A Cold Winter’s Snake – the Garter

A Cold Winter’s Snake – the Garter

When hiking around the Florida panhandle in midwinter, most snakes are undercover trying to avoid the chilly cold fronts that pass through and can drop temperatures close to freezing.  So, the probability of seeing one is low.  But one species, the eastern garter snake, seems to tolerate cold temperatures better.  They are often found basking on open areas this time of year and are quite common not only on the trails, but in our home landscapes as well.

 

But not to fear…

This is one of the 40 non-venomous snakes found in our state.  Many are afraid of these animals because… well… because they are snakes, and that is all that need to be said – at least for some.  But for others, they understand the benefits snakes provide to the ecosystem (controlling unwanted pests) and to see one is kind of exciting.  Being non-venomous does not mean they will not bite, they certainly will, but no venom is associated with it.  Larger non-venomous snake bites can be painful, but not deadly.  Garter snake bites barely hurt.

The eastern garter snake is one of the few who are active during the cold months.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Recently my wife and I were on a hike with our grandsons in central Escambia County.  At one point my oldest grandson said “snake”.  I am not sure how he saw it actually.  It was a young eastern garter snake basking in the middle of the trail.  These snakes have colorful patterns of stripes and squares that help them blend in well.  We knew right away what it was and were all excited to see it.  Knowing it was harmless we allowed him to pick it up but warned him that it would most likely bite.  Garter snakes tend to flee when first alarmed but will turn and bite if cornered.  They will sometimes rattle their tails in the leaves giving off a “buzzing” sound and can release a musk to warn the predator.  But this young snake did neither, no rattling, no musk.  However, it did try to bite him.  After a few photos and the amazement of seeing one, we released it in a sunny spot to continue its midday basking.  It was pretty cool.

 

Many reading this have seen many garter snakes and know this as a harmless animal.  They are found all across the state of Florida and much of the eastern United States.  There is a subspecies, the blue-striped garter snake, that can be found in the Big Bend area of Florida, but the differences are minor.

 

Eastern garter snakes are smaller snakes, usually reaching two feet but there is a four-footer on record.  They like to inhabit areas that are near water where their favorite prey (amphibians) can be found.  Preferring open grassy areas, they can be found in wooded habitats and are often found in lawns and gardens of local neighborhoods.

 

They hunt primarily during the daylight hours for amphibians but will also eat fish and earthworms.  Some have been found to feed on snails, slugs, and even small snakes, birds, and mammals.  They are not constrictors but rather grab their prey and swallow it whole.

 

They are famous for their large gatherings during breeding season.  In spring, females will release a pheromone to attract the males, and the males will come, many of them at one time.  There are locations in Canada where literally thousands gather at one location.  The females do not lay eggs but rather give birth to about 20-30 live young in late summer or fall, it could be up to 100 in a litter.  These large groups of slithering garters bring back images from movies where “snake pits” and “a den of snakes” are portrayed.  I have never seen such a gathering, and in the southeast, they do not happen in such large numbers as these, but it would be cool.

 

This time of year, on sunny days in open basking areas, you may see this small but neat snake.  The same could be true if hiking near an open sunny location.  So, keep your eyes down and maybe you will get lucky.

 

References

 

Common Garter Snake. 2021. Florida Snake ID Guide. Florida Museum of Natural History. Common Gartersnake – Florida Snake ID Guide (ufl.edu).

 

Gibbons, W. 2017. Snakes of the Eastern United States. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 416.

 

Gibbons, W., Dorcas, M. 2007.  Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 253.

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

Wildlife on the Beach in January

Wildlife on the Beach in January

During 2022 I plan to make weekly hikes on Pensacola Beach to see what sort of wildlife, or other natural phenomena, I encounter each month.  For the first January trip I did a short hike at Ft. Pickens on the west end of Santa Rosa Island.

 

Ft. Pickens is more wooded than much of the island and provides both maritime forest and beach habitats for a variety of wildlife.  On my first trip – Jan 6 – the temperature was 62°F and overcast.  It actually rained some during the hike.  As I approached the fort area, I saw a bald eagle sitting on a sand dune.

