cold front had just past the area and the morning temperature was 59°F.  To add to this, there was a strong west wind that made it feel colder.  Despite the fact it was an early spring morning in Florida, I had my fleece on and was dubious that I would see any reptiles.

 

This month’s hike was out at Big Sabine near Park East.  The Gulf of Mexico was churning like a washing machine due to the passing front and the beach had a sharp scarp to it.  There were a few plovers out trying to probe the sand for food, but not much else.  Usually after hard winds you will find an assortment of things washed up on the beach but there was little really, possibly removed by the storm.  There were however signs of digging by humans.  It is now sea turtle nesting season, and we remind folks that these large holes can be a real problem for the mothers trying to nest.  Please fill them in before you leave the beach.

Diopatra are segmented worms similar to earthworms who build tubes to live in. These tubes are often found washed up on the beach.

Large holes like this can be problematic for many island wildlife species – like nesting sea turtles. Please fill them in when you leave for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Blow outs” are formed by people walking over the dunes. They will increase the erosion of these dunes and enhance flooding during storms. Please cross over on boardwalks.

The Gulf of Mexico was churned up due to the passing cold front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach scarps are formed during heavy surf changing the dynamics of the beach for creatures living there.

“Sea Beans” are seeds of tropical plants that wash ashore this time of year. Most do not germinate and those that do are usually on a high energy beach and do not survive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you head north into the dune fields the wind typically slows, but this morning it was blowing plenty hard, and I was getting “sand blasted” at some points.  Not the best day to find wildlife.  The sun was out and I decided to check the leeward side of shrubs and bushes, but had no luck.

 

One thing I did find was the sandhill milkweed in bloom.  This plant is host to the monarch butterfly caterpillars and produces a mildly toxic “milk” which the caterpillars accumulate making them toxic to birds.  This toxin is carried on to the adult butterfly stage and many birds learn to avoid butterflies with the monarch coloration because of the bad taste.  Though I saw lots of milkweed, it was too windy for the butterflies.

 

The blooms of the false rosemary, which appear in late winter, had all fallen but it was obvious that the pine trees had release their pollen.  Most of the scrubby pines in the dunes had new growth on them.

 

There were several ephemeral ponds scattered amongst the dunes.  All had water in them from the recent rains and I was hoping to maybe find a basking snake or singing frog.  No luck on either.  There were damp areas where water had recently been, and the carnivorous sundews and spore producing club moss, known as ground pines, were doing very well.

The path used by wildlife to reach the ponds of the dune field.

Two invasive Chinese tallow trees were found growing in the dune field. These will be removed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devil’s Joint is a common cactus in the dunes. Wear shoes when exploring!

The high winds of the beach can form some interesting dunes. This one resembles the mesa’s of the American southwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are numerous freshwater ponds in the low areas of the dune field. Many of them are ephemeral.

Freshwater ephemeral pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ground pine is a type of club moss found in the wet-damp areas of the dunes.

The sandhill milkweed is bloom this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pine scrub areas like this are found in the dune fields and are great places to find snakes and lizards.

Since some of our snakes are venomous, it is recommended you wear good boots and have a hiking stick to move logs and high grass before stepping in or over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seaside rosemary produces a wonderful smell that reminds many of the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I moved from the dunes into the maritime forest, I was expecting to see birds.  I did, but not many.  Most were small woodland birds I could not identify, and there was an osprey flying over briefly, but for the most part the bird action was slow today – again, probably due to the high winds.  I was again hoping to maybe find a basking snake on the sunny leeward side of a bush or fallen tree but had none.  I did find a common parasitic plant that was becoming more common this time of year.  It is called “love-vine” or dodder.  This yellow-colored string looking vine lacks chlorophyll and wraps around host plants to remove much needed nutrients.  It begins to appear this time of year and is not restricted to the beaches.  I have seen it 10 miles inland.

 

One thing that was very evident in the maritime forest was sign of armadillos.  Their tracks and digs were found everywhere.  I did locate a few burrows and found even more along the beach of the Sound.  These animals are very abundant on this island I am curious as to what predators they have and how their populations are controlled.  They can be found day or night and dig frequently looking for grubs and other invertebrates to eat.  Whether they seek out turtle or bird eggs I do not know.  More on this guy next month.

 

I will add that I did see tracks of raccoons who do eat turtle eggs and also what I think was a “slide” of an otter.  The number of otter encounters has increased in recent years.  Individuals have been seen not only on the beach but around Bayou Texar and Project Greenshores.  These are very elusive animals and produce a high pitched “chirp” or “bark” when approached.  I have seen them near Ft. Pickens on a couple of occasions in the ponds.  There are the old hatchery ponds at Big Sabine, and it was there that I found the “slide”.  These slides are used by the otters to slide into the water.  I have seen video of them exiting the water, sliding back in, only to repeat this as if they were playing like kids – and I think that is what they are doing… playing.  Otters are the largest members of the weasel family, mustelids, and pretty cool.

