The open grasslands of the American west support huge herds of grazing herbivores such as bison, antelope, and deer. These large herds again support populations of hunters such as wolves, coyotes, and – historically – bears. The huge acres of wetland grasses we call marshes are productive as well, with all sorts of grazing creatures that feed on the grass like snails and insects, which in turn support populations of first order carnivores like birds, crabs, and turtles, who then feed larger predators like alligators, otters, and raccoons.
One would think that the submerged seagrass meadows would work in the same way. But there are no large herds of bison like creatures that graze on the grasses. True, manatees and sea turtles do graze on these, but not in the numbers we see with bison and antelope. There are numerous species of snails and crustaceans that live in seagrass, but it is not the grass they are interested in… it is the epibiota. These epibiota are the key to vast diversity of creatures living in seagrasses. If you snorkel or seine through a submerged grassbed you will notice the majority of creatures are small. This place is a nursery for the estuarine and marine environments. These grasses provide excellent hiding places and the epibiota provide the food they need to grow.
So, what are these epibiota?
The term epibiota means “creatures that live on other creatures”. They can be further broken down into epiphytes (plants that growth on other creatures), and epizoids (animals that grow on other creatures). Spanish moss is a familiar example of an epiphyte most people know. Barnacles growing on a turtle shell, or a whale could be an epizoid you are familiar with. Many epibiota are small, even microscopic. You can see the algae growing on the shells of turtles, or the fur of the sloth. There are also numerous epizoids that are microscopic, and no one sees. It is a whole field of microbiology – the study of the natural history and diversity of this tiny world that, certainly in the case of seagrasses, makes the whole thing work.
With the seagrasses you will not always see the epibiota we are talking about. At times, there are mats of algae growing on the grass like Spanish moss on oak trees. We typically see these epibiotic macroalgae growing on seagrasses in the spring and summer. Most of these algal mats are red algae. Studies have shown that they support juvenile animals as hiding habitat and can increase the overall biomass of seagrass meadows. But, like with all things, too much of a good thing can have a negative effect on seagrass meadows as well. The seaweed can smother the grasses, reducing needed sunlight, and enhance the decline of seagrasses in some areas.
Most of the epibiota feeding the growing populations of shellfish and finfish using these nurseries are microscopic plants and animals that appear to us as “scum” on the blades of the grass. As you might expect, the wider the blade (in this case turtle grass) can support a higher diversity and abundance of growing grazers than the thinner shoal grass.
A study conducted in 1964 listed 113 species of microscopic algae existing on the blades of seagrasses in Florida. They include such creatures as diatoms, cynobacteria, and bryozoans. We will focus on these.
Diatoms are single celled plant-like algae that are encased in a clear silica shell. They are one of the most abundant forms of oxygen producing plant-like creatures found in the sea. Many species drift with the phytoplankton layers of the open ocean. Others are benthic, living on the bottom upon rocks, seawalls, turtle shells, and seagrasses. It has been stated that 50% of the oxygen produced on our plant comes from the diatoms and the dinoflagellates (another microscopic plankton).
Cyanobacteria are what many call blue-green algae. They produce a darker colored green with their photosynthetic pigments – thus the name blue-green algae – but were not initially identified as a bacteria – which they are now because they lack an organized nucleus. Many have heard of the recent cyanobacteria blooms in central and south Florida in freshwater systems. Some species are toxic and have caused fish kills and even made pets, who drank from water with cynaobacteria, very sick. There hundreds of different species found in marine systems. Like diatoms, some live in the water column, others are attached to an object on the bottom – like seagrasses.
Bryozoans are microscopic colonial animals. They act and behave similar to corals, though they are much smaller. Some species appear as a “cast net” over the shell of a snail or clam, and can be seen on blades of turtle grass as well. There are many other species of these colonial creatures that call seagrass home.