A bald eagle sitting on a dune near Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Everyone gets excited about seeing a bald eagle.  Its like dolphins, no matter how many times you see them, it is still cool, and you alert everyone they are there.  The difference with bald eagles is that they were not always here.  Growing up in Pensacola I rarely saw one.  I worked for a period of time on what were called “the ponds” on the property of Air Products in Pace, Florida.  The ponds were a water treatment system to help improve water quality coming from the plant being discharged into Escambia Bay.  It was a wildlife sanctuary and there was plenty of wildlife there.  Cottonmouths, deer, turtles, raccoons, and alligators were all common.  One of the largest eastern diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen was found there.  And, during the winter months, we would occasionally get a bald eagle.  It was rare and very exciting.

 

A field guide of Birds of the Eastern United States published by Roger Tory Peterson in 1980 indicates that their winter breeding range includes much of Florida.  A document published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggest they begin building nests in our area in September, lay eggs by October, and hatching occurs in November.  Between November and March, the parents take care of them until the fledge and head out on their own.  The reason we have not seen more in our younger years was their population was down.  The decline of the national bird was due to a variety of reasons, but the DDT story played a role.

 

Today their numbers have rebounded and encounters with them in our area have increased.  Their nest can be quite large and are usually close to a water source.  These birds are known as predators but actually spend a lot of time feeding on carrion and robbing other birds of their food source.  Competition between the osprey, another recovering species, and bald eagles are quite famous.  And, like I said, you never get tired of seeing them.  This time of year, you can spot them in several locations around the beach areas.

 

Other creatures found on this January hike at Ft. Pickens included:

Great blue herons use tall pines for nesting during winter.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Mockingbirds are quite common in the winter. This one was feeding on the red berries of a yaupon holly.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This green blob is actually a sea slug known as a sea hare. It was returned to the water.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This structure is often found on panhandle beaches. It is the egg case of the snail known as the moon snail. Also called the “shark’s eye” or “cat’s eye”.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately dead seabirds on the beach are not uncommon. This one is a pelican.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I encourage to take some time this winter and go for a hike and see what you can discover.

It’s Coyote Season Again

It’s Coyote Season Again

Over the years I have received many calls from beach residents with concerns about coyotes.  Encounters with this animal can be unnerving for many and the most common time of year for them is winter.

Coyote seen on Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Kristen Marks

A friend of mine who lives in the central part of Escambia County, told me he had seen several coyotes over Christmas break and several more along I-10 while driving back and forth from Mobile Alabama.  Winter is breeding time for these animals.  Early in the breeding season males are on the move seeking mates.  Their searching may lead them to move at all times of the day and not just the dawn/dusk and evening times they typically do.  Hence, more encounters.

 

Once pregnant, the females will find a den to give birth and care for the young.  Dens are usually burrow areas, under logs, or within thick vegetation, but sometimes they have been found under decks or other debris in the yard.  Gestation is about two months, and a litter is typically about six pups.  Once born, the female will need to feed her young and will seek food from a lot of places and during all parts of the day.  Hence, more encounters.

 

Coyotes are omnivores and have a wide diet.  During the cold months their natural prey would be rodents and birds, but garbage and left out pet food are much easier to grab than birds and mammals, has a stronger smell, and higher caloric intake.  It is more desired.  Encounters with pet food can led to encounter with pets, and this could end bad for the pet.  It is recommended that during these colder months you feed your pets, and store their food, indoors.  Keeping your small pets indoors at night is recommended as well.  Close and secure your garbage as best you can.  Coyotes are pretty intelligent and will make an attempt to access this garbage if given the opportunity.  Note that intentionally feeding a coyote is illegal.  They have a natural fear of humans and if they are being fed, they will lose this fear which could lead to negative encounters with the animal.

A coyote is seen racing down Via DeLuna Blvd on Pensacola Beach
Photo: Shelley Johnson

Some may be concerned about the “pack behavior” of coyotes.  Most are solitary but small packs of about six animals are known to move about the landscape usually calling to each other near dawn and dusk with their iconic howls and yips.  The typical range for a group of six is about 10 square miles, which would lead to the argument that there are not many resident coyotes on Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key, but we know they are there.  Some coyotes have been seen crossing the Bob Sikes Bridge between Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze near dawn, suggesting coyotes residing in Gulf Breeze may be using resources on Pensacola Beach.

