2023 Pensacola Bay Snake Watch Annual Report

2023 Pensacola Bay Snake Watch Annual Report

I began this project in 2022 wanting to know which of the 40 species of snakes known to inhabit the Pensacola Bay area were encountered by people.  I also wanted to know where they were encountering them and what time of year.  This information would be used in my Living with Snakes program and provide better information than field guides and publications that covered a broader area.  The 40 local species were divided into six categories: small snakes (<12”), mid-sized snakes (12-24”), large snakes (> 24”), water snakes, venomous snakes, and non-native snakes. 

The red rat snake, or corn snake. Photo: Molly O’Connor

Which snakes did people encounter?

In 2023 there were 215 snake encounters between Jan 1 and Dec 10.  This is a 136% increase over 2022.  This is probably not because of more snakes but rather more residents participating in the project. 

Of the 40 species possible, 24 (60%) were encountered.  This is a 13% increase over 2022.  Again, I feel this is due more to increasing participation. 

The most frequently encountered species were:

  1. Cottonmouth – 49 records (23%)
  2. Southern Black Racer – 35 records (16%)
  3. Banded Water Snake – 26 records (12%)
  4. Eastern Garter Snake – 17 records (8%)
  5. Eastern Coachwhip – 11 records (5%)

The Southern Black Racer was the most frequently encountered snake in 2022 (23%), followed by the cottonmouth (16%).  As you can see, the frequency of encounters remained the same this year, but the species flipped.  The Eastern Ribbon Snake, which was third at (14%) in 2022 did not make the top five this year. 

The rarest snakes – those encountered only once or not at all – included:

Encountered once:                                     

Rough Green Snake                                                                 

Eastern Kingsnake                                      

Eastern Coral Snake

NOT Encountered at all:

Smooth Earth Snake

Marsh Brown Snake

Southern Hognose Snake

Mole Kingsnake

Scarlet Kingsnake

Eastern Indigo Snake

Black Swamp Snake

Glossy Crayfish Snake

Queen Snake

Midland Watersnake

Yellow Bellied Water Snake

Diamondback Water Snake

Western Green Water Snake

Western/Eastern Mud Snake

Rainbow Snake

Of the four species only encountered once, each is considered quite rare for encounters.  The Eastern Kingsnake was once common but has declined over the years.  The Eastern Coral Snake is quite common, but its behavior and activity make it rare to encounter.  Some snake experts have never seen one in the wild. 

Of the 16 species not encountered at all, three are small snakes whose size and habits make them difficult to detect.  Two are mid-sized but their habits also make them hard to detect.  Nine are water snakes who live in swampy environments along our rivers.  You would have to be out there to encounter them, and few people are.  Two species, the Southern Hognose and the Eastern Indigo Snake, are state and federal listed and are extremely rare.  

The gray rat snake, also known as the oak snake. Photo: Nick Baldwin

Where did people encounter these snakes?

I divided the bay area into four regions: North Escambia, South Escambia, North Santa Rosa, and South Santa Rosa. 

North Escambia – 13 species (54% of the total 24 species found this year).

South Escambia – 16 species (67% of the total).

North Santa Rosa – 17 species (71% of the total).

South Santa Rosa – 11 species (46% of the total). 

There is not much difference between these.  In Escambia County more encounters occurred in the southern portion of the county.  For Santa Rosa County it was the opposite.  Whether this is because there are more snakes in these locations, or more participants in the project cannot be said.  We will pay more attention to this next year.    

Species that were found in ALL four regions included:

Eastern Garter Snake

Gray Rat Snake

Corn Snake

Southern Black Racer



Species only found on one of the four regions included:

Eastern Kingsnake

Florida Pine Snake

Brahminy Blind Snake

Rough Earth Snake

Pinewoods Snake

Eastern Coral Snake

What time of year were these snakes encountered?

