The Pensacola Bay Horseshoe Crab Hunt 2022

The Pensacola Bay Horseshoe Crab Hunt 2022

This is an amazing animal – the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus).  A relic of an age before the dinosaurs, they have been plowing the sediments of our marine and estuarine waters for over 400 million years. 

They are thick armored tanks, shaped like horseshoes with a long spikey tail giving them appearance of a stingray.  They are usually a deep green color, though some have a brownish hue, and have two lighter colored eyes on each side of the head, though there is a third you cannot see.  They crawl across the bottom of the Gulf and bays seeking smaller invertebrates to eat. Their armor protects them from most predators, but they do have a few, like the loggerhead sea turtle.  Though harmless to people, they don’t appear that way with numerous spines running along their abdomen and the long spine extending from the rear on a ball and socket joint that allows them to swing it, albeit slowly, in circles.  They are pretty cool actually. 

This female is carrying a male on a beach in Big Lagoon within the National Seashore. Photo: Bob Pitts

They are actually not crabs.  They are in the Phylum Arthropoda, like crabs, but not in the Subphylum Crustacea, as crabs are.  Rather they are in the Subphylum Chelicerata and more closely related to the arachnids like spiders and scorpions.  There are four species of these creatures remaining on the planet, three of those live in Asia, one along the Atlantic and Gulf coast of the United States. 

Horseshoe crabs vary in size throughout their range but are typically between one to two feet in length and up to one foot across the head.  This would be the size of a large female; males are much smaller. 

They are benthic creatures exploring the bottom of both the bays and the open oceans searching for food. 

Life for a horseshoe crab begins on the shore.  Mom buries her eggs in the sand at the tideline during the spring high tide of either the spring or fall season.  They young emerge between two and four weeks and begin life as plankton (though they resemble the adults at this stage).  They eventually settle out as juveniles in the seagrasses near where they were born and begin their life as benthic creatures.  The large adults eventually work their way out into the open ocean to feed before returning to start the cycle over. 

A large horseshoe crab found in Little Sabine. Photo: Amanda Mattair

When the females return, smaller males pursue her to shore in hopes of being the one to fertilize her eggs.  Many times, a male will use a modified claw that resembles a hook to grab on to the back of the female and ride in with her.  But several other males, called satellites, will continue across the bottom in pursuit.  Once on the beach she will begin to deposit her eggs in the sand at high tide and the males rush in to fertilize.  Studies show that more often than not it is one of the satellites who is successful.  And so, it goes over their 20 year life span, and this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. 

Their range extends from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico.  Populations within this range have declined in recent years and there have been efforts throughout to manage this problem.  Here in Florida the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has developed a citizen science project they call The Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch where volunteers visit nesting beaches to collect information from the animals and tag them.  Here in Pensacola Bay, though we have seen horseshoe crabs, we have not identified any nesting beaches and that is the focus of our Pensacola Bay Horseshoe Crab Hunt… to find those nesting beaches. 

In 2017 we began marking horseshoe crab sightings in the Pensacola Bay area on a map.  The purpose of this was to determine if there were “hotspots” (locations that had repeated sightings) that we could use to search for nesting locations.  Beginning in 2020 we trained citizen science volunteers to survey one of nine such hotspot locations.  Each of these were laid out with beach walking transects that ranged from 0.30 to 0.95 miles in length (mean = 0.69 miles). 

In 2022 we trained 14 volunteers in March to survey these transects.  They were instructed to visit one of the nine locations ± 30 minutes of spring high tide during the spring months (April-June).  All of the spring tides were provided to them, but they had to use an outside resource to determine what time high tide as their location.  Each volunteer was provided an FWC data sheet to complete after each survey and submit these to the local Sea Grant Extension Agent. 

This horseshoe crab pair was found on shore near Wakulla Florida. Photo: Charles Pulley

12 of the 14 volunteers (86%) did conduct at least one survey.  These surveys covered six of the nine transect locations (67%) and others surveyed nine new locations. 

A total of 77 surveys were conducted during the spring of 2022 for a total of 23.7 miles and logging 77 hours.  No horseshoe crabs were sighted, and no nesting beaches were found. 

