Mark Twain once said – “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” A similar statement could be made about the Gulf Sturgeon – “Everyone talks about the Gulf sturgeon, but on one has actually seen one.” Those along the coast who have a dock, pier, seawall, or have placed a marina, artificial reef, or oyster farm over state submerged lands, have certainly heard about this fish. It is a portion of the permit in each case. Heck, maybe they have seen one. But it is a fish that many know about but seems elusive to encounter.
The Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchis desotoi) is one of 27 species of sturgeon found worldwide. It is a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon. These are ancient fish, and they look it. Sturgeons are large, reaching lengths of up to eight feet and 300 pounds. They have armored looking scutes embedded into their skin, giving them a “dinosaur” appearance. They have a heterocercal caudal fin that resembles a shark. And like sharks, they have a cartilaginous skeleton and a spiral valve within their digestive tract. Their head has a pointed snout with whisker-like structures called barbels, which are used for detecting food buried in the sand, and they lack teeth. They have been swimming in our oceans since the era of the dinosaurs, about 225 million years.
Sturgeons are anadromous fish, meaning they (like salmon) spend their adult lives in salt water, traveling miles upriver to their location of their birth to lay eggs. The Gulf sturgeon spends the colder months (November through February) inhabiting our bays and the nearshore Gulf of Mexico in waters less than 100 feet. Now is the time when you may encounter one near the coast. Because they eat very little while in the river systems, they gorge on benthic invertebrates during the winter. They spend most of their time over sand flats and sand bars, using their barbels to detect a variety of buried invertebrates. When sturgeon sense warmer months coming, they begin their long migrations up the inland rivers seeking the area where they were born. At this time, they leap from the water like mullet and make splashes that can be heard from a long distance. They are famous for this in the Suwannee River and have, at times, been a concern for boaters and jet skiers. Many boaters have had to go to the hospital due to collisions with leaping sturgeon.
Once they reach the spawning grounds, if conditions are right – temperature, water flow, and pH – the female will lay between 250,000 – 1,000,000 eggs which will become fertilized by the smaller males. Most eggs will not survive, but for those that do, the cycle will begin again with the trek back towards the Gulf of Mexico beginning in September.
Why are they declining?
Early in the 20th century they were sought after for their meat and fertilized eggs (caviar). Most of the rivers within their range (which is between the Mississippi and Suwannee Rivers) have been damned, dredged, or both. Dams impede their ability to reach their nursery grounds and dredging can reduce the required conditions to stimulate breeding, or literally bury their eggs. Between these human activities, their numbers declined drastically. In 1991 they were listed both as a federally and state threatened species and have been protected and monitored ever since. The best population, and best chance to encounter one, is in the Suwannee River. This river has been left basically pristine and has not had the habitat altering activities of the others. Locally, they are found in the Escambia, Blackwater, and Yellow Rivers.
Winter is the time to see them in the lower parts of our bay. Maybe you will be lucky enough to encounter one.
The Gulf Sturgeon. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Despite efforts by public and private land managers, feral hog populations continue to rise in many areas in Florida. Feral hogs damage crop fields, lawns, wetlands, and forests. They can negatively impact native species of plants and animals. Their rooting leads to erosion and decreased water quality. Feral swine can also harbor and infect domestic swine with diseases such as African Swine Fever, foot-and-mouth disease, pseudorabies, swine brucellosis, and others.
USDA APHIS conducts feral swine monitoring for diseases to help safeguard our pork production here in the US. More than 6,000 samples are taken annually to test for diseases of concern. This monitoring effort not only keeps our domestic swine safe but also keeps humans safe from diseases that can infect us. African Swine Fever (ASF) is the main disease of concern right now for the state of Florida, especially those counties bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
ASF is a deadly disease of both feral and domestic hogs. It is not transmitted to humans so it is not a health or food safety concern. It is, however, highly contagious and would likely have a catastrophic effect on our domestic pork industry. Although it has not been found in the US, this disease has recently been detected in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
This concern has led to a new monitoring program in Florida specifically for ASF in counties bordering the Gulf. USDA APHIS will begin trapping wild hogs in these counties in order to monitor populations for ASF. Landowners, both public and private, can benefit from this monitoring program. Professional trappers will be employed to remove wild hogs for this monitoring effort. For more information on this program, contact Buddy Welch, North Florida Assistant District Supervisor, USDA Wildlife Services, ASF Surveillance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since last year we have been logging reports from area residents of snake encounters. The purpose of this is education. We are learning which species people most frequently encounter, what time of year different species are encountered, and where they are being encountered. Here is the 2023 3rd Quarter Update.