We are highlighting these three groups but there are many other forms of epiphytes and epizoids growing on these grass blades. And it is these that the small grazers, like tiny crustaceans, feed upon, which in turn are what the millions of small silver juvenile finfish and crabs are feeding on. The seagrass meadow biodiversity and productivity is dependent on them and most Panhandle folks do not know they are there. Dr. Edward O. Wilson made a comment in his book Half Earth, that we have been focused on conservation of wildlife and habitat for many years now – but we fully do not understand what it is we are trying to conserve. We focus on blue crab and manatee conservation and do not realize that conservation of these micro-communities is essential for conservation, or restoration, success. The first step in conserving such communities is knowing they exist and how they support the system. You now have a little more knowledge of them, but there is SO much more to learn.
Many in the Florida panhandle are aware of the importance of seagrasses to estuarine ecology. They have heard this many times before and have heard how important it is to protect them. Some are aware that they are important as a nursery for many commercial important fin and shellfish. But fewer are aware of the diversity of life that exists in these “fields of grass”. Much of the life there is small and unnoticeable until you don a mask and explore. Even then, you need to slow down and look closely.
In this series on “Sea of Grass” we will be looking at some of the species that reside in these massive meadows expanding the Florida panhandle. We begin with the grasses themselves.
Seagrasses are just that – grasses that grow “under the sea”. They are similar in many ways to the grasses that grow in your yards. Their blades extend above the sediment and are usually all one sees as they are exploring the meadows. Being true plants, they do have stems – but these stems run horizontally beneath the sediments and are called rhizomes. Rhizomes are like “runners” and extend the plants across the landscape. Many have discovered rhizomes in their yards when pulling weeds. You begin to pull and a the runner exposes itself like pulling a thread from a sweater. From these rhizomes extend the small roots. Like lawn grass, seagrass use the roots to help anchor them in place and remove water and nutrients from the environment. But they are immersed in water and, like many marine creatures, have the ability to desalinate it so they have a source of freshwater.
Like all plants, seagrasses require sunlight for photosynthesis. Thus, they must grow in shallow water. In the western panhandle they are limited by the availability of light and are usually found in the estuaries where the water depth is not more than 10 feet. As you move into the eastern panhandle, particularly close to where the Big Bend begins, there are fewer large rivers depositing muddy water, more expanses of salt marsh to remove sediments from runoff, here seagrasses can grow deeper. Here they can expand into the open Gulf of Mexico itself producing hundreds of thousands of acres of these grass meadows.
They are not fond of high energy systems. Large waves can rip seagrasses from the bottom and deposit them onshore. In the western panhandle the Gulf generates larger waves and thus the grasses are found in the protection of the lagoons, sounds, and bayous. Near the Big Bend natural wave energy is low enough to support them in the open Gulf. It has been estimated that Florida has between 2.2 and 2.5 million acres of seagrass. Most of this is along the west coast of the peninsula running from the Florida Keys to the Big Bend1.
There are seven known species of seagrass in the state. Three of these are common in the panhandle and an additional one, Manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme), is beginning to expand its range into our area.
Two of our common species prefer more saline water – water with a salinity at least 20 parts per thousand (ppt). Those are Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii). These grasses both have flat blades but differ in blade width. Turtle grass is wider (4-12mm) and resembles St. Augustine grass from our lawns. Because of the wider blade, they grow in deeper water (not being able to tolerate the break waves and whitecaps near the surface). Shoal grass is very thin (<4mm) and feels more like human hair when you run your toes and fingers through it. Manatee grass resembles shoal grass in size but has a round blade instead of a flat one. In the Pensacola area we are beginning to find patches of it growing in Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound.
Widgeon grass (Ruppia martimia) can tolerate the higher salinities of the lower estuary but can also tolerate the lower salinities of the upper estuary. It dominates the lagoons and bayous of the upper Pensacola Bay system. It has a thin flat blade like shoal grass but differs in that it branches as it grows instead of a single blade extending about the surface.