That said, the general public continued to call in sighting reports outside of the official surveys.  Six residents sent the Sea Grant Extension Agent records of sightings at six locations around the bay area.  Three of these were locations were transect locations we are currently surveying, further confirming these are good places to search.  Those three were Big Sabine, Little Sabine, and Sharp Point on Pensacola Beach.  The other three locations included Portofino and the point at Ft. Pickens on Pensacola Beach as well as Navarre Beach

Locations that were surveyed and no sightings were reported included Park West and Morgan Park on Pensacola Beach, Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze, Sanders Beach and Bayou Grande in Pensacola, and Galvez Landing, Perdido Key State Park, Big Lagoon State Park and Tarkiln Bayou out near Perdido Key. 

We will continue to search these sites each year in hopes of finding nesting horseshoe crabs.  We encourage everyone to continue to report sightings to the Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County (850-475-5230; roc1@ufl.edu ) and consider becoming a volunteer in the spring. 

Horseshoe crab molts found on the beach near Big Sabine. Photo: Holly Forrester.
Panhandle Outdoors Live! at St. Joseph Bay Rescheduled for September 28th

Panhandle Outdoors Live! at St. Joseph Bay Rescheduled for September 28th

The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Conservation lands and aquatic systems have vulnerabilities and face future threats to their ecological integrity.  Come learn about the important role of these ecosystems.

The St. Joseph Bay and Buffer Preserve Ecosystems are home to some of the one richest concentrations of flora and fauna along the Northern Gulf Coast. This area supports an amazing diversity of fish, aquatic invertebrates, turtles, salt marshes and pine flatwoods uplands.

This one-day educational adventure is based at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve near the coastal town of Port. St. Joe, Florida. It includes field tours of the unique coastal uplands and shoreline as well as presentations by area Extension Agents.

Details:

Registration fee is $45.

Meals: breakfast, lunch, drinks & snacks provided (you may bring your own)

Attire: outdoor wear, water shoes, bug spray and sun screen

*if afternoon rain is in forecast, outdoor activities may be switched to the morning schedule

Space is limited! Register now! See below.

Tentative schedule:

All Times Eastern

8:00 – 8:30 am  Welcome! Breakfast & Overview with Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension

8:30 – 9:35 am Diamondback Terrapin Ecology, with Rick O’Connor, Escambia County Extension

9:35 – 9:45 am  Q&A

9:45- 10:20 am The Bay Scallop & Habitat, with Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension

10:20 – 10:30 am Q&A

10:30 – 10:45 am Break

10:45 – 11:20 am The Hard Structures: Artificial Reefs & Marine Debris, with Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension

11:20 – 11:30 am Q&A

11:30 – 12:05 am The Apalachicola Oyster, Then, Now and What’s Next, with Erik Lovestrand, Franklin County Extension

12:05 – 12:15 pm Q&A

12:15 – 1:00 pm Lunch

1:00 – 2:30 pm Tram Tour of the Buffer Preserve (St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Staff)

2:30 – 2:40 pm Break

2:40 – 3:20 pm A Walk Among the Black Mangroves (All Extension Agents)

3:20 – 3:30 pm Wrap Up

To attend, you must register for the event at this site: 

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoors-live-at-st-joseph-bay-tickets-404236802157

For more information please contact Ray Bodrey at 850-639-3200 or rbodrey@ufl.edu

Finding Rare Animals

Finding Rare Animals

One of the programs I focus on as a Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County is restoring the health of our estuary.  One of the projects in that program is increasing the encounters with estuarine animals that were once common.  Currently I am focused on horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, and bay scallops.  Horseshoe crabs and bay scallops were more common here 50 years ago.  We are not sure how common diamondback terrapins were.  We know they were once very common near Dauphin Island and are often found in the Big Bend area, but along the emerald coast we are not sure.  That said, we would like to see all of them encountered more often.

Horseshoe crabs breeding on the beach.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant

 

There are a variety of reasons why species decline in numbers, but habitat loss is one of the most common.  Water quality declined significantly 50 years ago and certainly played a role in the decline of suitable habitat.  The loss of seagrass certainly played a role in the decline of bay scallops, but overharvesting was an issue as well.  In the Big Bend region to our east, horseshoe crabs are also common in seagrass beds and the decline of that habitat locally may have played a role in the decline of that animal in our bay system.

