Florida’s Smallest Owl

Owl. Florida is home to five owl species, with a few other species as visitors from time to time. The smallest of our resident species, the Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio is just now beginning its nesting season in Central Florida. You will often hear its descending whistle call before you actually spot the 7-10 inch owl as they are very well camouflaged animals. Listen here.

The Eastern Screech Owl is found throughout Florida in a wide variety of habitats from swamps to pine and oak forests, and urban and suburban areas. The tricky part about spotting Screech Owls is their feather pattern makes them very good at blending in with their surroundings. But, if you have a snag (standing, dead tree) in your yard or somewhere nearby, look for a large, circular hole, about three inches in size. If you find a tree with a cavity like this, it might be a woodpecker nest, or it could be the home of a Screech Owl!

Screech owl against a live oak tree to show how they can camouflage with the trees. Photo Credit: Lara Milligan

These birds of prey are great to have around because they feed on things like insects, rodents, and reptiles. They are also known for preying on other, smaller songbirds. While hunting is normally done by both the male and female, during nesting the females focus on incubating 2-6, small, white, round eggs, while the male catches food and brings it back to the nest. After four to five weeks, the eggs will hatch and both parents will care for the young until they are ready to go off on their own (after about three to four months). Screech Owls aren’t too picky when it comes to nesting habitat, but as natural areas are converted for development, their nesting options become limited.

Screech owl inside the cavity of a standing, dead tree (snag) that was carved out by a pileated woodpecker. Photo Credit: Lara Milligan

This is a cause for concern because Screech Owls are secondary cavity-nesting birds, meaning they depend on other species or Mother Nature to create a nesting hole for them. Species like woodpeckers and squirrels will sometimes create these cavities, or fungus and the natural rotting process of old and dying wood will create the perfect hollow for Screech Owls to nest. Nesting habitat is thus limited by the number of tree cavities they can find that meet their needs.

If you want to help out this cute little owl, you have a few options.

  • Provide a snag in your yard by leaving a dead or dying tree standing. Even a snag as short as 15 feet will provide potential nesting habitat. At the least, woodpeckers will love it!
  • Build (or buy) and install a nest box. This could be a fun, family project too! Screech owl boxes should be 8 inches wide, 16 inches tall, have a three-inch hole that is 10 inches from the base of the house, and be placed 15-30 feet off the ground. You can also add about three inches of wood chips in the bottom for an extra special touch. More details can be found online at: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw058
  • Consider supporting a conservation organization that helps protect Screech Owl habitat. It’s always important to do your research before you donate to any organization.

Sources: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/id



New Gopher Tortoise App


Gopher tortoises are a threatened wildlife species.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission needs your help documenting where gopher tortoises live.

Gopher tortoises are long-lived reptiles that occupy upland habitat throughout Florida including forests, pastures, and yards. They dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants. Gopher tortoises share these burrows with more than 350 other species, and are therefore referred to as a keystone species.

You can help the tortoise by downloading and using the “Florida Gopher Tortoise” smartphone application (app). With this app, you can record the location of gopher tortoises you may see in your yard, neighborhood, or crossing the road.

This information will help FWC biologists better understand where populations of gopher tortoises live. more info here: http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/gopher-tortoise/app/

Resolve to Get Involved

2017 is a brand new year! As always, many of you have probably started thinking about your New Year’s resolutions. If your list isn’t final yet or you think you can squeeze just one more thing into a busy year, let us suggest this one: resolve to get involved.

Volunteers help to maintain the area around a path in a community area.

In addition to the benefits you may expect from volunteering in your community – making new connections and friends, doing work you are proud of, and feeling accomplished – there is research to suggest that volunteering has health benefits. According to a report by the Corporation for National & Community Service (the federal agency behind AmeriCorps and leading the national call to service initiative), volunteering is linked to both physical and mental health outcomes. These links include decreased mortality and rates of depression and are particularly strong for older volunteers.

Opportunities to volunteer in Pinellas County are abundant. Take a look around and you’re nearly sure to find something that fits your skills, schedule, and passion.

