I recent took my granddaughter on a dolphin tour out of Pensacola Beach. It was amazing. It was a cool October morning, not a cloud in the sky, the winds were calm, the water crystal clear due to the lack of rain over the past few weeks, and the dolphins were out.
They are amazing animals and always seem to grab your attention no matter how many times you see them. I was a student at Dauphin Island Sea Lab from 1980-81 and taught there from 1985-1990. No matter how many times we heard “dolphins” when out on one of the research vessels, everyone had to run over to look. People do enjoy seeing dolphins. There is just something about them.
During the tour at one location, we saw a group of them (a pod) feeding on fish in the shallow water. They would roll and chase, you could see the sand being kicked up from the bottom as they did. At another location we saw them in breeding mode. Slower moving, caressing, fluke slapping as they turned all around in the water near us. The tour guide told us all sorts of dolphin facts, and some great jokes to go along with them. It was a good program, and my granddaughter was loving it.
She looked over at me at one point and said, “dolphins use to walk on land”. I responded that actually their ancestors did. Dolphins, as we know them, were very much aquatic animals. This led to thoughts on other dolphin questions I have heard over the years.
What is the difference between a dolphin and a whale?
Size… and in some cases teeth.
All whales and dolphins are in the mammalian order Cetacea. Mammalian orders are divided based on the type of teeth they have. Cetaceans are homodonts, meaning they have only one type of tooth. For the toothed whales, these are canines, they lack the molars and incisors that many other mammals have. But some have no teeth rather a specialized fibrous material called baleen, similar to the bristles of a broom, with which they can filter plankton from the water.
There are over 90 species of cetaceans in the world’s oceans, 21 of those are known from the Gulf of Mexico. In a recent published survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service, most of the cetaceans in the Gulf of Mexico are of the toothed whale variety and most occur beyond the continental shelf (which is between 60 and 140 miles south of Pensacola). The only baleen whale in their report was the Byrde’s Whale (Balanopatera edeni). They estimate about 33 of these whales based on their transect surveys and all of these were found beyond the continental shelf between Pensacola and Apalachicola Florida. The largest of the toothed whales reported was the sperm whale, which can reach over 60 feet. They estimate 763 sperm whale in the Gulf, and they were found across the basin beyond the continental shelf.
But it is the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) that we see on the dolphin tours. This is a relatively small toothed whale, reaching lengths of 13 feet, though most in the Gulf region are less than 10 feet. They are the most abundant and most frequently encountered cetacean near shore and within the estuaries and seem to prefer these shallower waters to the open Gulf beyond the shelf. The National Marine Fisheries Service divides them into stocks based on their geographic distribution. They report 37 different stocks of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf. These are divided into western, eastern, and northern stocks, and then subdivided into estuarine stocks. There are separate stocks for the Perdido Bay and Pensacola Bay groups. This report indicated the stock size for the Pensacola and Perdido Bay dolphins was unknown, though our tour guide indicated there were about 250 in the Pensacola Bay stock. The National Marine Fisheries Service did report about 179 dolphins in the Choctawhatchee Bay stock. The reports estimated over 51,000 individuals for the northern Gulf.
Though not listed as endangered or threatened by the Endangered Species Act, there is some concern on the smaller estuarine stocks and so they have been labeled as “strategic”. There has been fishery related mortality with these dolphins in our waters, primarily with longlining and otter trawl operations, but losses are less than four animals/year and do not seem to be impacting their populations.
What is the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise?
Though many associate the long beak as a dolphin, there are dolphins with short snouts. Killer whales are actually large dolphins. The answer goes back to the teeth, as it always does when classifying mammals. Dolphins have conical shaped teeth where porpoise have more spade shaped ones.
How smart are dolphins?
As everyone knows these are highly intelligent animals. They use an audible form of communication that includes squeaks, clicks, and whistles, to keep the pod together. Researchers have discovered that these audible sounds have a sort of “accent” to them that tells dolphins which pod the dolphin communicating is from. This appears to be very important being that dolphins from one social pod may not accept others from different one. I remember in 1993 when a group of five pantropical spotted dolphins stranded on Pensacola Beach. There were four adults and one 3-month year old in the group. After failed attempts to return the dolphins back to the Gulf, it was decided to transport them to a quarantine area near the EPA lab on Pensacola Beach. There was a virus spreading through some European populations and they did not want to risk taking them to the Gulfarium. In route three of the four adults passed away. The remaining adult was named Mango and the juvenile was named Kiwi. After a period of time in quarantine Mango passed away leaving on the young Kiwi. There was a move to return Kiwi to the wild but some of the dolphin experts on scene told me the likely hood of a different pod accepting Kiwi was a risk, and finding her original pod was very unlikely. After determining the dolphin did not have the virus of concern, they decided to move her to the Gulfarium in Ft. Walton Beach, where she lived the rest of her life.
