Hiking the Panhandle

Hiking the Panhandle

It’s winter…

The sky is clear, the humidity is low, the bugs are gone, and the highs are in the 60s – most days.  These are perfect days to get outside and enjoy.  But the water is cold and you do not want to get wet – most days.  And with COVID hanging around we do not want to go where there are crowds.  Where can I go to enjoy this great weather, the outdoors, but stay safe?

As the summer heat fades, the weather is great for hiking! Photo credit: Abbie Seales

Hiking…

My wife and I have already made several hikes this winter and have enjoyed each one.  Each panhandle county has several hiking trails you could visit.  In our county there are city, county, state, and federal trails to choose from.  The Florida Trail begins in Escambia County, at Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, and dissects each county in the panhandle on its way to the Everglades.  You could find the section running through yours and hike that for a day.  Community parks, our local university, state and national parks, and the water management district, all have trails.

 

Some are a short loops and easy.  Others can be 20 plus miles, but you do not have to hike it all.  Go for as long as you like and then return to the car.  Some are handicapped access, some have paved sections, or boardwalks.  Some go along waterways and the water is so clear in the winter that you can see to the bottom.  Many meander through both open areas and areas with a closed tree canopies.

The tracks of the very common armadillo.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The boardwalk of Deer Lake State Park off of Highway 30-A. you can see the tracks of several types of mammals who pass under at night.

Being winter, the wildlife viewing may be less.  The “warm bloods” are moving – birds and mammals.  Actually, the birds are everywhere, it is a great time to go birding if you like that.  Mammals are still more active at dawn dusk, but their tracks are everywhere.  We have seen raccoon, coyote, and deer on many of our hikes.  But the insects are down as well.  We have not had a yellow fly or mosquito gives us a problem yet.  Some fear snakes, we actually like the see them, but we have not.  Many will come out of their dens when the days warm and the sun is out to bask for a bit before retreating back into their lair.  You might feel more comfortable hiking knowing the chance of an encounter one this time of year is much less.

One of the many Florida State Forest trails in South Walton.

The Florida Trail extends (in sections) over 1,300 miles from Ft. Pickens to the Florida Everglades. It begins at this point.

But the views are great and the photography excellent.  Some mornings we have had fog issues, but it quickly lifts, and the bay is often slick as glass with pelicans, loons, and cormorants paddling around.  These have made for some great photos.

 

Things to consider for your hike.

Good shoes. Many of the trails we have hiked have had wet and muddy sections.

Temperature.  There can be big swings when going from open sunny areas to under the tree canopies.  Wear clothes in layers and have a backpack that can hold what you want to take off.  Some like to wear the fleece vests so they do not have to put on/remove as they hike.

Water.  I bring at least 32 ounces.  It is not hot, but water is still needed.

Snacks.  Always a plus.  I always miss them when I do not have them.

Camera.  Again, the scenery and the birds are really good right now.

 

The best thing is that you are getting outside, getting exercise, and getting away from the crazy world that is going on right now.  Take a “mind break” and take a hike.

 

Here are some hikes suggested by hiking guides.

 

Gulf Islands National Seashore / Ft. Pickens – Florida Trail (Ft. Pickens section) – 2 miles – Pensacola Beach

Blackwater State Forest – Jackson Red Ground Trail – 21 miles – near Munson FL

Falling Waters State Park – Falls, Sinkhole, and Wiregrass Trail – ~ 1 mile – near Chipley on I-10

Grayton Beach State Park – Dune Forest Trail – < 1 mile – 30-A in Walton County

T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park – Beach Walk and Wilderness Preserve Trail – ~ 9 miles – near Port St. Joe FL

Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravine Preserve – Garden of Eden Trail – 4 mile loop – Hwy 12 near Bristol FL

Torreya State Park – Torreya River Bluff Loop Trail – 7 mile loop – Hwy 271 near Bristol

Leon Sinks Geological Area – Sinkhole and Gumswamp Trail – 3 mile loop – US 319 near Tallahassee

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Sally Ward Springs and Hammock Trails – 2.5 miles out and back – Hwy 20 near Wakulla FL

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge – Stoney Bayou Trail – ~ 6 miles – CR 59 near Gulf of Mexico

Adventures in Fall

Adventures in Fall

Fall is such a spectacular time in the Florida Panhandle.  The crowds are gone and the thermometer rests at a pleasant 50-70-something degrees.  It is the perfect time of year to enjoy our amazing environment.  Nature has a magical way of boosting our energy levels and immune systems and improving mood and focus.  We can all use a heaping helping of that right now.

