Explore Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area

Explore Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area

Photo: Chris Verlinde

Photo: Chris Verlinde

 

 

 

 

 

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!
Parasitic Plants of the Florida Panhandle

Parasitic Plants of the Florida Panhandle

There are many problems that can plague a plant in our environment, from fungi that love the humidity in North Florida to insects that chew through leaves. One less common but interesting source of stress for plants comes from…other plants?

Most plants are content to gather energy from sunlight and nutrients from the soil in which they sink their roots. Some species, however, have taken up thievery as a lifestyle. Parasitic plants are those that take the nutrients they need to grow from other plants. Some rely completely on their hosts for nutrients, others are able to produce at least some of their own, while yet more can live on their own but steal nutrients if another plant is conveniently nearby. Furthermore, there are some plants and similar organisms that may seem to be parasitic, but actually do no harm.

Mistletoe is a common sight especially in the winter when trees’ leaves have dropped. It relies on its host for water and nutrients, though it can produce energy from photosynthesis. Being evergreen has led it its adoption as a symbol Christmastime, and it has historically been important to other cultures such as the Celtic druids. Too much mistletoe can weaken a tree, and removing it can help to reinvigorate one that is struggling. Physical pruning is often the only method available for its removal, and this can be difficult on a tree of any size.

Yellow tendrils and white flowers of dodder.

Dodder has a strange appearance, looking like someone threw a batch of angel-hair pasta all over a plant. There are ten different species of dodder in Florida and they may be found on a variety of host plants. This parasite is leafless, takes all it needs from its host, and cannot survive independently.  Though it germinates from the ground, it has no true roots. Controlling an infestation of dodder involves removing affected plants or at least pruning off the branches that are hosting the parasite. Herbicides will kill it, but they will also kill the host.

Ghost Pipe flowers

Ghost Pipe may be seen flowering from early summer through autumn, typically in woodland areas. It does not take its nutrients directly from a tree, but instead from mycorrhizal fungi. These helpful fungi attach to a tree and act like extra roots, assisting to absorb nutrients in return for energy from the plant. The ghost pipe helps itself to both nutrients and energy and does not bother to photosynthesize for itself, which gives it its stark white appearance.

Lichen may grow profusely on trees, but does not harm the plant.

 

 

There are also plenty of harmless plants out there, such as Spanish moss and resurrection fern, which grow on trees but are not parasitic. Lichens, while not plants, are similarly prolific on the bark of trees, but do no harm.

For help in identifying a potential parasitic plant, contact your local Extension office.

Catfish of the Florida Panhandle

Catfish of the Florida Panhandle

Catfish…

There are a lot of fish found along the Florida panhandle that many are not aware of, but catfish are not one of them.  Whether a saltwater angler who captures one of those slimy hardhead catfish to a lover of freshwater fried catfish – this is a creature most have encountered and are well aware of.

 

Growing up fishing along the Gulf of Mexico, the “catfish” was one of our nemesis.   Slinging your cut-bait out on a line, if you were fishing near the bottom, you were likely to catch one of these.  Reeling in a slimy barb-invested creature, they would swallow your bait well beyond the lip of their mouths and it would begin a long ordeal on how to de-hooked this bottom feeder that was too greasy to eat.  Many surf fishermen would toss their bodies up on the beach with the idea that removing it would somehow reduce their population.  Obviously, that plan did not work but ghost crabs will drag their carcasses over to their burrows where they would consume them and leave the head skull that gives this species of catfish it’s common name “hardhead” catfish, or “steelhead” catfish.  This hard skull has bones whose shape remind you of Jesus being crucified and was sold in novelty stores as the “crucifix fish”.

The bones in the skull of the hardhead catfish resemble the crucifixion of Christ and are sold as “crucifix fish”.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

When I attended college in southeast Alabama a group of friends wanted to go out for fried catfish.  I, knowing the above about saltwater catfish, replied “why?… no…, you don’t eat catfish”.  They assured me you did and so off we went to a local restaurant who sold them.  Fried catfish quickly became one of my favorites.  A fried catfish sandwich with slaw and beans is something I always look forward to.  At that time, I was not aware of the freshwater catfish, nor the catfish farms that produce much of the fish for my sandwiches.  I now have also become aware of the method of catching freshwater catfish called “noodling” – which is not something I plan to take up.

 

Worldwide, there are 36 families and about 3000 species of what are called catfish1.  Most are bottom feeders with flatten heads to burrow through the substrate gulping their prey instead of biting it.  Most possess “whiskers” – called barbels, which are appendages that can detect chemicals in the environment (smell or taste) helping them to detect prey that is buried or hard to find in murky waters.  These barbels resemble whiskers and give them their common name “catfish”.

