October is Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation Month

October is Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation Month

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 (Hydrocotyle umbellata), cattails (Typha spp.), sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.), watershield (Brasenia schreberi), royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis), rosy camphorweed (Pluchea spp.), marshelder (Iva frutescens), groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia), and black willow (Salix nigra).

Some of the animal species that can be found include: western mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna), American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum), saltmarsh snake (Nerodia clarkii ssp.), little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), American coot (Fulica americana), and North American river otter (Lutra canadensis). 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.

Register here on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoor-live-coastal-dune-lake-lecture-and-nature-trail-tour-tickets-419061633627

Warm Season Wildlife Plots Serve Many Purposes

Warm Season Wildlife Plots Serve Many Purposes

Many Panhandle hunters and outdoor enthusiasts invest a good bit of time, money, and sweat into growing cool season food plots to feed and attract various wildlife.  I count myself among you.  However, if you want to maximize your property’s wildlife and environmental benefits, planting your otherwise abandoned-till-next-fall food plots with a diverse mix of warm-season, wildlife-friendly species is one of the best practices you can implement! 

The benefits of planting summer food plots are several.  First, while most of us are feeding wildlife in winter, supplemental nutrition for our “big three” game species (Whitetail Deer, Bobwhite Quail, and Eastern Wild Turkey) is critical during summer because all are engaged in energy intensive activities – lactating whitetail does are supporting fawns, quail breeding season is in full swing, and wild turkey hens are busy raising poults.  Planting a mix of species consisting of seed-producing grasses, high-protein, bug-attracting legumes, and other beneficial broadleaf plants addresses these nutrition needs by providing a constant buffet of high-quality food for all the above species.

Also, adding summer plantings to your food plot program ensures that a green, soil enhancing cover blankets the ground year-round.  Practiced for years in the agricultural community, cover crops play a key role in soil conservation and increased plant performance.  Your summer food plots function as a cover crop by reducing soil erosion, moderating soil temperatures, building organic matter (key for holding nutrients in soil and an indicator of soil productivity), adding nutrients (particularly when nitrogen producing legumes are included), and encouraging beneficial soil organisms to flourish, further increasing the productivity of your food plots! 

Now that I’ve sold you on planting summer food plots, it’s time to consider species selection.  As mentioned before, when selecting your mix, try to include at least one each of a grass, a legume, and a non-legume broadleaf.  Each of these plant categories serve different purposes.  Tall grasses like Pearl Millet and Grain Sorghum provide excellent structure for vining plants like Cowpeas and Lablab to cling to, produce large quantities of seed for birds, and serve as quick-growing cover for species that are vulnerable to early deer browsing, like Cowpea and Forage Soybean.  Smaller grasses like Browntop and Proso Millet are useful to produce a quick seed crop (45 days after planting) and protect slower establishing species from browsing.  Including legumes like Cowpea, Forage Soybean, Sunn Hemp, Alyceclover or Aeschynomene, levels up the nutrition of your summer food plot (these species have crude protein levels that exceed 15%) and pumps nitrogen back into the soil for future crop use.  A quick internet search for the article “Annual Warm-Season Legumes for Pastures, Cover Crops, or Wildlife” by UF/IFAS Extension Specialist Ann Blount outlines for you each of the above legumes in detail.  As mentioned earlier, I also like to include a non-legume broadleaf like Buckwheat or Sunflower for variety, seed production, pollinator attraction, or even just aesthetics – a sunflower bloom here and there in a food plot always brings a smile!   In 2022, I planted summer food plots in a 7-way mixture of ‘Tifleaf 3’ Pearl Millet, ‘Dove’ Proso Millet, ‘Iron and Clay’ Cowpeas, ‘Laredo’ Forage Soybean, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, and Aeschynomene.  Large mixtures with diverse times to maturity like this ensure there is always something growing, flowering, making seed, attracting bugs, etc! 

7 way mix of Pearl Millet, Cowpea, Aeschynomene, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, Forage Soybean, and Sunflower on July 28, 2022.
Photo: Daniel Leonard

Once you’ve figured out which species you want to plant, next comes determining seeding rate.  There are several methods to help you determine the seeding rate of each species included in the blend.  Penn State University has an excellent video to help determine rates of individual species in a cover crop mix.  For a less scientific approach that will get you close, simply divide the full monoculture seeding rate for each species by the number of species in the mix.  For example, if the monoculture seeding rate for Pearl Millet is 25 lbs/acre when planted in 7” grain drill rows and you are mixing 4 other species with it, you would plant the Pearl Millet at a 1/5th rate or 5 lbs/acre.  For more information on species’ growing requirements and seeding rates, University of Georgia Extension has a comprehensive guide to the topic.  Another option is to come in to your local UF/IFAS Extension office and get one-on-one help with customizing your species mix and determining seeding rates for your food plots, one of the many services we provide to county residents!

