Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Some of the most picturesque and scenic natural areas along north Florida’s Gulf Coast are found in Bald Point State Park. The 4,065 acre park is located on Alligator Point, where Ochlockonee Bay meets Apalachee Bay.

Easy access to water activities at Bald Point State Park.
Photo: Les Harrison

Bald Point State Park offers a variety of land and water activities. Coastal marshes, pine flatwoods, and oak thickets foster a diversity of biological communities which make the park a popular destination for birding and wildlife viewing.

These include shorebirds along the beach, warblers in the maritime oak hammocks, wading birds, and birds of prey in and around the marsh areas.  The boardwalk and observation deck overlook the marsh near the beach.

During autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, along with monarch butterflies are frequently viewed heading south to a warmer winter.

Bald Point offers access to two Apalachee Bay beaches for water sports and leisure activities, and these facilities include a fishing dock and picnic pavilions at Sunrise beach, North End beach and Maritime Hammock beach.  Grills and restrooms are also available, but pets are prohibited on the beach.

Pre-Columbian pottery helped archaeologists identify the park’s oldest site, placing the earliest human activity 4,000 years ago. These early inhabitants hunted, fished, collected clams and oysters, and lived in relatively permanent settlements provided by the abundant resources of the coast and forests.

In the mid-1800s and late 1900s, fishermen established seineyards at Bald Point. These usually primitive campsites included racks to hang, dry and repair nets. Evidence of the 19th to 20th century turpentine industry is visible on larger pine trees cut with obvious scars.

Bald Point is an excellent location for both wildlife viewing and birding.
Photo: Les Harrison

Among the varieties of saltwater fish found in the brackish tidal waterway are redfish, trout, flounder and mackerel.

Today’s visitors may fish on the bridge over tidal Chaires Creek off of Range Road, and in Tucker Lake, by canoe or kayak. Sea trout, red fish, flounder and sheepshead are common catches, and this is an excellent area to cast net for mullet or to catch blue crabs.

Bald Point State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to sunset daily, with a charge $4.00 per car with up to eight people, or $2.00 per pedestrian or bicycle

More information is available at the Florida State Park site.

There are numerous trails where the visitor and explore Florida.
Photo: Les Harrison.

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve - Niceville, Florida

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve – Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville, Florida – Photo by Laura Tiu

September 17-24, 2016 was the nation’s 28th time to celebrate America’s coasts and estuaries during National Estuaries Week.  This week helps us to remember to appreciate the challenges these coastal ecosystems face, along with their beauty and utility.

Estuaries, semi-enclosed bodies of water with both fresh and saltwater, dot the Gulf Coast of the United States from Brownsville Texas to Key West, Florida. These estuaries are important as they serve as drainage basins for many of the large river systems, and play a significant role in the nation’s seafood industry.

Florida’s six major Panhandle estuaries, which includes Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay (including Escambia Bay), Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay, are unique ecosystems teeming with life and diversity. Critical habitat includes important seagrass beds that support both the larval and adult stages of fish and invertebrates. In Choctawhatchee Bay, there is also critical foraging habitat for the federally protected Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and stream habitat for the endangered Okaloosa darter.

Choctawhatchee Bay is in Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida Panhandle. It is approximately 30 miles long and from three and a half to six miles wide, with a total area of 129 square miles. It is relatively shallow varying from 10 to 40 feet deep. Large portions of the western half of Choctawhatchee Bay are militarily restricted (Eglin Airforce Base).  The Bay is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and numerous small creeks that feed into several bayous.  The only opening to the Gulf of Mexico is the East Pass, which ironically is at the Western end of the Bay in Destin, Florida.  This is where the saltwater and freshwater mix.

Continued industrial and residential development in the watershed regions that drain into many of these estuaries has impacted them in a number of ways. Pollution comes from storm water runoff, lawns, industry and farms. The shorelines are impacted by development, which causes sedimentation and in turn loss of vegetation.  This reduces water clarity and habitat for wildlife.

Many organizations work to protect this estuary and reach out to others through education, restoration, and recreation events. Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is one such organization committed to ensuring sustainable utilization of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay.  They, working with their partners, provide leadership for the stewardship of the Bay. Alison McDowell, director of the CBA, notes that 75-85% of commercially and recreationally important species that are caught in the Gulf spend part of their lifecycle in the Bay. McDowell says a key factor in the Bay’s health is monitoring the water quality and reducing erosion, and the Oyster Reef Restoration program started in 2006 does just that.