The serrated spines and large barbels of the sea catfish. Image: Louisiana Sea Grant

 

They lack scales, giving them the slimy feel when removing them from your hook, and also have a reduced swim bladder causing them to sink in the water – thus they spend much of their time on the bottom.  The mucous of their skin helps in absorbing dissolved oxygen through the skin allowing them to live in water where dissolved oxygen may be too low for other types of fish1.

 

They are also famous for their serrated spines.  Usually found on the dorsal and pectoral fins, these spines can be quite painful if stepped on, or handled incorrectly.  Some species can produce a venom introduced when these spines penetrate a potential predator which have put some folks in the hospital1.

 

The size range of catfish is large; from about five inches to almost six feet.  In North America, the largest captured was a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) at 130 pounds.  The largest flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) was 123 pounds.  But the monster of this group is the Mekong catfish of southeast Asia weighing in at over 600 pounds.

 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lists six species of catfish in the Florida panhandle area.  However, they are focusing on species that people like to catch2.

The Blue Catfish
Photo: University of Florida

This large blue catfish is being weighed by FWC researchers. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) is found throughout Florida and also in many river systems of the eastern United States.  It has found few barriers dispersing through these river systems.  They are not typically bottom feeders having a more carnivorous diet.

 

The Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) are relatively new to Florida and are currently reported in the Escambia and Apalachicola rivers.  They prefer these slow-moving alluvial rivers.

 

The Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) were first reported in the Escambia and Yellow Rivers, there are now records of them in the Apalachicola.  These catfish prefer faster moving rivers with sand/gravel bottoms and seem to concentrate towards the lower ends of major tributaries.

 

The White Catfish (Amerius catus) is found in rivers and streams statewide, and even in some brackish systems.

 

The Yellow Bullhead (Amerius natalis) are most often found in slow moving heavily vegetated systems like ponds, lakes, and reservoirs.  It is reported to be more tolerant of poor water conditions.

 

The Brown Bullhead (Amerius nebulosus) live in similar conditions to the Yellow Bullhead.

 

The dispersal of freshwater catfish is interesting.  How do they get from the Escambia to the Apalachicola Rivers without swimming into the Gulf and up new rivers?  The answer most probably comes from small tributaries further upstream that can, eventually, connect them to a new river system.  Scientists know that eggs deposited on the bottom can be moved by birds who feed in each of the systems carrying the eggs with them as they do.  And you cannot rule out movement by humans, whether intentionally or accidentally.

 

On the saltwater side of things, there are two species – though the blue catfish has been reported in the upper portions of some estuaries in low salinities in the western Gulf of Mexico.  The marine species are the hardhead catfish (Arius felis), sometimes known as the “steelhead” or the “sea catfish” – and the gafftop (Bagre marinus), also known as the gafftopsail catfish3.

 

The hardhead catfish is very familiar with anglers along the Gulf coast.  This is the one I was referring to at the beginning of this article.  It is considered inedible and a nuisance by most.  They are common in estuaries and the shallow portions of the open sea from Massachusetts to Mexico.  They are reported to have an average length of two feet, though most I have captured are smaller.  Like many catfish, they possess serrated spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins.  Their distribution seems to be limited by salinity.

 

The gafftop is also reported to have a mean length of two feet, and most that I have captured are closer to that.  At one point in time, we were longlining for juvenile sharks in Pensacola Bay and caught numerous of these thinking they were small bull sharks as we pulled the lines in, until we saw the long barbels extending from them.  I remember this being a very slimy fish, covered with mucous, and not fun to take off the hooks.  It is reported to have good food value, though I have not eaten one.  They differ from the hardheads mainly in their extended rays from the dorsal and pectoral fins.  The habitat and range are similar to hardheads, though they have been reported as far south as Panama.

The extended rays of the gafftop catfish.
Photo: University of Florida.

The diversity of freshwater catfish in the U.S. goes beyond what has been reported here.  This group has been found on most continents and have been very successful.  There are plenty of local catfish farms where you can try your luck, have them cleaned, and enjoy a good meal.

 

 

References

 

1 Catfish. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catfish.

 

2 Catfish. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecasts/catfish/.

 

3 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters.  Texas A&M Press.  College Station TX. Pp. 327.