These meadows of seagrass provide food and habitat for a myriad of marine creatures, who we will meet in other posts in this series. In Part 2 we will begin with one that is very important but very few know is even there – the epiphytes.
No one species has altered the land, sea, and sky – as well as decreased the overall biodiversity of the planet in such as short time as has Homo sapien. Since we have arrived on this planet we have slowly dispersed across all continents, oceans, and even the polar regions. In our wake we have changed the landscape. Altering forests and changing waterways. We have built communities and cities and, in recent years, increased the amount of waste we produce to impact the land, water, and even change the climate. Our planet has encountered major changes in climate and habitats before – but not at the rate it is currently happening, and many are not able to adapt fast enough. Wildlife over much of the planet has declined due to our activities – and barrier islands are not an exception.
Humans first arrived in the Florida panhandle a little over 10,000 years ago. Most of them built communities along our riverways and deltas. As with much of coastal wildlife, barrier islands were difficult places to inhabit. There is little freshwater, selected game to hunt (though an abundance of seafood – which they did seek), intense heat in the summer and cold in the winter, and tropical storms – where there were few places to hide. It appears humans did visit the islands but did not settle there. The early European colonists tried, but unsuccessfully – they had to moved inland.
In the Pensacola Bay area, the first settlements that were successful were fortifications placed there by the U.S. Army to protect the communities where people lived. These were brick fortifications that held up well against the storms, all built with large cisterns to collect freshwater for the troops stationed there. Soldiers accessed them using ferries.
In the early 20th century locals from Pensacola built a casino at what is now Pensacola Beach. There were casinos, boxing, and food vendors for those who made the day trip by ferry to visit the location.
Much of this early human activity had little impact on the island wildlife. Humans were concentrated in specific locations and did not / could not venture very far from them. But when automobiles became more commonplace with people, bridges soon followed, and things did begin to change. More cars meant more people, and the need for roads. These roads bisected the dune system and altered how they naturally progressed with wind and waves. Not only did dune dynamics change but dunes began to disappear with the new homes and hotels that were built.
Homes, cars, and roads made life for several island creatures tough. Most of the shorebirds using the islands as nesting areas lay their nests on the sand. The white/speckled eggs blend in well with the white sand and the warm sand helped incubate them. There were fewer predators on these beaches and so, protection of the chicks was achieved more by driving off any potential threat by “dive bombing” them. This did not work with humans, nor their cars. The roads became hazards for them, and small chicks were often hit by cars. Today some species are threatened and have been given federal protection.
In recent years beaches houses have become true homes, with lawns and gardens. This alters the natural landscape even more. Along with the altering of the dune systems, this impacted many dune creatures like the beach mice. The species on Perdido Key is now considered endangered, and also has federal protection.
Additional housing, development, and roads led to additional needs in lighting in the evening. Many barrier island creatures need “dark skies,” but notably are the nesting sea turtles. In recent years 50-60% of sea turtle nests on our islands have had adults and hatchlings “disorient” towards the artificial lighting instead of the moon/star light that reflects off of the Gulf. This, along with other human related impacts like structures left in the sand at night, have caused a decline in these turtles and they too are now federal protected.
You could not mention impacts by the human presence without mentioning solid waste – marine debris. Modern humans produce a wide variety of plastic products which we bring to the beach, and some of it ends up in the environment. Sea turtles, shore birds, and even manatees have been found either entangled in it or having ingested it. Much of this marine debris is problematic for the wildlife there.
Recently there has been an increased issue of pet cats that are allowed to roam the island at night. These pets (some strays) are known for the impact they can have on small wildlife like birds.
We were lucky in Escambia County during the 1970s to have the National Park purchase about 50% of the island as a National Seashore. This has provided a space for the island creatures and a great nature/cultural tourism destination.
