Wildlife on the Beach in February

It is now mid-winter and much colder than our trip in January.  During February’s hike the temperature was 44°F, compared to 62°F in January.  It was overcast with a cold breeze from the northeast – again, colder.  When conditions are like this I am not expecting to see much.  If I did find something I would expect it to be one of our warm blood friends, mammals or birds, and even they would prefer a day with more sun and less breeze.  But I came to see what was out roaming.  So, a hike I made.


This month I hiked the Big Sabine area east of Pensacola Beach.  It began with a shore walk along the Gulf and then a transect across the different dune fields to the marshes and seagrasses along the Santa Rosa Sound.

The Gulf side at Park East.

There was no one out today.  You could see footprints in the sand, and it had that characteristic “squeak” sound of fresh sand or snow.  The only wildlife I saw on the Gulf side was a group of pelicans sitting on very calm water, obviously enjoying the morning.  However, you could see footprints of mammals that had come earlier.  There are raccoons, armadillos, mice, coyotes, and occasional reports of otters on Santa Rosa Island.  There were a lot of skunks on the island prior to Hurricane Ivan (2004), but I have not seen any since.  There have been reports of bears on the island as well.  I have never seen one, nor their tracks, so do not think they are frequent visitors.  I did find a dead shark tossed up on the beach by a fisherman.  Not sure if they were trying to catch it or not.

A variety of mammals can be found on our barrier islands. Most move at night but we know who is there by the tracks they leave.
This small shark was found on the Gulf side beach. not sure why angler did not place it back in the Gulf.

As I began my transect across the island I ventured into the secondary dune field, which during summer is extremely hot. This part of the island reminds me somewhat of a desert.  Very dry, open, and at times very hot.  Like the desert it comes alive more at night, but during winter you might see animal movement during the warm parts of the day.  I did see mammalian tracks, which included humans and dogs.




The open areas of the secondary dune fields.
An ephemeral pond is one that is not present all of the time. These are usually freshwater.














This dune field also holds ephemeral ponds which can harbor a variety of life during the warmer months.  Today I only found one blooming yellow-bladder wort as well as other carnivorous plants along the bank such as sundews and ground pines.






From the open dune field, you venture into the tertiary dunes and the maritime forest.  Trees grow here but their growth is stunted due to the salt content in the air.  None the less, pine and oak hammocks liter this dune area providing great hiding places for wildlife.  Though we did not see any today, I am expecting to find some as the weather warms.

The yellow bladder wart is one of the small carnivorous plants found on our barrier islands.
The small sundew is another. These are found in, and near, these ephemeral ponds.

The backside of the island is where you will find the salt marsh.  This brackish wetland harbors its own community of creatures, which were not visible today but will be in the spring.  Between the tertiary dunes and the marsh runs a section of the Florida Trail.  Hikers can walk this section and observe wildlife from both ecosystems.








I eventually reached the Sound and the seagrass beds that exist there.  Today, here was nothing really moving around, though I did find a dead jellyfish drifting in the waves.  As the island wildlife tends to hideout the winter in burrows, the fish move to deeper water where it is warmer.

The larger dunes of the tertiary dune field.
All though smaller than trees found near our homes, tree hammocks are found in the tertiary dunes and provide good habitat for wildlife.










The large tertiary dunes drop swiftly back to sea level on the backside of the island.
Wind sculpting is a common feature of trees on barrier islands. The side facing the Gulf is stunted in growth due to the salt spray in the air.












Scat is another sign used to identify mammals living in the dunes.
A portion of the Florida Trail cuts through the Big Sabine area.












The salt marsh.
This holding pond is the remnant of an old fish hatchery that was here in the 1950s. It is primarily freshwater.












Seagrass meadows are found along the shore of Santa Rosa Sound and harbor a variety of marine life.
Jellyfish are common on both shores of our barrier islands. This one has washed up on the beach.


There was little out today other than a few birds.  We will see what late winter will expose next month.


Posted: February 10, 2022

Category: Coasts & Marine, Natural Resources
Tags: Coastal Wildlife, Florida Sea Grant, Nature Tourism

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