 

Salt marshes are what terrapins prefer.  We have lost a lot of marsh due to coastal development.  Unfortunately, marshes often exist where we would like houses, marinas, and restaurants.  If the decline of these creatures in our bay is a sign of the declining health of the system, their return could be a sign that things are getting better.

Seagrass beds have declined over the last half century.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Salt marshes have declined due to impacts from coastal development.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For over 10 years we have been conducting citizen science monitoring programs to monitor the frequency of encounters of these creatures.  All three are here but the increase in encounters has been slow.  An interesting note was the fact that many locals had not heard of two of them.  Very few knew what a horseshoe crab was when I began this project and even fewer had heard of a terrapin.  Scallops are well known from the frequent trips locals make to the Big Bend area to harvest them (the only place in the state where it is legal to do so), but many of those were not aware that they were once harvested here.

 

I am encouraged when locals send me photos of either horseshoe crabs or their molts.  It gives me hope that the animal is on the increase.  Our citizen science project focuses on locating their nesting beaches, which we have not found yet, but it is still encouraging.

Horseshoe crab molts. Photo UF/IFAS Communications

Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin (photo: Molly O’Connor)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volunteers surveying terrapin nesting beaches do find the turtles and most often sign that they have been nesting.  The 2022 nesting season was particularly busy and, again, a good sign.

 

It is now time to do our annual Scallop Search.  Each year we solicit volunteers to survey a search grid within either Big Lagoon or Santa Rosa Sound.  Over the years the results of these surveys have not been as positive as the other two, but we do find them, and we will continue to search.  If you are interested in participating in this year’s search, we will be conducting them during the last week of July.  You can contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office (850-475-5230 ext.1111) or email roc1@ufl.edu or Chris Verlinde at the Santa Rosa County Extension Office (850-623-3868) or email chrismv@ufl.edu and we can set you up.

Bay scallops need turtle grass to survive.
Photo: UF IFAS

Volunteers participating in the Great Scallop Search.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Final note…

Each June I camp out west somewhere and each year I look for those hard-to-find animals.  After 10 years of looking for a mountain lion, I saw one this year.  Finding these creatures can happen.  Let’s hope encounters with all three become more common in our bay.

It’s Been a Terrific Terrapin Season So Far

It’s Been a Terrific Terrapin Season So Far

As the Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County, one of my program areas is to help restore a healthy estuary.  To do this we focus on educating the public how to improve water quality, restore habitat, and manage invasive species, but we also focus on how to monitor fish and wildlife.  The fish and wildlife I focus on are those that were once common in the bay and are trying to make a comeback – such as scallops and horseshoe crabs.  But there is another estuarine creature we are interested in that does not fall into the classic “bring them back” model and that is the estuarine turtle known as the diamondback terrapin.

The diamondback terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Unlike scallops and horseshoe crabs, this is not an animal that people remember as a kid.  In fact, very few Floridians in the panhandle have ever heard of it.  Some older distribution maps of their range show that they exist from Cape Cod MA to Brownsville TX, but with a gap in the Florida panhandle.  That was because there was no scientific literature of the animal’s existence here.  And that was when the Panhandle Terrapin Project began – to confirm whether or not terrapins existed here.

 

In 2005, working with students at Washington High School in Pensacola, we began our search by placing “Wanted Posters” at boat ramps in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties near good terrapin habitat, which is salt marsh.  We began to get calls almost right away, but for a variety of other turtle species.  Folks were calling us with photos of box turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, and cooters.  It showed there was interest in the project but was evident they were not familiar with the terrapin.

Around 80% of the terrapin nests are depredated by raccoons, or some other predator.
Photo: Bob Blais

Volunteers log the number of female tracks they see on their beaches.
Photo: Cindy Marvel

I interviewed several ole gill netters to see if they remember ever capturing them – same response, “I never heard of those”.  I did show one gill netter a photo and he responded – “you know, I think we did catch a couple of these”.  But no confirmation of their existence here.  It was time to begin searching ourselves.