No one moves to the beach with the intent of harming wildlife, but our sense of changing things when we arrive – which we have been doing for some time – does impact them. The answer to this problem is to learn how to live, and develop, with the wildlife on the islands. The islands play a crucial role in protecting the mainland from storms and providing habitat for several unique species. Many of these species are beneficial to our lives by playing an ecological role in maintaining the island. It can be done.
I hope you have learned something new in this nine-part series on barrier island wildlife. If you have, please let me know by emailing email@example.com. I hope you get a chance to explore our islands and maybe see some of these neat creatures.
As the name implies, they are haunting—long stretches of standing, dead trees with exposed roots. These “ghost forests” are an unsettling scene in unsettling times for the environment. While coastal erosion is a fact of life—incoming waves, hurricanes, longshore drift of beach sand—the rate of its occurrence is startling lately.
Global rises in sea level due to increased atmospheric carbon levels mean more saltwater is moving into flat, coastal habitats that once served as a buffer from the open water. Salt is an exceedingly difficult compound for plants to handle, and only a few species have evolved mechanisms for tolerating it. Low-growing salt marshes and thick mangrove stands have always served as “first line of defense” buffers to take in wave action and absorb saltwater. If shorelines have too much wave action for marshes to form, wide stretches of sandy beach and dunes serve the same function, protecting the inland species of shrubs and trees. Many coastal areas are flat and stay at or just above sea level for thousands of yards, or even miles. This means that even a small increase in sea level can send saltwater deep into previously freshwater systems, drowning the marsh and flooding stands of oak and pine. The salt and sulfate in seawater will kill a tree quickly, although it may remain standing, dead, for months or years. Hurricanes and tropical storms exacerbate that damage, scouring out chunks of shoreline and knocking down already-unstable trees.
A slow increase in sea level could be tolerated and adapted to as salt marshes move inland and replace non-salt tolerant species. But this process of ecological succession can be interrupted if erosion and increased water levels occur too quickly. And if there is hard infrastructure inland of the marshes (like roads or buildings), the system experiences “coastal squeeze,” winnowing the marsh to a thin, eventually nonexistent ribbon, with no natural protection for that expensive infrastructure.
Ghost forests are popping up everywhere. Last year, Popular Mechanics magazine reported on a recently published study that used satellite imagery to document how 11% of a previously healthy forest was converted to standing dead trees along the coast of North Carolina. The trees died within a span of just 35 years (1984-2019). During that time frame, this stretch of coastline also experienced an extended drought and Category 3 Hurricane Irene. These impacts sped up the habitat loss, with over 19,000 hectares converted from forest to marsh and 1100 hectares of marsh vegetation gone, becoming open water.
Due to increased coastal flooding and saltwater standing in forested areas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are concerned that the historic Harriett Tubman Byway in Maryland—part of the famed underground railroad of the Civil War era—will soon be gone. Over 5,000 acres of tidal marsh have converted to open water in the area and large stands of trees have died. Even locally, trees along Escambia and Blackwater Bay are dying due to salt damage and heavy erosion. Hurricane Sally delivered a knockout punch to many remaining trees along the scenic bluffs of the bay.
Sea level has risen over 10” in the past 100 years in the Pensacola Bay area, and even mid-range Army Corps of Engineers estimates expect 0.6 to 1.4 feet of rise in the area by 2045. There are some actions we can take to mitigate future damage. Building a “living shoreline” of vegetation along a piece of waterfront property instead of using a seawall can help, especially if the vegetation growth outpaces sea level rise. You can also visit the City of Pensacola’s Climate Task Force report to learn more about climate action recommended (and being taken) locally, such as increasing the use of renewable energy and dedicating staff to sustainability measures.
The land of the wet and muddy – that’s what lot of folks call the salt marsh. If you have ever experienced walking through one you know why they call it that. Salt marshes are wetlands that are dominated by grasses and are partially flooded with salt water during high tide; some portions of the marsh are still flooded at low tide. The grasses that grow there are halophytes (salt tolerant). Their diversity is low, but abundance is high.