 

If an encounter does happen, you should hold your ground.  Coyotes do have a natural fear of humans and will typically flee.  I recently encountered three animals napping near a large fallen tree while hiking in Colorado.  I was not 100% sure what they were when I first saw what appeared to be ears sticking above the tree.  Then a head popped up to look at me.  I slowly approached, not recommended, and the coyotes immediately got up and ran.  This is what you would expect them to do.  Coyotes standing their ground and not leaving could suggest and animal who has found a reliable food source and may be willing to defend it.  Contact the authorities if you believe this is the case.

A coyote moving on Pensacola Beach near dawn.
Photo provided by Shelley Johnson.

We do not know how many coyotes live in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, but it is fair to say they are common.  Encounters are rare and the animal has learned to live near us without provoking problems.  All the same, being aware of pets, pet food, and garbage this time of year is a good practice.

Searching for Terrapins in the Florida Panhandle

Searching for Terrapins in the Florida Panhandle

2021 Panhandle Terrapin Project Survey Report

 

Rick O’Connor, Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida / IFAS Extension, Escambia County

 

SITUATION

 

The diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is the only resident brackish water turtle in the United States.  Ranging from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Brownsville Texas, this turtle is most often found in the salt marsh and mangrove habitats within this range.

The light colored skin and dark markings are pretty unique to the terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Terrapins are medium sized members of the Emydidae family, which includes the cooters, sliders, and box turtles. The carapace length of the larger females is about 10 inches, and she will weigh on average about 20 ounces.  Males are smaller, 5-6 inches carapace and about 10 ounces.  They are beautifully marked turtles having lighter skin with darker spots or bars.  The carapace can have beautiful markings of spots and swirls, many times a brilliant orange in color.  Because of this they are popular in the pet trade and illegal pouching is a problem across their range.

 

There are seven subspecies within this range.

  • The northern terrapin ( t. terrapin) can be found from Massachusetts to the Chesapeake Bay area.
  • The Carolina terrapin ( t. centrata) is found from the Chesapeake Bay area to the Daytona Beach area of Florida.
  • The Florida east coast terrapin ( t. tequesta) is found from the Daytona Beach area to Miami-Dade County.
  • The mangrove terrapin ( t. rhizophorarum) is found in the Florida Keys and along the Gulf coast to the Ten Thousand Islands area.
  • The ornate terrapin ( t. macrospilota) can be found from the Ten Thousand Island area to Choctawhatchee Bay in the Florida panhandle.
  • The Mississippi terrapin ( t. pileata) is found from Choctawhatchee Bay to the Louisiana/Texas state line.
  • The Texas terrapin ( t. littoralis) is found along the coast of Texas.

The animal is quite well known in the Chesapeake Bay area where it was harvested in the 19th century as a food source.  The popularity of “turtle soup” increased when President Lincoln included it as a local course for state dinners at the White House.  The popularity increased the harvest to a point where terrapin farms began to supply the demand, many of these farms were in the south.  Eventually the price became too high, and the popularity of the dish waned.  At that point research into the animal began in earnest to assess how the commercial harvest had impacted the population.  Much of this work was conducted in the early part of the 20th century.  By the mid-20th century, a wired crab pot was developed for the harvest of blue crab, a popular fishery in the Chesapeake.  Terrapins have a habitat of entering these crab pots and drowning.  So, a new threat had emerged.  About the same time the automobile was becoming more popular, bridges were being built to connect to barrier islands, and other locations, humans had not visited much before.  This activity increased the number of nest predators for terrapins, raccoons being one of the larger problems.

Terrapins in a derelict crab trap (photo: Molly O’Connor)

All of these issues led to more research on terrapin biology and ecology.  However, there was one region within their range that very little was known – the Florida panhandle.  There were no scientific studies conducted in this part of their range and even their existence there was questioned.

