Weekly “What is it?”: Juvenile Bats

They named him “Lestat.” But unlike his bloodsucking namesake, the little Seminole bat clinging to the bricks of a campus building was purely interested in mama’s milk.  Later on, he will develop a taste for insects, as his mother teaches him to fly and capture bugs on his own.

This young Seminole bat, nicknamed "Lestat", was left on the bricks of a UWF campus building as his mother searched for food. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

This young Seminole bat, nicknamed “Lestat”, was left on the bricks of a UWF campus building as his mother searched for food. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

I was introduced to the young bat a few weeks ago by the big-hearted staff of the UWF Health Services Center, who noticed him hanging on the brick wall of their building.  He was only about six feet up, exposed to the rain and contrary to his nocturnal nature, moving around quite a lot during the day.  The staff were concerned for the young bat’s well-being. Our best guess is that his mother selected a poor location because she was stressed, inexperienced (and probably exhausted, if bat motherhood is anything like that of a human).  I advised them to keep watch but leave him be.  A few days later, both bats were gone and we can only hope the mother successfully moved Lestat to a safer hideout.

An adult female Seminole bat rests on a brick wall in Pensacola. Photo credit: Maria Agustin

An adult female Seminole bat rests on a brick wall in Pensacola. Photo credit: Maria Agustin

Summer is maternity season for female bats, who typically give birth to a single pup (although sometimes more) in May or June.  It takes about three weeks for juvenile bats to learn to fly, and during that time they either cling to their mother or stay behind in the roost as she feeds at night.  For that reason, during the period between April 16-August 14, it is illegal to “exclude” or prevent bats from returning to their roost—even if it’s your attic.  This obviously has the potential to cause conflict between homeowners and the bat population. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has regulatory oversight for bat-related issues, and they will work with citizens to arrange a positive outcome for both the property owner and the animals involved.

Bats play an important role the ecosystem as efficient controllers of insect populations. However, their populations are in decline due to habitat loss and a devastating disease called white-nose syndrome.  To learn more about bats and how to help them, visit this website or contact me or your local County Extension office!


Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/07/24/weekly-what-is-it-juvenile-bats/

Weekly “What Is It?”: Safe Rooms

With storms in the news and hurricane season nearly upon us, I’m diverging a bit from my normal topics to address a different kind of “what is it?”

I grew up in east central Mississippi, at the heart of a smaller, less well-known tornado hotspot sometimes known as “Dixie Alley” that runs through the Deep South (LA, TN, MS, AL, GA).  I have vivid memories of being a worried 1st grader, huddled head-down against the mural-painted concrete block walls of my elementary school’s hallways as a tornado passed nearby.  Tornado drills were as common for us as the “duck and cover” nuclear drills of my parents’ generation.

Many of us know from experience or the news that the safest place during a fierce windstorm is a small, central indoor space with no windows, closed off from the house and with mattresses or pillows piled above. However, the utter devastation shown from the storms in Oklahoma, and a few years back in Tuscaloosa, indicate that if a home is in the direct path of one of these powerful twisters, there’s often no good place to hide. Few Midwesterners or Southerners have either the proper soil or financial means to install an underground shelter or basement.  Another, more affordable option is the above-ground shelter known as a safe room.

This steel storm shelter is on display at the Escambia County Extension Office.

This steel storm shelter is on display at the Escambia County Extension Office.

Safe rooms are typically small (4x6’) metal buildings, reinforced with additional materials, which are placed inside a home or garage.  They aren’t designed to hold people for long periods of time, like a fallout shelter, but simply a place to ride out a tornado or hurricane.  When not in use during an emergency, the shelter can serve double-duty as a closet or garage storage area.

Here at the Extension Office, we have a Windstorm Damage Mitigation Training and Demonstration Center, which is designed to withstand a 200 mph, Category 5 hurricane.  Along with examples of storm shutters, wood frame connectors, and hurricane-resistant garage doors, we have a storm safe room available for public viewing.  It was designed by engineers at Texas Tech and is a small steel room that comes in panels, easily bolted together.  It has room for approximately eight people in the short term and four for a longer-lasting hurricane situation.

Information about the storm shelter

Information about the storm shelter


In yesterday’s USA Today, the paper reports that demand for safe rooms has skyrocketed since the Oklahoma tornadoes.  Hurricane season is upon us in less than two weeks, and many locals will evaluate their emergency plans and assess any needs.  Even if we avoid another hurricane, Florida ranks #4 in the nation for “most frequent tornadoes.” If you have questions about safe rooms or any other strategies for hardening your home against windstorms, come by the Extension Office any weekday between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm.  To arrange a tour, contact me at 850-475-5230 or ctsteven@ufl.edu.  In addition, you may want to contact the local Rebuild Northwest Florida agency to find out more about cost-saving measures to protect your home from storms.





Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/05/23/weekly-what-is-it-safe-rooms/

Weekly “What is it?”: Killdeer

Twice in the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of running across the charming killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), a species of bird related to the endangered plovers often found on area beaches.  While they may also live near the water, killdeer are commonly found inland.  Killdeer have several identifying features, including short bills, brown and white bodies, and two especially noticeable black bands around the neck.  Their loud, shrill call gives them their name, and 18th century naturalists referred to them as the “chattering” and “noisy” plovers. They are ground foragers who run in short spurts as they attempt to scare up insect prey.

This killdeer has laid her eggs on the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

This killdeer has laid her eggs on the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

This bird can thrive in urban locations ranging from rooftops to parking lots and yards.  While on a recent visit to Escambia County’s green roof, a colleague and I noticed the bird flailing its feathers, hopping away from us and calling out urgently.  This mannerism, in which an adult bird calls attention to itself, was a classic nest-protection technique called “broken-wing” behavior, intended to draw a perceived predator away from eggs or hatchlings.  We looked down immediately to search for a nest, and just a couple of feet away found two lovely speckled eggs lying right on top of the roof media. The males of the species create the “nests” which are simple scrapes made with their feet in which the female lays eggs.

The speckled eggs of the killdeer blend with the gravel media of the green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The speckled eggs of the killdeer are laid atop the soil and blend with the gravel media of the green roof.           Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Several days after seeing the killdeer on the roof, I was with a group of high school students planting marsh grasses along Pensacola Bay, and observed at least three of the birds running, flying, and otherwise making themselves known to us.  In anticipation of 80 teenagers descending upon their nesting beaches, my colleagues and I started looking for their speckled eggs lying atop the soil.  We ended up flagging two nests; one further upland from the water with two eggs, and another that was being guarded vigorosly, right near the water.  When anyone approached the nesting bird, it called loudly and spread its beautiful copper-colored tail feathers, attempting to make itself look bigger and warn the approaching human not to come further.  It stood its ground as opposed to leading the percieved predator away, as the first bird did, but both methods were effective in warning us.

Because they have adapted so well to urban landscapes, killdeer are one of the more successful bird species in the country.  Look closely–you may see one (and its hidden-in-plain-sight eggs) near you! To find out more about killdeer, hear their characteristic call, and see more photos, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/04/29/weekly-what-is-it-killdeer/

Weekly What Is It: Native Azaleas

The delicate pink blossoms of this native azalea are a lovely sight during a walk through local forested wetlands. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The delicate pink blossoms of this native azalea are a lovely sight during a walk through local forested wetlands. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

While most of the azaleas in my neighborhood have had an early first bloom, if you visit a forested wetland in our area right now you might be treated with the delicate blossoms of one of our native azaleas.  On a recent Panhandle Outdoors LIVE trip to the swamp boardwalk at Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Rhododendron canescens were in bloom through the filtered sunlight of three-story tall sweet bay and swamp tupelo trees.Often referred to as the honeysuckle azalea, the long, arching stamens of this shrub will remind passersby of honeysuckle flowers.  The native blooms are not as densely packed as the cultivated varieties, but their pink flowers are just as eye-catching.  There are several other varieties of native azalea, including the white-blooming swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) and the brilliant orange Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum).

The brilliant orange of the Florida flame azalea has made it vulnerable to overcollection in the wild. Photo credit: Jack Scheper

The brilliant orange of the Florida flame azalea has made it vulnerable to overcollection in the wild. Photo credit: Jack Scheper

Native azalea populations have declined due to wetland habitat loss, and their beauty has also made them susceptible to overcollection.  Due to these factors, the Florida flame azalea is listed on the state endangered species list and wild azaleas should never be removed from their habitat.  Native azalea species attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and are often planted in home landscapes as ornamentals.  Be sure you purchase them from reputable dealers that are not collecting from the wild.

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/04/08/weekly-what-is-it-native-azaleas/

Weekly “What is it?”: Spiderworts

Spiderwort flowers

The bright green, strappy leaves and brilliant purple bloom make the spiderwort stand out on roadsides.

This week’s feature is a pretty little plant (considered a weed by most) that most people have encountered in their yards or on roadsides.  The native spiderwort (genus Tradescantia)  is a perennial flower that grows in clusters, often in moist soils.  The plant can be identified quickly by its triad of  violet petals and bright green, straplike leaves.  I know many homeowners who refuse to let them be mowed down with the lawn simply because of their brilliant color.  Known by common names as varied as “Bluejacket” or  “Snotweed” and “Cow Slobber” (due to the consistency of its sap), the plant is widespread throughout the eastern and central United States.


Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/02/08/weekly-what-is-it-spiderworts/

Weekly “What is it?”: Leaf galls

As an ecologist and often the token “outdoorsy” person in any given crowd, people often point to a plant or animal or describe something they’ve seen and ask me, “What is it?”  I relish these small opportunities to teach my family and friends about the fascinating things they can find in nature.  To that end, I decided to share the answers to some of those questions in a weekly blog post.  The “Weekly What Is It?” will include a new photo and explanation every Wednesday.  This week, we’ll discuss a fascinating little phenomenon that I’m often asked about during trail hikes.

These spherical galls seen on live oak leaves show where three gall wasp eggs were laid.  The adult wasp's exit hole is visible on the right.

The spherical galls seen on live oak leaves show where three gall wasp eggs were laid. The adult wasp’s exit hole is visible on the right.

Insect galls are hard, three-dimensional growths on the leaves or stems of plants. While galls can form on many species of plants, typically (60% of the time) they are found on oak trees and created by gall wasps that have laid eggs into the plant tissue.   Much like human skin reacts to a splinter or insect bite by swelling around it, plant cells respond to this foreign tissue by growing a gall around the expanding egg sac to protect the plant.  Insect larvae eventually feed on the gall tissue until they’ve reached adulthood.  Many galls have small pinholes, a sign that the adult insect has emerged and the gall is empty. Each gall-laying insect has its own characteristic shape. The gall wasp creates one (see photo) approximately a half inch long and spherical.

Another commonly seen gall is that of the swamp bay (Persea palustris), a tree that I’ve never seen without many green, oblong galls wrapped into the curled leaves.While strange looking, galls rarely cause problems for the plants and are an example of commensalism, a relationship in which one organism benefits while the other is neither harmed nor helped. The word “gall” means “bitter”, a reference to the taste of these tannin-filled growths.If you have a mysterious “something” that you’ve always wondered about, email me a photo or description at ctsteven@ufl.edu, and hopefully it will be featured in a future post.

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2013/01/23/weekly-what-is-it-leaf-galls/

This Week in FFL

“Nature will bear the closest inspection.  She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plan.” – Henry David Thoreau

Are you interested in getting an “insect view” of the flora and fauna around you, and learning how humans interrelate with the larger ecosystem?  If so, a Florida Master Naturalist class may be for you.  This course is for anyone interested in learning more about Florida’s natural environment—participants have ranged from college students and professors to birding and hiking enthusiasts, to interested retirees who want to play active roles in the community. 

A local landowner discusses fire ecology in pines with ecotour participants.

The last few weeks, we have been planning for an upcoming Florida Master Naturalist class focusing on Uplands.  The “Wetlands” and “Coastal” modules of this program have been very popular courses, but this will be our very first offering of “Uplands” in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties.  At first glance, uplands may seem less exciting than the charismatic sea life seen in our coastal class or the freshwater streams of our wetlands course. However, there are many fascinating aspects of the local hardwood and pine forests, including rare animal species and unusual plant adaptations that make the Panhandle of Florida one of the most biodiverse regions of the country.

We will start our course on Tuesday, September 11 and meet for consecutive Tuesdays through October 30.  With cooler temperatures and less rain, fall is one of the very best times to explore the area’s forests.  Master Naturalist courses are designed to get participants out into the great outdoors, and 4 field trips to the Roy Hyatt Center, E.O Wilson Biophilia Center, Eglin AFB, and Blackwater State Forest will be included.  Stay tuned for a link to registration information, or contact me directly at ctsteven@ufl.edu or 850-475-5230.

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2012/08/08/this-week-in-ffl-2/

This Week in FFL

Ladybug rain barrel

This ladybug-themed rain barrel was the first one we built at Extension!

Our next event is a rain barrel workshop, held in conjunction with the City of Pensacola.  Why use a rain barrel?  These 58-gallon food grade barrels can be installed to capture rainwater off your roof and reused in a garden or yard.  During a 1-inch rainstorm, a typical home can produce 600 gallons of runoff!  With all of the rain we get in northwest Florida, there’s no point in paying twice for a free resource.  In addition, rain barrels help reduce the amount of stormwater runoff contributing to water pollution.

The workshop will meet at Bayview Park, 9 am on Saturday, June 30 for a short presentation, then build the barrels.  Cost is just $55, which covers the supplies provided.  To register, contact Jessica Bell at jebell@cityofpensacola.com or 850-435-1673.

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/ffl/2012/06/28/this-week-in-ffl/