Salt marshes grow on the protected side of the island – the bay side – and even there they do better in protective coves and inlets off of the main shoreline. They are not big fans of high wave energy. The grasses that live there are spaced in zones. Smooth cordgrass (Spartina) is more water and salt tolerant than black needlerush (Juncus) and is found along the marsh edge close to the shore of the bay itself. Black needlerush dominates the upper marsh closer to the maritime forest and tertiary dunes.
If you approach the marsh from the dune/forest side, you will encounter a dense field of needlerush. As you step into it you will experience soupy layers of black mud and detritus. Your feet sink and, if you do not have on secured shoes, you will lose them. You will get the odor of rotten eggs as you walk. This is hydrogen sulfide released by bacteria who are decomposing the leaf litter, and other organic matter, that is trapped and collected with the rising and falling tide. There is not a lot of wildlife in this area. The mud is deep, and the food sources are few. You will notice small white snails on the needlerush blades. These are marsh periwinkles. During high tide they move up the grass blades to avoid predators, at low tide they come down to feed on the organic material on the exposed mud.
Eventually you find small creeks heading towards the bay. Here the water is murky and the bottom still very muddy. Scattered amongst the needlerush are mounds of high dry ground covered in salt bush (Baccharis) where some animals can move around much better. Raccoons frequently these small “islands” seeking the numerous fish and shellfish that can be found in the creeks. Ribbed mussels can be found attached the base of the needlerush and are a particular favorite of the raccoons. Juvenile blue crabs can be found scavenging food sources in the creeks, juvenile mullet is common, as are small killifish and mollies. These can provide food for wading birds like the great blue heron who has widespread feet that resist sinking in the mud and allow them to hunt. Sometimes oysters and crown conchs are found in the creeks. Oysters do not move and cement to each other forming clumps. They filter feed in the water column collecting organic material and improving the water clarity – unless you walk through and sir up the mud and silt.
These small creeks become wider and deeper as you approach the bay. In places the bottom becomes sandier, and all of this allows other species to forage. The above mentioned are still present. Oyster clumps become more numerous because they are not covered by the silt of the upper marsh. In the sandier areas flounder can be found feeding on the small fish and shrimp that reside here. This part of the marsh can be an important nursery for many open estuarine species. A variety of shrimp are found here, crabs, and juvenile fish as well. With more sand it is easier for herons to walk and hunt.
There are also a few reptiles found here. The American alligator can be found at times, but are more common in the open lagoons. The Gulf salt marsh snake (Nerodia) resides here. They are nocturnal and rarely seen. But in the spring when breeding is going on, they can be encountered during daylight hours. These are none venomous snakes.
Interestingly the venomous cottonmouth can be found here. This is an interesting story. The cottonmouth is associated with freshwater. It is not surprising, or uncommon, to find them near the freshwater ponds we have discussed already. By they do not have the lachrymal glands found in sea turtles and terrapins that allow them to swallow seawater, excrete the salt through glands in their eyes, and use this as a freshwater source. It appears that the cottonmouth needs freshwater for drinking. Despite this they are being encountered more often in more saline areas. One barrier island near Cedar Key, Seahorse Key, supports a large population of cottonmouths. It has been stated there may be more per square meter there than anywhere in Florida – and there is no source of freshwater. Researchers from the University of Florida have found they drink from pools of freshwater that form after heavy rains and are very opportunistic when it comes to selecting prey – including other cottonmouths. The species found on Seahorse Key is Agkistrodon conanti (Florida Cottonmouth). The eastern cottonmouth (A. piscivorous) is the one most common in and around our freshwater systems. It would be interesting to determine which species is living on our barrier islands, and how they use the landscape. Though I have never seen them swimming in the larger creeks of the marsh, I have seen them basking along its edges many times. I am sure they use this saline environment.
