Winter Wildlife Part 2 – Bald Eagles

Winter Wildlife Part 2 – Bald Eagles

Six months ago, they were predicting a colder than normal winter.  In January that seemed to be the case.  We had multiple fronts with high winds and temperatures dropping into the 20s.  But February has been different.  As I type this, it is 62°F and we have had some of the nicest days we have had in a while.  Sunny, low humidity, really nice.  AND THE GROUNDHOG SAW HIS SHADOW!!! So… maybe an early spring? 

With the warmer temperatures I thought we might encounter some of our ectothermic friends (amphibians and reptiles).  On days like we have seen, snakes and turtles will come out from their winter hiding spots to bask in the sun.  Since our early winter article, two cottonmouths have been seen on Santa Rosa Island.  They were both reported as being very sluggish – but that is to be expected – it is still winter, and the temperatures are still low in the mornings.  With that thought in mind we did our February mid-winter hike at Ft. Pickens. 

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

The hike was on February 6.  It was a beautiful sunny day, the temperature was 49°F, light wind from the north.  I will say, in the wind it was a bit chilly, but behind the dunes it was very pleasant. 

Along the trail I noticed a lot of green plants, but nothing was in bloom.  Often the change in temperature can fool flowering plants into blooming early.  However, the pine trees were full of male and female cones.  They were definitely getting ready for pollen season. 

The female cone of a pine tree. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The male cones of this pine tree are releasing the all too familiar yellow dust pollen. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I began in the middle of the island in the hardwoods, moving slowly hoping to find a basking snake.  I did not, but I did see numerous woodland songbirds.  I am not a good birder, but I believe there were varieties of warblers, titmice, wrens, and the always present mockingbird.  I did spot a great blue heron on a nest.  Birds are endothermic – and this is their time – a great time to do some birding if you like that. 

Blue herons often use the tops of pine trees for nesting. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I took another trail heading towards the beach.  This crossed through more woodlands before reaching the dunes and the shore.  It was in the woodland area I came across a bald eagle nest.  Many of us remember a time when we never saw bald eagles around here.  Now they are becoming more common and nesting all around the bay area.  These awesome birds are similar to dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and the Blue Angels – you never get tired of seeing them.  It is always an exciting moment when one flies over.  

The American bald eagle. Photo: Rick O’Connor

There was no wildlife on the beach that day but there were plenty of tracks.  Mammals, even in the winter, still prefer to move around under the cover of darkness.  I found the tracks of armadillo and raccoon, common mammals on our island, but there was another set that was harder to identify.  The paw had the imprint of a cat (no claws visible) but the track was quite large for a feral cat.  If it was, it was a big cat.  I have seen bobcats in the Gulf Breeze area, and you cannot rule them out, but the pattern of the stride appeared more like an otter.  Otter tracks would be webbed – these were not – so… I am not sure what it was.

Most encounter island mammals by finding their tracks. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Leaving the beach, I returned to the inland trail heading back to the truck.  On this portion of the trail, you cross over ponds just outside the walls of the fort.  As I glanced across the water – hoping for a swimming snake – I saw something else.  It surfaced briefly and then dove again.  At first, I thought it was a diving bird, such as a cormorant or loon, but when it resurfaced, I saw that it was not.  It was an otter.  I had seen otters before in this area, and other pond areas on the island, but – like the bald eagle and dolphin – it is always exciting to see them again. 

Based on this hike, it is still the time of the “warm-blooded”.  Birds and mammals were the creatures most visible.  We will see if this warming trend continues.  Maybe during the late winter hike in March, we will see some of the “cold-bloods” come out.  Maybe it WILL be an early spring. 

Get out and hike – the weather is fine! 

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

Kayaking over seagrass beds and stingrays, hiking among pitcher plants, boating past diving ospreys, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just some of the great experiences I’ve had while teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. More than 20 years since its inception, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.

Kayaking Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre is one of the highlights of our Coastal Systems FMNP class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With the FMNP, we seek to do just that.

Master Naturalist students conduct field work in small groups. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Over a span of 40 hours in 6-7 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. Registration includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.

Master Naturalist students walk “The Way” boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The classes do not count towards university credit but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that many will list on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists participate, most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often form long-lasting friendships during the courses.