How does dolphin echolocation work?
Echolocation is different than communication, in that it is inaudible. As with communication, the sounds are produced by expelling air through the blowhole. In the case of communication, there is a muscle that partially closes the opening of the blowhole producing the sounds we hear. In echolocation this is completely closed, and the sound waves are moved through a fat filled melon near the head. The shape and density of the melon can be changed by the animal to produce different frequencies of sound but all inaudible to our ears. These sounds are emitted through the melon into the environment, where they contact something and “echo” back to the dolphin. These echoes are received in a fat filled cavity of the lower jaw and transferred to the brain – where the animal is then made aware of the object out in front of them. Some studies suggest that it may be more than knowing there is an object, they may be able to distinguish different kinds of fish. Though it is most effective within 600 feet, studies show their range may be up to 2000 feet. Studies have also shown that some species of toothed whales can alter the frequency of these echolocated sounds to stun their prey making them easier to catch.
Dolphins are amazing animals.
They live between 30 and 50 years in the wild. During this time, they form tight social groups, feed on a variety of prey, and produce new members every 2-3 years. There is so much more to the biology, ecology, and social life of these animals and we recommend you read more. Once you understand them better, we also recommend you take a dolphin tour to view these amazing creatures.
October has been designated as Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month by Walton County government. Walton County is home to 15 named coastal dune lakes along 26 miles of coastline. These lakes are a unique geographical feature and are only found in a few places in the world including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and here in Walton County.
A coastal dune lake is defined as a shallow, irregularly shaped or elliptic depressions occurring in coastal communities that share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico through which freshwater and saltwater is exchanged. They are generally permanent water bodies, although water levels may fluctuate substantially. Typically identified as lentic water bodies without significant surface inflows or outflows, the water in a dune lake is largely derived from lateral ground water seepage through the surrounding well-drained coastal sands. Storms occasionally provide large inputs of salt water and salinities vary dramatically over the long term.
Our coastal dune lakes are even more unique because they share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico, referred to as an “outfall”, which aides in natural flood control allowing the lake water to pour into the Gulf as needed. The lake water is fed by streams, groundwater seepage, rain, and storm surge. Each individual lake’s outfall and chemistry is different. Water conditions between lakes can vary greatly, from completely fresh to significantly saline.
A variety of different plant and animal species can be found among the lakes. Both freshwater and saltwater species can exist in this unique habitat. Some of the plant species include: rushes (Juncus spp.), sedges (Cyperus spp.), marshpennywort (Hydrocotyleumbellata), cattails (Typha spp.), sawgrass (Cladiumjamaicense), waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.), watershield (Braseniaschreberi), royal fern (Osmundaregalis var. spectabilis), rosy camphorweed (Pluchea spp.), marshelder (Ivafrutescens), groundsel tree (Baccharishalimifolia), and black willow (Salixnigra).
Some of the animal species that can be found include: western mosquitofish (Gambusiaaffinis), sailfin molly (Poecilialatipinna), American alligator (Alligatormississippiensis), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternonsubrubrum), saltmarsh snake (Nerodiaclarkii ssp.), little blue heron (Egrettacaerulea), American coot (Fulicaamericana), and North American river otter (Lutracanadensis). Many marine species co-exist with freshwater species due to the change in salinity within the column of water.
The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Come celebrate Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month as our team provides a guided walking tour of the nature trail surrounding Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park. Join local County Extension Agents to learn more about our globally rare coastal dune lakes, their history, surrounding ecosystems, and local protections. Walk the nature trail through coastal habitats including maritime hammocks, coastal scrub, salt marsh wetlands, and coastal forest. A tour is available October 19th.
The tour is $10.00 (plus tax) and you can register on Eventbrite (see link below). Admission into the park is an additional $5.00 per vehicle, so carpooling is encouraged. We will meet at the beach pavilion (restroom facilities available) at 8:45 am with a lecture and tour start time of 9:00 am sharp. The nature trail is approximately one mile long, through some sandy dunes (can be challenging to walk in), on hard-packed trails, and sometimes soggy forests. Wear appropriate footwear and bring water. Hat, sunscreen, camera, binoculars are optional. Tour is approximately 2 hours. Tour may be cancelled in the event of bad weather.
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.
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.
It is now mid-winter and much colder than our trip in January. During February’s hike the temperature was 44°F, compared to 62°F in January. It was overcast with a cold breeze from the northeast – again, colder. When conditions are like this I am not expecting to see much. If I did find something I would expect it to be one of our warm blood friends, mammals or birds, and even they would prefer a day with more sun and less breeze. But I came to see what was out roaming. So, a hike I made.
The Gulf front at Park East near Big Sabine.