 

REPSONSE

 

In response to the question of existence in the Florida panhandle, the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust and the Florida Diamondback Terrapin Working Group, reached out to the Institute of Coastal and Marine Studies (a high school marine science program in Escambia County, Florida).  The objective was to have them conduct surveys in suitable terrapin habitat indicating presence/absence of terrapins between Escambia and Franklin Counties.  Those surveys began in 2005 and by 2010 had been conducted in all six counties with at least one verified record in each of the six counties (Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, and Gulf).  Terrapins did exist there.

 

Beginning in 2008 the team began to assess population status.  Funding for mark/recapture was not available but a method of assessing relative abundance was being used in Mississippi and was chosen for the Florida panhandle.  The method had made several assumptions –

  • Each mature female nests every nesting season
  • Each nesting female will lay more than one clutch each season but would not lay more than one within a 16-day period.
  • The team had identified all terrapin nesting beaches in the region.

Based on this method, surveys were broken into 16-day intervals beginning April 1 and ending on July 1 (peak nesting period).  Each track, or depredated nest, was counted and all sign of the track or nest removed so that it would not be recounted within that 16-day period.  Each track would then represent a different female and over time the number of nesting females could be determined.  Going on the argument that the sex ratio was 1:1 a relative abundance of adult terrapins could be determined.  A study conducted in the Big Bend area of Florida by Suarez (Suarez, 2015) suggested the sex ratio was 1:3 in favor of males.  A more recent study from the eastern panhandle conducted by Catizone (unpublished) suggests a 1:5 ratio in favor of males.  Based on this we could develop a range of relative abundance from 1:1 to 1:5.

Note the track on this beach.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Egg shells indicate a depredated nest.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another metric used to measure relative abundance was a 30-minute head count.  The team would sit in kayaks within the ponds where adults resided and count the number of heads in that time period.  Again, this does not indicate a population but a relative abundance within that location.

 

Finally, in 2008 the team began to deploy modified crab traps to capture terrapins for a potential mark/recapture study, marking using a scute notching method.  The traps were modified so that a captured terrapin would be able to surface and breath.  These traps were set in potential adult residing locations for a five-day period beginning on a Monday and ending on a Friday.

A terrapin swimming near but not entering a modified crab trap.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The focus of the relative abundance and trapping portions of the project were Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties due to the fact the team resided there.

 

In 2012, the author left the marine academy and joined Florida Sea Grant.  This project was not a high priority in the job description and effort on this waned until no surveys were conducted in 2014.  However, in 2015 the author established a citizen science program to continue these surveys and they have done so since.  The focus of those surveys has been frequency of occurrence (FOO – the number of surveys where either terrapins, or terrapin sign have occurred) and continuing the relative abundance data collection.

Citizen scientists have been crucial for the success of this project.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

In 2018 the U.S. Geological Survey joined the team. One member of USGS began coordinating citizen science work in the eastern panhandle (Bay, Gulf, and Franklin Counties as well as conducting research in the Gulf County area), and the author began coordinating citizen science work in the western panhandle (Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton Counties). With USGS help some tagging has begun with both PIT and satellite tags.

RESULTS

The 2021 results are from the western panhandle portion of the project.

In the western panhandle during 2021, 263 surveys were conducted by 41 trained volunteers who logged 1832 hours. These surveys occurred in Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa Counties. Surveys were conducted at known nesting areas with some occurring at potential new nesting sites. The number of surveys where either terrapins, or terrapin sign, were encountered was 52. This is a frequency of occurrence (FOO) of 20% of the surveys an encounter occurred. The breakdown by county is below.

2021 Data from the Western Panhandle 

County # of sites surveyed # of surveys FOO # of heads seen Nesting detected Relative abundance
Escambia 8 86 .02 1 Yes 8-24 terrapins
Santa Rosa 2 79 .11 0 Yes 4-12 terrapins

2-6 terrapins

Okaloosa 5 98 .42 357 Yes 20-70 terrapins

4-10 terrapins

TOTAL 15 263 .20 358

 

Three of the eight sites surveyed in Escambia County were known nesting beaches, but evidence of nesting was only found at one. The other five locations were potential nesting sites, but no evidence of nesting was found. Based on these surveys, nesting activity declined in 2021.