Winter – 57 encounters; 13 species

Spring – 80 encounters; 20 species

Summer – 52 encounters; 18 species

Fall – 17 encounters; 10 species

There was an obvious decline in encounters in the fall.  Many species are beginning to settle in for the winter this time of year, but many others breed, and thus should be moving (at least the males).  I know some volunteers ceased looking, but others I know who search weekly, or daily, did not encounter as many snakes. 

Only one species was encountered every month of the year.  This was the cottonmouth

The Eastern Garter Snake was seen every month except June and October; it seems to be active year-round. 

The Southern Black Racer was missing in January, November, and December – suggesting a dislike for the cold. 

NOTE: many of these hibernating snakes will emerge on warmer sunny days during winter and can be encountered. 

SPRING was the time of year with the highest encounter rate and species encountered.  This would make sense in two parts; (1) they are emerging seeking food after non-feeding during winter, (2) they are emerging looking for mates because it is breeding season for many.  Five species were only encountered in the early part of the year.  Two species were only found in winter and one species was only found in the spring. 

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake crawling near Ft. Pickens Campground. Photo: Shelley Johnson

What about the venomous snakes?

As expected, most are concerned more about the encounters with venomous snakes.  There are six venomous species listed in the state of Florida, four inhabit the Pensacola Bay area.  All four were encountered in 2023. 

  1. Cottonmouth – was encountered in all regions, each month of the year, it was the most commonly encountered snake in our area this year.
  2. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake – was encountered seven times, only during the spring and summer, and in three of the four regions in our area.  This snake is pretty common but not commonly encountered where people most often reside and play.  Though encounters do occur in residential neighborhoods, they are rare. 
  3. Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake – was encountered six times, during spring, summer, and fall, and two of the four regions in the bay area. 
  4. Eastern Coral Snake – was encountered once, during the spring, and in only one of the four regions in the bay area.  Again, this snake is actually quite common, but its behavior makes it difficult to encounter.  So, encounters with this species are rare. 


In 2023 60% of the known species of snakes that inhabit the Pensacola Bay area were encountered by residents at some time during the year.  Most encounters occurred in the spring and summer and encounters occurred throughout the entire region.  The cottonmouth was the most frequently encountered species this year but rare species, such as the Eastern hognose, Eastern kingsnake, and the Florida pine snake were seen – and that is pretty exciting.  The snake diversity in the Pensacola Bay area seems good.  There is concern that a non-native parasite decreasing the populations of some species in central and south Florida may make its way to the panhandle.  We are participating in a project entitled Snake Lungworm Alliance Monitoring (SLAM) that collects deceased snakes for examination by researchers.  If you find a deceased snake in good enough condition to be dissected, place it in a plastic Ziplock bag, label with the date, location (GPS preferred), and your contact information.  You can then bring it to the Escambia County Extension office or freeze it and call me – (850-475-5230) or email roc1@ufl.edu and we will arrange pick up. 

We plan to continue the Snake Watch Project in 2024 and encourage all who see snakes to contact me at the above email address.  We will also be offering the Living with Snakes presentation.  If your community group is interested in this talk, contact me. 

Poisonous Plant? Take a Closer Look, but not too Close

Once cooler fall temperatures arrive, a lot of us spend time in the yard ridding our property fence lines of vines or better yet trekking through forested areas to simply enjoy the great outdoors, where those very vines also exist. Unfortunately, there is a long, long list of enemies, when discussing poisonous plants. However, there are a few more common, native plants, like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac and poisonwood that we should be fully aware of in our surroundings, along with their friendly mistaken counterparts. This article will seek to distinguish poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