To date – we have encountered 24 of the 40 species (60%) known to inhabit the Pensacola Bay area.
The most frequently encountered snake has been the cottonmouth. This species has been encountered 45 times. It has been seen every month this year and at the following locations – north and south Escambia County as well as north and south Santa Rosa County.
The second most frequently encountered snake has been the southern black racer. This species has been encountered 35 times and every month except January. Locations reporting this snake included – north and south Santa Rosa County, as well as north and south Escambia County.
The third most frequently encountered snake has been the banded water snake. This species has been encountered 26 times and 25 of those were last winter and spring – the snake was only reported once during the summer and has not been reported this fall. It was encountered from north and south Santa Rosa County as well as north and south Escambia County.
Reports by snake groups…
Small Snakes – 4 of the 7 species (57%) have been encountered. The most common have been the Florida red-bellied snake and the Southern ring-necked snake. These have been reported from north Escambia County, south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, Pensacola, Milton, and UWF.
Mid-Sized Snakes – 5 of the 8 species (63%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Eastern garter snake. It has been reported from north Santa Rosa County, south Escambia County, south Santa Rosa County, and north Escambia County.
Large Snakes – 6 of the 7 species (86%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Southern black racer followed by its close cousin the Eastern coachwhip. The only large snake not encountered so far this year has been the Eastern indigo snake, which is a threatened species and encounters in the wild have not been documented since the late 1990s. Coachwhip encounters have occurred from south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, and south Santa Rosa County.
Water Snakes – 4 of the 13 species (31%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Banded water snake followed by the Brown water snake. The Brown water snake has been encountered on the Choctawhatchee River, Perdido River, Blackwater River, Escambia River, and south Escambia County.
Venomous Snakes – all 4 venomous species in our area have been encountered (100%). The most common has been the Cottonmouth followed by the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The diamondback has been encountered from south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, and south Santa Rosa County. With high interest in venomous snakes, the other encounters include the Dusky pygmy rattlesnake, which has been encountered from south Escambia County, and north Santa Rosa County. The Eastern coral snake has only been encountered once and that was from south Santa Rosa County.
Rare Encounters – those that have only been encountered once this year…
Rough earth snake was encountered during September from south Escambia County.
Rough green snake was encountered during August from north Santa Rosa.
Eastern hognose was encountered during July from north Santa Rosa.
Eastern kingsnake was encountered in February from north Escambia County.
Eastern coral snake was encountered in June from south Santa Rosa County.
Florida pine snake was encountered during the winter and spring from north Santa Rosa County.
A deer darting across a path, a bobwhite calling at sunrise, or the tracks of a coyote in the mud are all fascinating examples of how we enjoy our natural areas. Have you ever wished you could watch wildlife all day to understand the intricate relationships they have with one another? What if you could learn more about their behavior? And their habitat and daily activities?
Dr. Carolina Baruzzi at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center and Dr. Corey Callaghan at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center are launching “ConservationCam”, a new extension program to help you monitor wildlife on your property using camera traps.
Camera traps are a valuable tool for wildlife monitoring. When an animal moves in front of a camera, they trigger a motion sensor to take a picture or video. Camera traps can be set up in multiple ways to target a species or habitat of interest, such as a forest opening or a wildlife burrow. Thanks to their versatility and relative low cost, camera traps are being used in a variety of contexts, for example, understanding the effects of wildlife or habitat management on target species.
The primary goal of ConservationCam is to provide private landowners with access to camera traps, and expert guidance about monitoring wildlife and managing natural resources for biodiversity based on camera trap observations. Armed with this knowledge, landowners can make informed decisions about land management practices that positively impact biodiversity on their property. If you live in the Florida Panhandle, and are interested in using camera traps to monitor wildlife on your property, while learning how to answer different ecological questions, we are gathering expressions of interest through this online form.
I recently wrote an article introducing some to a panhandle turtle that is not as well-known as most – the map turtles. This week I am going to write about another lesser-known species – the chicken turtle.