If you are interested in volunteering with UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County, we have the following opportunities at this time and new ones are always coming up:

  • Sustainable Living – We are currently conducting economic studies of the Dunedin Downtown Market and Corey Avenue Sunday Market and need volunteers to help us measure the economic value of these farmers markets to the surrounding communities by counting attendance or taking survey – for dates, further information and to register: Dunedin and St. Petersburg.
  • 4-H – Make a difference in the lives of Pinellas County youth by volunteering with 4-H. Start a new club teaching kids about something that you love on a schedule that fits you. Judge demonstrations and other contests. Amplify the good that 4-H can do by joining the 4-H association and helping to plan fundraising opportunities – email aslavin@pinellascounty.org for more information.
  • Master Gardeners – Learn to design, plant and care for plants and landscapes in a Florida-Friendly way – teach others and participate in gardening projects throughout the county. Requires training – information available.
  • Brooker Creek and Weedon Island Preserves – Get to know “our wildest place” and “a place to remember”. Volunteers serve in a variety of roles here – from staffing the help desk and greeting visitors to leading hikes and reading to youth at story times.
  • Internships – Available throughout the county to interested students, volunteer internships can be designed to fit your interests and help you understand possible career paths. Contact the agent or county staff you are interested in working with to discuss what projects they may have available. Learn more or apply online:

Additional resources:


Pinellas County Volunteer Services


Green Giving

Gift cards are an easy option for when you just don’t know what someone wants – but so is asking them to attend an event with you instead!

Gift cards are an easy option for when you just don’t know what someone wants – but so is asking them to attend an event with you instead!

Holiday shopping season is here, which you have surely noticed. Advertisements of sales, bargains, and deals are everywhere, from the radio during your morning commute to the side bar of all of your favorite websites. It can be an overwhelming time for many people who have long lists of loved ones to buy for. It can be even more overwhelming if you’re also concerned about sustainability. Read on for some thoughts on how to give green this year, without breaking the bank.

Avoid Gift Guilt and Buyer’s Remorse

An economically sustainable shopping plan for your family is something that everyone can benefit from. Prevent overspending by taking a realistic look at your finances before you start shopping. Create a list of everyone you would like to get something for and see how much you can afford to spend per person.

Additionally, find ways to cut back on the number of gifts you have to buy (and wrap and mail). If the etiquette of the situation allows it, re-gift things you know you will not use. Reducing the amount we buy is the first of the 3-R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and lowers your impact. If you have like-minded friends, you can also organize an exchange where each person is only responsible for giving a single gift instead of 5, 10, or 20. You’ll receive fewer gifts, but the spirit of the season will still be felt.

Open dialogue about what someone actually needs and (if you’re comfortable telling them) what you can afford to get them assures that everyone is happy when the gifts are all unwrapped. Taking away the surprise doesn’t have to ruin the fun, as long as everyone feels cared about.

To Last a Lifetime

Gifting your time or an experience instead of a physical thing can also be a great way to celebrate in the spirit of sustainability. Spending time with your loved one will create memories to long outlast another novelty gift. An afternoon baking treats that they can take home provides lots of giggles in addition to the sweet reminder that they walk away with.

For kids, a book that you holds special meaning to you can be an excellent way to leave a legacy this holiday season. A well-worn novel is just as great of an experience as a new copy, especially if you take the time to read it with them.

A contribution in a loved one’s name to a favorite charity is another way to go for friends and family that don’t seem
to have room for a single thing more in their closets. Even a small donation shows that you care and supports an important cause.

Local foods can be a gift in themselves

Local foods can be a gift in themselves.

Support Local

Where in the world do your gifts come from? It can be a fun and interesting experience to explore local businesses during your shopping. Farmers markets also offer local food and crafts that can spice up the season. Money spent at local businesses has a multiplied effect on the local economy because those dollars are more likely to be spent locally as well.



 Additional Resource:

Seasonal Savings Tips

December- Celebrating Winter Squash Month

Kellyn Shollenberger Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines VA Health Care Center

The coolness in the air, the lower humidity, and the holiday decorations signal the beginnings of winter here in Florida. During this time of year, winter squashes with names like Acorn, Butternut, Spaghetti, Hubbard, and Delicata line the produce aisle. Why not celebrate Winter Squash Month and take advantage of the lower prices and great taste of these seasonal vegetables.

