A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach

I might shock a few people when I say this, but I’d rather be out in the bay somewhere rather than the beach. I just feel like I always bring a gallon of sand back on me even after washing down before getting in the car. However, there is one activity that will always get me out on the beach, and it just so happens to be the right time of the year for it. Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus), aka Pompa-Yes, have started to cruise the white, sandy beaches in search of food as they migrate west to their breeding grounds. While out on a fishing trip this past weekend, the Pompano (and every other fish) eluded me, but I was blessed with an amazing array of wildlife.

When I first arrived at my spot just to the east of Portofino Towers, I was greeted with a pair of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) playing the “water is lava” game while taking breaks between waves to argue with each other and probe the sand with their beaks from marine invertebrates. When I was doing more research on sanderlings, one comment I saw was that they ran like wind-up toys, and that’s the truth! They were pretty brave too, not a single footprint of mine in the wet sand didn’t go un-probed. Sanderlings are “extremely long-distance” migratory birds that breed on the arctic tundra close to the North Pole and winter on most of the sandy beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world. Non-breeding sanderlings will often stay on sandy beaches throughout the summer to save energy. They were great entertainment for the whole fishing trip.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings in the Tide Pool – Thomas Derbes II

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) were out in numbers that day. I am not the best photographer, but I was very proud to capture a Pelican mid-flight. These birds are residents of the Florida Panhandle year-round. If you’ve ever been to Pensacola, you might have bumped into one of the many Pelican Statues around the area, and they’re pretty much the unofficial mascot of the area. I am always amazed at how these seemingly big, clumsy birds can effortlessly glide over the waves and water as if they are the Blue Angels doing a low-pass. Pelicans were almost wiped out by pesticide pollution in the 1960’s, but they have made an incredible comeback.

Pelican Flying Over The Waves

Brown Pelican – Thomas Derbes II

While I was waiting for a Pompano to bite, I had a visit from a small Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina) that was caught in the tidepool that was running along the beach. He didn’t seem injured or sick, so I quickly grabbed a glove and released him into the gulf. Stingrays are pretty incredible creatures and can get to massive sizes, but they do contain a large, venomous spine on their tail that poses a threat to beach goers. They are not aggressive however, and a simple remedy to make sure you don’t get hit is to do the “Stingray Shuffle” by shuffling your feet while you move in the water to scare up the stingrays.

Stingray

Atlantic Stingray Cruising the Tide Pool- Thomas Derbes II

As I was getting ready to pack up, I noticed a new shorebird flying in to investigate the seaweed that had washed up on shore. I had a hard time identifying this bird, but once I was able to see it in flight with its white stripe down the back, I realized it was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Turnstones get their name from their foraging behavior of turning over stones and pebbles to find food. Even though we do not have pebbles, the turnstone was looking through the seaweed for any insects or crustaceans that might be an easy meal. Turnstones are also “extremely long-distance” migratory birds breeding in the arctic tundra with non-breeding populations typically staying on sandy beaches during the summer. The turnstone made sure to stay away from me, but I was able to get a good photo of it as it ran from seaweed clump to clump.

Stoneturner

Ruddy Turnstone – Thomas Derbes II

While I didn’t catch anything to bring home for dinner, I did get to enjoy the beautiful day and playful wildlife that I wouldn’t have experienced sitting on a couch. You can turn any bad fishing day into an enjoyable day if you pay attention to the wildlife around you!

Master Naturalists Visit The Springs

Master Naturalists Visit The Springs

Imagine you’re out on a kayak in a pristine Florida freshwater spring, surrounded by wildlife, beautiful trees, and natural formations. You have all the knowledge of what to expect and get excited to call out the different species of plants and animals you can spot. You’re surrounded by 10-15 like-minded nature enthusiasts who celebrate every species found and share tips and tricks on how to identify species more efficiently (Watersnakes vs Cottonmouths… Very Important!) If this sounds like a great time, then the Florida Master Naturalist Program might be right for you!

A Great Group of Master Naturalist Students Hiking Around Ponce De Leon Springs

A Great Group of Master Naturalist Students Hiking Around Ponce De Leon Springs- Thomas Derbes II

Since I am a fairly new Extension Agent, I am getting to experience the course from a unique perspective. The Freshwater Course was my first time being an instructor, but it was also my first time going through the course. We started in March and are about to do our graduation next week, but this previous Tuesday was by far the best experience I have had in the course. We started the day at Ponce De Leon Springs State Park with a hike along a tannic creek. Once you reach the end of the trail, you can take the route back that is along the crystal-clear waters that flow from the springs. Largemouth Bass and Bluegill were abundant, and we even spotted a Mountain Laurel Tree. There is a beautiful picnic and viewing area along the springs, and you can even take a dip right in the springs. Even though this isn’t the famed “Fountain of Youth” springs, I think Ponce De Leon himself would’ve had a long soak in these waters.