Information on upcoming classes in northwest Florida and all around the state is available online. Classes range from fully in-person to hybrid and online options. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.

Tagging Wildlife Part 1 – Introduction

Tagging Wildlife Part 1 – Introduction

Recently I attended a workshop on wildlife tagging projects.  Researchers from across the Gulf of Mexico who had projects going on in the northern Gulf were invited to present their updates.  I was there to help present what we have learned about diamondback terrapins but there were numerous other talks, and the results were fascinating.  Fascinating enough that I thought the public would be interested in them as well.  Most of the presentations were on fish or reptiles, but the fish included interesting species such as whale sharks, tiger sharks, cobia, and tarpon.  So, I am going to run a series of posts on the different species along with another series on barrier island wildlife. 

I thought I would start with an introduction on the methods of wildlife tagging and why scientists tag animals.  Some of the reasons may seem obvious, but with today’s modern tags, there is a lot of information scientists can gain from doing this. 

Why do they tag?

With the types of tags they used when I was in school there were a few things that you could learn.  (1) How far do the animals range, (2) how fast they reached those locations, (3) some idea of live longevity – you at least knew how long they were “at freedom”.  With these data you could get a better idea of what their habitat range was and how they used the habitat.  Some, like blue sharks, may move great distances all year long.  Others, like nurse sharks, may not move more than a few miles from the point where they were tagged.  Others may move seasonally, spending summer in one region and winter in another.  All of these data are useful to resource managers responsible for maintaining the species population.

With the more modern electronic tags, they can learn such things as how deep they dive, how long they stay at depth, what water temperatures they may frequent, what salinity they prefer, and let you know where the animal is at any given moment in time.  Today’s tags are pretty amazing. 

This tag is similar to the ones we used in the 1980s on sharks. They provide a number for individual identification. Ours also had a capsule with a note on water resistant paper. Photo: Hallprint.

How do they tag?

Well… step one to answering this question is HOW DO YOU CATCH THE ANIMAL? – not as easy as you think.  Whale sharks and leatherback sea turtles are quite a handful.  If your target species is something like a white shark, tiger shark, diamondback rattlesnake, there is an extra danger added.  As you plan a method for your safety, you must also plan a method for their safety.  The objective is not harm or kill the creature – you will learn nothing from this.  When I began my career, I saw a program on how they tagged polar bears in the 1980s.  They would fly over the ice in a helicopter looking for the bears.  When the bears saw the helicopter, they would run for the safety of water.  The scientist would try to shoot a dart into the animal to put it asleep long enough to get a tag on it.  BUT if you overdosed the bear, and it made it to the water, it could drown.  So, from the air, they had to gauge the weight of the bear, guess what amount of the drug to shoot, and hope they were right.  If the bear did fall asleep, how “asleep was it?  Did you give ENOUGH drug?  Polar bears can be very dangerous.  In the episode I watched the bear was asleep, but the researchers did mention that they will “play sleep” and you need to be ready.  Such was the world of wildlife tagging 40 years ago. 

One of the things that was also discussed when I was in school was what type of tag you were going to place on the animal.  They did not have the neat tools they have now.  Most tags had a capsule with a piece of paper, sometimes written in multiple languages, to call said person and report where and when they found the animal.  There was usually a monetary award for doing so, or sometimes a hat or T-shirt.  I remember the hat you got for reporting a tagged redfish was really neat, but I never caught a tagged one. 

You did not want to place a tag that would alter the natural behavior of the animal.  In the case of the polar bear, they would place an ear tag and paint a large number on its side in black paint.  This made sense from the biologist’s side – flying over the ice you could see the large black “3” on a bear and know the individual.  But that large black number could also be seen by their prey.  Not good.  I saw researchers painting the shells of gopher tortoises with all sorts of neon colors to make detection by them easier, but easier for their predators as well. 

Radio tagging was used 40 years ago.  This involves capturing the animal (as we have already seen – fun in itself), putting it asleep and attaching/inserting a radio tag.  This tag provides a radio signal that can be detected by a receiver carried by the research holding an antenna walking/driving around following the animal.  You had to be within range to hear the signal and – honestly – good at detecting the signal.  Some researchers were better at this than others.  As you can imagine this was only as good as your ability to keep up with the animal.  At some point your car/boat would need fuel, or the animal crossed a river you could not.  It provided some good data, but there were limits. 