Pumpkins and other winter squashes are often seen in some sort of decoration around this time of year. While these squashes can be part of a decoration on your holiday table, they can add color and a decorative flair to your plate – and they are healthy, too! Winter squashes are high in many nutrients including antioxidants to help keep you healthy. They contain vitamin C to support the immune system, potassium to help regulate blood pressure, and vitamin A which supports eye health and also gives squash that vibrant color that goes perfectly with the changing seasons.

Selecting and storing-So how do you even start with these vegetables? When selecting a squash, make sure that it is firm and heavy, and be sure to avoid any squash with signs of mold or decay. Because of their hard rind, winter squashes can be stored for 1 week up to 6 months. Once the squash is cut, cover the exposed areas with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. Use the cut squash within the next 1-2 days. Freezing is also an option, and cutting the squash into appropriate-sized cubes before freezing is the best way to save yourself time for when you are ready to use your frozen squash.

Preparing-Winter squashes are versatile foods that rely on different cooking methods to bring out the different flavors. For example, most winter squashes can be cut into cubes and steamed for a simple side that provides the unique flavor of each type of squash. Try roasting a winter squash that has been cut in half, drizzled with a little bit of olive oil and topped with your favorite herbs and spices to allow the natural sweetness of the squash to shine through. They can also be added to your own vegetable soup, or you can blend one to make your own creamy squash bisque. Don’t forget about the seeds! Just like pumpkin seeds, other winter squashes have seeds that are tasty when roasted and provide some healthy fats to boot.

For some fun facts and recipes on your favorite winter squash go to Buying and Using Winter Squash.winter-squash

Discover the Fishing Heritage of Tampa Bay!

What: A Salty Heritage: Celebrating the Fishing History of Tampa Bayhubbards-marina-old-school-photos-tampa-bay-deep-sea-fishing-madeira-beach-florida-1

When: Saturday, December 3

Where: Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, 1800 Weedon Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33702

About: Tampa Bay has a rich heritage as a fishing community. To celebrate Sea Grant’s 50th Anniversary, we are holding a Marine Science Open Classroom (10 am – 12 pm) that will be fun for the whole family! Then we’ll have cake and refreshments in the lobby (12 – 1 pm), and will proudly finish the day by hosting some of the saltiest fishermen in the bay for an open panel discussion (1 – 3 pm) with the audience! Invited panelists range from crabbers, spearfishers, wholesalers, and recreational and commercial anglers. Each speaker will tell tales from the past, provide insights into their profession, and give us a glimpse of what they see as they look to the future. A question and answer session will follow the panel discussion.

We hope that you will join us for part (or all) of the day to learn about the resources Tampa Bay provides to our community.

Here are the Details….

Marine Science Open Classroom: 10 am – 12 pm

Register online https://seagrant50openclassroom.eventbrite.com

Marine and Coastal Fun for the whole Family! Youth and their parents are invited to explore marine investigation stations in the Weedon Island classroom.  Each station will be interactive and allow kids to explore microscopes, cast nets, fish printing and more! Bring a blank t-shirt or tote bag to make a commemorative keepsake. Come and go as you please anytime between 10am and 12pm.  This program is intended for youth ages 4-12 years old and their families.
Anniversary Reception: 12 pm – 1 pm

Cake and Refreshments will be served in the lobby. No Registration Required.
Fisheries Heritage Panel: 1 pm – 3 pm hubbards-marina-old-school-photos-tampa-bay-deep-sea-fishing-madeira-beach-florida-1

Register online https://fishinghistoryoftampabay.eventbrite.com

The program will highlight the bounty and diversity of fishing opportunities within the Tampa Bay region, both past and present. Panelists will include commercial and recreational fishermen from a variety of sectors. They will share historic context,  salty stories, insights into their industries, and what they see as they look to the future. Esteemed Panelists Include: Bobby and Dawn Aylesworth, Bait Wholesalers; Larry Borden, Commercial and Recreational Fisherman; Jason DeLaCruz, Seafood Industry Leader; Gus Muench, Commercial Crabber; John Stevely, Florida Sea Grant Fisheries Agent Emeritus. Additional Speakers TBA.
More information on the history and success of Sea Grant: click to watch a 30 second video: http://bit.ly/2dhRASs – or if you have time, a 10 minute video: http://bit.ly/2e3MvL7.