7 way mix of Pearl Millet, Cowpea, Aeschynomene, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, Forage Soybean, and Sunflower on September 1, 2022. Photo: Daniel Leonard

It’s important to not get discouraged if your mix isn’t perfect the first year!  Planting summer wildlife forage mixes is as much art as science.  After each year, evaluate how each species did, if each species’ rate was correct, if the settings on your drill or spreader were appropriate (mine were not in year one!), and if wildlife used or avoided what you planted.  You can then adjust rates or swap species to dial your species mix and planting rates and achieve your property’s summer food plot goals! 

For more information about summer wildlife plot plantings or any other agricultural subject, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

Fall Snake Encounters

Fall Snake Encounters

As many of you know, I do programs with snakes and receive a lot of calls about them.  But in recent weeks I have seen an increase in the number of calls and the number of encounters inside of homes.  Though most of the home invasions have been in the garage, one found a gray rat snake in the cushions of her couch.  In addition to the home invasion calls I have also seen an increase with venomous snake encounters and thought I would write about the possible reasons for this increase. 

For many, snakes on the property is an unnerving situation. Photo: Molly O’Connor

Of the 48 species of snakes found in Florida, 40 are found in the western panhandle – where I live.  I decided to try a snake watch where they public would report what snakes they were seeing and what time of year.  As of September 15, there have been 54 reports.  32 of those (59%) were reported in April and May.  There are two explanations for this.  One, it is the beginning of spring and the warm temperatures have them moving from their wintering habitats.  Two, it is spring, and this is breeding season.  When breeding hormones are flowing snakes are bolder during their movements and may expose themselves more often in the search for mates.  It is also true that they have been in brumation during the winter when they feed very little and are need of food.  This could make them move more than normal as well. 

 I divided the species into subgroups mimicking publications by Dr. Whit Gibbons.  Based on this, in the western panhandle there are 7 species of small snakes, 8 mid-sized, 7 large snakes, 13 water snakes, 4 venomous snakes, and 1 non-native species.  The encounters by these subgroups so far include 1 of the 7 small snakes (14%), 3 of the 8 mid-sized snakes (38%), 5 of the 7 large snakes (71%), 5 of the 13 water snakes (38%), 3 of the 4 venomous snakes (75%), and the non-native Brahminy Blind Snake has not been reported yet. 

The eastern king snake is one of the larger snakes in the western panhandle. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The high percentage of large snake encounters makes sense because they are – well… large and easier to see.  The explanation for the high percentage of venomous snake encounters is numbers.  There are only four species to be found in the western panhandle.  It does not take many encounters to get a high percentage. 

Water snakes will be encountered only if folks are visiting local waterways and are relatively still while there.  My guess is that most encounters were from basking snakes or ones swimming across a body of water in which the observer happened to be there.  Most snakes will freeze and hide when they since we are near, and most are well camouflaged.  There are plenty of people who visit local waterways where these snakes exist.  The lower percentage of encounters with this subgroup does not mean they are not there; they were just not seen.  Many reports come from fishermen who are relatively still in their boats while fishing.  If you move, they stop.  If you stop, they move – and more will be seen. 

The banded water snake is one of the more commonly encountered water snakes. Photo: Rick O’Connor

If you look at the encounters by species, we have found 17 of the 40 western panhandle species have been encountered so far (43%).  There has been a total of 54 encounters.  Most, 13 (24%) have been with the southern black racer.  This is a common large snake that does very well in human habitats like our neighborhoods and parks.  It is active during the day and is fast enough to avoid trouble so may be more willing to expose themselves than other species.  They also have a preference for more open spaces where they can be seen. 

The southern black racer differs from other black snakes in its brilliant white chin and thin sleek body. Photo: Jacqui Berger.

The second most frequently encountered snake so far this year has been both the eastern ribbon snake and the cottonmouth – 9 reports of both.  The two account for 33% of all reports.  Eastern ribbon snakes are fans of water and are often found along the edge of water bodies.  With the increase in rainfall, many areas are wetter and encounters with this mid-sized snake have increased.  They are most active during the day, especially on warm days, and this may also play a role in why they have been seen more often than other species. 