Mountain Laurel Flower

A Flowering Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) at Ponce De Leon Springs – Thomas Derbes II

We then took a detour to a Pitcher Plant bog that was along the route to Morrison Springs. After a quick hike, we made it down to a bog that was filled with multiple types of Pitcher Plants, Sundews, and my favorite, Orange Milkwort. We also found a creek and found some slimy friends like a cute tiny frog and an unknown larvae/creepy crawly. We then loaded back up and made the very short trek to Morrison Springs, kayaks in tow.

Orange Milkwort

An Orange Milkwort (Polygala lutea) Near a Pitcher Plant Bog – Thomas Derbes II

When we arrived at Morrison Springs, we had a quick lunch and learn from Dr. Laura Tui about the springs and headed over to the boat launch. We launched our kayaks in the almost crystal-clear waters and set out to find the connection to the Choctawhatchee River. We had our own kayak flotilla, and we were able to talk about all the potential species we would spot. Along our nice, relaxing paddle, we spotted many different birds, turtles, and a Green Watersnake (which I missed out on)! We finished the paddle with a trip around the springs and the vent and slowly loaded up the kayaks to call it a day.

Kayaking on a spring

FMNP Instructor Rick O’Connor Leading the Kayak Brigade – Thomas Derbes II

If this sounds like something you want to be apart of, you can check out what Master Naturalist Courses are available in your area by Clicking Here!

 

Snake Watch 1st Quarter Report; 2024

Snake Watch 1st Quarter Report; 2024

The Snake Watch Project is one that is helping residents in the Pensacola Bay area better understand which species of snakes are most encountered, where they are encountered, and what time of year.  The project began in 2022 and over the last two years between 50-60% of the 40 species/subspecies of snakes known in the Pensacola Bay area have been encountered.  The majority of these encounters have been in the spring, with garter snakes, black racers, banded water snakes and cottonmouths being the most common.

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

The 1st quarter reports cover the winter months, and you would expect fewer encounters – but encounters do happen.  In 2022 there were only 6 encounters during the winter months.  There was one mid-sized snake (between 12-24” maximum length), 2 large snakes (greater than 3’ maximum length), 1 water snake and 2 cottonmouths for a total of five species.  In 2023 there was a significant increase in 1st quarter reports.  There were 57 encounters (26% of the total for the year) and 13 species logged.

  1. Two species of small snakes (less than 12” maximum length) were encountered three times.
  2. Three species of mid-sized snakes were encountered nine times, this included an encounter with the eastern hognose snake.
  3. Six species of large snakes were encountered 17 times. These include the rarely seen eastern kingsnake and Florida pine snake.
  4. Three species of water snakes were encountered, including the green water snake.
  5. The cottonmouth was encountered 10 times during the 1st quarter of 2023.

This increase in sightings may be more a result of more people interested in the project than a true increase in snake activity, but it does provide us with information on snake activity during the winter months.  Eastern garter snakes, eastern ribbon snakes, banded water snakes, and cottonmouths were the most frequently encountered.

A cottonmouth found on the trail near Ft. Pickens.
Photo: Ricky Stackhouse

Snake encounters during the 1st Quarter of 2024 are down.  This year 27 encounters occurred logging eight species.  The cottonmouth continues to be the most encountered snake in our area and the only one who was encountered in double digits (n=11).  Other species encountered included the eastern garter snake, eastern ribbon snake, gray rat snake, corn snake, southern black racer (encountered every month), eastern coachwhip, banded water snake (encountered every month), and the cottonmouth (also encountered each month this quarter).

We will continue to log encounters during the spring.  If you see a snake, please let Rick O’Connor know at roc1@ufl.edu.

Silvopasture?? What is That and How Do I Learn More?

Silvopasture?? What is That and How Do I Learn More?

Silvopasture is a unique and highly effective agroforestry technique that can be a great fit to accomplish some landowners’ land management and agricultural enterprise objectives. Agroforestry is a system which combines forest management and agricultural production systems to get synergistic effects that make both systems more sustainable and resilient. While these systems do not seek to optimize and maximize forestry or agricultural outputs the overall economic and total outputs are usually higher than stand alone traditional or forestry systems. They are also very ancient and many of the worlds oldest agricultural systems and methods would fall under the agroforestry umbrella now. Silvopasture is one unique expression of this method of combining forestry and agriculture. Silvopasture systems seek to combine forestry, forage production, and livestock on one area of land where all three combined make for a strong system of both shorter term agricultural production and longer term forest products production. For the right landowner and the right objectives it can be a perfect match.