Figure 1: Poison Ivy on Left / Virginia Creeper on Right in Fall Colors.
Credit: Sydney Park Brown, UF/IFAS.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) grows in just about any location imaginable. Poison Ivy is probably the most common and most irritating poisonous plant one will come in contact with, no pun intended. This is a woody shrub that can reach 6 feet in height or grows like a vine up to 150 feet tall on trees. As a vine, it is often found on fences and trees. The leaf forms three leaflets, which can be 2-6 inches in length and may have smooth edges or can be toothed. Leaves are shiny with a tint of red most of the year. Leaves will turn purple before dropping in the fall. Remember the old saying when it comes to identifying poison ivy, “leaflets three, let it be”.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is commonly mistaken for poison ivy. It is a climbing vine as well with similar growth patterns. However, there are some distinguishing traits, as Virginia Creeper has five leaflets, instead of three. Virginia Creeper also has blue-black berries along with tiny, sticky segments that are used to attach to surfaces. During the fall, Virginia Creeper leaves turn red before dropping.

There are some important precautions about poison ivy that we should remember when out and about. Warmer months correspond with the increased sapping stage of poisons plants, which means the allergic reaction from contact is both more likely and possibly more severe. The four native poisonous plants mentioned earlier all contain urushiol. This is a plant oil that causes a severe skin rash when contact is made. People have different sensitivity levels to exposure. Symptoms appear within a couple of days and the itching and burning of the skin can last weeks. Over the counter products with the active ingredient dient bentoquatam can help prevent or reduce the reaction. This product must be applied before contact is made. If exposed, as soon as possible clean area with warm, soapy water and rinse with cool water. Clothing should be washed separately from other laundry. Severe reactions may need professional medical treatment.

For more information on poisonous plants in our area, contact your local county extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publications: “Identification of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac,

and Poisonwood” by Sydney Park Brown: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/EP/EP22000.pdf

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Join Our Workshop to Manage the Invasion of Cuban Treefrogs!

Join Our Workshop to Manage the Invasion of Cuban Treefrogs!

Cuban Treefrogs and Environmental Concerns

Discover the fascinating world of Cuban Treefrogs and join us for an exciting workshop aimed at effectively managing their invasion. Led by Dr. Steve Johnson, an expert on Cuban Treefrogs from UF/IFAS Extension, this workshop will provide you with valuable insights on recognizing these invasive frogs and exploring management options. In addition, attendees will have the opportunity to learn how to monitor and report data on Cuban Treefrog populations. Together, let’s take action to address the challenges posed by the invasion of Cuban Treefrogs! The Workshop will be held September 28th 9am – 3pm CDT at 2728 E14th St, Panama City, FL 32401 Register Here

The Invasion of Cuban Treefrogs:

Originating from Cuba and introduced unintentionally to Florida in the 1920s, the Cuban Treefrog has rapidly established itself across various states, including Georgia and Louisiana. Believed to have arrived as stowaways in shipping crates, these non-native frogs have become a cause for concern due to their impacts on native treefrog and toad populations.

Understanding the Threat:

Cuban Treefrog adults and their tadpoles are known predators of native treefrogs and toads. Their presence poses a significant threat to the delicate balance of our ecosystems. Therefore, it is crucial to develop effective management strategies to curb their invasion and minimize their impact on our native species.

Workshop Highlights:

During the workshop, Dr. Steve Johnson, an esteemed authority on Cuban Treefrogs, will guide participants through the identification and management of these invasive frogs. Attendees will gain valuable knowledge and practical skills to recognize Cuban Treefrogs and explore options for effectively managing their populations. Participants will also build and take home their own treefrog house (refugia) made with PVC.

Contributing to Research:

In addition to learning about identification and management, workshop attendees will have the opportunity to play an active role in monitoring and reporting data on Cuban Treefrog populations. By actively participating in data collection efforts, you will contribute to scientific research and provide crucial insights into the distribution and behavior of these invasive frogs.

Join the Cause:

The invasion of Cuban Treefrogs is a pressing environmental issue that requires collective action. By attending our workshop, you can become an agent of change in addressing this invasive species. Let’s work together to protect our native treefrogs and toads by effectively managing the population of Cuban Treefrogs.

Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity to join Dr. Steve Johnson and fellow nature enthusiasts in our workshop focused on managing the invasion of Cuban Treefrogs. By acquiring knowledge, developing practical skills, and contributing to data collection efforts, you can actively participate in protecting our native species and preserving the delicate balance of our ecosystems. Together, let’s make a difference and tackle the challenges posed by the Cuban Treefrog invasion. Register now and be a part of this important environmental initiative!

An invasive Cuban Tree Frog specimen. Invasive species, amphibians and reptiles. frogs, pests. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.
Nature-Based Stormwater Solutions in the Florida Panhandle

Nature-Based Stormwater Solutions in the Florida Panhandle

Summertime always makes me think of the supermarket. At least one time each of the past few summers, I clearly remember being at the supermarket during a rainstorm and watching the water wash over the parking lot, talking with all the other people debating whether to run to their car with a buggy full of food. Supermarkets, home goods stores, medical facilities, libraries, and shopping centers all provide important services that we depend on for our everyday life, but their development has altered the natural processes that control the movement of water from the landscape to creeks and ultimately to the bays and bayous around us (collectively referred to as receiving waters). Concrete, asphalt, and building roof surfaces are impervious, meaning that water cannot pass through them. As a result, more water washes off the rooftops, parking lots, driveways, and roads than before the area was developed. Less water sinks into the ground to move slowly toward receiving waters and to recharge aquifers. More impervious surface leads to more runoff to receiving waters, resulting in greater erosion and higher levels of pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and silt in these waterways. These extra pollutants from the landscape and from eroding stream banks have harmful effects many types of organisms that call these waterways home.

New development in Florida is required to include features that “treat” a fraction of the surface water that runs off impervious surfaces before flowing into receiving waters. Treating surface water runoff means holding it back and preventing it from running quickly off the developed landscape; as it is held back, some pollutants may settle out or be consumed by plants. Treatment is commonly accomplished through features like dry retention basins or wet detention ponds, where water is stored and then slowly moves through soil pathways toward receiving waters. These features are common parts of our developed landscape: the big pond behind the supermarket or in front of the new truck stop, or the grassy pit next to the gas station. While these satisfy regulations, they occupy a considerable amount of land, typically are aesthetically lacking, and may not actually reduce pollutant runoff or stormwater volume as intended. They also can be neglected and become a nuisance in the landscape.

Nature-based stormwater infrastructure projects can play an important role in protecting communities in northwest Florida from the effects of heavy rainfall that occurs periodically in the region. Nature-based stormwater projects are designed primarily to incorporate the natural processes of infiltration that occur in undeveloped areas in the developed landscape, treating stormwater by reducing volumes of surface runoff and concentrations of pollution that could otherwise flow directly into receiving waters. Depending on their design, these features can also provide aesthetic enhancements that can increase the value of properties and the overall wellbeing of the communities where they are implemented. When used in coordination, nature-based projects such as roadside treatment swales, bioretention cells, rain gardens, green roofs, and porous pavement can provide similar levels of stormwater treatment as dry retention basins and detention ponds while also enhancing the aesthetic, recreational, or functional potential of the landscape.

Local government and extension staff across northwest Florida are working to introduce more nature-based stormwater projects into the panhandle landscape. To learn more about recent demonstration projects that have been implemented in our region, visit the WebGIS project https://arcg.is/1SWXTm0.

Summer is Prime Time for Bats

Bats get a bad rap. They give people the creeps and can show up in unwanted places (like attics and sheds). But collectively, the bats in our communities eat millions of mosquitoes and agricultural pests every night. Without them, we’d be overrun with insects, disease, and damaged crops.

Bats sometimes move into buildings when they can’t find the natural structures they prefer (caves and large trees with cavities).

