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 email@example.com or Chris Verlinde at the Santa Rosa County Extension Office (850-623-3868) or email firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.
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.
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 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 or CWD was recently detected in a hunter-harvested deer in northwestern Alabama, making it the 28th state where CWD has been documented. It’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.
Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.
By Rachel Mathes
My only brother and his family live in Appleton, Wisconsin. Though I’m only able to see my niece and nephews one or two times a year, we have a deep connection through our love of the outdoors.
Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.
Their middle son, Zachary, is a budding naturalist at just four years old. When I visit them, Zach, his brother Connor, sister Cecilia, and I, load up the wagon and go for walks on the edge of the prairie in their neighborhood. We start our walks looking for scat and signs of wildlife. Because the kids are so close to the ground, they often spot wildlife trails before I do. We talk about what animals may be there, what they eat, and how we can help them.
After each walk, we wind down at home with an iNaturalist session. Zach and his siblings help me choose what animal or plant we think we saw with the help of the app’s nearby suggestions tool. A favorite game we play after all our photos are entered into the app is a game we’ve coined, “where’s that animal?” We use the iNaturalist explore feature to find sightings of exciting creatures like wolves and beavers near their home. The kids have learned that even scientists often don’t see the animals they study, just signs of them.
At age three, Zach learned to identify milkweed with impressive accuracy. I pointed out the plant on a previous trip more than six months earlier and he remembered how to find them. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a large leafed species that prefers winters a bit colder than we get here in the Florida Panhandle, but is native in northern states across the Eastern US, including Wisconsin. Zach is often stopping the wagon to scout for monarch caterpillars, finding even the smallest instars and eggs.
Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.
When I video call the kids from Florida, Zach is often asking to see my fruit trees, vines, and bushes. He knows that we have very different seasons than Wisconsin when I am eating blueberries in May and he’s still knocking frost off his snow boots. In July, he tells me about the raspberries they find in the woods with their dad. We both get a bit of seasonal berry jealousy. On my last trip we planted thornless blackberries in their garden together. It remains to be seen whether the birds will let the kids have a harvest, but the kids will be excited either way.
Though we may live a thousand miles apart, I know my relationship with my niece and nephews will continue to thrive as they explore the natural world around them. One day, I hope to introduce them to the awe of Florida manatees and alligators. Until then, I will relish the time we get to spend together outdoors in nature and on the phone together. I know that Zachary and his siblings will grow up having respect for the natural world and I hope he always exclaims, “Monarch! Look auntie Rachel, a monarch caterpillar!” on our walks together.
Author: Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.
Scott Jackson, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County & Florida Sea Grant
Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County & Florida Sea Grant
Erik Lovestrand, UF/IFAS Extension Franklin County & Florida Sea Grant
Can you remember where you were one year ago last April? The uncertainty of each day seemed to go on forever. At this time last year, we were planning several education programs that eventually had to be canceled or migrated to online events. Scallop Sitters was one of our cooperative volunteer programs with Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) that was postponed during the pandemic in 2020. Thankfully, FWC biologists continued restoration work last year in the region with good results and steps forward. However, there was something painfully absent in these efforts – you!
One of the lessons last year taught us, is to appreciate our opportunities – whether it is to be with your family, friends, or serve your community freely through volunteer service. Some new service opportunities appeared while others were placed on hold. Thankfully, we are excited to announce the Scallop Sitters Citizen Scientist Restoration Program is returning to our area in St. Andrew, St. Joe, and Apalachicola Bays this summer!
Historically, populations of bay scallops were in large numbers and able to support fisheries across many North Florida bays, including St Andrew Bay. Consecutive years of poor environmental conditions, habitat loss, and general “bad luck” resulted in poor annual scallop production and caused the scallop fishery to close. Bay scallops are a short-lived species growing from babies to spawning adults and dying in about a year. Populations can recover quickly when growing conditions are good and can be decimated when conditions are bad.
An opportunity to jump start restoration of North Florida’s bay scallops came in 2011. Using funding as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, a multi-county scallop restoration program was proposed and eventually established in 2016. Scientists with FWC use hatchery reared scallops obtained from parents or broodstock from local bays to grow them in mass to help increase the number of spawning adults near critical seagrass habitat.
FWC also created another program where volunteers can help with restoration called “Scallop Sitters” in 2018 and invited UF/IFAS Extension to help manage the volunteer portion of the program in 2019 which led to targeted efforts in Gulf and Bay Counties.
After a year’s hiatus, UF/IFAS Extension is partnering with FWC again in Bay and Gulf Counties and expanding the program into Franklin County. Despite initial challenges with rainfall, stormwater runoff, and low salinity, our Scallop Sitter volunteers have provided valuable information to researchers and restoration efforts, especially in these beginning years of the program.
Volunteers manage predator exclusion cages of scallops, which are either placed in the bay or by a dock. The cages provide a safe environment for the scallops to live and reproduce, and in turn repopulate the bays. Volunteers make monthly visits from June until January to their assigned cages where they clean scallops removing attached barnacles and other potential problem organisms. Scallop Sitters monitor the mortality rate and collect salinity data which determines restoration goals and success in targeted areas.
You are invited! Become a Scallop Sitter
1.Register on Eventbrite
2.Take the Pre-Survey (link will be sent to your email address upon Eventbrite Registration)
3.View a Virtual Workshop in May
4.Attend a Zoom virtual Q & A session in May or June with multiple dates / times available
5.Pick up supplies & scallops on June 17 with an alternate pick-up date to be announced
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.