Today modern tags have solved a lot of these issues.  Some new tags do not have typed notes but sensors that can detect the elevation/depth, temperature/salinity, all sorts of information that was unknown in my college days.  These tags can be retrieved and downloaded on a computer to give a much better idea of how the animal spends its time and what it seeks. 

This modern shark tag could provide additional information such as diving depth, water temperature, and more.

Satellite tags work well for creatures who surface frequently – sea turtles, whales, whale sharks.  Satellites can detect them, and you can follow their movements/habitat preferences as they are actually using them. 

For species at depth, like some sharks, cobia, tarpon, etc. there are now acoustic tags.  The tag emits a signal that is detected by an array of receivers the researchers place in the environment.  As the animal passes within range of the receiver it is detected, and the downloaded data gives a similar picture of how the animal uses the environment.  A couple of neat things about acoustic tags are that (a) you can track satellite tagged animals while they are diving, and (b) your receivers can detect other species tagged by other researchers and let them know where their creature was.  This was one reason for the workshop – so, everyone could meet everyone else and know who has tagged what and how to share information. 

No tag is permanent.  All are designed to fall off.  Battery power will eventually fail.  But no animal is stuck with this all of their lives as they could have been when I was in school.  In future articles we will look at the results of some of these studies. 

This tag with an antenna can be detected by a satellite and tracked real time. Photo: USGS
Pompano! The Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast

Pompano! The Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast

Pompano?! More like Pompa-YES! Growing up in the Panhandle of Florida, I was exposed to many great fishing seasons and opportunities, from the Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) run in the spring to the “Bull” Red Drum (Sciaenops occelatus) run of the fall, but my absolute favorite season was the Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus) run on the beaches. While I enjoyed being on the boat scouring the beaches with a small bucktail jig, casting at sliver flashes in the cuts of the sandbar, I had my most memorable trips on the beach with a few rods, sand spikes, and a “flea rake.” There were no bad days on the beach (as they say, it’s better than a day in the office), and when you happen upon a honey hole, it makes for an incredible day with very little effort and usually an incredible dinner to follow. Since we are rapidly approaching peak pompano season, I will pay homage to the “Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast” with a little overview of the life of a Florida Pompano.

Kids catching Pompano off the beach
Beach Fishing for Florida Pompano is for Everyone, Young and Old – Thomas Derbes II

Florida Pompano have a very wide range, from Massachusetts to Brazil, and are a member of the family Carangidae (aka the Jack Family). It is a very popular sport and commercial fishery, and its rapid growth rate makes it a prime candidate for aquaculture. Florida Pompano are highly migratory fish, and they can run from the Florida Keys all the way to Texas and back in a season. In the Florida Panhandle, the Florida Pompano run starts in April/May lasting until July, with a bonus fall run in October/November when they are returning south.  When fishing off the sandy beaches of the Florida Panhandle, you can run into its cousins the Permit (Trachinotus falcatus) and Palometa (Trachinotus goodei) who often get mistaken for a Florida Pompano. Another thing they have in common with Florida Pompano is their love of crustaceans including the Mole Crab (aka Sand Fleas) (Emerita portoricensis) and Atlantic White Shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus).

Just like most members of the family Carangidae, Florida Pompano are considered “batch spawners.” A batch spawner is when a female releases her eggs into the water column and a male simultaneously releases his sperm into the water column. Female Florida Pompano can release upwards of 800,000 eggs per spawning season, and Florida Pompano typically head offshore in early spring to October in the Gulf of Mexico to spawn, and their juveniles return to the beach to grow along the shoreline. Florida Pompano can reach an aquaculture harvest size of 12 inches within one year, and males reach maturity in 1 year whereas females mature after 2 to 3 years.

Fertilized pompano eggs
Florida Pompano Eggs 12 Hours Post Fertilization – Thomas Derbes II

When it comes to table fare, Florida Pompano ranks very high on my personal fish list, and many chefs love serving pompano at their restaurants due to the great, mild taste and fillets that are of even thickness. Their diet of crustaceans helps yield a buttery, almost crab flavor and the meat is very flaky and white. There are many preparation techniques for Florida Pompano, from grilled whole to pan-fried, and pompano have even inspired their own cooking technique, “Pompano en Papillote,” or baking pompano in parchment paper.

