Winter Wildlife Part 2 – Bald Eagles

Winter Wildlife Part 2 – Bald Eagles

Six months ago, they were predicting a colder than normal winter.  In January that seemed to be the case.  We had multiple fronts with high winds and temperatures dropping into the 20s.  But February has been different.  As I type this, it is 62°F and we have had some of the nicest days we have had in a while.  Sunny, low humidity, really nice.  AND THE GROUNDHOG SAW HIS SHADOW!!! So… maybe an early spring? 

With the warmer temperatures I thought we might encounter some of our ectothermic friends (amphibians and reptiles).  On days like we have seen, snakes and turtles will come out from their winter hiding spots to bask in the sun.  Since our early winter article, two cottonmouths have been seen on Santa Rosa Island.  They were both reported as being very sluggish – but that is to be expected – it is still winter, and the temperatures are still low in the mornings.  With that thought in mind we did our February mid-winter hike at Ft. Pickens. 

A cottonmouth found on the trail near Ft. Pickens. Photo: Ricky Stackhouse

The hike was on February 6.  It was a beautiful sunny day, the temperature was 49°F, light wind from the north.  I will say, in the wind it was a bit chilly, but behind the dunes it was very pleasant. 

Along the trail I noticed a lot of green plants, but nothing was in bloom.  Often the change in temperature can fool flowering plants into blooming early.  However, the pine trees were full of male and female cones.  They were definitely getting ready for pollen season. 

The female cone of a pine tree. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The male cones of this pine tree are releasing the all too familiar yellow dust pollen. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I began in the middle of the island in the hardwoods, moving slowly hoping to find a basking snake.  I did not, but I did see numerous woodland songbirds.  I am not a good birder, but I believe there were varieties of warblers, titmice, wrens, and the always present mockingbird.  I did spot a great blue heron on a nest.  Birds are endothermic – and this is their time – a great time to do some birding if you like that. 

Blue herons often use the tops of pine trees for nesting. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I took another trail heading towards the beach.  This crossed through more woodlands before reaching the dunes and the shore.  It was in the woodland area I came across a bald eagle nest.  Many of us remember a time when we never saw bald eagles around here.  Now they are becoming more common and nesting all around the bay area.  These awesome birds are similar to dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and the Blue Angels – you never get tired of seeing them.  It is always an exciting moment when one flies over.  

The American bald eagle. Photo: Rick O’Connor

There was no wildlife on the beach that day but there were plenty of tracks.  Mammals, even in the winter, still prefer to move around under the cover of darkness.  I found the tracks of armadillo and raccoon, common mammals on our island, but there was another set that was harder to identify.  The paw had the imprint of a cat (no claws visible) but the track was quite large for a feral cat.  If it was, it was a big cat.  I have seen bobcats in the Gulf Breeze area, and you cannot rule them out, but the pattern of the stride appeared more like an otter.  Otter tracks would be webbed – these were not – so… I am not sure what it was.

Most encounter island mammals by finding their tracks. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Leaving the beach, I returned to the inland trail heading back to the truck.  On this portion of the trail, you cross over ponds just outside the walls of the fort.  As I glanced across the water – hoping for a swimming snake – I saw something else.  It surfaced briefly and then dove again.  At first, I thought it was a diving bird, such as a cormorant or loon, but when it resurfaced, I saw that it was not.  It was an otter.  I had seen otters before in this area, and other pond areas on the island, but – like the bald eagle and dolphin – it is always exciting to see them again. 

Based on this hike, it is still the time of the “warm-blooded”.  Birds and mammals were the creatures most visible.  We will see if this warming trend continues.  Maybe during the late winter hike in March, we will see some of the “cold-bloods” come out.  Maybe it WILL be an early spring. 

Get out and hike – the weather is fine! 

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

The Florida Master Naturalist Program

Kayaking over seagrass beds and stingrays, hiking among pitcher plants, boating past diving ospreys, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just some of the great experiences I’ve had while teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. More than 20 years since its inception, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.

Kayaking Santa Rosa Sound in Navarre is one of the highlights of our Coastal Systems FMNP class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With the FMNP, we seek to do just that.

Master Naturalist students conduct field work in small groups. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Over a span of 40 hours in 6-7 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. Registration includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.

Master Naturalist students walk “The Way” boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The classes do not count towards university credit but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that many will list on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists participate, most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often form long-lasting friendships during the courses.