Are you and your landholdings suited to Silvopasture? The best way to find out is consult with our outstanding extension agents and visit an outstanding Silvopasture system and producer to see it in the field. Fortunately, this month just this opportunity will be provided in Washington County at the extension office in Chipley, FL. The morning will feature a series of presentations and a discussion panel covering forestry, forage production, soil consideration, and livestock components of silvopasture systems. The presenters will consist of agents Ian Stone (Forestry Walton/ Multi-county), Mark Mauldin (Agriculture, Washington), Jenifer Bearden (Agriculture, Okaloosa), Nick Simmons (Agriculture, Escambia). The morning session will be followed by a catered lunch. For the afternoon the program will feature an outstanding tour of an advanced and well established silvopasture system, Mr. George C. Owens is a nationally recognized livestock producer and landowner who has successfully implemented silvopasture systems using a variety of methods. He has presented at conferences at the local, state, and national levels and is an outspoken advocate of silvopasture and sharing his knowledge and agricultural success his lands in silvopasture have produced. The tour will include the panel of agents for infield discussions and questions. UF-IFAS is very grateful to Mr. Owens for opening his property for this tour. The workshop is also approved for 4.5 Category 1 Continuing Forestry Education (CFE) credits for foresters and land managers needing continuing education. The program is part of the Florida Land Steward series for the year and the entire team looks forward to hosting landowners and land managers in from across the Panhandle at this event.

For more information please contact Ian Stone at the Walton Extension Office. Online registration will be through Eventbrite at the following link https://www.eventbrite.com/e/florida-land-steward-silvopasture-101-and-george-c-owens-property-tour-tickets-876970992847?aff=ebdssbdestsearch . Online registration is required and the registration deadline is April 19th. Tickets are limited so please register early to ensure you have a ticket for the event. The team hopes to see those interested on April 26th and looks forward to showcasing how silvopasture can be part of your land management to meet your objectives. Mark your calendars and register early to ensure you can attend this educational and field tour opportunity.

The Swallow-tailed Kites are Back

The Swallow-tailed Kites are Back

I was having dinner with my family on a cool March evening when one said “I have not seen any Swallow-tailed Kites yet.  We usually see them this time of year”.  To which I replied, “I saw one today!” – and I had.  It was March 23, a very windy afternoon, and I saw it briefly zip over our backyard.  The Swallow-tailed Kites were back.

 

Back in the sense they were back from their long migration from South America.  The Swallow-tailed Kite resides there and ventures north to Central and North America during the summer for the breeding season.

The Swallow-tailed Kite.
Photo: Cornell University

It is a magnificent bird, described as “one of the most awesome birds in the U.S.”.  Their long slender bodies are sharp in contrast with a brilliant white head and a deep black body.  They have long pointed wings which they use to soar with grace, rarely flapping their wings, and their key feature of the scissor-looking forked tail.  They are a relatively large bird somewhere between the size of a crow and a large goose.  Swallow-tailed kites are often seen soaring just above the treetops searching for food but can also be seen at higher elevations gliding along with the wind.  It is a bird that many get excited about when they see it.

 

Arriving in the United States in late February and March, they seek out opportunities for nesting habitat.  Their preference are tall trees, usually 60 feet or taller, and most often select pine trees, though have been known to nest in cypress and other large trees.  They usually select trees close to water or open fields.  These locations provide an abundance of their favorite prey – insects.  They can be seen zooming close to the trees to grab unwary prey and will, at times, take larger creatures like treefrogs, lizards, and small snakes.  Their beaks are small however, and so prey selection is limited.

 

Both the males and females participate in nest building.  Swallow-tailed kites are monogamous and mate pairing often occurs during the migration.  They usually build a new nest each season but often is the same location.  Males are territorial of these nest locations and defend them with local vocalizations.  Despite this, many swallow-tailed kite nests can be found near each other.

The Swallow-tailed Kite.
Photo: Rodney Cammauf – National Park Photo.

Once the young hatch, the female remains with them while the male forages for food.  He typically brings it back to the nest in his talons, perches and transfers the food to his beak, and the provides it to the female who in turn feeds the chicks.  After fledging, around August or September, it is time to head back to South America and they leave our area until next spring.

 

Swallow-tailed kites were once common all along the Mississippi River drainage as far north as Minnesota.  However, the numbers declined significantly, primarily due to humans shooting them, and today they are only found in the lower coastal regions of the southeastern U.S.  Today they can be found, but are uncommon, in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Caroline.  In Florida they are considered uncommon in the panhandle but common in the peninsula part of the state.  Their numbers seem to be increasing but the loss of tall nesting trees is a major issue today.  The clearing of these tall trees due to agriculture and urban development have kept them from reestablishing their original range.  But for now – the swallow-tailed kites are back.