This month I hiked the Big Sabine area east of Pensacola Beach. It began with a shore walk along the Gulf and then a transect across the different dune fields to the marshes and seagrasses along the Santa Rosa Sound.
There was no one out today. You could see footprints in the sand, and it had that characteristic “squeak” sound of fresh sand or snow. The only wildlife I saw on the Gulf side was a group of pelicans sitting on very calm water, obviously enjoying the morning. However, you could see footprints of mammals that had come earlier. There are raccoons, armadillos, mice, coyotes, and occasional reports of otters on Santa Rosa Island. There were a lot of skunks on the island prior to Hurricane Ivan (2004), but I have not seen any since. There have been reports of bears on the island as well. I have never seen one, nor their tracks, so do not think they are frequent visitors. I did find a dead shark tossed up on the beach by a fisherman. Not sure if they were trying to catch it or not.
A variety of mammals are found on barrier islands. Most move at night and you know they are there only by their tracks.
This small shark was found on the beach during the hike. I am not sure why they did not return it to the Gulf.
As I began my transect across the island I ventured into the secondary dune field, which during summer is extremely hot. This part of the island reminds me somewhat of a desert. Very dry, open, and at times very hot. Like the desert it comes alive more at night, but during winter you might see animal movement during the warm parts of the day. I did see mammalian tracks, which included humans and dogs.
This dune field also holds ephemeral ponds which can harbor a variety of life during the warmer months. Today I only found one blooming yellow-bladder wort as well as other carnivorous plants along the bank such as sundews and ground pines.
Yellow bladder wort is one of the small carnivorous plants that live on our barrier islands.
Sundews are another one of the small carnivorous plants found here.
From the open dune field, you venture into the tertiary dunes and the maritime forest. Trees grow here but their growth is stunted due to the salt content in the air. None the less, pine and oak hammocks liter this dune area providing great hiding places for wildlife. Though we did not see any today, I am expecting to find some as the weather warms.
The backside of the island is where you will find the salt marsh. This brackish wetland harbors its own community of creatures, which were not visible today but will be in the spring. Between the tertiary dunes and the marsh runs a section of the Florida Trail. Hikers can walk this section and observe wildlife from both ecosystems.
The larger dunes of the tertiary dune field.
Tree hammocks are common in the tertiary dune fields and provide good places for wildlife.
I eventually reached the Sound and the seagrass beds that exist there. Today, here was nothing really moving around, though I did find a dead jellyfish drifting in the waves. As the island wildlife tends to hideout the winter in burrows, the fish move to deeper water where it is warmer.
The backside of these large dunes drop quickly back to sea level.
Many plants in the tertiary dunes exhibit “wind sculpting”. It appears someone has taken a brush and “brushed” the tree towards the Sound.
Scat is another sign used to identify mammal activity in the dunes.
Portions of the Florida Trail cut through the tertiary dune field of Big Sabine.
The salt marsh
This holding pond is a remnant of an old fish hatchery from the late 1950s and is primarily freshwater.
Seagrass meadows can be found in Santa Rosa Sound and harbor a variety of marine life.
Jellyfish are common on both sides of the island. This one has washed ashore on Santa Rosa Sound.
There was little out today other than a few birds. We will see what late winter will expose next month.
The diversity and natural beauty of the Escribano Point Wildlife Management area is breathtaking. These six square miles of conservation lands provides many types of outdoor recreation including: birdwatching, kayaking, camping, swimming, fishing and hiking. The bays, estuaries, river swamps and other coastal habitats are managed to preserve native plants and animals. Visit Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area (WMA) soon and discover this piece of old Florida.
The Escribano Point WMA is part of state-owned conservation lands that provide habitat for rare plants and animals and promote water quality in Blackwater Bay, East Bay and the Yellow River. The diverse habitats found in Escribano Point WMA provide home to many types of wildlife including, deer, turkey, Florida Black Bears, birds, reptiles amphibians and fish.
As part of the Florida Master Naturalist Program’s 20th Anniversary, a small but mighty group hit the water just as the air temperature broke 60 degrees on Saturday. We kayaked up Fundy Bayou and out to Fundy Cove located along the southeast side of Blackwater Bay in Santa Rosa County, Fl.
We traveled through freshwater and saltwater marshes, along scrubby flat woods, beach and mesic hammock habitats. Ospreys, a kingfisher, and red-headed woodpecker entertained the group. The air temperature warmed as we paddled. When we arrived at the junction of Fundy Creek and Blackwater Bay, Blackwater Bay was rough. We paddled to the campground for lunch and enjoyed the peaceful beauty around us.
Thanks to Kayak Dave, one member of the group checked an action on her bucket list to paddle again.
Escribano Point WMA is a treasure located in Santa Rosa County, FL., approximately 20 south of Milton, FL . Take some and visit for a day or two, there are 2 campgrounds located at this WMA. Enjoy!