The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Panhandle of Florida is home to many estuaries along the coast, from the Escambia Bay System in the west to the Apalachicola Bay System in the east. These estuaries are very important and are the intersection where rivers (fed from their respective watersheds) meet the Gulf of Mexico and contain many different organisms that help filter the waters before they reach the Gulf. These organisms include oysters, marsh plants, seagrasses, scallops, tunicates, and other invertebrates. In this two-part article, we will explore marsh plants, seagrasses, oysters, and scallops.

Marsh Plants

Marsh Plants is a broad term for a family of grasses that lines the shore and contain grasses like Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and Gulf Cordgrass (Spartina spartinae). These plants help trap sediments before they enter the estuary and are excellent at erosion prevention. When the water encounters the plants, it slows the flow, and this allows for sediments to collect. Marsh Plants are a great tool for shoreline restoration and are a major part of the Living Shorelines Program. The roots of the plants are also very efficient at removing nutrient pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorus which are major influencers in eutrophication. Marsh Plants also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and have been tabbed as “superstars of CO2 capture and storage.” (CO2 and Marsh Plants)

marsh grass

Marsh Grass and Oyster Reef in Apalachicola, Florida – Thomas Derbes II

Seagrasses

Seagrasses are different than Marsh Grasses (seagrasses are ALWAYS submerged underwater), but they offer some of the same ecological services as Marsh Grasses. The term seagrasses include Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum), Shoal Grass (Halodule wrightii), Widgeon Grass (Ruppia maritima), and Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme) to name a few. Seagrasses help maintain water clarity by trapping suspended sediments and particles with their leaves and uptake excess nutrients in their roots. Seagrasses are very efficient at capturing carbon, capturing it at rates up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. (Carbon Capture and Seagrasses) They also provide habitat for crustaceans, fish, and shellfish (which can filter the water too) and food for other organisms like turtles and manatees.

Grassbeds are also full of life, albeit small creatures.
Photo: Virginia Sea Grant

Oysters

Crassostrea virginica (or as we know them, the Eastern oyster) is a native species of oyster that is commonly found along the eastern coast of the USA, from the upper New England states all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas. Eastern oysters are prolific filter feeders and can filter between 30-50 gallons of water per day. As filter feeders, they trap nutrients like plankton and algae from the environment. In areas of high eutrophication, oysters can be very beneficial in clearing the waters by trapping and consuming the excess nutrients and sediments and depositing them on the bottom as pseudo-feces. With oyster farms popping up all over the Gulf Coast, the filtering potential of estuaries is on the rise. (Between the Hinge)

Oysters

Oysters, The Powerful Filterers of the Estuary – Thomas Derbes II

Scallops

Bay Scallops (Agropecten irradians) were common along the whole Florida Gulf Coast, but their numbers have taken a recent decline and can only be found in abundance in the estuaries to the east of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City, Florida. Scallops make their home in seagrass beds and are filter feeders. While scallops do not contain the filtering potential of an oyster (scallops filter 3 gallons of water per day as an adult), they are still a key part of filtering the estuary. Just like oysters, scallops feed off of the suspended particles and plankton in the water column and deposit them as pseudo-feces on the bottom. The pseudo-feces also help provide nutrients to the seagrasses below.

Bay Scallop.
Photo: FWC

I hope you enjoyed this first article on filterers in the estuary system. While oysters are known as the filterers of the estuary, I hope this has opened your eyes to the many different filterers that call our estuary home. Stay tuned for Part 2!

A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach

I might shock a few people when I say this, but I’d rather be out in the bay somewhere rather than the beach. I just feel like I always bring a gallon of sand back on me even after washing down before getting in the car. However, there is one activity that will always get me out on the beach, and it just so happens to be the right time of the year for it. Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus), aka Pompa-Yes, have started to cruise the white, sandy beaches in search of food as they migrate west to their breeding grounds. While out on a fishing trip this past weekend, the Pompano (and every other fish) eluded me, but I was blessed with an amazing array of wildlife.

When I first arrived at my spot just to the east of Portofino Towers, I was greeted with a pair of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) playing the “water is lava” game while taking breaks between waves to argue with each other and probe the sand with their beaks from marine invertebrates. When I was doing more research on sanderlings, one comment I saw was that they ran like wind-up toys, and that’s the truth! They were pretty brave too, not a single footprint of mine in the wet sand didn’t go un-probed. Sanderlings are “extremely long-distance” migratory birds that breed on the arctic tundra close to the North Pole and winter on most of the sandy beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world. Non-breeding sanderlings will often stay on sandy beaches throughout the summer to save energy. They were great entertainment for the whole fishing trip.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings in the Tide Pool – Thomas Derbes II

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) were out in numbers that day. I am not the best photographer, but I was very proud to capture a Pelican mid-flight. These birds are residents of the Florida Panhandle year-round. If you’ve ever been to Pensacola, you might have bumped into one of the many Pelican Statues around the area, and they’re pretty much the unofficial mascot of the area. I am always amazed at how these seemingly big, clumsy birds can effortlessly glide over the waves and water as if they are the Blue Angels doing a low-pass. Pelicans were almost wiped out by pesticide pollution in the 1960’s, but they have made an incredible comeback.