Information on upcoming classes in northwest Florida and all around the state is available online. Classes range from fully in-person to hybrid and online options. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.

Wildlife on the Beach in May

Wildlife on the Beach in May

It is mid-spring and time of nesting for much of the wildlife in the area.  It is also noticeably warmer than our previous hikes.  Due to my work schedule, and the surveys for other nesting activity, I did this hike earlier in the month and later in the day, than I typically would have.  I began my hike at 1:00pm – near the hottest part of the day, and not the best time to see wildlife, but I definitely wanted to get a hike in this month and so this is when I could.

The Gulf was relatively calm on this early afternoon in spring.

It was warm.  On this day it was 83°F and there was a light breeze from the southeast.  On the previous hikes I needed my fleece.  Though I had it in my backpack, I did not need it today.  My hike was at Big Sabine and as usual, I began on the Gulf of Mexico.  The first thing I noticed when I crossed over the boardwalk was the number of people.  I usually hike in the early morning or late afternoon and see few humans.  But at mid-day the beach was full of people, and I probably looked strange walking among them with my long pants, long sleeved shirt, and boots.  The second thing I noticed was mats of Sargassum on the beach.

 

Sargassum is a floating brown algae we see in the warmer months in our part of the Gulf.  It is first an algae, not a true plant.  Algae lack roots, stems, and leaves.  They produce no cones, fruit nor flowers with seeds.  They are nonvascular, meaning they lack a system of vein-like tubes that move water around the plant.  Plants usually do have these tubes.  They are not called arteries and veins as they are in animals, but rather xylem and phloem.  Because algae lack this circulation system, they live emersed in the water.  Since they lack true roots they anchor to hard substrate, like rocks and coral, using a suction type apparatus called a holdfast.  The flexible, herbaceous stipe, analogous to the stem, flows in the current extending their blades (analogous to leaves) into the light.  Like plants, algae require water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to photosynthesize their food.  Because of this they need to live in relatively shallow water, and they need a rocky bottom to attach their holdfast to.  We have little hard bottom and therefore less of the classic algae you read about in other parts of the world.

Notice the small air bladders on this Sargassum weed. These are used by the algae to remain near the sunlit waters of the open Gulf.

 

Sargassum has a different plan to deal with this problem.  They float.  When you look at this seaweed on the beach you will notice they have numerous small circular air bladders called pneumatophores.  These air bladders allow Sargassum to float in the sunlit waters of the Gulf and not worry about how, or where, they would attach their holdfast.

 

Large mats of Sargassum can be found floating out in the open Gulf and these mats provide a fantastic habitat for many small and large marine creatures.  There are sargassum crabs, sargassum shrimp, and even a sargassum sea horse.  There is a small filefish and a frogfish known as the sargassum fish.  It is the target for baby sea turtles that successfully made it from the beach, through the surf, and into the open Gulf without being consumed.  Here they will live and feed for many months at which time they are large enough to venture back out.  Larger fish often seek out these mats searching for food, and fishermen seek the mats knowing that larger fish are probably in the area.

 

These mats of Sargassum get caught in the large ocean currents and find their way to the middle of the Atlantic.  Here the ocean is calm, like the eye of a hurricane, and huge mats of Sargassum can be found piled up.  Christopher Columbus found this massive expanse of Sargassum while crossing the Atlantic.  Because it was calm here, and the Sargassum so thick, his ships became becalmed and he noted in his log to avoid this place, which was then called the “Sargasso Sea”.

 

On today’s hike there was quite a bit of this seaweed washed ashore.  Most of the marine life living in the seaweed sense the waves and the impending beaching, and jettison for mats further offshore.  So, you usually do not find many creatures in the seaweed washed ashore, but sometimes you do.  You can take a small dip net out deeper and grab some still floating and you may have better luck.  Today, I explored what was washed ashore and did not find much.  I did find a lot of plastic, and those who study Sargassum ecology will tell there is a lot of plastic debris caught up in the Sargassum mats.  Today I noticed a lot of bottle caps.  Not many bottles, but lots of bottle caps.  As many others do, we encourage everyone to dispose of the garbage properly.  I read this week of a manatee found near Mobile Bay earlier this year who died of cold stress but had swallowed a plastic bag, which was caught in his throat.  Marine debris kills.  Please dispose of your trash properly.

This crab pot float was one of several debris items washed in with the sargassum.

