October is Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation Month

October is Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation Month

October has been designated as Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month by Walton County government. Walton County is home to 15 named coastal dune lakes along 26 miles of coastline. These lakes are a unique geographical feature and are only found in a few places in the world including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and here in Walton County.

A coastal dune lake is defined as a shallow, irregularly shaped or elliptic depressions occurring in coastal communities that share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico through which freshwater and saltwater is exchanged.  They are generally permanent water bodies, although water levels may fluctuate substantially.  Typically identified as lentic water bodies without significant surface inflows or outflows, the water in a dune lake is largely derived from lateral ground water seepage through the surrounding well-drained coastal sands.  Storms occasionally provide large inputs of salt water and salinities vary dramatically over the long term.  

Our coastal dune lakes are even more unique because they share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico, referred to as an “outfall”, which aides in natural flood control allowing the lake water to pour into the Gulf as needed. The lake water is fed by streams, groundwater seepage, rain, and storm surge. Each individual lake’s outfall and chemistry is different. Water conditions between lakes can vary greatly, from completely fresh to significantly saline.

A variety of different plant and animal species can be found among the lakes.   Both freshwater and saltwater species can exist in this unique habitat.  Some of the plant species include: rushes (Juncus spp.), sedges (Cyperus spp.), marshpennywort (Hydrocotyle umbellata), cattails (Typha spp.), sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.), watershield (Brasenia schreberi), royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis), rosy camphorweed (Pluchea spp.), marshelder (Iva frutescens), groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia), and black willow (Salix nigra).

Some of the animal species that can be found include: western mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna), American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum), saltmarsh snake (Nerodia clarkii ssp.), little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), American coot (Fulica americana), and North American river otter (Lutra canadensis). Many marine species co-exist with freshwater species due to the change in salinity within the column of water.

The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Come celebrate Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month as our team provides a guided walking tour of the nature trail surrounding Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park. Join local County Extension Agents to learn more about our globally rare coastal dune lakes, their history, surrounding ecosystems, and local protections.  Walk the nature trail through coastal habitats including maritime hammocks, coastal scrub, salt marsh wetlands, and coastal forest.  A tour is available October 19th.

The tour is $10.00 (plus tax) and you can register on Eventbrite (see link below). Admission into the park is an additional $5.00 per vehicle, so carpooling is encouraged.  We will meet at the beach pavilion (restroom facilities available) at 8:45 am with a lecture and tour start time of 9:00 am sharp.  The nature trail is approximately one mile long, through some sandy dunes (can be challenging to walk in), on hard-packed trails, and sometimes soggy forests.  Wear appropriate footwear and bring water.  Hat, sunscreen, camera, binoculars are optional. Tour is approximately 2 hours. Tour may be cancelled in the event of bad weather.

Register here on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoor-live-coastal-dune-lake-lecture-and-nature-trail-tour-tickets-419061633627

Warm Season Wildlife Plots Serve Many Purposes

Warm Season Wildlife Plots Serve Many Purposes

Many Panhandle hunters and outdoor enthusiasts invest a good bit of time, money, and sweat into growing cool season food plots to feed and attract various wildlife.  I count myself among you.  However, if you want to maximize your property’s wildlife and environmental benefits, planting your otherwise abandoned-till-next-fall food plots with a diverse mix of warm-season, wildlife-friendly species is one of the best practices you can implement! 

The benefits of planting summer food plots are several.  First, while most of us are feeding wildlife in winter, supplemental nutrition for our “big three” game species (Whitetail Deer, Bobwhite Quail, and Eastern Wild Turkey) is critical during summer because all are engaged in energy intensive activities – lactating whitetail does are supporting fawns, quail breeding season is in full swing, and wild turkey hens are busy raising poults.  Planting a mix of species consisting of seed-producing grasses, high-protein, bug-attracting legumes, and other beneficial broadleaf plants addresses these nutrition needs by providing a constant buffet of high-quality food for all the above species.

Also, adding summer plantings to your food plot program ensures that a green, soil enhancing cover blankets the ground year-round.  Practiced for years in the agricultural community, cover crops play a key role in soil conservation and increased plant performance.  Your summer food plots function as a cover crop by reducing soil erosion, moderating soil temperatures, building organic matter (key for holding nutrients in soil and an indicator of soil productivity), adding nutrients (particularly when nitrogen producing legumes are included), and encouraging beneficial soil organisms to flourish, further increasing the productivity of your food plots! 