Many creatures use the same trails we do. This is a good place to look for tracks.

Armadillos are all over the island. This is a burrow of one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The digging of armadillos can be found everywhere as well.

Dodder (or “love vine”) is a parasitic plant that begins to appear this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what I think to be an otter slide. Though I could not find tracks to confirm, I have seen them build and use these before.

Raccoons are common all over the island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The marsh of Big Sabine was pretty quiet on this windy day.  I did see two Canadian geese walking along the shore.  I recently saw several nesting on an island in Okaloosa County and was told they were now year-round residents.  I am not sure whether these were residents to Big Sabine or not, I had not seen them before, but will note this as this series continues this year.

Canadian geese are becoming residents on some islands along the panhandle.

Wood piles like these can be good habitat for some beach wildlife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beach of Santa Rosa Sound was quiet as well.  Again, I probed around to seeking a basking snake, a nesting terrapin, or maybe a nesting horseshoe crab (it was a spring tide day) but found nothing.  There are piles of wood gathered by locals cleaning the beach and these actually make good habitat for some wildlife.  I poked around in them but did not find anyone today.  This was also where I found most of the armadillo burrows.  Why they preferred this over the forested areas I am not sure.  There may be many more in the forest that I just did not see.  The spring tide was rising and much of the beach was exposed but I saw no fiddler crabs or other creatures and there was nothing swimming nearshore in the grass beds.  Again, the lower temperatures and high winds I am sure had everyone in a warmer calmer place.

 

Despite little wildlife today it was a great walk and despite the high winds, the weather was actually nice.  It is spring and nesting should be going on across the island.  We will visit Ft. Pickens in May and see what is going on then.

Santa Rosa Sound.

Wildlife on the Beach in March

Wildlife on the Beach in March

The month of March is the last of winter.  For todays hike we returned to Gulf Islands National Seashore/Ft. Pickens where it was 63°F, overcast with a strong breeze from the northwest.  A cold front is coming through to remind us that winter is not over yet.  It was not 44°F as it was on our February hike but with the wind and cloud cover, it was a bit cool and not ideal for most wildlife to be out.  But the ospreys were…

 

Osprey perched.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

An osprey pair building a nest on the chimney of the ranger station at Ft. Pickens.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another osprey pair with a nest in a large pine.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

They were everywhere.  Building nests in live pines, dead snags, platforms built just for this, and on the chimney of the ranger station.  Their sounds were everywhere – it is breeding season for them.  The great blue herons were still nesting, we saw them first in January, but there are still a few around.  American egrets were out as were numerous mourning doves.  As with the colder February day, it was primarily bird action right now.  I did see evidence of armadillos, and would guess other mammals were on the move, but did not see evidence of any others.  The reptiles and amphibians are still missing – but should not be for long.

The herons began nesting in January. Some are still there.

Evidence of armadillos digging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plant I know as beach heather, many call false rosemary, and has the scientific name Conradina, was in full bloom.  After the hollies of the Christmas season, these are the plants I often see bloom first.  Though I have seen bees around my home already, and wasps, I did not see/hear any insect movement this morning.

Beach heather (false rosemary) is one of the first plants to bloom on our islands.

 

The north beach (Pensacola Bay) was rough due to the northwest wind.  It was difficult to see if anything was moving around in the shallows.  There were a lot of shells on the shore.  Two particularly caught my eye.  The Florida Fighting Conch was pretty abundant, more than normal – and there were several scallops shells.  There are two species locally, the calico scallop (often found in the Gulf) and the bay scallop (the estuarine version and the one of “scalloping” fame).  Calcio scallops are often pinkish in color and often with spots.  The bay scallop is usually gray in color.  Those I saw this morning were all bleached white but, based on other variety of shells in the mix, I am thinking these were calcio scallops.

 

 

There were several Florida Fighting Conch shells on the beach this month.

 

 

There was very little marine debris today and no tracks of any kind seen.  There was only one lone pelican spotted, maybe due to the high winds they settled somewhere else.  Maybe they have moved off to smaller islands for breeding themselves, I am not sure.

 

 

 

 

We only saw this one lone pelican today.

 

 

Though the wildlife has been more restricted to birds at the moment, the birding is excellent right now and the beach has relatively few people – it is a great time to take a hike out there.

 

 

 

 

 

This large tanker awaits its turn to enter Pensacola Bay.

This skull found along the side of the side of the road is believed to be a raccoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lichen is an organism that is a partnership between algae and fungus. They were a brilliant white-green this month.

Razor clam shells are quite common along the shoreline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sand dollars are not as common on the bay side of the island but there were several today.

The remains of a ghost crab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Believe it or not, walking along the road is a great spot to find wildlife.