Chemicals in the Home

eco-homeCreating an Eco-Friendly Home can be confusing but start by looking at the chemicals that you use and store in your home. We use a variety of chemicals in our homes that may be toxic. Always read the label first! This is an easy way to understand what products you are handling and the safety guidelines. A wide range of products that we use in our homes and everyday lives contain chemicals that fit the definition of hazardous or toxic. Hazardous products line our kitchen, bath, utility and garage shelves. Proper management of household hazardous waste is important for protecting our land, air and water, as well as our personal health. Household products that contain hazardous components require special awareness, handling, and disposal. Hazardous waste is waste that is dangerous or potentially harmful to our health or the environment. Hazardous wastes can be liquids, solids, or gases.

cautionMinimize your exposure to hazardous chemicals by proper handling and storage. Check to make sure containers are properly sealed and labeled. Do not mix different chemicals together and use the safety equipment recommended on the label, such as plastic gloves. Store materials in a secure place out of the reach of children and buy only what is absolutely necessary. Look for alternatives to hazardous chemicals, such as vinegar, which works well for many cleaning tasks. Always select the least hazardous product for your task. There are four different words that should appear on the label of products. These words describe the danger level of the chemical. Caution is the lowest warning while Warning is higher on the scale. Danger indicates that the highest precautions should be taken. Poison will be on highly toxic chemicals that are extremely dangerous to people.

Proper disposal of hazardous household waste is important so that we are not exposed to harmful chemicals and they are not introduced into the environment. Check out the easy ways to dispose of your hazardous household waste through Pinellas County Utilities. http://www.pinellascounty.org/utilities/swapshop.htm

From Cooling to Heating

In Florida, we depend heavily on air conditioning in the summer so it’s not surprising that residential electricity demand is so high. For residents who cool their homes by opening windows, electric heat is still needed in the winter. Even when your heating and cooling system is running at its most efficient, it can often amount to 40% of your electric bill. Floridians’ home power consumption makes up 6% of all electricity consumed in the U.S. and the typical Florida home spends about $1,500 per year. For a regional look at energy bills, check this link or this one.

As winter approaches, it’s time to inspect your home heating system. If your system isn’t well maintained, it has to work harder and use more energy to keep you comfortable. The cost of a routine inspection is often less costly than repairs in the long run.

Here are a few tips to get ready for winter:

  • Change your filter. I’m sure you’ve heard this many times but it does make quite a difference. A dirty filter forces your system to work harder which uses more energy. Replacing the filters saves energy and reduces dust around the home.
  • Install a programmable thermostat. If you don’t have one, you will have to manually adjust the settings for the unit. With a programmable thermostat, you can schedule the time blocks when your heating system operates, with lower temperatures in winter while you are asleep or when you are away from home. Before purchasing, make certain the thermostat is designed to operate with your system.
  • Use ceiling fans. In the summer, ceiling fans help you feel cooler but they are also useful in the winter. Operating the fan in the reverse direction forces warm air near the ceiling back down into the room. There is a switch on the fan that will allow you to reverse the direction. Remember that ceiling fans keep people comfortable, but do not change the actual temperature of the air so be sure to use them only if someone is in the room.
  • Check the refrigerant charge. The circulating fluid in your air conditioner is a special refrigerant gas put in when the system is installed. If the system is overcharged or undercharged with refrigerant, it will not work properly. You will need a service contractor to check the fluid and adjust it appropriately.
  • Dress appropriately. Remember that it’s fall/winter so dress for the temperature. Layering clothes helps to keep you warmer and it means you can turn your heater down.

For more information on how to get energy-ready for a Florida winter, check out the links below. Note that tax credits are available through December 31, 2016 for energy efficiency upgrades and equipment.