Now that I’ve sold you on planting summer food plots, it’s time to consider species selection.  As mentioned before, when selecting your mix, try to include at least one each of a grass, a legume, and a non-legume broadleaf.  Each of these plant categories serve different purposes.  Tall grasses like Pearl Millet and Grain Sorghum provide excellent structure for vining plants like Cowpeas and Lablab to cling to, produce large quantities of seed for birds, and serve as quick-growing cover for species that are vulnerable to early deer browsing, like Cowpea and Forage Soybean.  Smaller grasses like Browntop and Proso Millet are useful to produce a quick seed crop (45 days after planting) and protect slower establishing species from browsing.  Including legumes like Cowpea, Forage Soybean, Sunn Hemp, Alyceclover or Aeschynomene, levels up the nutrition of your summer food plot (these species have crude protein levels that exceed 15%) and pumps nitrogen back into the soil for future crop use.  A quick internet search for the article “Annual Warm-Season Legumes for Pastures, Cover Crops, or Wildlife” by UF/IFAS Extension Specialist Ann Blount outlines for you each of the above legumes in detail.  As mentioned earlier, I also like to include a non-legume broadleaf like Buckwheat or Sunflower for variety, seed production, pollinator attraction, or even just aesthetics – a sunflower bloom here and there in a food plot always brings a smile!   In 2022, I planted summer food plots in a 7-way mixture of ‘Tifleaf 3’ Pearl Millet, ‘Dove’ Proso Millet, ‘Iron and Clay’ Cowpeas, ‘Laredo’ Forage Soybean, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, and Aeschynomene.  Large mixtures with diverse times to maturity like this ensure there is always something growing, flowering, making seed, attracting bugs, etc! 

7 way mix of Pearl Millet, Cowpea, Aeschynomene, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, Forage Soybean, and Sunflower on July 28, 2022.
Photo: Daniel Leonard

Once you’ve figured out which species you want to plant, next comes determining seeding rate.  There are several methods to help you determine the seeding rate of each species included in the blend.  Penn State University has an excellent video to help determine rates of individual species in a cover crop mix.  For a less scientific approach that will get you close, simply divide the full monoculture seeding rate for each species by the number of species in the mix.  For example, if the monoculture seeding rate for Pearl Millet is 25 lbs/acre when planted in 7” grain drill rows and you are mixing 4 other species with it, you would plant the Pearl Millet at a 1/5th rate or 5 lbs/acre.  For more information on species’ growing requirements and seeding rates, University of Georgia Extension has a comprehensive guide to the topic.  Another option is to come in to your local UF/IFAS Extension office and get one-on-one help with customizing your species mix and determining seeding rates for your food plots, one of the many services we provide to county residents!

7 way mix of Pearl Millet, Cowpea, Aeschynomene, Buckwheat, Sunn Hemp, Forage Soybean, and Sunflower on September 1, 2022. Photo: Daniel Leonard

It’s important to not get discouraged if your mix isn’t perfect the first year!  Planting summer wildlife forage mixes is as much art as science.  After each year, evaluate how each species did, if each species’ rate was correct, if the settings on your drill or spreader were appropriate (mine were not in year one!), and if wildlife used or avoided what you planted.  You can then adjust rates or swap species to dial your species mix and planting rates and achieve your property’s summer food plot goals! 

For more information about summer wildlife plot plantings or any other agricultural subject, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

Can You Find a Coral Snake?

Can You Find a Coral Snake?

Most of you – okay… ALL of you who read this column like the outdoors.  Some like it for its peace and beauty, some for recreation opportunities, some like it for both.  One activity I have found many enjoy is seeking creatures from a list.  A sort of “bingo” approach to observing nature. 

For many, they have a list of birds they would like to see.  I have a colleague who wants to see each species of turtle in the U.S. in the wild.  I heard of a group that was trying to photograph a selected list of turtles in the wild.  I have a list of animals I hope to see while camping out west.  It is a lot of fun to do.  Many like the challenge. 