There are often opportunities for the general public to join in some of the conservation efforts taking place in the Bay. For more information, like the Okaloosa or Walton County Extension Facebook page.

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay – Photo by Laura Tiu

 

 

Biking to a Healthier Community

Biking to a Healthier Community

The bridge over the Winooski River was a scenic stop on our bicycle tour. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The bridge over the Winooski River was a scenic stop on our bicycle tour. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

If you told me earlier this summer that I would “accidentally” bike 18 miles one afternoon, I’d have laughed. I’ve always loved biking, but rarely have time for long distance rides. As part of the mobile workshops for an Extension professional development meeting in Burlington, Vermont, fifteen of us met up with the coordinator of Local Motion, a grassroots bike advocacy organization. Their mission is “to bring the joy of walking and biking within reach for all Vermonters by helping Vermont communities become great places to walk and bike.” The purpose of the tour was to get an on-the-ground lesson in community development and learn how the group has worked with residents to overcome challenges in implementing a successful project.

Burlington’s “Island Line Trail” is a classic rails-to-trails project–not unlike the Blackwater Heritage Trail in Santa Rosa County–that has resulted in significant economic development and increased use by area residents. The original rail service operated from 1899 to the early 1960’s. Since the 1990’s, 14 miles of railway has been converted to a biking/walking trail. Part of the Island Line’s charm is the diversity of scenery it encompasses.

Sweeping views of Lake Champlain were a highlight and major attraction of the trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Sweeping views of Lake Champlain were part of what kept us riding far beyond our initial endpoint! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Starting in the heart of downtown Burlington, there are museums, shops, and restaurants within blocks of the trail, many of which cater directly to and exist because of the trail users. The entire stretch runs adjacent to Lake Champlain, providing scenic views along the path. Throughout the trail there are residential areas (which are highly desired because of their proximity to the trail), public parks, and a community center. After crossing a bridge over the Winooski River, we embarked upon a 3-mile open causeway with sweeping views of Malletts Bay on both sides. The trail also includes one of the country’s few bike ferries, which is located where a swing bridge used to operate for the railway. It was the constantly changing scenery and surroundings that kept a handful of us going far beyond the initially planned 6-mile trip.

The causeway over Malletts Bay includes a bike ferry, one of the few in the country. Photo credit, Carrie Stevenson

The causeway over Malletts Bay includes a bike ferry, one of the few in the country. Photo credit, Carrie Stevenson

In addition to providing a recreational trail for local residents and visitors, Local Motion is dedicated to promoting bicycle safety and education. Workshops for hesitant adult bikers interested in biking more attracted over 450 adults last year, while 7,300+ kids participated in bicycle safety camps and training. As a result of all of the activity, youth bike rentals increased by 43% in 2015 over the prior year.

Much of the success in Burlington is transferable to Florida. In the Panhandle, we are looking at connecting existing trails to create a large-scale multi-county, multi-state bicycle trail.  The successes in Vermont were inspirational and instructional as we embark upon our new project and a design workshop in late September.

Bay County Deploys First Super Reefs in Panama City Beach

Bay County Deploys First Super Reefs in Panama City Beach

Super Reef Deployment Location Graphic

Earlier this year, Bay County completed an artificial reef project in Gulf waters approximately 3 nautical miles (nm) south of the Panama City Beach Pier (Pier Park) and 11 nm west of St Andrew Bay Pass in Small Area Artificial Reef Site D. On May 14, five Super Reefs were deployed, each weighing approximately 36,000 lbs and rising 18 feet from the ocean floor. Typical artificial reef modules are only about 8 feet tall. This was the first time Super Reefs were deployed in western Bay County in the Panama City Beach area. The project provides marine habitat comparable to sinking a large vessel.

Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA) supported Bay County and Walter Maine during the deployment efforts. MBARA provided this YouTube video documenting the deployment and post-deployment dive survey. During the survey, divers noted baitfish already utilizing the new habitat. The Super Reef module coordinates and details were verified as follows:

 

Patch Reef # Latitude Longitude Depth (ft) Permit Area
BC2015 Set 17 (1) 30° 10.196N 85° 54.607 W 74 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 18 (2) 30° 10.179 N 85° 54.567 W 75 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 19 (3) 30° 10.176 N 85° 54.603 W 75 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 20 (4) 30° 10.153N 85° 54.594 W 73 SAARS D
BC2015 Set 21 (5) 30° 10.138 N 85° 54.602 W 73 SAARS D

Previous monitoring and research suggest it takes 3 to 5 years for new reefs to reach full development of the associated marine ecosystem. Bay County will work with local anglers, divers, reef associations, and agencies to evaluate the performance of the new reef materials and the reef design.

Bay County artificial reef projects seek to use material that meets program goals and objectives. In this case, larger reef materials were selected to support larger reef fish such as amberjack, grouper, and snapper. Individual reef modules were spaced to support fish forage areas and accommodate multiple users including anglers and divers.

FL Artifcial Reefs FB

 

 

Funding for this $60,000 project was provided by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Artificial Reef Program. Additional reef projects were deployed by the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association earlier in the week. The Bay County Artificial Association (BCARA) is also planning new reef deployments in Bay County. Learn more about Bay County’s public artificial reefs at http://x.co/reefm. Florida Sea Grant hosts a Facebook page focused on news and information related to Florida’s Artificial Reefs. You can visit the page for latest information from around the state at https://www.facebook.com/floridaartificialreefs.

 

 

 

Walter Marine’s Maranatha deploying one of the five Super Reefs placed 3 nm south of Pier Park. The Super Reefs weigh greater than 18 tons and are 18 feet tall. Photo by Bay County Artificial Reef Coordinator, Allen Golden.

Walter Marine’s Maranatha deploying one of the five Super Reefs placed 3 nm south of Pier Park. The Super Reefs weigh more than 18 tons and are 18 feet tall. Photo by Bay County Artificial Reef Coordinator, Allen Golden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scalloping: Unrivaled Natural Experience for Kids

Scalloping: Unrivaled Natural Experience for Kids

If you have done this phenomenal summertime activity, then you know what I’m talking about. And it’s not just the kids that derive an amazing, nature-based educational experience. Anyone who puts on a mask and snorkel for their first scalloping adventure is about to have their world “rocked” in a good way. Gliding over the shallow seagrass meadows where these bivalves live will produce a sensory experience of sights and sounds like never before.

Florida’s bay scallop (Argopecten irradians), is a mollusk with a well-deserved reputation for being fun to harvest and scrumptious on the dinner plate. However, before you hit the water, there are a few things to consider that will make your scalloping experience safe, enjoyable and educational. Information provided in this article should give you the basics and hopefully encourage you to participate in this Florida Bigbend/Panhandle area’s best reality-show ever!

Know Before You Go: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission governs the rules regarding scalloping zones, license requirements, harvest limits, seasons, gear requirements, and boating laws. For detailed information visit the FWC website on the topic. Take time to review this information so that you are safe and legal when on the water.

Finding the Critters: As always, it is best to know someone who has already been out and can point you to a good location. Barring that scenario, simply search the internet or Facebook, or call the local dive shop or bait and tackle store that sells gear. People are generally very kind in this regard and will at least get you close to the right spots. When you get close, just look for where the boats are gathered. Don’t waste your time trying to find a secluded spot of your own because those boats are there for a good reason. Move at an idle speed and be very careful approaching other vessels. You should be looking for swimmers at all times as some will stray far from their anchored boat with the dive flag displayed. Legally, you are supposed to stay 300 feet from a displayed diver down flag in open waters.

Boat Safe and Smart: The shallow nature of most scallop habitat requires that you understand tidal cycles in the area where you are boating. It is not at all pleasant to be stranded and waiting for the next high tide before you can go home with your catch. In addition to the inconvenience, there are other more serious consequences that may occur in this situation. Often, boaters will realize too late that they have been caught by low water and, whether out of fear or ignorance, start up the motor and attempt to leave in a hurry. This can result in a dangerous grounding at high speed, damage to the vessel or motor, and serious propeller scarring in the very seagrass beds that support the scallops and a host of other amazing species. Best bet, if you can’t put your motor down without it being in the grass, attempt to wade it out to deeper water before starting the motor.