Both sites surveyed in Santa Rosa County were known nesting beaches and nesting was detected at both. One site has long term data that, based on this year’s surveys, suggest a decline in relative abundance.

One of the five sites in Okaloosa was a known nesting site. However, evidence of nesting at a additional site was found. An encounter of some kind was logged at four of the five sites surveyed. All of these are relatively new survey sites to the project and relative abundance data is minimal. However, based on these data, the relative abundance is quite high.

Data from 2007 – 2021 for all sites

County # of sites surveyed # of surveys FOO # of nesting beaches found
Escambia 22 291 .11 4
Santa Rosa 13 441 .32 2
Okaloosa 12 123 .36 2
Walton 3 4 .25 0
TOTAL 50 859 .25 8

 

Since the beginning of the project 859 surveys have been conducted in the four counties of the western panhandle and terrapins have been encountered 25% of the time. Of the 50 sites surveyed, 8 (16%) of those have found nesting activity.

Objective 1 has been completed. There are terrapins in the Florida panhandle.

Objective 2 – the relative abundance – is still not completely understood. There was a significant decrease in encounters when the citizen science project began in 2015.
The citizen science effort the FOO was much higher and increased annually. The citizen science effort began in 2015 and the FOO was much lower but increased annually as well. It is believed that the cause of this decline is ability for volunteers to find terrapins, terrapin heads, or evidence of nesting. It is believed the volunteers are getting better and that the data will eventually provide better information on terrapin abundance.

DISCUSSION

Objective 1 has been answered. There are terrapins in the Florida panhandle.

Objective 2 is still not understood. It is believed the higher FOO between 2007 and 2011 was probably due to the ability of the volunteers to detect terrapin or terrapin sign. So, it is not known at this time whether the relative abundance of these animals have declined in the western panhandle or not. As the volunteers get better, we will see over time how the numbers change.

The effort of mark/recapture using modified crab traps has not been very effective. Traps have been deployed with much effort at four sites with very little success. That portion of the project has been suspended while searching for a better method of capture.

At two of the long-term monitoring sites, the relative abundance data suggests a decline in terrapins at those locations. However, as mentioned, confidence in the relative abundance data needs to increase before any strong conclusions can be drawn. These data do suggest small populations at all locations, between 20-50 animals. The citizen science effort will continue, and we hope a more robust population study will follow.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author would like to thank the students from the Institute of Coastal and Marine Studies at B.T. Washington High School for assistance developing and conducting the early portion of this project.

Tom Mann from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife for the protocol on relative abundance based on nesting activity.

George Heinrich (Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, Florida Diamondback Terrapin Working Group)
Dr. Joe Butler (University of North Florida, Florida Diamondback Terrapin Working Group)
Dr. Andy Coleman (Birmingham Audubon Society, Gulf Coast Diamondback Terrapin Working Group)
Dr. Thane Wibbels (University of Alabama Birmingham, Gulf Coast Diamondback Terrapin Working Group)
Dr. Ken Marion (University of Alabama Birmingham, Gulf Coast Diamondback Terrapin Working Group) for their assistance, guidance and advice on this project.

Dan Catizone (U.S. Geological Survey, University of Florida)
Dr. Margaret Lamont (U.S. Geological Survey)
for their assistance, guidance, advice, and supply support.

Bob Pitts (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Bob Blais (Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center)
Jeanna Kilpatrick (Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance)
for taking the lead as county volunteer coordinators as well as surveyors.

And the 40 plus volunteers who have logged thousands of hours surveying sites in the western panhandle. We could not have done this without you.

Submitted:
December 22, 2021.

Searching for Elusive Wildlife in Pensacola Bay

Searching for Elusive Wildlife in Pensacola Bay

Recently I watched a documentary on TV entitled The Loneliest Whale; the search for 52.  The title grabbed my attention and so, I checked it out.