I am not sure how it started, but earlier this year I began asking people to report snakes they see while out and about.  Again, it started as just a list but then I decided to see how many of the 40 species and subspecies that call the Pensacola Bay area home we might find in one year.  The challenge was on. 

I broke the types of snakes into size categories following a guide published by Dr. Whit Gibbons and others.  In our area there are seven species of small snakes, eight species of mid-sized snakes, seven species of large snakes, 13 species of water snakes, and four species of venomous snakes.  There is one species of introduced snakes.  Here are the results so far –

Category# Known species# Seen
Small snakes70
Mid-sized snakes83
Large snakes75
Water snakes135
Venomous snakes43
Introduced snakes10
Snake sightings in the Pensacola Bay Area (Jan-Jul 2022)

Seeing no small snakes makes sense… they are small and are mostly nocturnal. 

Seeing most of the large snakes also makes sense… they are large and easier to notice. 

Not seeing a lot of water snakes also makes sense.  First, you have to spend a lot of time on our rivers and lakes to see them.  Second, they are not easy to tell apart.  That said, we have seen almost half. 

It is interesting we have seen three of the four venomous snakes.  Cottonmouth encounters are quite common, but the two species of rattlesnakes (pygmy and eastern diamondback) are not.  But… the one that is missing… is the eastern coral snake. 

The eastern coral snake. Photo: Ed Lewis

Seeing a coral snake is actually a rare thing.  I bet if you asked 100 people “how many of you have seen a live coral snake in the wild?” very few would reply yes. 

Why so few encounters?

Is this species declining?

I personally have only seen only two corals snakes in the wild in my life.  Three if you count the time my dad said I was playing with one in the first grade – but I do not remember that.  The two I saw were both at the Naval Live Oaks section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Gulf Breeze. 

The first was when I was a Boy Scout camping there in the late 1960s.  We came across the snake coiled around the base of a palmetto.  We all knew what it was and did not get close, but all enjoyed watching it thinking how lucky we were.  I remember how docile it was.  No angry rattle.  No nasty gaping white mouth.  Just chillaxing and enjoying the day.  Being boys, we had to see it move.  We got a stick and nudge it.  It just looked at us as if to say – “What are you doing?  You know who I am? You know what I can do?”  We left it alone, but it was an amazing experience. 

The distinct black head of the coral snake. Photo: Ed Lewis

The second encounter was also at Naval Live Oaks, but many years later.  I was conducting a box turtle survey within the Seashore and following a transect I had set to search.  I was moving slowly, looking hard, when I heard to some rustling in the leaves to my right.  The type of rustling you hear when an armadillo is moving nearby.  But there was no armadillo.  I continued to hear the noise and searched for a small mammal when I realized it was coming from beneath the leaf litter.  Using my hiking stick, I moved the leaves to find a large coral snake crawling.  You can imagine my excitement.  At this stage of my life, I had been a science educator for a long time and had taught about these snakes a lot, but only had seen one in my life. 

The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius fulvius) is found across much of the coastal southeastern United States.  There are records in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.  They do seem to be more common in Florida than other states.  They can easily be recognized by their classic red/black/yellow banded colors.  There are mimics who have this coloration but the old song “red on yellow will kill a fellow” does work with this subspecies.  Also, the mimics in our region have red heads, where the eastern coral has a black one.  The literature states they prefer dry sandhill environments but can be found in hardwoods (which where I found them) and wet flatwoods dominated by pines. 

The best chance to find one is in the spring and fall and most often found during or after rain.  As I found, they spend most of their time beneath the ground or under leaf litter but when they do move above ground, they seem to prefer mornings. 

Coral snake found near Eglin AFB. Photo: Carrie Stevenson

Their food of choice are lizards and snakes.  They will grab their prey and chew releasing the venom.  They do have their predators.  Kingsnakes, notorious for eating other snakes, are one, but indigo snakes, and black racers will also consume them.   When they encounter a potential predator their first response is usually to try and hide underground.  If this does not work, they will flatten their bodies hiding their heads beneath a coil and sometimes raise their tails to appear as the head end.  As I observed, they are not terribly aggressive snakes but anyone seeing one should keep their distance. 

Coral snakes have a neurotoxin, different than the hemotoxins find in the pit vipers.  They are more closely related to sea snakes and cobras, who have a similar toxin.  Deaths from this snake are rare, but encounters and bites are also rare. 