Federal Tax Credits

Energy Star Products

Fall and Winter Energy Tips

EDIS Energy Efficient Homes: Air Conditioning

EDIS Energy Efficient Homes; Ceiling Fans

Fish + Plants = Aquaponics


(Image: www.friendlyaquaponics.com)

UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County will offer an Aquaponics 101 Workshop on January 21, 2017 at 9 am.

Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/introduction-to-aquaponics-2017-tickets-28401325128

Aquaponics is an intensive production system producing multiple crops with reduced water and fertilizer inputs. Aquaponic systems are more complex than plant- or fish-only systems because the optimal conditions for each group of organisms—plants, fish, and the nitrifying bacteria—are not exactly the same. Like many new technologies, it will be some time before firm recommendations for every aquaponic situation are tested and put into readily available production guides. It is recommended to start small and grow with the system, learning as you go.

Three organisms are involved in the optimum performance of aquaponic systems. The plants and fish are the cash crops, while nitrifying bacteria play an important biofiltration role, converting toxic fish waste ammonia to nitrate nitrogen, one of the most important mineral nutrients required by plants.

Tilapia is one of the most common aquacultured fish due to its tolerance of a wide range of water quality conditions and its fast growth under warm conditions (market size in 6–12 months). It fits well when grown with warm-season vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers. Tilapia has high-quality, textured white fillets. Worldwide tilapia farming is expanding at a rate of 12% to 15% annually. Other fish suitable to aquaponics but requiring more stringent water-quality conditions are channel catfish, koi, and other ornamental and bait fish.

Theoretically, almost any type of vegetable production system could be linked to an aquaculture system. However, linking pond aquaculture to hydroponics introduces potentially harmful microorganisms and algae to the aquaponic system, which could adversely affect the fish and plants. It is recommended to use well water or municipal water sources. Municipal water sources contain chlorine and/or chloramines, which are very toxic to fish and can kill them when present in very low concentrations. To minimize the risk of chlorine exposure, municipal water should be aerated in a separate tank for a few days before placing in the aquaculture tank. Ideally, water should be tested for the presence of chlorine before it is allowed to come in contact with the fish. Make sure you have all the facts before you start an aquaponics system.  (Tyson, R and E. Simonne. 2014. A Practical Guide for Aquaponics as an Alternative Enterprise. UF/IFAS Extension. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1252 .)

UF/IFAS Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises. http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu/crops/aquaponics/



Food from Down Under: Add seafood to your plate!

buying-seafoodHeather O’Hearn
Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines VA Health Care System

October is National Seafood Month, and what better way to celebrate than by enjoying your local catch of the day? Evidence has shown that including a variety of seafood in your diet can be a delicious way to protect your heart, and the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend enjoying 8 ounces of seafood per week for heart health.
You may have seen news reports detailing the dangers of overfishing or high mercury in seafood, but rest assured that with a little research, you can easily incorporate healthy and responsibly-sourced fish into your diet.
According to the National Resources Defense Council’s Smart Seafood Buying Guide (https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide), you can do your part by varying the types of seafood you purchase and by purchasing only from local providers or trusted retailers. Though salmon, tuna, and shrimp are some of the most popular seafood choices in America, Florida’s waters offer a number of equally versatile options, such as flounder, mullet, crabs, and oysters. In fact, the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “Fresh From Florida” program offers a number of tools you can use to make the best choices possible – use their Seafood Market Locator (http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Food-Nutrition/Buy-Fresh-From-Florida/Seafood-Retail-Markets) to find the freshest catch nearby, or check their Seafood Availability Calendar (http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Food-Nutrition/Buy-Fresh-From-Florida/Seafood-Products) to find out what’s in season. By choosing a variety of local fish that are in season, you can guarantee that you get the freshest, most flavorful seafood at the most reasonable price.
And don’t worry if you’ve never cooked with seafood before – most seafood cooks within minutes, and serves as a great base for a variety of different flavors. Set a tropical tone by serving haddock with a ripe peach and pepper salsa, or travel to New England with salmon cakes in a creamy dill sauce. Try a tangy Greek salad with sautéed sardines for a Mediterranean twist, or enjoy curried scallops and cilantro rice for a nod towards Asia. Whatever you decide, eat up and enjoy all the flavor and fun of fresh Florida seafood this month.