So where do you start?  Here are some ideas.

Take in a sunrise or sunset.  The beach is often one of the best places to do this, but anywhere will do.  Last weekend, I was at the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk and Pier and the sunset was magnificent.  While there, take a walk along the beach, let the cool sand squish between your toes and discover what might be hiding in the wrack.  The wrack is that line of seaweed deposited after high tide.  Upon close inspection, it contains many treasures including seagrasses, sponges, shells, worm tubes, small crabs and other oddities.

Take a nature hike.  I love the nature trails at our local state and national parks, Henderson Beach, Topsail, Blackwater and Grayton Beach State Parks all have great trails.  You may see some wildflowers this time of year.  Look for animal tracks and resident birds.  You may also see some monarch butterflies on the saltbush, resting as they continue their migration to Mexico.

Check out the springs.  Morrison Springs and Ponce de Leon Springs in the state park in Walton County are an easy drive.  Sit and enjoy the beauty and peaceful nature that surrounds the springs.  Dip your toes in the cool water for a refreshing tingle or jump right in if you dare.

If you have a kayak, canoe or paddle board, it’s a great time to be on the water.  Look for migrating shorebirds, schools of fish or pods of dolphins.  Did you know we have over 60 dolphins that call the Destin area home year-round? You can often find them cruising in the Choctawhatchee Bay, or hop aboard one of our local dolphin cruises to catch a better glimpse.

Finally, our local fresh seafood is available year-round.  Plan a picnic with some fresh shrimp or smoked mullet dip. Seafood offers many of the same benefits as time in nature, so double up on all the goodness that fall has to offer.  Get outside and get happy!

 

Hey Man – It’s Scallop Season!

Hey Man – It’s Scallop Season!

For some of us this is an annual gathering no different that Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The family all knows the gig – “Kids get your things together – we’re heading to St. Joe!”

Scallopers heading out for a day of fun.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

For others, it is something we do when we can – the stars all align with work and we decide “Hey, Let’s go scalloping!”

 

For some, it is a new thing we want to get involved in.  It is a fun family activity.  Loading up the car with your snorkel gear, maybe choose camping instead of a hotel, maybe just go over for the day – (note: I do not recommend this option – I have done this and it is a LONG day – you will enjoy it more if you stick around and cook your scallops over there).

 

For those who have NO idea what we are talking about – we are talking about that great Florida family activity of SCALLOPING.

 

So, what is scalloping you say?

I guess you know by now that it is fun – and it is.  Scallops are small bivalves that live in the seagrass beds.  You just have to have a mask and snorkel to go find them – and you don’t have to go very deep.  They lay right on top of the grass, their little blue eyes staring at you, and you pick them up.  OH! they can swim! – not very well, but they can swim!  The fun part is that it is a great day on the water, you get to see all sorts of other cool marine life while hunting, everyone is playing and splashing, and the day ends with a really seafood meal – maybe around a campfire.  Good times for sure.

Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

You may ask – “why do I have to go all the way to Port St. Joe to do this?”

And that would be a good question.

The bay scallop was once found along the entire Gulf coast, and even on part of the east coast, of Florida.  There was a commercial fishery for the guy.  But, overharvesting, poor water quality, and habitat loss, caused a decline.  First, the commercial harvest was stopped.  Then areas of the coast, including the Pensacola Bay area, were closed to recreational harvesting.  Today there are a few regions in the Big Bend area where you can still scallop.  Each region has its own “season” and the closest to us is Port St. Joe in Gulf County.  This region extends from Mexico Beach to St. Vincent Island.  It opens August 16 and closes September 24.

http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

Because it is a managed recreational fishery now – there are some rules.