Do I encourage you seek out this snake for our project?

No… The bite from this animal can be very serious.  Though the majority of venomous snake bites come from copperheads, and most fatalities from western diamondback rattlesnake, this is NOT a snake to mess with.  If you do see one, let us know and consider yourself lucky.  But keep a safe distance.  It is amazing to see one. 

North Florida’s Springs

North Florida’s Springs

Morrison Springs in Walton County is a natural spring ideal for paddling, snorkeling, and diving. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extensio

There is just SO much water in Florida. Besides the tremendous amount of rain and 1,350 miles of coastline and beachfront, there are endless bays, bayous, creeks, rivers, and streams. In this state, it is extraordinarily difficult to live more than a few miles from a body of water. Among the the coolest (literally) types of water bodies in Florida, though, are our springs.  Like brilliant gemstones, the state’s 700+ springs dot the Florida landscape like a strand of sapphires.

While we have springs bubbling up all over northwest Florida in areas where the underground water table meets the surface, larger springs are more common as you move east and south. Some parts of north Florida and most of the peninsula are built on a limestone platform, known by the geological term “karst.” Limestone is composed of calcium carbonate, which has a porous and easily degradable chemical structure. When this barrier is breached, it allows the cold groundwater an opening directly to the surface water—hence a spring. (Fun fact—there are surface water streams that actually disappear into a spring—these are called swallets, operating as the reverse version of a spring!)

The striking blue-green water in Three Sisters Spring is only accessible by kayak or swimming. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

A few of the largest springs in northwest Florida are Vortex, Ponce de Leon, and Morrison Springs, found in Holmes and Walton County. Vortex is a privately operated water park and scuba diving/training facility. It is where the red and white “diver down” flag was invented and has a complex underwater cavern system. Ponce de Leon and Morrison Springs are state and county-run parks with a more natural feel, surrounded by woods and basic infrastructure for access. Morrison will especially wow visitors with its tremendous turquoise coloring.

Crystal clear water in Morrison Springs. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Before a meeting in Crystal River last week, I paddled and snorkeled through the famous Three Sisters Spring. As part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, it is a popular but highly protected area. Three Sisters is well-known as a manatee gathering place, especially in winter, but during my visit was mostly unoccupied. The color was striking, though. Why do so many of these springs have such brilliant blue and turquoise coloring? The phenomenon is essentially the same as the blue-green Gulf waters in the Panhandle. The reflection of the sky on a sunny day with the backdrop of that pure white sand causes the water to reflect a color that inspired the nickname “The Emerald Coast.” In springs, the white calcium carbonate in limestone breaks down into tiny crystals, mixing with the water and reflecting the vivid shades of blue.

Alexander Springs Creek in Ocala National Forest is overrun with algae. Photo credit: Matt Cohen, UF IFAS

Besides their beauty, clarity, recreational, and wildlife value, springs pump 8 billion gallons of fresh water a day of into Florida ecosystems. Seagrass meadows in many of these springs are lush. Because they are literal windows into the underground aquifer, they are extremely vulnerable to pollution. While many springs have been protected for decades, others were seen as places to dump trash and make it “disappear.” Many have been affected by urban stormwater and agricultural pollution, losing their clarity, reducing dissolved oxygen levels, and prompting massive cleanup and buffer protection zones.

On one of these hot summer days in Florida, take the time to visit our incredible springs. While it may not be the literal “Fountain of Youth,” swimming in a spring is a unique and invigorating experience, and a beautiful way to get off the beaten path. A comprehensive guide to Florida springs, research, and statewide protection initiatives can be found at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s springs website.

Copy Cats Abound in the Insect World

Copy Cats Abound in the Insect World

image showing a wasp mimic that is actually a praying mantis

This praying mantis species mimics a wasp to avoid predation. Photo credit: Erik Lovestrand

When it landed on my hand, the first reaction was to brush it off as quickly as possible. However, something seemed to be slightly odd about this particular “wasp” that made me take another look. First, it was not prone to fly away as I moved my hand up for a better look. It even seemed okay with the interaction as I moved it around for a photo opportunity. There was also something odd about the shape of its body that wasn’t exactly wasp-like. As I looked closer, I realized that its head was very mantis-like and when it began grooming its antennae, I could make out the telltale folded arms that give the praying mantis its name. The yellow and black stripes encircling its abdomen, along with its wing shape and positioning veritably shouted “WASP!” I had never heard of a praying mantis that expertly mimicked a wasp so I did a quick internet search and found that this was a wasp mantidfly (neither a wasp nor a mantis). Mantidflies are grouped by scientists into a separate order called Neuroptera, which includes lacewings, antlions, owlflies, and others. Here are a few other mantidflies that mimic other wasp species.