Some may say “is there a turtle REALLY called the chicken turtle?” and “if so, why is it called that?”.
The answer is yes… there is a turtle called a chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia). It is a member of the family Emydidae, which is the family where you find the different pond, river, and lake turtles, as well as the terrapins and box turtles. The name chicken may refer to the unusually long neck this turtle has, but more than likely it comes from an early description of the species in the 1800s that stated it “taste better than the cooters – more like chicken.”
The reason some are not aware of this animal is because of their habitat selection, behavior, and low population densities. Though they are aquatic turtles, they are very selective of which waterbodies they inhabit and may spend months out of the water in upland forested areas.
Chicken turtles seem to prefer quiet shallow waterways where the water is clear, or at least tannic, they dislike turbid/muddy systems. They avoid rivers, creeks, streams, and many lakes. Most of the waterways they inhabit are ephemeral, meaning they dry up during part of the year. During these dry times they, again, seek upland habitats and have been found as far as a 150 meters (510 feet) from any water source. The females appear to avoid their landward movements during the peak of summer. However, males are opposite – moving upland during summer and not as common during the winter months. These overland treks by the females seem to be associated with nesting activity. Where the upland movement of males seem to focus on finding new waterways after the ones they were in have become dry.
Their distribution extends across the southern coastal plains. From Virigina, throughout the deep south, west to Texas, and north to Arkansas. They are found throughout the state of Florida. There are three recognized subspecies –
The Eastern Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia reticularia)– is found from southern Virginia, coastal Carolinas, southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. In addition to the long neck, the carapace is sort of “domed” shaped. Terms like “helmet” and “pear” shaped have been used as well. The coloration is dark gray to olive green with a distinct yellow line pattern that resembles a cast net covering the carapace. The plastron is solid yellow to a yellow-orange color. The underside of the bridge (portion of the shell connecting the carapace to the plastron) usually has two dark blotches. This subspecies often has dark spots along with the dark bars on the underside of the bridge.
The Florida Chicken Turtle (D. r. chrysea) – is found in the Florida peninsula. The dark markings on the underside of the bridge are absent in this subspecies.
The Western Chick Turtle (D. r. miaria) – is found west of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. Its plastron is not solid yellow, but rather has dark markings within the seams of the plastron scutes.
Chicken turtles are of average size, with carapace lengths near nine inches, and (as with many turtles) females are larger than males. The young and males feed on the larva of such things as dragonflies and damselflies, as well as other aquatic bugs. Crayfish seem to be a particular favorite, especially with the larger females.
Mating occurs underwater. Nesting begins in summer and continues through fall and winter. Two to 19 eggs are deposited but the average is around 10/clutch, and she will lay more than one clutch each year.
Threats to their populations include being hit by cars while crossing highways. Their overland treks enhance this problem. Other threats include predation by raccoons and alligator snapping turtles, the pet trade, and it was once a food item – “taste like chicken”. With low densities of chicken turtles, this may be the result of overharvesting years ago. Potential threats include habitat loss and invasive species are very likely.
Statewide turtle surveys suggest that chicken turtles are found but their abundance/density is low compared to other species. It is exciting for folks exploring both our ephemeral wetlands and upland areas to find it. Hopefully, one day, you will encounter one as well.
With the recent discovery of CWD in Florida and the subsequent prohibition of feeding deer within the CWD Management Zone there has been some additional motivation applied to hunters/land managers to establish new food plots. Moreover, the timing and unexpected nature of the discovery have hunter/land managers somewhat in “scramble mode” to make the shift away from feeders to plantings before archery season starts (10/21 in the Panhandle). Whether or not you are in the CWD Management Zone or if you have been contemplating establishing food plots for a long time the following comments are worth considering as you work through the process of establishing a new food plot.
First, food plots are not corn feeders. That is to say that food plots should be viewed as habitat improvements, not attractants (even though they may well improve the likelihood of seeing deer and other game species at a specific location) and their success should be evaluated accordingly. Food plots have the most positive impact when they are maintained year-round with cool and warm season plantings. They are long term investments.