The cottonmouth is an interesting story.  Of the four species of venomous snakes, three of these have been encountered, and their encounters make up 15 of the 54 so far this year (28%).  Of the 15 encounters, 9 were cottonmouths (60% of the venomous snake encounters, and 17% of all snake encounters reported).  It is a commonly encountered snake.  Seeing the cottonmouth as one of the top three encountered snakes in our area makes some people nervous.  Like some of the other commonly encountered snakes, they like water – and there is plenty of it in the western panhandle.  They prefer quiet water locations such as ponds, swamps, and lakes.  They frequent water holes on golf courses and retention ponds in neighborhoods.  It is also obvious that new developments are going up closer to wetlands than they did in the past – which would increase your chances of encounters.  I recently completed a three-year survey of a gated community on Perdido Key where encounter rates were high.  The interesting thing here is that barrier islands have little freshwater and are not classic cottonmouth habitat.  But for decades there have seen an increase in encounters, which prompted many studies on how they are surviving.  There are certainly natural freshwater systems on both Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Islands, but we have also created such habitats as well.  It is possible that the cottonmouth is better suited to exploit these island habitats than other species of water snakes and thus are encountered more often.  I plan to do more surveys for this, and other water snakes, on our islands beginning in 2023 and will let everyone know what we discover. 

The cottonmouth is one of the more commonly encountered snakes in the western panhandle. Photo: Bob Jackson

So, what has triggered the recent increase in home invasion and other snake encounters?

A week or two ago we experienced massive amounts of rainfall when a frontal system passed over.  You might remember the flooding that occurred in Dallas TX and Jackson MS.  That same system passed over us and generated a lot of rainfall.  Like many animals, when water levels are up, they seek higher ground.  During such events snakes are often reported in garages, porches, even in walls of homes.  People were telling me they were finding them in the bathrooms, hallways, and even in the cushions of their couches.  All of those reported were non-venomous, but cottonmouths are often encountered during these flooding events as well.   

Other encounters can be explained as they were in the spring – the weather is changing.  You may have noticed the recent decrease in humidity as a front passed over.  It is not cold yet, but the lower humidity is signaling the oncoming fall season – and the snakes’ sense this as well.  15 of the 40 species (38%) in the western panhandle have a fall breeding season in addition to the spring one.  All of the pit vipers breed in the fall and the rattlesnakes prefer fall breeding to spring.  With the oncoming of the fall, males will be out seeking females.  And as we mentioned earlier, hormones will force you to move more in the open than they may typically do. 

This eastern diamondback rattlesnake was seen crossing a dirt road near DeFuniak Springs shortly after the humidity dropped. Photo: Lauren McNally

We will continue our snake watch for the rest of the year and will give an update early in 2023.  If you do see a snake, please let us know which species and which month you encountered it.  If you have questions about snake encounters and snake safety, do not hesitate to contact your county extension office. 

Our Native Saturniid Moths

Our Native Saturniid Moths

It certainly appears that I am on an insect kick of late based on the content of my last three newsletter articles. Honestly though, when I think about it, bugs definitely rank near the top of my list for mystery and intrigue in the natural world. When we begin to dig into the details of their life histories, the revelations are mind-boggling, to say the least. Take the process of metamorphosis for instance. Scientists have described this process in detail and even identified the many hormones that trigger the changes that take place. But when I look at a caterpillar, then a pupa, and finally an adult Luna moth, all of the scientific knowledge in the world could never quell the flood of pure awe that wells up inside. Okay, I get emotional just thinking about it so let’s move on.

Luna moth caterpillars molt four times with the final instar turning a reddish brown just before it pupates. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, by Judy Gallagher

Luna moth caterpillars go through four molts, producing five instars, all exhibiting distinctly different characteristics. The fifth instar can be almost three inches long and has more bristly hairs on its skin than earlier instars. It also undergoes a dramatic color change and begins to wander as it gets very close to pupation. I saw one crossing a road once and took a picture to ID later. I was shocked to learn that it was the same species as the bright green ones I had seen pictures of. Another incredible fact about luna moth caterpillars is that when exposed to long photoperiods they tend to complete their pupal phase within 2-3 weeks but short photoperiods (i.e. as winter approaches) result in pupae that enter a dormancy period that can last up to 9 months. I remember finding a silk cocoon when I lived in Indiana during graduate school and brought it inside one Fall. I left it somewhere in the apartment and totally forgot about it. The following Summer we came home one day to find a large, beautiful cecropia moth hanging on the curtains (at least 8 months from when I found it).