A simple definition of mimicry would be: similarities between different species of animals.  It is different from camouflage, which refers to an animal resembling an inanimate object, but both are effective forms of deception that generally benefit an animal in some way. Another common insect that would fool most people is the soldier fly. It definitely looks like something that could sting but closer examination will reveal only one pair of wings (a fly trait) rather than two, as bees and wasps have.

Now, not to take you too far into the weeds on this subject, but we should also mention the different types of mimicry that scientists have identified in nature and note an example of each. Henry Walter Bates studied butterflies in the Amazon and described a type of mimicry where one species mimicked the look of another that had some particularly nasty defense to predation. The mimic was lacking the defense mechanism but benefited by predators avoiding it based on its basic appearance. This type of mimicry is now known as Batesian mimicry and a good example are the butterflies that mimic the monarch. Monarchs are toxic because of the milkweed they eat during their larval stage. After a predator eats a few it learns to avoid anything that looks similar, such as a viceroy or queen butterfly. Fritz Mueller was a German zoologist who described a form of mimicry, now called Muellerian mimicry, where multiple species mimic each other and they all have a similar defense mechanism. This spreads the benefit to all that look similar by reducing predation pressure on all.  The third type of mimicry is known as self mimicry, where an animal has one body part that mimics another (i.e. large eye spots to frighten or disorient an attacker), or a body part that may mimic some innocuous thing to fool prey into coming closer. We have a great example of this locally in the alligator snapping turtle. The tip of their tongue has a lure that resembles a worm and is capable of wiggling to enhance its effectiveness in tempting a fish to its doom in the vice-like jaws of the turtle.

Nature never ceases to amaze with the diversity and complexity of adaptations that various animals exhibit to gain an edge on the competition. When it comes to mimicry in the natural world, first impressions are generally wrong. I mean, that’s the point, right?

 

Buttonbush:  A Pollinator’s Favorite

Buttonbush: A Pollinator’s Favorite

Beginning in 2007 the US Senate, in support of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, declared the last week of June as “National Pollinator Week.”  As humans, we depend on pollen-moving animals for one out of every three bites of food.  Without birds, bees, bats, beetles, butterflies, and various other animals, many flowers would fail to reproduce.  In Florida there are numerous native plants that serve as hosts for these pollinators.

One of the favorites, due to its heavy flowering over the summer, is Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  It is a semi-aquatic woody shrub to small tree that develops white golf-ball-sized clusters of fragrant flowers, attracting various pollinating animals.  Bees of various species, several different wasps, assorted moths and butterflies, flies and even hummingbirds scramble for the flowers’ sweet treat within each of the trumpet shaped flowers. The pincushion-like flower balls stand on two inch stalks in clusters arising from stem tips and leaf axils.  They are produced over a long period in late spring and summer. The flowers give way to little reddish-brown nutlets which persist on the through the winter.  Buttonbush seeds are important wildlife food, especially for ducks; and the dense, impenetrable tickets provide nesting and escape cover for many wetland birds and herptiles.  Buttonbush is a fast-growing wetland plant that can be grown in a naturalized landscape if given supplemental water during dry spells.  It is at its best, through, in an area where the soil is frequently wet and can tolerate soggy soils.  Buttonbush is not drought or salt tolerant.  The deciduous shrub grows well in full sun to partial shade on soils that are acidic to slightly alkaline.  The leaves of Buttonbush turn yellow in the fall before dropping off.  While short-lived, requiring rejuvenation pruning to improve its longevity, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) serves a critical role to wildlife in the wetland habitat.  Deer browse the foliage and twigs.  Ducks, especially the mallard, eat the seeds.  And, the summer flowers attract bees, butterflies and moths; our wonderful pollinators.