Another unique marsh reptile is the turtle known as the diamondback terrapin. This is the only resident estuarine turtle in the United States. They are related to the freshwater pond turtles people frequently see but prefer the more saline marshes of these islands. They feed primarily on shellfish and have a preference for the marsh periwinkle snails that climb the grass blades.
River otters have been found swimming in these large creeks searching for food. They seem to like both fish and shellfish. Redfish can be found in the wider deeper creeks. The mullet and flounder found here are larger.
Hermit crabs are abundant here. These are crabs whose abdomens are not covered by shell. So, they must seek abandoned mollusk snails to “hide their rears”. They will select any shell but seem to prefer oyster drill and moon snail shells – possibly because they are more abundant. Oyster drills are snails who use their serrated tooth (a radula) for “drilling” into oyster and consuming them. Crown conchs and ribbed mussels are abundant here.
These larger creeks sometimes feed directly into the bay, but sometimes they feed into a large open lagoon. These lagoons are full of fish. Mullet, redfish, flounder, stingrays, pinfish, and – if deep enough – even small sharks can be found here. Wading birds, like herons and egrets, and common along the shorelines and diving birds, like osprey and pelicans, are found here. The shoreline near the grasses still has small juvenile fish. The sandy beaches can support the hunting of raccoons and armadillo tracks are common. The alligator encounters I have had are more common here and we often see the heads of terrapins. The river otters I have seen here are usually along the edges.
Another unique marsh critter is the fiddler crab. Though found throughout the marsh, they seem to be more abundant where there is more sand. Related to the ghost crab of the Gulf side, these small crabs dig burrows down to the water table. When the tide is high, they plug their burrows with mud and sand, then wait. When low tide arrives they emerge in the thousands to scavenge the shoreline for organic material in the sand – forming these round balls of sand as they are cleaning it that I call “coco-puffs”.
All large creeks and lagoons are connected to the open bays of the northern Gulf of Mexico where seagrass meadows form. As you walk the north shores of panhandle barrier islands you find sandy beaches often loosely covered by a variety of grasses. Walking inland you again return to either the tertiary dunes or maritime forest and may be another salt marsh. You have now experienced the primary habitats, and wildlife found within, on our barrier islands. But there are new concerns that could alter the ecology of these systems. One of those are invasive species. We will discuss this one in Part 8.
For some the forest is a scary place; for some it is a magical one; and for others it is spiritual. For wildlife it is a popular place. There are many places to shelter and plenty of food. Though the forest of our barrier islands is not as dense and dark as those of the west coast of the United States or the mountains of Appalachia, it is very wooded provides the same needs. Much of the wildlife on our islands call this part home. Even if they forge in the dunes, or on the beach, it is the forest where they reside.
I have hiked through many of these maritime forests. The northern terminus of the Florida Trail ends at the edge of a maritime forest on Santa Rosa Island. They are populated by many of the same species of trees you would find in inland forest. Pine, Oak, and Magnolia are all common. In some locations they short and twist their branches in all sorts of patterns to avoid direct exposure to the salt spray from the Gulf. Those more protected from the spray by large dune fields grow quite tall. Small rolling dunes of quartz sand can still be found on the forest floor, as can palms and palmettos, holly trees, and species of shrubs found in the dune fields themselves. All of these provide good shelter, and some provide food. And, as with the American southwest, these xeric conditions support cactus – there are plenty of cactus in the tertiary dunes and maritime forest of our islands. Covered toed shows are recommended when hiking here.
Though not common, within these forest there are small ponds of freshwater. Back in the 1950s there was an attempt to build a pompano hatchery within the forest of Santa Rosa Island. It failed because the water they chose to use (groundwater) was fresher than they thought it would be. Visiting the site today you will find the grow out ponds the farmers dug, full of freshwater. Near Ft. Pickens, on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, there are moats the soldiers dug to protect the fort from attack. These too are filled with freshwater. Between these and the naturally occurring ones, there is habitat for fish. The few samples I have collected over the years have yielded live bearers, like mosquitofish and mollies, and as well members of the killifish family. There could be others, but I have not explored this enough.