Pelican Flying Over The Waves

Brown Pelican – Thomas Derbes II

While I was waiting for a Pompano to bite, I had a visit from a small Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina) that was caught in the tidepool that was running along the beach. He didn’t seem injured or sick, so I quickly grabbed a glove and released him into the gulf. Stingrays are pretty incredible creatures and can get to massive sizes, but they do contain a large, venomous spine on their tail that poses a threat to beach goers. They are not aggressive however, and a simple remedy to make sure you don’t get hit is to do the “Stingray Shuffle” by shuffling your feet while you move in the water to scare up the stingrays.

Stingray

Atlantic Stingray Cruising the Tide Pool- Thomas Derbes II

As I was getting ready to pack up, I noticed a new shorebird flying in to investigate the seaweed that had washed up on shore. I had a hard time identifying this bird, but once I was able to see it in flight with its white stripe down the back, I realized it was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Turnstones get their name from their foraging behavior of turning over stones and pebbles to find food. Even though we do not have pebbles, the turnstone was looking through the seaweed for any insects or crustaceans that might be an easy meal. Turnstones are also “extremely long-distance” migratory birds breeding in the arctic tundra with non-breeding populations typically staying on sandy beaches during the summer. The turnstone made sure to stay away from me, but I was able to get a good photo of it as it ran from seaweed clump to clump.

Stoneturner

Ruddy Turnstone – Thomas Derbes II

While I didn’t catch anything to bring home for dinner, I did get to enjoy the beautiful day and playful wildlife that I wouldn’t have experienced sitting on a couch. You can turn any bad fishing day into an enjoyable day if you pay attention to the wildlife around you!

Snake Watch 1st Quarter Report; 2024

Snake Watch 1st Quarter Report; 2024

The Snake Watch Project is one that is helping residents in the Pensacola Bay area better understand which species of snakes are most encountered, where they are encountered, and what time of year.  The project began in 2022 and over the last two years between 50-60% of the 40 species/subspecies of snakes known in the Pensacola Bay area have been encountered.  The majority of these encounters have been in the spring, with garter snakes, black racers, banded water snakes and cottonmouths being the most common.

The eastern garter snake is one of the few who are active during the cold months.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The 1st quarter reports cover the winter months, and you would expect fewer encounters – but encounters do happen.  In 2022 there were only 6 encounters during the winter months.  There was one mid-sized snake (between 12-24” maximum length), 2 large snakes (greater than 3’ maximum length), 1 water snake and 2 cottonmouths for a total of five species.  In 2023 there was a significant increase in 1st quarter reports.  There were 57 encounters (26% of the total for the year) and 13 species logged.

  1. Two species of small snakes (less than 12” maximum length) were encountered three times.
  2. Three species of mid-sized snakes were encountered nine times, this included an encounter with the eastern hognose snake.
  3. Six species of large snakes were encountered 17 times. These include the rarely seen eastern kingsnake and Florida pine snake.
  4. Three species of water snakes were encountered, including the green water snake.
  5. The cottonmouth was encountered 10 times during the 1st quarter of 2023.

This increase in sightings may be more a result of more people interested in the project than a true increase in snake activity, but it does provide us with information on snake activity during the winter months.  Eastern garter snakes, eastern ribbon snakes, banded water snakes, and cottonmouths were the most frequently encountered.

A cottonmouth found on the trail near Ft. Pickens.
Photo: Ricky Stackhouse

Snake encounters during the 1st Quarter of 2024 are down.  This year 27 encounters occurred logging eight species.  The cottonmouth continues to be the most encountered snake in our area and the only one who was encountered in double digits (n=11).  Other species encountered included the eastern garter snake, eastern ribbon snake, gray rat snake, corn snake, southern black racer (encountered every month), eastern coachwhip, banded water snake (encountered every month), and the cottonmouth (also encountered each month this quarter).

We will continue to log encounters during the spring.  If you see a snake, please let Rick O’Connor know at roc1@ufl.edu.

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.

Stem to Stern (Northwest Florida November 2, 2023)

Stem to Stern (Northwest Florida November 2, 2023)

Organized and sponsored by Florida Sea Grant, the “Stem to Stern” workshop in November 2023 at the Emerald Coast Convention Center marked a significant gathering in marine conservation and management. This event drew together legal experts, representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), local marine resource coordinators, law enforcement, and industry stakeholders to tackle critical issues facing Florida’s marine environments. Through discussions that ranged from legal frameworks for boating and waterway access to environmental conservation strategies, the workshop facilitated a deep dive into the complexities of marine policy and stewardship. Discover new programs, insights, and collective expertise shared at “Stem to Stern.”