False Foxglove:  A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove: A Unique Fall Wildflower

Fall is the absolute best season for wildflower watching in the Panhandle!  When mid-September rolls around and the long dog days of summer finally shorten, giving way to drier air and cooler nights, northwest Florida experiences a wildflower color explosion.  From the brilliant yellow of Swamp Sunflower and Goldenrod, to the soothing blue of Mistflower, and the white-on-gold of Spanish Needles, there is no shortage of sights to see from now until frost.  But, in my opinion, the stars of the fall show are the currently flowering, beautiful pink blooms of False Foxglove (Agalinus spp.).

False Foxglove in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Named for the appearance of their flowers, which bear a resemblance to the northern favorite Foxglove (Digitalis spp.), “False Foxglove” is actually the common name of several closely related species of parasitic plants in the genus Agalinus that are difficult to distinguish by all but the keenest of botanists.  Regardless of which species you may see, False Foxglove is an unusual and important Florida native plant.  Emerging from seed each spring in the Panhandle, plants grow quickly through the summer to a mature height of 3-5’.  During this time, False Foxglove is about as inconspicuous a plant as grows.  Consisting of a wispy thin stem with very small, narrow leaves, plants remain hidden in the flatwoods and sand hill landscapes that they inhabit.  However, when those aforementioned shorter September days arrive, False Foxglove explodes into flower sporting sprays of dozens of light purple to pink tubular-shaped flowers that remain until frost ends the season.

False Foxglove flowering in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being unmatched in flower, False Foxglove also plays several important ecological roles in Florida’s natural areas.  First, False Foxglove’s relatively large, tubular-shaped flowers are the preferred nectar sources for the larger-sized native solitary and bumble bees present in the Panhandle, though all manner of generalist bees and butterflies will also visit for a quick sip.  Second, False Foxglove is the primary host plant for the unique Common Buckeye butterfly.  One of the most easily recognizable butterflies due to the large “eye” spots on their wings, Common Buckeye larvae (caterpillars), feed on False Foxglove foliage during the summer before emerging as adults and adding to the fall spectacle.  Finally, False Foxglove is an important indicator of a healthy native ecosystem.  As a parasitic plant, False Foxglove obtains nutrients and energy by photosynthesis AND by using specialized roots to tap into the roots of nearby suitable hosts (native grasses and other plants).  As both False Foxglove and its parasitic host plants prefer to grow in the sunny, fire-exposed areas pine flatwoods and sand ridges that characterized pre-settlement Florida, you can be fairly confident that if you see a natural area with an abundance of False Foxglove in flower, that spot is in good ecological shape!

The Florida Panhandle is nearly unmatched in its fall wildflower diversity and False Foxglove plays a critical part in the show.  From its stunning flowers to its important ecological roles, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique native wildflower!  For more information about False Foxglove and other Florida native wildflowers, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension office.

 

Herrings, Sardines, and Anchovies of the Florida Panhandle

Herrings, Sardines, and Anchovies of the Florida Panhandle

These are all fish that many have heard of but know nothing about.  They are not even sure what they look like.  We have heard of them as a seafood product.  Smoked herring, canned sardines, and anchovy pizza are popular the world over.  These are one of the largest commercial species harvested in U.S. waters.  In 2020 over 6 million pounds of sardines, 12 million pounds of anchovies, 41 million pounds of herring, 1.3 BILLION pounds of menhaden were harvested.  The menhaden catch alone was valued at just under $200 million2.  It not as large a fishery in Florida.  327,000 pounds of menhaden, 700,000 pounds of sardines, and 1.8 million pounds of herring were harvested from state waters in 2020 and at value of about $900,000 in 2020.  The fish are popular in many European dishes, cat food, and menhaden oil is used in many products.

The Gulf menhaden supports a large commercial fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: NOAA

These fishes are actually divided into two families.  The herring, sardine, and menhaden are in the Family Clupeidae and are often called “clupeids”.  This family includes 11 species in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Most have a “hatchet” shape to their bodies – being straight along their back with a deep curve along the ventral side, and most having a forked, or lunate, tail.  They average between 2-20 inches in length and form massive schools as they travel near the surface waters filtering plankton.  They are often harvested using purse seines.  Large factory vessels will plow the waters searching for the large schools.  Often, they will use aerial assistance to search such as small airplanes or ultralights.  Once spotted, small chase boats will be launched from the factory vessel hauling the large purse seine around the school.  Once that is completed a large weight called a “tommy” is dropped that “zips” the purse shut and captures the fish.  There is little bycatch in this method.

