Unfamiliar Species Encroach Upon The Coast
“How it wound up in the Gulf we’ll never know.”
Last winter, along much of the Emerald Coast, purple finches, a bird that had not been known to commonly frequent the area, showed up in numbers. Biologists and birders call such sudden increases in the population of a species in a given area “irruptions.” The finches were, in effect, vacationers. But there are other species — an outsized amphibian, a prized game fish, a homely blowfish, what appears to be a muskrat on growth hormones and a duck that hangs out in trees — that appear instead to be intent upon permanent residency. They may be exploiting available ecological niches or responding to climatic changes or to a combination of factors. All serve to remind us that, as a charter boat captain once told me when a surf fisherman improbably caught a blackfin tuna off Panama City Beach, “There ain’t no fences out there.” — Steve Bornhoft
The way the fish was fighting, Capt. Garrison Rosie thought it might be the biggest speckled trout ever taken about his inshore charter boat.
Rosie had been fishing on the flats in St. Andrew Bay near the Navy base in Panama City Beach when a large school of jack crevalle passed by. Rosie directed his charter, a young man named Ryan from Tennessee, to toss a live pilcher into the jacks. Moments later, he was hooked up.
When whatever it was on the end of Ryan’s line jumped — something that trout and jacks don’t do — Rosie wondered, “What in the world is that?”
As the fish neared the boat, there was no mistaking it. Its bold, black lateral line gave it away as a snook, a species Rosie had caught on trips to South Florida but one that is rarely seen north of Taylor County.
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me. I better get this thing in the boat or everyone will think I’m crazy when I tell them what I caught,’” Rosie said.
Ryan brought the fish to net, and Rosie took a celebratory photo.
Was the catch, made in 2019, the product of the Luck of the Amish?
Ryan grew up in an Amish community but separated from it when he became old enough to live independently. Over the last two years, Rosie has seen another couple of snook in Bay County waters, but he hasn’t hooked one.
Tommy Thompson, a photographer and one-time charter boat captain — he had to give up guiding after losing an eye to infection — writes Big Bend “Action Spotter” reports for Florida Sportsman magazine and has been tracking the northerly drift of snook for years with interest.
“When I was a kid, Tarpon Springs was about as far north as you got ’em,” Thompson said. “Only occasionally would you see one caught at Crystal River or at the state park at Homosassa, and when that happened, it made the paper.”
Now, according to Thompson, guides operating at the mouths of the Waccasassa and Withlacoochee rivers are targeting snook when the season is open.
Snook, throughout their historic range, relate closely to mangroves, which attract prey fish and, in turn, predators. Not coincidentally, the plants, which spring from water, are popping up in areas where they had not been seen before.
“It used to be here in the Big Bend, you would see an island and you thought maybe it had mangroves on it, but it was actually a duck blind,” Thompson said. “Now I know of several islands north of Steinhatchee that are tipped up with mangroves.”
In a blog entry, Savanna Barry, an extension agent at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, terms snook that are wandering north “pioneers.” Researchers, she wrote, “think snook are expanding their range and population numbers as average sea surface temperatures increase.”
Barry describes a study conducted by UF graduate student Emma Pistole, who worked to determine if there are genetic differences between pioneering snook and relative homebodies.
Analyzing DNA samples from fin clippings collected by fishing guides in Yankeetown, Crystal River, Cedar Key and Hernando County, Pistole found that snook along the Nature Coast had lower genetic diversity in comparison to those in Tampa Bay. Further study of genetic variation observed in pioneer fish may lead to the creation of a separate management plan for northern Gulf Coast populations.
Thompson said researchers have discovered snook 20 miles inland in the Suwannee River.
Before long, he predicted, “you are going to have numbers of them in the backwaters of Panama City.”
A fish far less likely to figure in university studies is the smooth back puffer, which like the snook, is surprising anglers in the northern Gulf who may be pursuing speckled trout on grass flats and reel in a fish that resembles a club of the sort that Fred Flintstone toted.
“When people first started catching them, they didn’t know what the hell they were,” Thompson said. “They were familiar with porcupine blowfish that will take a chunk out of your cork, but these things are fierce. They’ll hit just about anything.”
In 2015, via a post on his website headlined “Gulf Coast Smooth Back Pufferfish — An Invasion?” Thompson solicited information about catches of the species and received more than 40 reports.
“I grew up fishing, but I had never seen any until we had a big batch of them at Steinhatchee in Taylor County about seven, eight years ago,” Thompson said. “You would catch two or three, usually while fishing on the flats with some kind of artificial lure. Before the water gets too warm, I like to fish with Paul Brown soft plugs, and boy, they will chew one of those in half in a heartbeat.”
Catches of smooth back puffers, sometimes called ocean puffers, ranging to three feet and 20 pounds have been reported along Florida’s east coast.
“Seeing one that big, I wouldn’t even get in the damn water,” Thompson said. — Steve Bornhoft
Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks
Norm Capra, who chairs the Conservation Committee of the Bay County Audubon Society, lives in a house on a pond at the west end of Panama City Beach, very near the Bay-Walton county line.
“One day several years ago, we saw eight strange-looking ducks on the pond and got pretty excited,” Capra said. “Shortly after we saw them here, the same number of ducks showed up at Conservation Park (located west of State Highway 79 and north of Panama City Beach). They were most likely the same ducks.”
Black-bellied whistling ducks, according to Bay County Audubon president Pam Overmyer, have entered the United States from Mexico and from the Caribbean. She believes that the birds seen along the Emerald Coast took the latter route, getting as far north as Tallahassee before hanging a Louie.
The ducks have a distinctly upright posture, as if they have all been to an avian finishing school, and have pink feet, an orange beak and white eye-rings. They spend large portions of their time on land and in trees, and they peep while in flight. Because they are not hunted, they are less skittish than other ducks. In the last couple of years, they have been observed with ducklings at Conservation Park.