 

Heading inland to the dune field I heard sirens.  The beach patrol was answering a call.  I am not sure where, nor what the issue was, but these again are sounds I do not usually hear when hiking early and late in the day.  There are currents in the Gulf that can suck you out to sea, and each year we have visitors drown not knowing where these currents are, or how to get out of them if they are caught in one.  Pay attention to the colored flags and be careful.  I never saw, nor heard, an ambulance follow the beach patrol.  So, I am guessing everyone was okay on this call.

 

The dune field on this May afternoon was warm.  There was a light breeze from the southeast that kept things from getting too warm, but it was warm none the less.  As we move closer the hot days of summer the wildlife will move more at dawn and dusk, as well as in the evening.  I was not expecting to see a lot on this hike.

 

This flat area of the dune field was quite warm on this afternoon and made me think of crossing a desert.

This was an unusual site, a pigeon walking in the open dune field.

 

 

As always you can see what has been moving by searching for tracks and tracks, I did find.  Many of them were human, indicating the tourist season is upon us, but there were tracks of animals as well.  There were plenty from our friends the raccoon and armadillo.  I did notice more raccoon tracks this month.  I and my volunteers who survey nesting beaches notice more raccoon tracks this time of year looking for eggs.  I also noticed more snake tracks on this hike, they too are mating and moving much more.  The lizard tracks were fresh, and I have noticed these moving during the warmer parts of the day and their tracks running across the dune face told me they were very busy that day.

This straight line the sign of a tail drag by a lizard, most likely the six-lined skink.

Many who visit the dunes of our barriers find these burrow looking trails. These are made by beetles.

I followed this snake track until I found this – what appears to be a “tussle” the snake had with a possible prey.

 

Being spring you would expect flowers, and there were some, just not as many as you might expect.  Most of them were white and were blooming on plants near the boggy areas of the swales.  The conradina that blooms more in the winter, was done and the blossoms were gone.  I did see the early stages of the magnolia flowers trying to come up, but the bright green shoots of new growth on the pines were not visible.  There were bees, lots of bees.

The lavender blossoms of the false rosemary, which appeared in winter, are now gone.

White flowers were common on this spring afternoon. Such as this one on the spiny bull nettle.

Another white flower is seen on this Sagittaria growing in one of the swales between dunes.

 

I hiked through a small pine scrub area thinking I might someone in the shade avoiding the heat of the day but did not find anything.  I went along the edge of the tertiary dunes where they meet the maritime forest looking for the same thing.  Nothing, but there were tracks.  The cactus seemed to be more abundant this month.

 

The pine scrub offered one of the few places with shade.

The dune field of a Florida panhandle barrier island.

From atop of one of the higher dunes you can see the steep drop towards the marsh.

 

 

Along the ridge between the maritime forest and the salt marsh is where I found the otter slide last month.  I did not see any evidence of otters today.  The bird action was slower today as well.  Maybe because of the heat they too had settled somewhere.  I did not see an osprey, which is unusual.

Big Sabine as seen from atop one of the larger dunes.

 

As I reached the beach of the Sound, I did notice a LOT of digging by armadillos.  They had been very active.  There were no snakes or marsh rats.  There were again people, these were on jet skis.  There were a few fishing from small boats.  With no rain over the last week or so the visibility in the Sound was amazing, but I only saw one small blue crab.  No hermit crabs and not any fish.  However, the lagoon of the marsh the killifish, also known as bull minnows, were abundant and the males all aglow with their iridescent blue colors of breeding season.  The males were chasing each other all over the tidal pools and open water of the lagoon designating their territories for current breeding that would follow.  I did notice more crows than I usually do and what made me catch their attention was the constant calling at me and the hovering over me suggesting they too were breeding, and an active nest was nearby.

A blue heron is seen sitting in a pine overlooking Santa Rosa Sound.

A small Seserma crab is seen hiding under grass along the beach of the Sound.

The crows were numerous and active on this spring afternoon.

 

I was not expecting much hiking in the middle of the afternoon, but it is always good to do these just to see what is moving.  I hope to do another hike this month either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Maybe we will see more.

It may be hard to see, but there was a small duck enjoying the Sound.

With little rain over the last few days the water clarity was excellent and you could see the seagrass very well.

Wildlife on the Beach in April

Wildlife on the Beach in April

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.

Wildlife on the Beach in March

Wildlife on the Beach in March

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.

 

Wildlife on the Beach in February

Wildlife on the Beach in February

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.