–          Each person is allowed 2 gallons of whole scallop, or 1 pint cleaned.

–          Each boat (if you take a boat) is allowed 10 gallons whole, or ½ gallon cleaned.

–          Snorkelers are to have a dive flag and be within 100 feet of it at all times.

–          A fishing license is required to harvest unless (a) you are exempt from having to have one (see FWC’s website on who is exempt), (b) you are wading – your feet never leave the bottom.

To clean them you only need a knife or flathead screwdriver to pry open the shell.  The adductor that opens and closes the shell is the part you eat.  Remove the viscera from around it, keep it cold, and cook when you are done.  Fried, broiled in butter, there are numerous ways to do this.

It really is a lot of fun, and they are really good to eat.

Prepared properly: One of the finest meals you will ever have.

The “everything you need to know scalloping” FWC page can be found at – https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/.

 

GO HAVE FUN!

Florida Friendly Fishing Guide Certification

Florida Friendly Fishing Guide Certification

Fishing is big business in Florida, contributing billions of dollars each year to the state’s economy. Fishing guides are an important part of the fishing industry. Guides provide locals and tourists alike with authentic Florida fishing experiences and memories that last a lifetime. Fishing guides are role models that can teach ethical angling through their onboard behaviors.

The Florida Friendly Fishing Guides Certification was developed by the University of Florida IFAS Extension, Florida Sea Grant, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with input from fishing guides. It is a voluntary certification program and involves no regulatory component. The target audience is flats guides, charter boat captains, and head-boat captains and crew. Recreational fishers are welcome to take the course, too.

What will I learn?

The Florida Sea Grant Florida Friendly Fishing Guide online course teaches best practices for catch and release fishing. Each lesson plan focuses on a different aspect of ethical angling. There are modules on seafood safety, federal and state fisheries management, onboard waste management, and how to teach your customers about the environment.

One environmental impact of fishing is what we call discard mortality. This is when a caught fish is released but does not survive. You will learn how to increase fish survival, how to identify barotrauma, and how to use descending and venting tools.

Starting July 15, 2020, a descending device will be required for head-boats, charter boats, commercial, and recreational vessels fishing for reef fish in federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina to Florida. The Florida Friendly Fishing Guide course will teach you how to identify barotrauma and select the right tool for sending fish back down to depth! Proper fish handling skills are important because up to 60% of caught fish are released.

The cost is $130 and the course takes about 4 hours to complete. Once you complete the course you receive a welcome package, public listing on the Florida Sea Grant website, and an optional social media promotion. For more information and registration go to https://www.flseagrant.org/florida-friendly-fishing-guide-certification/ or contact your local Florida Sea Grant agent, Laura Tiu, lgtiu@ufl.edu. Florida Friendly Fishing Guide Certification is a state-wide program for all saltwater fishing guides in Florida.

 

“Doing Something” in Dog Days

“Doing Something” in Dog Days

Canis major constallation

Dog Star nights Astro Bob

The “Dog Days” are the hottest, muggiest days of summer.  In the northern hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September. The actual dates vary greatly from region to region, depending on latitude and climate. In Northwest Florida, the first weeks of August are usually the worst.  So, get out before it gets hotter.

In ancient times, when the night sky was not obscured by artificial lights, the Romans used the stars to keep track of the seasons. The brightest constellation, Canis Major (Large Dog), includes the “dog star”, Sirius. In the summer, Sirius used to rise and set with the sun, leading the ancient Romans to believe that it added heat to the sun. Although the period between July 3 and August 11 is typically the warmest period of the summer, the heat is not due to the added radiation from a far-away star, regardless of its brightness. The heat of summer is a direct result of the earth’s tilt.

Life is so uncertain right now, so, most people are spending less time doing group recreation outside.  But, many people are looking to get outside  Spending time outdoors this time of year is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, due to the intense heat. So, limit the time you spend in nature and always take water with you. But, if you are looking for some outdoor options that will still allow you to social distance,

try local trails and parks. Some of them even allow your dog.  Here are a few websites to review the options: https://floridahikes.com/northwest-florida  and https://www.waltonoutdoors.com/all-the-parks-in-walton-county-florida/northwest-florida-area-parks/  Be sure to check if they are allowing visits, especially those that are connected to enclosed spaces.