Florida Pompano on the beach
Beautiful Florida Pompano Caught Off Pensacola Beach, Florida – Thomas Derbes II

When fishing for Florida Pompano off the beach, most anglers employ a large rod (usually a 10ft rod) with a 20lb fluorocarbon double drop loop rig and pyramid weight. The larger rod allows for maximum casting distance from the beach, giving beach anglers a chance to reach behind the first sandbar. Most anglers will bring either fresh dead shrimp or a flea rake with them to catch the prized bait, mole crabs. Pro tip, when casting out the rods, make sure you have a bait close to the shore in the “trough” and not just past the sandbar. (Learn More About Rigging Here!) If you plan to harvest a Florida Pompano, make sure you check your local regulations. In the Florida Panhandle, Florida Pompano must be 11 inches (fork-length) or larger with a daily limit of 6 per angler.

Kid with Pompano
My nephew showing off his prized Florida Pompano – Zach Saway

I hope you have enjoyed this profile for the Florida Pompano. Now is the time to get your rods out of storage and ready to hit the beach!

References

Main, K., Rhody, N., Nystrom, M., & Resley, M. (2007). Species Profile – Florida Pompano. Southern Regional Aquaculture Center Fact Sheets. https://fisheries.tamu.edu/files/2013/09/SRAC-Publication-No.-7206-Species-Profile-Florida-Pompano.pdf

The Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal

It seems overnight our yards and woods have come to life with the flitting of the Northern Cardinals, but the truth be told, they have been here all year! This eye-catching songbirds are abundant in the southeast. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey their numbers continue to increase 0.32% per year since 1966, with an estimated 130 million global breeding population.  

Adult Male Cardinal, Photo Sourced from Canva Pro.

History

The Northern Cardinal is not new to the bird scene. With the males sporting vibrant red plumage they caught the eye of founding colonists. In seeing they had similar red colors to the biretta and robes of the Catholic cardinals the early settlers gave them their name—The Cardinal.

Identification

While the males are the noticeable bright red color, the females are a light brown bird with a reddish crest, wing, and tail. These non-migratory birds can be seen year-round in the Southwest, Midwest and Eastern parts of the U.S.

Female Adult Cardinal, Photo Sourced from Canva Pro.

Habitat

Living in dense shrubby areas, along wood lines and in regrowth the North Cardinal enjoys hopping through low branches and forage along the ground. They commonly sing and preen on higher branches. Interesting most female songbirds do not sing, but female Cardinal does. They are granivorous animals, meaning they mainly consume seeds, nuts, shells, and hulls, but they also enjoy some fruits and grasses.

Reproduction

Cardinals are monogamous birds, however nearly 20% of the pairs will split up by the next season and being searching for a new mate. Early spring marks the kick-off to mating season and it lasts into September, with each mating pair having one or two broods a year.  After mating in the spring, the female can lay eggs continuously over the course of the season with the sperm being available in the female’s chambers for an extended period. Typically, the clutch size is between 2-5 eggs and are incubated 11-13 days before the 7-13 day nestling period after which the chicks are ready to leave the nest as fledglings. They will come and go from the nest for the next two weeks, before leaving for good. The adolescent birds will then stay with their parents (but not in the nest) for the next 40 days before they leave to find their own territories.

As we make our way into spring take time to enjoy the Northern Cardinals that have likely been your neighbors all year.

Winter Wildlife Part 1

Winter Wildlife Part 1

One of the programs I do with Florida Sea Grant is Restoring a Healthy Estuary.  There are four focus areas within this program: improving water quality, restoring habitat, managing invasive species, and enhancing wildlife.  For those who know me, they know that enhancing wildlife is near and dear to me.  My major in college was vertebrate zoology and I have been monitoring and teaching about vertebrates for 40 years. 

I have found that the articles I write on this topic are my most popular, particularly snakes.  And I get that.  Whether you love them or hate them, snakes are interesting to read about.  As we roll into 2024, I thought I would do a series of articles on vertebrates I encounter as I conduct hikes/surveys on our barrier islands.  From a biogeographic view, barrier islands are interesting in understanding first, how some of the animals reached the island, and second, how they survive in a sandy/dry environment that is in many ways similar to deserts. 

