SEEN ALONG THE RIVERS AND SPRING RUNS OF NORTH-CENTRAL FLORIDA
The North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) is a fairly uncommon sight for kayakers since they prefer marshes and swamps, but we have run across them on the Rainbow, Ichetucknee, and Silver Rivers. They are usually quite shy of people and are quick to submerge or vanish into grasses if disturbed. They eat a wide variety of fish, frogs, turtles, and crayfish. Otters generally live in family groups led by a female. If you run across a family group, the adults will usually shoo the little ones into the weeds then cruise along the edge away from them, hoping you will follow the adults away from the youngsters. The best place to see river otters is probably the lower end of the Rainbow River where they seem to be more used to people due to the year-round tubing.
We have seen very few snakes on our paddles, and never a venomous one. We’re sure they are there, but they generally stay in the stream-side vegetation and really don’t want to have anything to do with us. Here’s photos of three snakes we have managed to get pics of.
The Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster) we have seen several times on both the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers. In fact, that’s about as far south as they can be found. They are harmless, long, slender, quick-moving snakes and unlike other water snakes, when disturbed they will usually flee to land rather than back into the water. Red-bellied water snakes prey primarily on amphibians, but will also eat fish. Because amphibians make up the majority of the diet, red-bellied water snakes tend to forage in temporary wetlands, because these habitats are breeding sites for amphibians.
The Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) is a harmless snake that is commonly confused with the Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin which is venomous. When frightened it will flatten out which gives it’s head a triangular shape similar to the venomous snake – probably a defensive adaptation. The quickest way to determine which is which from a distance is to look down on the top of the head. The Brown Water Snake has a sort of bulging eye socket, which you can see from the top. On the Cottonmouth you can’t see the eyes – the top of the head is flat. Also, even if the Brown Water Snake is flattened out, for it’s length it will look slender, while the Cottonmouth is a chunky looking snake with a chunky, thick head. Brown Water Snakes eat fish and frogs.
The Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) is a land snake, but in Florida frogs, lizards and small snakes make up the majority of the Racer’s diet, so it is common along streams and rivers. It is fast moving and can climb and swim well. When discovered, the racer will usually flee for shelter, relying on its speed and agility to avoid capture. It’s a rather nervous snake and when disturbed it may rapidly vibrate its tail in the leaf litter, producing a buzzing sound – trying to convince you it is a rattlesnake. Its bite is harmless, but its needle-sharp teeth can cause bleeding.
You’ll also see many interesting insects on your paddles. Dragonflies and Damselflies seem to be attracted to brightly colored boats or may simply use your kayak as a resting spot. Dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched, damselflies with their wings folded.
Wherever plants are blooming you will find butterflies. Sometimes they will be attracted to your brightly colored boat or look for them drinking nectar from flowers. Another way to see (and photograph) butterflies is to watch for puddling activity on the banks. Puddling is the behavior of congregating around small water puddles to suck up various salts and minerals.
The praying mantis (Stagmomantis spp.) is easily identified by its grasping front legs. Mantises locate their prey by sight. Their compound eyes have parts specialized for high resolution to identify prey and other parts specialized for perceiving motion. When hunting they may weave their head or whole body back and forth to bring various parts of their eyes into play. They are mostly ambush predators and either camouflage themselves and remain stationary, waiting for prey to approach, or stalk their prey with slow, stealthy movements. They eat insects as well as small vertebrates such as lizards and frogs. Mantises go through three life stages: egg, nymph, and adult. As a nymph a mantis may go through 5 – 10 molts of its exoskeleton before reaching the adult stage. Smaller mantises may live 4–8 weeks, while larger species may live 4–6 months.
The Florida False Katydid (Amblycorypha floridana) can be green, yellow, orange, red or brown and has a charming sound. You can hear the katydid sing HERE. They usually measure around 3 inches in body length.
Water beetle is a generic name for a variety of beetles that gather in large clusters on the surface but will dive under and scatter in all directions when disturbed. Adult beetles carry a bubble of air trapped beneath their fore-wings which allows them to dive and swim under water for long periods. They like moving water which supply a good turnover of floating detritus or struggling insects or other small animals that have fallen in and float with the current.
If you paddle along the shoreline or vegetation you are likely to see some spiders amidst the foliage. While lots of folks have an aversion to spiders, they are fascinating creatures with their myriad of forms, colors and webs. You don’t have to touch them to admire them. Here are four of our favorites.
The Long-jawed Orb Weaver (Tetragnatha spp.) are elongated spiders with long legs and mouthparts. They generally hang upside down from a plant stem with their short third pair of legs while holding their remaining, much longer, legs extended in front of and behind the body. The body of the one in the photo measured around 1/2 inch long.
The female Golden Silk Orb-weaver (in Florida commonly called Banana spider) looks fearsome, but they are really quite docile. They create huge webs in which the support threads shine like gold in the sunlight, from which they get their name. The spider is able to adjust pigment intensity relative to background light levels and color to camouflage their web from the flying insects that form the majority of their diet. The female is the one pictured here and measures over 2 inches in body length. The males are much smaller, about 1/8 inch in body length, and several males can frequently be seen in one web.
Fishing spiders (Dolomedes spp.) hunt by using the water surface in the same way other spiders use a web. They hold onto the shore or vegetation with their hind legs and spread their other legs across the surface of the water, feeling for vibrations. When they detect the ripples from their prey – mostly aquatic insects – they run across the surface to grab it, using their front legs which are tipped with small claws. They can also climb beneath the water, when they become encased in a silvery film of air.
The Daring or Bold Jumping spider (Phidippus audax) is recognized by their bright, metallic green or blue mouth parts. It is another spider that does not build webs to catch food. Instead they stalk and leap on their prey. These spiders, which measure 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in body length, have been known to jump up to 50 times their own body length by suddenly increasing the blood pressure in the third or fourth pair of legs. They do however use spider silk as a ‘lifeline’ when jumping for prey or evading predators.
With an estimated 700,000 white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Florida your chances of seeing one on the banks of rivers as they forage and drink is fairly high – but you have to be very quiet and the best times are early in the morning and late in the afternoon. A wildlife biologist told us an interesting story about our deer: By the 1930s unrestricted hunting and efforts to eradicate tick-borne diseases had eliminated virtually all the white-tailed deer within Florida. So the state instituted some of the first wildlife management practices and imported a small herd of deer from Wisconsin – because the deer were larger than the deer in Florida and therefore more appealing to hunters. Well, the Wisconsin deer did not take well to the heat and humidity down here and it wasn’t long before most of them died off. The next herd were southern coastal deer imported from Texas – smaller but more adapted to the southern Gulf Coast. So almost all of the deer currently in Florida are descended either from those initial Texas deer or deer that have migrated here on their own from Georgia or L.A (That’s Lower Alabama, for you non-Floridians.)
The ubiquitous raccoon (Procyon lotor) can be seen hunting for shellfish and crustaceans along many banks and spring border. We watched this one at Juniper Springs Recreation Area for almost half an hour. You can see part of the Fern Hammock Springs boil in the background.
Since they are primarily nocturnal, none of us have ever seen a live wild beaver (Castor canadensis) in Florida. But they are here in the panhandle and northern peninsula and we have seen their marks on trees. Most trees cut down by beavers are small – from 1 to 6 inches in diameter – but the animals leave their mark on a wide variety of trees and shrubs, feeding on the inner bark and tender shoots and twigs. Roots, grasses, sedges, ferns and other water plants comprise the remainder of their diet.