Florida Sea Grant Boating and Waterways Workshop

November 2, 2023 Emerald Coast Convention Center

1250 Miracle Strip Parkway SE – Ft. Walton Beach FL

9:00 – 9:25 WELCOME AND INTRODUCTIONS

Welcome

Rick O’Connor (Florida Sea Grant UF IFAS Extension)

Moderators –Mike Norberg and Jessica Valek (Okaloosa County)

Panel Discussion

Ryan Hinely (Northwest Florida Marine Industry)

Capt. Keith Clark (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Cecilia James (Panhandle Association of Code Enforcement – PAOCE)

Robert Turpin (Escambia County Division of Marine Resources)

Glenn Conrad (U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary)

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Pebbles Simmons (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

9:25 – 10:10 BOATING AND WATERWAY ACCESS

Resources:

Boating, Waterways, and the Rights of Navigation in Florida (2019, 5th Edition)

Moderator – Tom Ankersen (Florida Sea Grant/UF IFAS Extension, Prof Emeritus)

Anchoring and Mooring

Brendan Mackesey (Pinellas County)

Boating Restricted Areas

Byron Flagg (Gray Robinson Law Firm)

10:10 – 10:15 Break

10:15 – 11:15 REGULATION AND ENFORCEMENT

Moderator – Robert Turpin (Escambia County Division of Marine Resources)

Marine Enforcement of Derelict and At-Risk Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict and A-Risk Vessels

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Capt. Keith Clark (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lt. Jarrod Molnar (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lt. Shelton Bartlett (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

At Risk Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict and A-Risk Vessels

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Florida Vessel Turn-in Program (VTIP)

Resources:FWC Florida Vessel Turn-in Program (VTIP)

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Partnering with FWC to Remove Derelict Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict Vessel Removal Grant Program

Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension) and Scott Jackson (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

11:15 – 12:15 Lunch

Post Lunch Q&A Derelict Vessel Discussion

12:15 – 12:55 WATERWAY ENVIRONMENTS

Moderator – Dr. Laura Tiu (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Update on Giant Salvinia

Resources: FWC Giant Salvinia

Derek Fussell (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Boating and Seagrass protection

Resources: Florida Sea Grant, Be Seagrass Smart – “Scars Hurt”

Savanna Barry (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

12:55 – 1:20 BOATING SAFETY

Moderator – Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension)

Pontoon Boating Safety (Law Enforcement’s Perspective)

Kyle Corbitt (Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department)

Pontoon Boating Safety (Operator’s Perspective)

Resources: Okaloosa County Watersport Operators Coalition

John Stephens (Okaloosa County Watersport Operators Coalition)

1:20 – 1:25          Break

1:25 – 2:10 PUBLIC EDUCATION

Moderator – Rick O’Connor  (Okaloosa County)

Communicating with the Public

Resources: Florida Sea Grant Communications

Donielle Nardi (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Florida Friendly Visitor Program (Working with Recreational Boaters)

Resources: Florida Sea Grant – About Us!

Anna Braswell (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

2:10 – 3:00 POLLUTION AND MARINE DEBRIS

Moderator – Thomas Derbes (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Clean Vessel Program

Resources:

Clean Vessel Program and help for Marinas

Clean Vessel Program and how Boaters can Help Keep Florida’s Waters Clean!

Vicki Gambale (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Preparing for Storms

Resources:

UF/IFAS Disaster Preparations and Recovery

UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant – Hurricane Prep: Securing Your Boat

Scott Jackson (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension) and Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension)

3:00 – 3:15          EVALUATIONS – Rick O’Connor (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

3:15 – 3:45          WRAP UP – Robert Turpin (Escambia County Marine Resources)

PROGRAM SPONSORS

FWC Logo Destin Fort Walton Beach Logo

 

Acknowledgement

We extend our deepest gratitude to all who contributed to the success of the “Stem to Stern” workshop. To our esteemed speakers, whose expertise and insights into marine conservation and management have been invaluable, we offer our sincere thanks. Your presentations were not only informative but also inspirational, guiding us toward a more sustainable future for our waterways.

A special acknowledgment goes to the members of the planning and program committee. Your dedication and hard work in organizing this event did not go unnoticed. From the initial planning stages to the execution of the workshop, your efforts have been the backbone of this successful gathering.

We also want to thank the authors of the surveys that have provided us with essential data and perspectives. Your research and analysis contribute significantly to our understanding of the challenges and opportunities within Florida boating and waterways.

Lastly, we are incredibly grateful for the support from our sponsors. Your generosity and commitment to Florida Sea Grant and marine conservation have been crucial in bringing this workshop to life. Your support not only made this event possible but also highlights your dedication to safeguarding our marine ecosystems.

Together, we have taken an important step towards protecting and enhancing Florida’s waterways. Thank you for your contributions, commitment, and shared vision for a sustainable future.

Information edited and compiled by: L. Scott Jackson, Chantille Weber, and Amon Philyaw, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Andra Johnson, Dean. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.

 
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.