There are many forms of wildlife that are very hard to find in our area. But we continue to look.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

Seems a decade or so ago the U.S. Navy was doing SONAR work in the Pacific between Washington and Alaska and detected a strange sound coming in at 52 hertz.  They had not herd this before and would continue to hear it in different locations around the northern Pacific.  Their first concern was it was something new from the Russians, but when they showed the graphs and played the recording to a marine mammologist named Dr. Watkins, they found that it was most likely a “biological” – mostly likely a whale.

 

The problem was that Dr. Watkins had never heard whales calling at 52 hertz.  If it was a whale, it was calling a lot – but no other whales were answering.  Hence the name “the loneliest whale”.  If it was a whale, and no others would talk to it, it was kind of sad.  But who was this whale?  What kind was it?

 

Word of the loneliest whale spread around the world and many humans made a connection to this animal, possibly because of their own disconnect with their own species.  Stories and ballads were written, and people began to feel for the poor animal that apparently had no friends.

 

This story caught the attention of a documentary film maker who was interested in finding “52”, as the whale became known.  He solicited the help of other marine mammologists; Dr. Watkins had died.  According to those marine mammologists, this was going to be VERY difficult.  It is hard enough to find just a pod of whales in the open Pacific, much less a specific pod with a specific individual.  But they were excited about the challenge of finding this one animal, “52”, and off they went.

 

As I was watching this documentary it reminded me of my own search here near Pensacola.  In 2005, I was asked by members of state turtle groups if I could search to see if diamondback terrapins lived in the western panhandle.  This turtle’s range is from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Brownsville Texas, but there were no records from the Florida panhandle.  Did the animal exist there?  I was running the marine science program at Washington High School at the time and thought this would be a good project for us.  So, we began.

Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin (photo: Molly O’Connor)

This small turtle can be held safely by grabbing it near the bridge area on each side.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The students researched terrapin biology and ecology to determine the locations with the highest probability of finding, and we searched.  I quickly found that the best time to search for terrapins was during nesting in May and June, and that the worst time to do a project with high school seniors was May and June.  So, the project fell on my wife and me.  For two years we searched all the “good spots” and found nothing.  We placed “Wanted Poster’s” at boat ramps near the good spots with only calls about other species of turtles, not the terrapin.

 

Then one day in a call came in from a construction worker.  Said he had seen the turtle we were looking for.  For over a year we had been chasing “false calls” of terrapins.  So, I was not overly excited thinking this would be another box turtle or slider.  I asked a few questions about what he was looking at and he responded with “you’re the guy who put the wanted poster up correct? – well your turtle is standing next to the poster… it’s the same turtle”.  Now I was excited.  We did some surveys in that area and in 2007 saw our first terrapin!  I can’t tell you how exciting it was.  Two years of searching… at times thinking we might work on another project with a different species that actually exists… reading that the diamondback terrapin is like the Loch Ness monster – everyone talks about them, but no one has ever seen one.  And there it was, a track in the sand and a head in the water.  Yes Virginia… terrapins do exist in the Florida panhandle.  The excitement of finding one was indescribable.

 

We were hooked.  We now had to look in other counties in the panhandle, and yes, we found them.  As I watched the program of the marine mammologists searching for “52” I could completely relate.

 

Today, as a marine educator with Florida Sea Grant, I train others how to do terrapin surveys and searches.  I let them know how hard it is to find them and to not get disappointed.  When they do see one, it will be a very exciting and fulfilling day.  Our citizen science program has expanded to searching for other elusive creatures in our bay area.  Bay scallops, which are all but gone however we do find evidence of their existence and spend time each year searching for them.  In the five years we have been searching we have found only one live scallop, but we are sure they are there.  We find their cleaned shells on public boat ramps – by the way, it is illegal to harvest bay scallops in the Pensacola Bay area.  Another we are searching for is the nesting beaches of the horseshoe crabs.  This is another animal that basically disappeared from our waters but are occasionally seen now.  It is exciting to find one, but we are still after their nesting beaches and the chase is on.

Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love the challenge of searching for such creatures.  If you do as well, we have a citizen science program that does so.  You can just contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office to get on the training list, trainings occur in March, and we will get you out there searching.  As for whether they found “52”, you will have to watch the program 😊