Safety check on equipment before leaving...

Safety check on equipment before leaving…

...Often leads to a successful adventure!

…Often leads to a successful adventure!

Keeping the Catch: If you are not shucking your scallops right on the boat as they are caught you need to protect them for the trip home. The safest way is to place your live scallops on ice in a cooler under shade. When cleaning the catch, it is handy to have a bowl with some ice water handy to drop the meats into for quick chilling. This also keeps them plump and moist for cooking. An old butter knife with a slight bend at the tip works well for shucking and many people even use a spoon if they don’t already have an official scallop knife. Check out this Florida Sea Grant scallop brochure for a couple of tasty recipes for after the shucking is done.

In the end, you are ultimately responsible for whether or not you have a safe, enjoyable experience. So, follow the rules, watch the weather, know the waters where you boat, and have the time of your life. Oh, and take a kid or two along for the comic relief. When you see them surface, squealing with joy at the first bay scallop of their life, I guarantee everyone will be smiling.

Life’s a Beach!  Practice Beach Safety and Etiquette

Life’s a Beach! Practice Beach Safety and Etiquette

It is that time of year again. Spring Break brings locals and visitors back to the beach for fun in the sun. It is important to remind folks that part of having fun is playing it safe. At the beach, this means knowing and following some pretty basic safety guidelines.

Not all beaches have lifeguards present, you have to be responsible for your own safety.  When visiting the beach, it is important to consider the tide and surf conditions. To minimize the risks of drowning or serious injury, a uniform warning flag program was developed for use by Florida’s beachfront communities. Florida’s beach warning flag program uses flags in four colors accompanied by interpretive signs along the beach to explain the meaning of each color in both English and Spanish. Please follow the guidelines and flags posted.

You also need to check for the presence of rip currents. Rip currents are powerful currents of water moving away from the shore. They can pull even a strong swimmer out to sea. It is best to not enter the water where a rip current is present. However, if you find yourself caught in one, try to relax and don’t fight the current, swim out of the current parallel to the shore and swim to shore when you no longer feel the pull of the current.

Protect your skin. Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chance for developing melanoma later in life. Racking up more than five sunburns at any age also doubles the risk for melanoma. Keep sunburn at bay by properly applying sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher. Try to spend some time in the shade, wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes. Remember to hydrate by drinking plenty of water too.

It is good to know a little bit about and appreciate the ocean life you might meet on the beach. Shark attacks aren’t common, especially in shallow shore areas, but always be on the lookout. Shells on mussels, clams and oysters can be very sharp so be careful walking near them. Some species of jellyfish have tentacles that contain venom and can sting you. Avoid them if you can.  Learn about the animals you will find at the beach and you will be able to co-exist with little risk.

Many ocean creatures need our protection. Sea turtles and many shorebirds are protected and there are things you can do to help them. For sea turtles, keep the beach clean (remove all trash and furniture), dark (turn off lights on beach and don’t use flashlights) and flat (fill in any holes you dig so that turtles don’t become trapped). In fact, it’s recommended that you take only pictures and leave only footprints. Stay away from nesting shorebird habitat. Many beaches do not allow you to bring your pets to the beach for health and safety reasons and to protect venerable wildlife. Be sure to know the rules before you bring Fido to the beach.

Finally, please help keep the beach tidy. When your visit is over, take back everything you brought. Food scraps attract unwanted animals, fishing line injures and kills birds and other wildlife and plastic is harmful to both the environment and the animals that sometimes mistake it for food. Abandoned beach furniture and toys can obstruct sea turtle nesting and hatching. The best policy is to leave the beach cleaner than you found it.

Have a good time at the beach. Take a little time to learn and follow the safety rules that are there for your protection. Practice good citizenship by caring for and conserving the beach and ocean ecosystems in order to keep them beautiful in the present and for future generations.

Many counties in the panhandle have lighting and barrier ordinances to protect wildlife and workers. Photo: Rick O'Connor

Many counties in the panhandle have lighting and barrier ordinances to protect wildlife and workers.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Follow these beach safety tips for helping your family enjoy the beach while protecting coastal wildlife.

Follow these beach safety tips for helping your family enjoy the beach while protecting coastal wildlife.