The white quartz sand beaches of the barrier island in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Molly O’Connor

My first hike was just after the new year on the western end of Santa Rosa Island.  Wintertime is cold and the ectothermic vertebrates (amphibians and reptiles) are hard to find, most going dormant this time of year.  But, on sunny days when the wind is low, they can find places where they bask and stay warm.  If you encounter them, they will most likely not move quickly (they are still cold) and this provides a better opportunity to view them, though their coloration is very cryptic with the environment and, with little motion, you may miss them.  For the endothermic vertebrates (birds and mammals) this is their time. 

On this warmer sunny January day, we spent several hours out.  There was not much movement other than a variety of songbirds.  Then we heard rustling in the woods under some live oak trees – it was an armadillo.

The common nine banded armadillo scurrying across the lawn. Photo: Les Harrison

Many of us have encountered this interesting mammal.  You may not have recognized it as mammal, but it is.  As a lifelong resident of Pensacola, I know that prior to Hurricane Ivan there were fewer armadillos on Pensacola Beach.  They were there but in low numbers.  What was common at that time were striped skunks.  Since Ivan I have not seen a skunk.  I have asked park rangers at the Gulf Island National Seashore, and they have not seen them either.  But the number of armadillos immediately increased.  It seems the skunk left a niche open, and this animal took it.  Some say the armadillo may have increased in population whether the skunks were there or not – that is just armadillos.  So, who is this “new kid on the block” that has become so common on our islands?

Armadillos are native to central and south America.  They are a smaller mammal in the Order Cingulata and related to anteaters and sloths.  Mammals are divided into orders based on their dental formula (what type, and how many teeth they have).  In this sense armadillos are unique.  They have around 30 peg like teeth which they use to feed on insects, their larva, arachnids, snails, small vertebrates, and eggs – though reports of them raiding shorebird nests are rare.  They do eat cockroaches, which many people appreciate.  They acquire their food by digging into loose soil with their large claws.  This is one reason they do so well on our beaches and why many homeowners dislike them – they can destroy a yard to find prey.  Though they have poor eye site and hearing, which is noticeable when you encounter one, they have an excellent sense of smell. 

Armadillos move relatively slowly seeking prey but when disturbed they can run quickly and swim well.  They dig round burrows, which I have found many on Santa Rosa Island.  Because they often share habitats with gopher tortoises, the burrows are often confused.  Armadillo burrows differ in that they are completely round.  With gopher tortoises the entrance is usually flat across the bottom and dome shaped across the top.  Armadillos usually spend the daytime in these burrows, foraging at night with more activity near dawn and dusk (crepuscular). 

One secret to their success is their reproductive rate.  They breed in summer but hold off development of the embryo to allow a late winter birth.  They only have one litter each year but is almost always four identical young of the same sex.  This is because they develop from the same fertilized egg. 

Diseases and parasites in armadillos are few compared to native mammals, rabies has not been documented. Leprosy has been documented in armadillos in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, but there have been no reports of infected ones in Florida.

The dispersal of armadillos from central to north America most likely occurred crossing the isthmus in Panama.  But there are reports of the animals being released in eastern Florida beginning in the 1920s.  It was noted that they were able to cross the Mississippi River in the 1920s when people began to build bridges for this new thing called the automobile.  Eventually the Florida and Texas populations merged.  They are dispersing north towards the Ohio Valley but are not fans of cold weather and this has been a barrier for further dispersal north.  We will see what climate change will do to their range.  They most likely reached our barrier islands by crossing bridges, though there are locations where the Intracoastal Waterway is narrow enough, and dredge spoil island frequent enough, they could have swam/island hoped their way over.  Either way they are here. 

Many dislike this creature and would like to see them gone.  Some consider it an invasive species and needs to be managed.  Others find them cool and enjoy seeing them.  It was the only non-bird creature moving that day, despite the warmer weather, we will see what the next hike/survey will bring. 

Reference

Schaefer, J.M., Hostetler, M. 2021. The Nine-Banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). University of Florida EDIS Publication. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW082.