All giant silk moths spin a silken cocoon some wrapped in leaves which provides effective camoflauge. Photo: Erik Lovestrand

Over my years of living in North Florida, I have had the fortune to come across several native moths belonging to the family Saturniidae. These have included the cecropia moth, luna moth, polyphemus moth, promethea moth, royal walnut moth (a.k.a. regal moth), imperial moth, orange-tipped oakworm moth, rosy maple moth, pine devil moth and io moth (beware the stinging spines of the io moth caterpillar). Some of the most visually stunning species in this group belong to the sub-family Saturniinae and are referred to as giant silk moths. This group spins a silken cocoon in which it resides during the pupal phase. When the transformation is complete, it uses horny spurs on its thorax near the base of the forewings to cut its way out of the silk cocoon. Once free of the cocoon it will find a suitable resting place to pump fluid from its swollen body into the wings until they are fully unfolded and hardened for flight. Males typically hatch a few days ahead of females and locate potential mates by homing in on pheromones produced by females.

The adult phase of a luna moth’s life is usually only about 10 days, during which time its sole mission is to mate and produce offspring. Adult moths do not even feed but live off resources stored during the larval phase. A good place to get a look at one of these magnificent creatures would be your local Recreation park during the summer months when the lights are on at the ball fields. Many of our giant silk moths are strongly attracted to lights at night and it is not unusual to find one flying around the lights or resting on a nearby structure. If you ever cease to be blown away by thinking about what it takes to make a moth into a moth, I would suggest you spend a few minutes searching your computer for images of praying mantis species (specifically, the orchid mantis). So many amazing insects out there!

Bad Cat Classic 2022 -Catfishing and Bream Tournament

Bad Cat Classic 2022 -Catfishing and Bream Tournament

Father and son team in 2021 Bad Cat Classic.

The Bad Cat Classic will be hosted on August 27, 2022 by the Holmes County by UF/IFAS Extension Holmes County. The Bad Cat Classic is a bream and catfishing tournament with the mission to get youth on the water, spending time with positive adult mentors, while learning about the natural resources in our county. Fishing will take place in the Choctawhatchee River, with the team meetings/headquarters being at the Caryville Boat Landing.

All kids 16 years of age or younger who fish in the tournament will be entered in a drawing for a Florida Lifetime Fishing License. This is sponsored by Holmes County Sherriff John Tate, Sam Bailey- Holmes County Clerk of Courts and First Federal Bank of Bonifay. The lifetime hunting license giveaway is a part of the Conservation for Generations Program that works teach kids about natural resource conservation through recreationally actives and gifts lifetime hunting/fishing licenses in memory of Randy Adams. To learn how you can contribute to this effort reach out to Kalyn Waters at 850-547-1108.

This years tournament will add a bream fishing tournament that will start on Saturday morning. Following will be the overnight catfishing tournament.

All the details for the tournament details and rules go to: Bad Cat Classic

This event is a part of a program that offers a series of outdoor recreation events with the dual purpose of getting youth involved natural resource management and encouraging adults to spend time with youth in the outdoors. Revenue enhancement that is generated from these events is used to purchase lifetime hunting license for youth in the county as a scholarship program that promotes natural resources conversation and involvement.

For information call Kalyn Waters at 850-547-1108 and follow Panhandle Outdoor Connection for details on the Bad Cat Classic and other programs coming up.

Can You Find a Coral Snake?

Can You Find a Coral Snake?

Most of you – okay… ALL of you who read this column like the outdoors.  Some like it for its peace and beauty, some for recreation opportunities, some like it for both.  One activity I have found many enjoy is seeking creatures from a list.  A sort of “bingo” approach to observing nature. 

For many, they have a list of birds they would like to see.  I have a colleague who wants to see each species of turtle in the U.S. in the wild.  I heard of a group that was trying to photograph a selected list of turtles in the wild.  I have a list of animals I hope to see while camping out west.  It is a lot of fun to do.  Many like the challenge. 

I am not sure how it started, but earlier this year I began asking people to report snakes they see while out and about.  Again, it started as just a list but then I decided to see how many of the 40 species and subspecies that call the Pensacola Bay area home we might find in one year.  The challenge was on. 