As a mom, I also have the utmost respect for bat mothers. When a member of this acrobatic species gives birth, it’s done while hanging upside down by her feet. When the baby is born, mom catches it in her wings and the newborn crawls up to her abdomen. Bat babies are not tiny, either—at birth, they are typically up to a third of an adult bat’s weight. Can you imagine giving birth to a 50+ pound baby, while hanging from your feet? Thankfully, most births are single pups, but occasionally multiples are born. Through our local wildlife sanctuary, I once met an exhausted bat mother of triplets. She and her new brood were found together on the ground—mom was unable to carry all three with her as she flew.

A wildlife biologist feeds an overwhelmed mother bat and her young after they were found on the ground. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Summer is maternity season for female bats, typically giving birth in May or June.  Being fellow mammals, bats must stay near their newborns to nurse. It takes about three weeks for juvenile bats to learn to fly. During that time, they either cling to their mother, nursing on the road, or stay behind in a maternity colony as she feeds at night.  For that reason, during the period from April 16-August 14, it is illegal to “exclude” or prevent bats from returning to their roost—even if it’s your attic. Blocking a bat’s re-entry during this time frame could result in helpless newborn bats getting trapped in a building.

So, if you have seen evidence of bats flying in and out of your attic—or another building that should not house them—you will need to wait until August 15 or later. Excluding bats from a building entails waiting for the bats to fly out at night and putting up some sort of barrier to prevent their return. This can be done using several different methods explained in this video or by using a reputable wildlife professional. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has regulatory oversight for bat-related issues, and they will work with homeowners to arrange a positive outcome for both the homeowner and the animals involved.

The University of Florida bat houses on the Gainesville campus are home to hundreds of thousands of bats that emerge every evening. Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

On just about any spring or summer night at dusk, you can look up and see bats darting around, chasing and catching insects. If you are a total bat nerd like me, there are also several places around the southeast with large bat houses for public viewing. In Gainesville, the University of Florida bat houses are home to over 450,000 bats that leave the houses every night. An even larger colony in Austin, Texas (750,000-1.5 million bats) flies out at sunset every night to forage from their dwelling under a downtown bridge. Both are fascinating experiences, and worth a visit!

Building bat houses is a great family activity and helps provide much-needed habitat for bats. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

If you’re interested in building a bat house for your own backyard, reach out (ctsteven@ufl.edu); I have examples at the office and several sets of plans for building bat houses and installing them correctly. The publication, “Effective Bat Houses for Florida” goes through the best way to figure out where to place a house and includes a set of plans.

NISAW 2023 – Introduction

NISAW 2023 – Introduction

National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW) is a national initiative where agencies and organizations provide information on invasive species issues to decision and policy makers.  It can also be a time where we provide that information to the general public. 

Invasive species are a global problem threatening biodiversity everywhere.  Many create economic problems for the communities they invade, and management can be costly.  The University of South Florida has estimated the cost to be around $21 billion a year in the U.S. alone.  The most effective method of management is to detect the invader early and respond rapidly. 

The Invasive Species Curve

Florida is certainly no stranger to invasive species.  In fact, with our climate and international travel, we have some of the largest problems.  The Burmese python is a well known, but we also have problems with lizards, frogs, snakes, fish, snails, insects, mussels, and a large variety of plants.  The state is divided into 15 Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs).  Two of these – Six Rivers and the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance (ARSA) cover the panhandle.  Members of these CISMAs (which includes UF IFAS Extension) conduct management and education projects on local invasive species within their areas and also have a EDRR list for that area.  An EDRR list is the Early Detection Rapid Response – the ones to be on the look out for. 

Six Rivers CISMA – https://www.floridainvasives.org/sixrivers/.

Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance – https://www.floridainvasives.org/apalachicola/.

Florida CISMAs

Over the next few days UF IFAS Extension Agents from across the panhandle will be posting articles about the larger threats in their counties.  We will be posting these by county so that both decision makers and the general public will be able to see which species are of most concern in their region. 

If you have questions about invasive species in your area, or how to manage them, you can contact your county extension office for help.