“They are established here now, and more and more, you are going to see them popping up at local ponds,” Overmyer said. “They have expanded their range naturally, not as the result of human releases or escapes from captivity, so they are considered a native species.”
In March, a New Orleans television station, WWL-TV, broadcast a news story about thousands of whistling ducks that had overtaken Lafreniere Park in Metairie and Audubon Park in uptown New Orleans. The cacophony of voices captured by the news crew might fairly be called a clustercluck.
Whether they may have deleterious effects on other more established species is an open question. Overmyer likened them to cattle egrets, another species that expanded its range northward from South and Central America through Texas.
Overmyer, who serves as Bay Audubon’s rare bird coordinator, pays close attention to so-called vagrants, birds that depart from their usual travel patterns.
“A south polar skua showed up at Camp Helen last year,” she noted. “How it wound up in the Gulf we’ll never know.”
Last winter saw irruptions of purple finches and pine siskins. Wintertime sightings of vermillion flycatchers have been made at the one-time Hombre Golf Course, currently being redeveloped, and the Lynn Haven Recreational Park.
Vermillion flycatchers breed in Arizona and typically winter in Central and South America. For the past 10-plus winters, though, a population of the birds has been seen at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge at a spot called Twin Dykes, where two canals pass beneath a road.
“Maybe at some point they decided to fly 800 miles instead of 2,000 miles,” Overmyer theorized.
Or maybe they chose to avoid the political unrest in those other Americas, which can from time to time be as bad as it is in the United States. — Steve Bornhoft
For Rick O’ Connor, the nutria presents a classic invasive species tale: a critter is introduced to a new country, escapes captivity and, with no natural predators, explodes in population.
In 2019, O’Connor, a Florida Sea Grant extension agent and Pensacola native, found a dead nutria around Perdido Key. Immediately, he wondered how prevalent they might be in Escambia County.
“I found records of nutria here dating back to the 1950s,” O’Connor said. “They were originally brought to the U.S. from South America in the 19th century for the fur trade. People were going to hunt them, particularly in Louisiana. They got loose and did really well.”
Nutria, characterized by their orange, iron-tough enameled teeth, skinny tails and webbed feet, can produce their first litter at just eight months of age. Birthing between two to 12 pups per litter, nutria may have up to three litters per year.
They are a sizable rodent reaching 40 inches in length and weighing an average of 12 pounds. They travel in small groups and have a notoriously voracious appetite for plant roots and stems. That, coupled with their tendency to burrow and tunnel through banks and waterways, has earned them pest status in Louisiana, where nutria destroy some 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands per year.
Nutria overpopulation and destruction is so severe, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has established a bounty at $6 per tail.
“Nutria in Louisiana have been wiping out large sections of marsh that protect the shoreline from hurricane damage,” O’Connor said. “So, I became concerned about our marshes. We’re calling nutria an EDRR species, that’s early detection, rapid response, to let the public know before they get out of control.”
O’Connor oversees a database at eddmaps.org where people can log nutria sightings. There have been several sightings around the Perdido Key golf course, as well as a report of nutria at Grand Lagoon in Panama City.
But, there’s no need to panic. According to O’Connor, something is holding nutria in check along the Emerald Coast.
“Alligators seem to prey on them,” he said, “and, other than that, I would speculate groups of coyotes on our barrier islands may be involved. So, we don’t see nutria as a big issue, but we have them on our radar and do ask that people report any sightings.”
— Hannah Burke
When wildlife ecologist and conservation biologist David Steen checked the turtle traps he’d set in a swamp at Eglin Air Force Base, he didn’t expect to unearth his personal white whale.
But, after two years of searching, Steen came face-to-face with a reticulated siren, an aquatic salamander species thought, until his 2009 encounter, to be the stuff of legends.
With its 2-foot-long, spotted, eel-like body and puffy, protruding gills, the nocturnal amphibian certainly looks like the stuff of exaggerated tales.
Steen first heard of the mysterious giant while attending graduate school at Auburn University in 2007. An advisor showed him a massive specimen jar mislabeled “greater siren” and suggested it might be an undescribed species.
And, according to a book by Robert Mount, The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama, published in 1975, people had reported sightings of what they referred to as “leopard eels,” but none had been trapped.
Steen, along with graduate student Sean Graham, wouldn’t find another reticulated siren after 2009 until five years later. In 2018, the pair finally published a paper officially describing the species in the scientific journal, PLOS One, compiled by the Public Library of Science.
According to Kevin M. Enge, an associate research scientist who works under Steen, the reticulated siren population is plentiful but has specific habitat requirements. Enge, along with Matt Fedler of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, has been working to expand upon Steen’s work and establish the taxonomy of other sirens.
“Reticulated sirens are very difficult to catch, as they spook out of any nets you drag through their habitat,” Fedler said. “There are no actual studies of them in the wild, but we know they prefer places such as beaver ponds that accumulate a lot of mud on the bottom and have diverse vegetation.”
Enge said the reticulated siren eats “like a vacuum,” inhaling vegetation, substrate and small aquatic invertebrates. “The excess sand gets pushed out through their gill slits,” he said.
Enge and Felder have helped record reticulated siren sightings from South Alabama to the Escambia and Chipola rivers in Northwest Florida and flowages in between. In doing so, they discovered a new, 7-inch-long salamander they are calling the seepage siren.
The case of the seepage siren is like that of the reticulated variety. Reports of the seepage siren have been around for about 30 years, but no one had bothered describing it. In fact, there may be another undiscovered siren species out there.
“Sirens may not be very visible, but they are abundant,” Enge said. — Hannah Burke