One of the programs I focus on as a Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County is restoring the health of our estuary. One of the projects in that program is increasing the encounters with estuarine animals that were once common. Currently I am focused on horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, and bay scallops. Horseshoe crabs and bay scallops were more common here 50 years ago. We are not sure how common diamondback terrapins were. We know they were once very common near Dauphin Island and are often found in the Big Bend area, but along the emerald coast we are not sure. That said, we would like to see all of them encountered more often.
Horseshoe crabs breeding on the beach.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant
There are a variety of reasons why species decline in numbers, but habitat loss is one of the most common. Water quality declined significantly 50 years ago and certainly played a role in the decline of suitable habitat. The loss of seagrass certainly played a role in the decline of bay scallops, but overharvesting was an issue as well. In the Big Bend region to our east, horseshoe crabs are also common in seagrass beds and the decline of that habitat locally may have played a role in the decline of that animal in our bay system.
Salt marshes are what terrapins prefer. We have lost a lot of marsh due to coastal development. Unfortunately, marshes often exist where we would like houses, marinas, and restaurants. If the decline of these creatures in our bay is a sign of the declining health of the system, their return could be a sign that things are getting better.
Seagrass beds have declined over the last half century.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
Salt marshes have declined due to impacts from coastal development.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
For over 10 years we have been conducting citizen science monitoring programs to monitor the frequency of encounters of these creatures. All three are here but the increase in encounters has been slow. An interesting note was the fact that many locals had not heard of two of them. Very few knew what a horseshoe crab was when I began this project and even fewer had heard of a terrapin. Scallops are well known from the frequent trips locals make to the Big Bend area to harvest them (the only place in the state where it is legal to do so), but many of those were not aware that they were once harvested here.
I am encouraged when locals send me photos of either horseshoe crabs or their molts. It gives me hope that the animal is on the increase. Our citizen science project focuses on locating their nesting beaches, which we have not found yet, but it is still encouraging.
Horseshoe crab molts. Photo UF/IFAS Communications
Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin (photo: Molly O’Connor)
Volunteers surveying terrapin nesting beaches do find the turtles and most often sign that they have been nesting. The 2022 nesting season was particularly busy and, again, a good sign.
It is now time to do our annual Scallop Search. Each year we solicit volunteers to survey a search grid within either Big Lagoon or Santa Rosa Sound. Over the years the results of these surveys have not been as positive as the other two, but we do find them, and we will continue to search. If you are interested in participating in this year’s search, we will be conducting them during the last week of July. You can contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office (850-475-5230 ext.1111) or email email@example.com or Chris Verlinde at the Santa Rosa County Extension Office (850-623-3868) or email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set you up.
Bay scallops need turtle grass to survive.
Photo: UF IFAS
Volunteers participating in the Great Scallop Search.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
Each June I camp out west somewhere and each year I look for those hard-to-find animals. After 10 years of looking for a mountain lion, I saw one this year. Finding these creatures can happen. Let’s hope encounters with all three become more common in our bay.
Nutrients found in food waste are too valuable to just toss away. Small scale composting and vermicomposting provide opportunity to recycle food waste even in limited spaces. UF/IFAS Photo by Camila Guillen.
During the summer season, my house is filled with family and friends visiting on vacation or just hanging out on the weekends. The kitchen is a popular place while waiting on the next outdoor adventure. I enjoy working together to cook meals, bbq, or just make a few snacks. Despite the increased numbers of visitors during this time, some food is leftover and ultimately tossed away as waste. Food waste occurs every day in our homes, restaurants, and grocery stores and not just this time of year.
The United States Food and Drug Administration estimates that 30 to 40 percent of our food supply is wasted each year. The United States Department of Agriculture cites food waste as the largest type of solid waste at our landfills. This is a complex problem representing many issues that require our attention to be corrected. Moving food to those in need is the largest challenge being addressed by multiple agencies, companies, and local community action groups. Learn more about the Food Waste Alliance at https://foodwastealliance.org
According to the program website, the Food Waste Alliance has three major goals to help address food waste:
Goal #1 REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF FOOD WASTE GENERATED. An estimated 25-40% of food grown, processed, and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed.