 

The team began to survey good terrapin habitat and walking potential nesting beaches looking for any evidence.  We did not find it.  Then one day in 2007 a gentleman working on a construction site responded to one of our “Wanted Posters”.  He said he had seen one of our terrapins.  After all of the calls that led to other species, I was not so sure – but he convinced me it might be.  So, we checked it out.  The sign was placed in good habitat and there were potential nesting beaches nearby.  We searched… and we found.  What we found were nests that had been depredated by raccoons.  There were empty eggshells laying around and two dead hatchlings.  There were also tracks in the sand.  Confirmation… there were terrapins here!

 

It was now time to take the show on the road and see if terrapins exist in other counties along the panhandle.  My wife and I would take part of our summer vacations and camp along the coast searching.  We found at least one record of a terrapin in each of the counties between the Alabama state line and Apalachicola River.  All of this was presented to the Florida Diamondback Terrapin Working Group of which there are members from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  Word was out.

Terrapins prefer sandy beaches and lay their eggs during daylight hours.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

A terrapin hatchling.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next step was to assess their status.  How many are here and how are those populations doing?

 

We did this by following a method developed by Tom Mann with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife.  Tom was monitoring terrapins in that state and the subspecies he worked with, the Mississippi Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin pileata) was the one that was thought to be in Pensacola Bay.  So, it was Tom’s method we decided to follow.  This includes walking nesting beaches and logging individual tracks and depredated nests in 16-day cycles.  Tom’s model assumed that all mature females in the population nest each season and that they do not lay more than one clutch in a 16-day period.  The idea is that each track and nest represented one female, and assuming the sex ratio of male to female is 1:1, doubling the number of tracks and depredated nests found in that period would give an idea of how many adult males and females are in this group.  Seemed easy enough so these surveys became part of our project.

 

Another method learned by attending conferences was a 30-minute head count.  If you can find the lagoons where the terrapins actually live you can sit and count the number of heads you see in a 30-minute period.  It is true that 23 heads does not mean there are 23 terrapins, but the relative abundance can be monitored.  If you typically see 20-23 heads and over time that decreases to 11-15, then the relative abundance is declining.  It is a method that citizen science volunteers can do and so was included in the project.

Modified crab traps is one method used to capture adults.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

A diamondback terrapin being measured and marked before release.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also wanted to try and capture individuals to mark and tag.  Mark recapture is a method used to estimate populations but capturing terrapins has been historically difficult to do.  Several methods have been used by members of the Working Group and we have tried them as well.  We have captured terrapins, but very few.

 

In 2018 the Team partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to increase the robustness of the project.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission became interested in tissue samples from captured animal to study the genetics of the terrapins in this area.  Since 2015 we have trained 228 individuals to conduct surveys, and some have been with me that entire time.  Many of them have spent countless hours helping assess the status of this animal in our bays.  Many days they see nothing.  Others a few tracks or depredated nests.  Some locations have good luck with head counts, but many of them finding nothing.

The Mississippi terrapin found in Pensacola Bay is darker in color than the Ornate terrapin found in other bays of the panhandle.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This terrapin has the coloration of the Ornate terrapin but was found much further west than the literature suggest it lives.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

I keep track of “Frequency of Occurrence” (FOO) – the number of surveys where some sort of terrapin encounter happens.  This encounter can be as simple as a track in the sand, but they had SOME encounter.  It is my hope that over time encounters with them will increase, just as I hope it does with scallops and horseshoe crabs.  Since 2007 the FOO has ranged from 12-86% of the surveys conducted, with an average of about 25%.  The best year was 2011 (86%), just after the Deepwater Horizon spill.  There was a steady increase in FOO from 2007 to 2012 when it took a significant drop.  However, this is not because the relative abundance of terrapins suddenly dropped.  2012 was the year I moved from the marine science program at Washington High School to Florida Sea Grant Extension.  There were all new volunteers and the learning curve started over.  They were not as good at detecting them as the previous group.  But that is changing.  2022 is looking to be a busy year for the team.