When it comes to food plots, size really does matter. Food plots need to be no less than ½ acre in size, preferably between 1 and 5 acres. Maximum habitat benefit being reached when food plots make up approximately 5 percent of the managed acreage. The kinds of plants in food plots are, by design, ones that wildlife find highly desirable (because they are highly nutritious). Considering this, it is easy to understand why plantings smaller than ½ acre struggle to establish – the plants simply don’t get a chance grow past the seedling stage.
After a location is identified, it is crucial to manage unwanted vegetation prior to preparing the soil and planting the food plot. If it is not eliminated, existing vegetation will compete tremendously with food plot plantings. Even if mechanical disturbance (disking, tilling, etc.) appears to remove the existing vegetation, much of it will regrow. This regrowth from established root systems will be more than a match for new seedlings. Apply herbicide before you begin soil preparation. Equally as important, give the herbicide sufficient time to do its work before mechanically disturbing the site (weeks, not days). Specific herbicide recommendations will vary depending on what vegetation you are trying to manage, but most food plot site prep applications will involve fairly high rates of glyphosate. Don’t hesitate to call me (850-638-6180) – we can discuss your site and dial in an herbicide recommendation. You do not want to skip this step; get in front of weed pressure before you plant.
If you want a food plot to be productive and successful you must effectively address soil fertility. First and foremost, soil pH must be corrected. Any needed applications of lime/dolomite need to take place first, well before any other fertilizer is applied (ag lime can take months to go into soil solution and alter soil pH). If fertilizers are applied before the soil pH is corrected the nutrients may still be unavailable to the plants. Once a food plot site is determined, collect a representative sample of the rooting zone soil and submit it to a lab for analysis. This is the best way to get the information needed to make informed choices regarding lime and fertilizer applications. Talk with the folks at your local Extension Office for more info on how to collect and submit soil samples. Take and submit soil samples now. Apply any need lime soon, during land preparation. Apply recommended fertilizer (N, P, K, and micros) at planting or soon after emergence. Fertilizer applied when there are no plant roots present to adsorb it is wasted.
By far the most common food plot question I receive is “what should I plant?”. I intentionally held this until last because if the topics above are not addressed properly plantings will not be successful. I included the table below to help answer the “what should I plant?” question. To accompany the table, here are some additional statements to help guide your crop selection.
Forage varieties matter. Use varieties that will work in Florida (see table for specifics). There are lots of forages sold that will not grow well locally. Sourcing seed can be challenging, start now.
The concept of blending forages is great, and highly recommended. That said, be careful with pre-packaged mixtures. You’ll generally get more of the “good stuff” by putting together your own blend. When making your own blend, use ½ of the high end of the seeding rate for each forage you include. Don’t go crazy, 3-5 different forages is plenty.
Try to utilize forages are well adapted to your site. The table shows varieties that are adapted to Florida and includes comments on site preference as it relates to drainage. You need to account for your site’s drainage characteristics when selecting forage varieties. Excessively well drained – deep sands; Moderately well drained – good soil by FL standards; Poorly drained – stays damp and/or will stand water seasonally.
If deer are the primary game species you are managing, focus on broadleaf plants (legumes and brassicas), not grasses. Hunters like grasses because they come up fast and are relatively easy to grow, deer like broadleaf plants because they are generally more digestible and higher in nutrients. Some grass in the blend is fine but don’t skimp on the broadleaves.
Some of the broad-leaved plants, particularly clovers, are highly preferred by deer but somewhat slow to establish. This combination can make it appear that the clovers don’t come up at all or preform very poorly. Before you jump to those conclusions, I would encourage you to use an exclusion cage or two in your plot. The cage will show you how the plant performs without grazing pressure. A few years of observation can really enable you to dial in what your deer prefer the most and adjust your plantings accordingly.
Don’t forget about planting date and depth. To keep life simple, let’s say that everything included on the table should be planted between October 1 and November 15 (ideally, triticale, wheat, and rye would be held until after October 15). Planting depth is very important and is a major factor in determining which forages can/should be planted together. It is perfectly acceptable to plant the deeper seeded grasses first and then come back over the field to plant the shallow seeded broadleaves. To achieve a target planting depth of ½” or less the soil will need to be packed prior to planting.
Food plots are not simple, but they can be very rewarding. There are way more factors to consider than what I included here. See the additional resources linked below and contact your local Extension Office or myself to discuss further.