It is also good habitat to support frogs. I have seen southern leopard frogs and southern toads, and have heard spring peepers on the islands, but I have not conducted formal surveys to determine what other species might exist. There are inland species that do well in dry sandy soils, and you would think would do well on barrier islands if they could reach them. Maybe some have, again – we need to conduct a good survey. I am not aware of any salamanders on these islands, but again I have not looked for them.
This is the realm of the reptile. As with the deserts of the American southwest, reptiles do very well in dry xeric conditions. Snakes and lizards seem to be the most abundant. Six lined racerunners are quite common, as are other species of skinks (if you look for them in hiding places). The horned toad was once common in all sandy environments in Pensacola, but then were only found on the barrier islands, and now are hard to find there. They are reported to still be found on Santa Rosa Island though I have not seen one in years. One of my colleagues recently saw one on Perdido Key – so, they are still around.
With snakes, the southern black racers and their close cousins the eastern coachwhip are very common here. I have found garter and ribbon snakes. I have seen the rough green snake in the maritime forest, usually in the branches. I have found both the cottonmouth and the banded water snake near the freshwater ponds. The denser forested areas have a lot of leaf litter on the floor that could support the eastern coral snake. Though I have never seen one on the islands, they could be – they are very secretive. One of the more common snakes – found in all habitats of the barrier island – is the eastern rattlesnake. Encounters with impressive creature is rare. Most of mine have been near the campgrounds and after hurricanes when the National Seashore was closed. When FIRST opened to the public, you see them, then they just disappear.
Alligators are known to haunt the freshwater ponds; I have seen them near the old pompano hatchery. I have seen photographs of them crossing the island, swimming across the intracoastal waterway, and even swimming in the Gulf! But sightings and encounters on our end of the panhandle are rare.
Birds have no problem reaching barrier islands and they love forested areas. There are numerous species of songbirds (passerines). I have seen cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, and more. Many of the ones you find just across the intracoastal can be found here. Mourning doves are quite common in all habitats. The forested areas are where you encounter the raptors. I have seen osprey, bald eagles, and great horned owls all nesting here. Within the pines of the forest, you often see the great blue herons nesting. There are other occasional aquatic birds visiting the ponds, including ducks. Duck hunting still happens in the winter on some islands. These barrier islands are popular places to conduct the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts.
And there are plenty of mammals. Though more crepuscular or nocturnal, you often find their tracks in the sand in the morning, and occasional see them. Raccoons and armadillos are abundant, not only in the forested areas, but all island habitats. Skunks were once very common in the maritime forest. I remember days camping at Ft. Pickens when they would approach you eating lunch knowing you were going to leave you food and move away! We encountered them frequently while hiking and saw them inside some of the fortifications. Then… in 2004… Hurricane Ivan rolled over Santa Rosa Island. A study conducted by LSU suggested the entire west end of the island may have rolled over 300 feet north that night. Since then, I have not seen a skunk. They may still be out there, but I have not seen one.
In recent years there have been more encounters with river otters. They may have always been there but recently more tracks, and more encounters with live animals have occurred. There are squirrels and mice, out there. I have seen deer, fox, and coyotes on the islands. I have heard there are black bears. I have never seen one, nor their tracks, but know they have been encountered a lot recently in coastal Santa Rosa County and also know they are good swimmers. So, these reports could be true. I have looked for bats at dusk and have not seen them, but I am sure they are around. Especially near the forts and old live oak trees.
Time in these maritime forest will yield a lot of wildlife encounters. This is most likely the most diverse location on these islands. I would encourage you to dawn some good hiking boots (waterproof if you can), long pants (the green briar and cactus can be bad), a pair of binoculars, sun protection and water, and explore these amazing forests. Many of them within our state and national parks provide trails for easier access.
We have once last habitat to explore – and that would be the salt marsh. This will be Part 7.