Goal #2 DONATE MORE SAFE, NUTRITIOUS FOOD TO PEOPLE IN NEED. Some generated food waste is safe to eat and can be donated to food banks and anti-hunger organizations, providing nutrition to those in need.
Goal #3 RECYCLE UNAVOIDABLE FOOD WASTE, DIVERTING IT FROM LANDFILLS. For food waste, a landfill is the end of the line; but when composted, it can be recycled into soil or energy.
All these priorities are equally important and necessary to completely address our country’s food waste issues. However, goal three is where I would like to give some tips and insight. Composting food waste holds the promise of supplying recycled nutrients that can be used to grow new crops of food or for enhancing growth of ornamental plants. Composting occurs at different scales ranging from a few pounds to tons. All types of composting whether big or small are meaningful in addressing food waste issues and providing value to homeowners and farmers. A specialized type of composting known as vermicomposting uses red wiggler worms to accelerate the breakdown of vegetable and fruit waste into valuable soil amendments and liquid fertilizer. These products can be safely used in home gardens and landscapes, and on house plants.
Composting meat or animal waste is not recommended for home composting operations as it can potentially introduce sources of food borne illness into the fertilizer and the plants where it is used. Vegetable and Fruit wastes are perfect for composting and do not have these problems.
Composting worms help turn food waste into valuable fertilizer. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones
Detailed articles on how vermicomposting works are provided by Tia Silvasy, UF/IFAS Extension Orange County at https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/orangeco/2020/12/10/vermicomposting-using-worms-for-composting and https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/orange/hort-res/docs/pdf/021-Vermicomposting—Cheap-and-Easy-Worm-Bin.pdf Supplies are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Please see the above links for details.
A small vermicomposting system would include:
• Red Wiggler worms (local vendors or internet)
• Two Plastic Storage Bins (approximately 30” L x 20” W x 17” H) with pieces of brick or stone
• Shredded Paper (newspaper or other suitable material)
• Vegetable and Fruit Scraps
Red Wiggler worms specialize in breaking down food scraps unlike earthworms which process organic matter in soil. Getting the correct worms for vermicomposting is an important step. Red Wigglers can consume as much as their weight in one day! Beginning with a small scale of 1 to 2 pounds of worms is a great way to start. Sources and suppliers can be readily located on the internet.
Worm “homes” can be constructed from two plastic storage bins with air holes drilled on the top. Additional holes put in the bottom of the inner bin to drain liquid nutrients. Pieces of stone or brick can be used to raise the inner bin slightly. Picture provided by UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, Molly Jameson
Once the worms and shredded paper media have been introduced into the bins, you are ready to process kitchen scraps and other plant-based leftovers. Food waste can be placed in the worm bins by moving along the bin in sections. Simply rotate the area where the next group of scraps are placed. See example diagram. For additional information or questions please contact our office at 850-784-6105.
Placing food scraps in a sequential order allows worms to find their new food easily. Contributed diagram by L. Scott Jackson
Portions of this article originally published in the Panama City News Herald
UF/IFAS is An Equal Opportunity Institution.
Box Turtle. Photo Credit J.D. Willson, University of Georgia
Growing up, or even as an adult there is something exciting about seeing a turtle on the road! We always want to stop and check it out or even help it across. Box Turtles are common in all parts of the southeastern United States. There are four subspecies of box turtles that can be found east of the Mississippi River. Here are three interesting topics about our common box turtles:
With spring in the air and the temperatures rising, they are on the move. There movement is in part due to spring being the beginning of their mating season. In the southeast males and females will mate from spring into the fall. Males will mate with one or multiple females. Amazingly females can lay fertile eggs up to four years following one successful mating! Normal incubation of the eggs typically takes three months.
Box turtles are well developed at birth. As soon as the hatch the start to mature and will grow at a rate of about ½ an inch per year for the first five years. While growth slows dramatically after that, they will continue to grow until they are about 20 years old. It is believed that some box turtles will live to be over 100 years old.
While our box turtle friends live a long time, they are homebodies! Their entire home range is typically 250 yards in diameter or less. It is normal to see an overlap of home ranges for box turtles, regardless of sex or age. Keeping in mind the small home range of turtles and their limited ability to travel long distances, you should never pick them up and take them to a new area. If they are crossing a road, only set them to the other side, do not relocate them. In addition, turtles found crossing the roads in June and July are likely pregnant females. These females are likely searching for a nesting site when they are found.