Purse seining in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo: NOAA

The anchovies are found in the family Engraulidae.  They differ in that they are more streamlined in shape and their mouths are larger / body size than the clupeids.  Though there is no commercial fishery for them in Florida, they comprise one of the largest groups of schooling fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Hoese and Moore mention that the local species are too small for a fishery.  The five native species average between 2.5-5.5 inches in length1.  Some marine biologists consider anchovies as an “environmental canary”, or indicator species.  Their presence can suggest good water quality.  I have often caught them in seines along the beach in the Pensacola area.  They resemble the very common silverside minnow in that they have a silver stripe running down their sides.  But they differ in that they (a) only have a single dorsal fin (silversides have two), and (b) their snouts extend to a point resembling the head of a shark.

This striped anchovy resembles a silver side but differs with the shape of its snout and the number of dorsal fins.
Photo: NOAA

The distribution and biogeography of this group of fishes is all over the place.  The round herring (Etrumeus teres) has few barriers and is found from the Bay of Fundy (at the Canadian/Maine border) to the Pacific Ocean1!  A few species have the classic “Carolina” distribution – meaning they are found from North Carolina south, the entire Gulf of Mexico, and down to Brazil.  For whatever reason (currents, water temperature, other) they do not venture north of the Carolinas and are probably impacted by the large amount of freshwater entering the Atlantic Ocean near the Amazon River.

 

Twp species are restricted by tropical conditions.  The tiny dwarf herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) and the Spanish sardine (Sardinella anchovia) are both listed as being restricted by water temperatures, though I have captured plenty of the Spanish sardines in the Pensacola area.

 

Some species are restricted to either the eastern or western Gulf of Mexico.  Usually, the barrier for this distribution is the Mississippi River.  Like the Amazon, there is a large plume of highly turbid/low salinity water extending into the Gulf of Mexico which keeps some species from crossing.  Hoese and Moore report the Alabama shad (Alosa alabamae) only from the area between the Mississippi River and the Florida panhandle.  The Mississippi River to one side, and the Apalachicola on the other.

Clupeids, like this Pacific sardine, for m large schools can consist of literally millions of fish.
Photo: NOAA

And finally, there is a spatial distribution with some species between freshwater, estuaries, and the open shelf.  Two species, the threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) and the gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) are more associated with freshwater.  The scaled sardine (Harengula pensacolae) is more common on the open shelf of the Gulf.

 

We all know the names of these fish but are unaware of their general biology and importance to commercial fisheries around the world.  Many are common in our estuaries and play an important role in the health of the overall ecology.  They are important members of the “panhandle fish family”.

 

 

References

1 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX.  Pp. 327.

 

2 NOAA Fisheries.  2021. Commercial Landings.  https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/foss/f?p=215:200:2082956461436::NO:::.

 

3 Florida Commercial Landings.  2021. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fishstats/commercial-fisheries/landings-in-florida/.

Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

A Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival volunteer sorts lionfish for weighing. (L. Tiu)

The northwest Florida area has been identified as having the highest concentration of invasive lionfish in the world.  Lionfish pose a significant threat to our native wildlife and habitat with spearfishing the primary means of control.  Lionfish tournaments are one way to increase harvest of these invaders and help keep populations down.  Not only that, but lionfish are a delicious tasting fish and tournaments help supply the local seafood markets with this unique offering.

Since 2019, Destin, Florida has been the site of the Emerald Coast Open (ECO), the largest lionfish tournament in the world, hosted by Destin-Fort Walton Beach and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).  While the tournament was canceled in 2020, due to the pandemic, the 2021 tournament and the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival returned to the Destin Harbor May 14-16 with over 145 tournament participants from around Florida, the US, and even Canada.  The windy weekend facilitated some sporty conditions keeping boats and teams from maximizing their time on the water, but ultimately 2,505 lionfish were removed during the pre-tournament and 7,745 lionfish were removed during the two-day event for a total of 10,250 invasive lionfish removed. Florida Sea Grant and FWC recruited over 50 volunteers from organizations such as Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station and Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center to man the tournament and surrounding festival.

Lionfish hunters competed for over $48,000 in cash prizes and $25,000 in gear prizes. Florida Man, a Destin-based dive charter on the DreadKnot, won $10,000 for harvesting the most lionfish, 1,371, in 2 days.  Team Bottom Time secured the largest lionfish prize of $5,000 with a 17.32 inch fish.  Team Into the Clouds wrapped up the $5,000 prize for smallest lionfish with a 1.61 inch fish, the smallest lionfish caught in Emerald Coast Open History.

It is never too early to start preparing for the 2022 tournament. For more information, visit EmeraldCoastOpen.com or Facebook.com/EmeraldCoastOpen. For information about Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, visit FWCReefRangers.com

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