 

For more information on this amazing bird read the following.

 

Swallow-tailed Kite.  All About Birds.  Cornell Lab.  Cornell University.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swallow-tailed_Kite/id.

 

Swallow-tailed Kite. Bird Guide – Hawks and Eagles.  Audubon Society.  https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/swallow-tailed-kite.

Beach Wildlife Walk – Late Winter

Beach Wildlife Walk – Late Winter

Though this is titled late winter, it did not feel like winter on this walk.  The air temperature was 75°F.  There was a blanket of fog over the beach, and it felt slightly humid and sticky, but with a cooler feel than we have in summer.  It is true that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this year – signaling an early spring, and the weather today supported this, but spring does not officially begin until the equinox on March 21.  So, this is a late winter walk. 

This walk was near Big Sabine on Pensacola Beach.  As I crossed the road at Park East and headed into the dunes there was a breeze from the south creating surf that could be heard across the island.  The fog made things damp and chilled.  And there was no sign of wildlife anywhere.  The numerous songbirds I had encountered during early and mid-winter were gone.  There were flowers in bloom but no insects pollinating them.  Literally no wildlife was to be seen. 

A foggy day on Pensacola Beach. Photo: Rick O’Connor

So, I turned my focus to the environment, noticing plants and the stages they were in.  As you move from the primary dunes of the Gulf side into the more shrub covered secondary dunes, you cross through low areas in the dune field called swales.  Here water collects during rain events forming ephemeral ponds and the plants associated with this habitat are more wetland than upland.  In the boggy portions of the swale, I found sundews large and in a brilliant red color.  These carnivorous plants produce tiny droplets of sugar water on threads at the tips of their leaves that attract the pollinators of the beach.  Though sweet and delicious, they are also sticky and trap unaware insects which become a meal for them.  Along with the sundew were numerous strands of ground pine, another carnivorous plant of the swale. 

Swales are low areas of the dune field where water stands for periods of time and the more wetland plants can exist. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The carnivorous sundew inhabits more wetland locations. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Beyond the swale, the secondary dunes were a blanket of lavender.  The false rosemary, also called beach heather (Conradina), was in full bloom everywhere.  As I walked through the dunes of flowers I came across the signs of wildlife.  Armadillo dens were quite common.  There were tracks of animals, including the raccoon, and scat was found.  The scat contained seeds and, unlike the long-tapered shape of most carnivore scat, was blunt and rectangular shaped – suggesting a herbivore or omnivore.  I did encounter a couple of ephemeral ponds with very little water, but there were no animals, or animal sign, to be found there. 

The false rosemary was in bloom and the dunes were full of this lavender color. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Armadillo burrows like this one can be found all over our barrier islands. Photo: Rick O’Connor
The blunt ended and rectangular shape of this scat suggests it was from a herbivore or omnivore. It was full of seeds. Photo: Rick O’Connor

As you move from the secondary dunes into the maritime forest you pick up a section of the Florida Trail.  This 1,500-mile trail begins at Ft. Pickens on the western end of Santa Rosa Island and ends near the Everglades.  It was obvious that many of the animals who live in these dunes use this trail as well, there were numerous tracks covering it.  Over the ridge into the maritime forest, you encounter marshes.  The plants you find growing there help indicate whether the marsh is fresh or salt water.  Pausing here to see if something stirred or moved, I saw and heard nothing and continued on. 

The orange blaze indicates this is part of the Florida Trail. Photo: Rick O’Connor

The maritime forest was full of healthy pine and oak trees, creating a completely different habitat for the wildlife out here.  You get the feeling when you enter the forest that this is where the creatures prefer to be.  Raccoons, skunks, coyote, snakes, birds, lizards, exist here and I was hoping to find something.  And then it happened.  Glancing up into one of the pine trees I saw a great horned owl – bingo!  These are amazing birds and there have been a few reports of nesting great horned owls around the area.  I did not see the nest but was happy to see the owl. 

The maritime forests of our barrier islands is a completely different environment than the open dune fields. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Using the nests of other raptors, great horned owls raise their young this time of year. This one is in the “extended” position suggesting it is alarmed. Photo: Rick O’Connor

I eventually reached the shore of Santa Rosa Sound and walked along for half a mile or so.  I did see a great blue heron in the marsh, and some wharf crabs under a plank of wood – but there was nothing visible in the clear water of the Sound.  There was evidence of armadillos digging.  One section of the beach they had basically destroyed digging for grubs and other invertebrates to eat. 

All in all, it was a quiet day.  I am guessing that the foggy conditions moved the animals into their hiding places waiting for the sun to come out.  Our next walk will be in early spring, and we are hoping to see more wildlife.

You should get out and take a hike on our beaches, there are plenty of cool things to see and it’s great for your mind.