As we move into spring and summer, turtles will become more active. Keep in mind that we should always leave turtles in the wild. They live longer healthier lives and can contribute to their breeding population. Likewise, you should never release a captive turtle into the wild as it will likely not survive and may introduce diseases.
A Pond Management Field Day will be held May 11, 2022, at the North Florida Research and Education Center, in Quincy, Florida. The field day will include pond demonstrations and classroom workshops on weed prevention, sprayer calibrations, and fish stocking and management. There will also be a trade show with vendors as well as pond water testing and weed identification. The field day will also provide Pesticide CEU’s for natural areas. Registration for the Field Day is through Eventbrite and the cost for the day is $10, which includes lunch. For questions or more information, contact Robbie Jones at the UF/FAS Extension- Gadsden County Office – 850-875-7255.
The University of Florida IFAS Extension and the Beekeeping in the Panhandle Working Group has once again teamed up to offer the 9th Annual Beekeeping in the Panhandle Conference on Friday May 6th and Saturday May 7th 2022 at the Washington County Ag Center Auditorium.
This year’s event will feature: Hands-on open hive experiences, presentations on the latest in research-based beekeeping management practices, interaction with expert beekeepers, vendors with beekeeping equipment, and hive products. Door prizes will be available as well!
The registration fee for the event will be $35 for one day or $55 for both days per person over 12, and $15 per day for kids 12 and under.
The activities will take place from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm Central each day and will include catered lunch.
Location: 1424 Jackson Avenue, Chipley, FL
Ways to register:
Registration link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/9th-annual-beekeeping-in-the-panhandle-conference-trade-show-tickets-269199873067
Or, drop by the Washington County Extension Office in Chipley.
For more information contact Washington County Extension Office at (850) 638-6180
It is now spring, and wildlife is beginning to stir more. However, on this April day another cold front had just past the area and the morning temperature was 59°F. To add to this, there was a strong west wind that made it feel colder. Despite the fact it was an early spring morning in Florida, I had my fleece on and was dubious that I would see any reptiles.
This month’s hike was out at Big Sabine near Park East. The Gulf of Mexico was churning like a washing machine due to the passing front and the beach had a sharp scarp to it. There were a few plovers out trying to probe the sand for food, but not much else. Usually after hard winds you will find an assortment of things washed up on the beach but there was little really, possibly removed by the storm. There were however signs of digging by humans. It is now sea turtle nesting season, and we remind folks that these large holes can be a real problem for the mothers trying to nest. Please fill them in before you leave the beach.
Diopatra are segmented worms similar to earthworms who build tubes to live in. These tubes are often found washed up on the beach.
Large holes like this can be problematic for many island wildlife species – like nesting sea turtles. Please fill them in when you leave for the day.
“Blow outs” are formed by people walking over the dunes. They will increase the erosion of these dunes and enhance flooding during storms. Please cross over on boardwalks.
The Gulf of Mexico was churned up due to the passing cold front.
Beach scarps are formed during heavy surf changing the dynamics of the beach for creatures living there.
“Sea Beans” are seeds of tropical plants that wash ashore this time of year. Most do not germinate and those that do are usually on a high energy beach and do not survive.
As you head north into the dune fields the wind typically slows, but this morning it was blowing plenty hard, and I was getting “sand blasted” at some points. Not the best day to find wildlife. The sun was out and I decided to check the leeward side of shrubs and bushes, but had no luck.
One thing I did find was the sandhill milkweed in bloom. This plant is host to the monarch butterfly caterpillars and produces a mildly toxic “milk” which the caterpillars accumulate making them toxic to birds. This toxin is carried on to the adult butterfly stage and many birds learn to avoid butterflies with the monarch coloration because of the bad taste. Though I saw lots of milkweed, it was too windy for the butterflies.
The blooms of the false rosemary, which appear in late winter, had all fallen but it was obvious that the pine trees had release their pollen. Most of the scrubby pines in the dunes had new growth on them.
There were several ephemeral ponds scattered amongst the dunes. All had water in them from the recent rains and I was hoping to maybe find a basking snake or singing frog. No luck on either. There were damp areas where water had recently been, and the carnivorous sundews and spore producing club moss, known as ground pines, were doing very well.