Other options may include zoos and aquariums: www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g1438845-Activities-c48-Florida_Panhandle_Florida.html

Or maybe just wander around some local plant nurseries:

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – marine snails and slugs

One of the largest groups of invertebrates in the Gulf are the Mollusk… what many call “seashells”.  Shell collecting has been popular for centuries and, in times past, there were large shows where shells from around the world were traded.  Almost everyone who visits the beach is attracted to, and must take home, a seashell to remind them of the peace beaches give us.  Many are absolutely beautiful, and you wonder how such small simple creatures can create such beauty.

One of the more beautiful shells from the sea – the nautilus.
Photo: Wikipedia

Well, first – not all mollusk are small.  There are cephalopods that rival the size of some sharks and even whales.

Second, many are not that simple either.  Some cephalopods are quite intelligent and have shown they can solve problems to reach their food.

But beautiful they are, and the colors and shapes are controlled by their DNA.  Just amazing.

 

There are possibly as many as 150,000 different species of mollusks.  These species are divided into 8-9 classes (depending which book you read) but for this series on Embracing the Gulf we will focus on only three.  First up – the snails (Class Gastropoda).

 

There are an estimated 60,000 – 80,000 species of gastropods, second only to the insects.  They are typically called snails and slugs and are different in that they produce a single coiled shell.  The shell is made of calcium carbonate (limestone) and is excreted from tissue called the mantle.  It covers their body and continues to grow as they do.  The shell coils around a linear piece of shell called the columella.  Most coil to the right, but some to the left – sort of like right and left-handed people.  There is an opening in the shell where the snail can extend much of its body – this is called the aperture – and some species can close this off with a bony plate called an operculum when they are inside.  Some snail shells have a thin extension near the head that protects the siphon – a tube that acts like a snorkel drawing water in and out of the body.

The black siphon can be seen in this crown conch crawling across the sand.
Photo: Franklin County Extension.

They have pretty good eyes and excellent sense of smell.  They possess antenna, which can be tactile or sense chemicals in the water (smelling) to help provide information to a simple brain.

 

They are slow – everyone knowns this – but they really don’t care.  Their thick calcium carbonate shells protect them from most predators in the sea… but not all.

 

Their cousins the slugs either lack the shell completely, or they have a remnant of it internally.  You would think “what is the point of an internal shell?” – good question.  But the slugs have another defense – they are poisonous.  Venomous and poisonous are two different things.  Being poisonous means you have a form of toxin within your body tissue.  If a predator eats you – they will get very sick, maybe die.  But you die as well, so… Not too worry, poisonous slugs are brightly colored – a universally understood signal to all predators.

 

There is one venomous snail – the cone snail, of which we have about five species in the Gulf.  They possess a stylet at the tip of their siphon (similar to the worms we have been writing about) which they can use as a dart for prey such as fish.  Many gastropods are carnivores, but some are herbivores, and some are scavengers.

Many shells are found on the beach as fragments. Here you see the fragment of a Florida Fighting Conch.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Most have separate sexes and exchange gametes in a sack called a spermatophore.  Fertilized eggs are often encased in structures that resemble clusters, or chains, of plastic.  These are deposited on the seafloor and the young are born with their shell ready for life.

 

This group is not as popular as a food item as other mollusk but there are some.  The Queen Conch is probably of the most famous of the edible snails, and escargot are typically land snails.  I am not aware of any edible slugs… and that is good thing.

 

Some of the more common snails you will find along our portion of the Gulf of Mexico are:

 

Crown Conch                   Olive                                  Murex                 Banded Tulip

Whelks                              Cowries                             Bonnets              Cerith

Slippers                              Moon                                Oyster Drills       Bubble

 

The most encountered slug is the sea hare.

A common sea slug found along panhandle beaches – the sea hare.

I hope you get a chance to do some shelling – I hope you find some complete ones.  It is addictive!