I broke the types of snakes into size categories following a guide published by Dr. Whit Gibbons and others.  In our area there are seven species of small snakes, eight species of mid-sized snakes, seven species of large snakes, 13 species of water snakes, and four species of venomous snakes.  There is one species of introduced snakes.  Here are the results so far –

Category# Known species# Seen
Small snakes70
Mid-sized snakes83
Large snakes75
Water snakes135
Venomous snakes43
Introduced snakes10
Snake sightings in the Pensacola Bay Area (Jan-Jul 2022)

Seeing no small snakes makes sense… they are small and are mostly nocturnal. 

Seeing most of the large snakes also makes sense… they are large and easier to notice. 

Not seeing a lot of water snakes also makes sense.  First, you have to spend a lot of time on our rivers and lakes to see them.  Second, they are not easy to tell apart.  That said, we have seen almost half. 

It is interesting we have seen three of the four venomous snakes.  Cottonmouth encounters are quite common, but the two species of rattlesnakes (pygmy and eastern diamondback) are not.  But… the one that is missing… is the eastern coral snake. 

The eastern coral snake. Photo: Ed Lewis

Seeing a coral snake is actually a rare thing.  I bet if you asked 100 people “how many of you have seen a live coral snake in the wild?” very few would reply yes. 

Why so few encounters?

Is this species declining?

I personally have only seen only two corals snakes in the wild in my life.  Three if you count the time my dad said I was playing with one in the first grade – but I do not remember that.  The two I saw were both at the Naval Live Oaks section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Gulf Breeze. 

The first was when I was a Boy Scout camping there in the late 1960s.  We came across the snake coiled around the base of a palmetto.  We all knew what it was and did not get close, but all enjoyed watching it thinking how lucky we were.  I remember how docile it was.  No angry rattle.  No nasty gaping white mouth.  Just chillaxing and enjoying the day.  Being boys, we had to see it move.  We got a stick and nudge it.  It just looked at us as if to say – “What are you doing?  You know who I am? You know what I can do?”  We left it alone, but it was an amazing experience. 

The distinct black head of the coral snake. Photo: Ed Lewis

The second encounter was also at Naval Live Oaks, but many years later.  I was conducting a box turtle survey within the Seashore and following a transect I had set to search.  I was moving slowly, looking hard, when I heard to some rustling in the leaves to my right.  The type of rustling you hear when an armadillo is moving nearby.  But there was no armadillo.  I continued to hear the noise and searched for a small mammal when I realized it was coming from beneath the leaf litter.  Using my hiking stick, I moved the leaves to find a large coral snake crawling.  You can imagine my excitement.  At this stage of my life, I had been a science educator for a long time and had taught about these snakes a lot, but only had seen one in my life. 

The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius fulvius) is found across much of the coastal southeastern United States.  There are records in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.  They do seem to be more common in Florida than other states.  They can easily be recognized by their classic red/black/yellow banded colors.  There are mimics who have this coloration but the old song “red on yellow will kill a fellow” does work with this subspecies.  Also, the mimics in our region have red heads, where the eastern coral has a black one.  The literature states they prefer dry sandhill environments but can be found in hardwoods (which where I found them) and wet flatwoods dominated by pines. 

The best chance to find one is in the spring and fall and most often found during or after rain.  As I found, they spend most of their time beneath the ground or under leaf litter but when they do move above ground, they seem to prefer mornings. 

Coral snake found near Eglin AFB. Photo: Carrie Stevenson

Their food of choice are lizards and snakes.  They will grab their prey and chew releasing the venom.  They do have their predators.  Kingsnakes, notorious for eating other snakes, are one, but indigo snakes, and black racers will also consume them.   When they encounter a potential predator their first response is usually to try and hide underground.  If this does not work, they will flatten their bodies hiding their heads beneath a coil and sometimes raise their tails to appear as the head end.  As I observed, they are not terribly aggressive snakes but anyone seeing one should keep their distance. 

Coral snakes have a neurotoxin, different than the hemotoxins find in the pit vipers.  They are more closely related to sea snakes and cobras, who have a similar toxin.  Deaths from this snake are rare, but encounters and bites are also rare. 

Do I encourage you seek out this snake for our project?

No… The bite from this animal can be very serious.  Though the majority of venomous snake bites come from copperheads, and most fatalities from western diamondback rattlesnake, this is NOT a snake to mess with.  If you do see one, let us know and consider yourself lucky.  But keep a safe distance.  It is amazing to see one.