 

So far this year we have seen terrapin activity on almost every nesting beach between here and Apalachicola.  One site had 49 heads in a 30-minute head count!  There have been several active nests, numerous tracks, and plenty of depredated nests.  In addition, we have found one dead hatchling and captured two adults. Tissue from these have been collected for the genetic study.  But the strangest story this year… a security guard has told us of terrapin hatchlings that have been dropped on their guard shack by birds.  Sea birds are known to do this to try and crack open shells of mollusk so they can feed on them.  I have never heard of this with terrapins, not here or anywhere.

A dedicated volunteer is rewarded with a capture.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

It seems it is going to be a terrific year for the terrapin project this year.  It is exciting for our volunteers to have so many encounters and nice to know that the public is becoming more familiar with this animal.  I cannot say whether the population is increasing or not but our knowledge, understanding, and encounters are.

Food Plot Exclusion Cages

Food Plot Exclusion Cages

I routinely receive calls about “failed food plots.”  My normal response is to ask about soil testing first.  If they performed a soil test and applied fertilizers according to the test, I move on to more questions about the planting methods.  I ask what was planted, how was it planted, when was it planted.  In some cases, we don’t find the problem even after all these questions.  This leads me to my next question:  Did you put exclusion cages on your plot?

Exclusion cage in food plot with heavy deer feeding. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden

In my experience, I have seen wildlife feed so heavily on the food plot that you think it has failed.  This can happen when you have high populations or where non-target animals feed on the plot.  In one case, I saw turkeys feeding on newly sprouted plants so heavily that we had “bald spots” in the plot.  In another instance, I was called to check a chufa plot that wasn’t performing well.  When I arrived at the plot, there were rabbits digging up the chufas and eating them before they sprouted.  In the photo here, I am showing heavy deer feeding on a demonstration plot with exclusion cages.  Without exclusion cages, I would have assumed a crop failure.

Exclusion cages are simple structures that allow you to see what is growing in the plot versus what the wildlife are eating.  They are easy to create and put in place.  I use field fence with small openings.  I use a piece that is about 5-6 foot long by 3-4 foot high.  I roll the fence and make it into a circle that is about 18 inches in diameter.  Then, I secure the cage in the plot with landscape staples or rods/posts.  I normally install these directly after planting and fertilizing the plot.

exclusion cage in food plot

Exclusion Cage in food plot with more normal deer feeding. Photo Credit: Jennifer Bearden

Exclusion cages are just another tool to use in evaluating food plot success.  These simple tools allow us to see what is growing and compare that to what the wildlife are eating.  This allows us to evaluate the food plot.  I would also recommend using visual observation.  Look for wildlife sign in the food plot.  What tracks do you see?  Do you see evidence of feeding on the forages?  Game cameras are also helpful in determining what wildlife are feeding on the plot.  Use your tools wisely to evaluate food plot success each season and adjust accordingly.

Chronic Wasting Disease Gets Closer to Florida

Chronic Wasting Disease Gets Closer to Florida

Below is a bulletin sent out by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission on 01/10/2022 02:53

Chronic wasting disease or CWD was recently detected in a hunter-harvested deer in northwestern Alabama, making it the 28th state where CWD has been documentedIt’s the first time CWD has been detected in a state that borders Florida. CWD, which is a brain and central nervous system disease that is always fatal to members of the deer family, has not been detected in Florida.

The FWC asks people who plan to hunt deer, elk, moose, caribou or other members of the deer family outside of Florida to be vigilant in helping reduce the risk of CWD spreading into Florida. An important step is to be aware of and follow the rules that prohibit importing or possessing whole carcasses or high-risk parts of all species of the deer family originating from any place outside of Florida.

Under the new rules, which took effect July 2021, people may only import into Florida:

  • De-boned meat
  • Finished taxidermy mounts
  • Clean hides and antlers
  • Skulls, skull caps and teeth if all soft tissue has been removed

The only exception to this rule is deer harvested from a property in Georgia or Alabama that is bisected by the Florida state line AND under the same ownership may be imported into Florida. For more information about the new rules, see this infographic and video.

These rule changes continue the FWC’s work to protect Florida’s deer populations from CWD spreading into the state.

 

 

 

Source: myfwc.com

Click Here for more information on CWD