The path used by wildlife to reach the ponds of the dune field.
Two invasive Chinese tallow trees were found growing in the dune field. These will be removed.
Devil’s Joint is a common cactus in the dunes. Wear shoes when exploring!
The high winds of the beach can form some interesting dunes. This one resembles the mesa’s of the American southwest.
There are numerous freshwater ponds in the low areas of the dune field. Many of them are ephemeral.
Freshwater ephemeral pond.
Ground pine is a type of club moss found in the wet-damp areas of the dunes.
The sandhill milkweed is bloom this time of year.
Pine scrub areas like this are found in the dune fields and are great places to find snakes and lizards.
Since some of our snakes are venomous, it is recommended you wear good boots and have a hiking stick to move logs and high grass before stepping in or over.
Seaside rosemary produces a wonderful smell that reminds many of the beach.
As I moved from the dunes into the maritime forest, I was expecting to see birds. I did, but not many. Most were small woodland birds I could not identify, and there was an osprey flying over briefly, but for the most part the bird action was slow today – again, probably due to the high winds. I was again hoping to maybe find a basking snake on the sunny leeward side of a bush or fallen tree but had none. I did find a common parasitic plant that was becoming more common this time of year. It is called “love-vine” or dodder. This yellow-colored string looking vine lacks chlorophyll and wraps around host plants to remove much needed nutrients. It begins to appear this time of year and is not restricted to the beaches. I have seen it 10 miles inland.
One thing that was very evident in the maritime forest was sign of armadillos. Their tracks and digs were found everywhere. I did locate a few burrows and found even more along the beach of the Sound. These animals are very abundant on this island I am curious as to what predators they have and how their populations are controlled. They can be found day or night and dig frequently looking for grubs and other invertebrates to eat. Whether they seek out turtle or bird eggs I do not know. More on this guy next month.
I will add that I did see tracks of raccoons who do eat turtle eggs and also what I think was a “slide” of an otter. The number of otter encounters has increased in recent years. Individuals have been seen not only on the beach but around Bayou Texar and Project Greenshores. These are very elusive animals and produce a high pitched “chirp” or “bark” when approached. I have seen them near Ft. Pickens on a couple of occasions in the ponds. There are the old hatchery ponds at Big Sabine, and it was there that I found the “slide”. These slides are used by the otters to slide into the water. I have seen video of them exiting the water, sliding back in, only to repeat this as if they were playing like kids – and I think that is what they are doing… playing. Otters are the largest members of the weasel family, mustelids, and pretty cool.
Many creatures use the same trails we do. This is a good place to look for tracks.
Armadillos are all over the island. This is a burrow of one.
The digging of armadillos can be found everywhere as well.
Dodder (or “love vine”) is a parasitic plant that begins to appear this time of year.
This is what I think to be an otter slide. Though I could not find tracks to confirm, I have seen them build and use these before.
Raccoons are common all over the island.
The marsh of Big Sabine was pretty quiet on this windy day. I did see two Canadian geese walking along the shore. I recently saw several nesting on an island in Okaloosa County and was told they were now year-round residents. I am not sure whether these were residents to Big Sabine or not, I had not seen them before, but will note this as this series continues this year.
Canadian geese are becoming residents on some islands along the panhandle.
Wood piles like these can be good habitat for some beach wildlife.
The beach of Santa Rosa Sound was quiet as well. Again, I probed around to seeking a basking snake, a nesting terrapin, or maybe a nesting horseshoe crab (it was a spring tide day) but found nothing. There are piles of wood gathered by locals cleaning the beach and these actually make good habitat for some wildlife. I poked around in them but did not find anyone today. This was also where I found most of the armadillo burrows. Why they preferred this over the forested areas I am not sure. There may be many more in the forest that I just did not see. The spring tide was rising and much of the beach was exposed but I saw no fiddler crabs or other creatures and there was nothing swimming nearshore in the grass beds. Again, the lower temperatures and high winds I am sure had everyone in a warmer calmer place.
Despite little wildlife today it was a great walk and despite the high winds, the weather was actually nice. It is spring and nesting should be going on across the island. We will visit Ft. Pickens in May and see what is going on then.
Santa Rosa Sound.