If Landlord says it’s spring, it’s spring (PHOTOS)

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TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

Calendars apparently do not mean much to “Landlord” the gopher tortoise.

While spring doesn’t officially begin until March 20, the roughly 11.5-pound tortoise recently decided to stir from his long slumber and crawl out from his igloo-shaped enclosure inside the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge.

Maybe he was just hungry. Or perhaps he actually sensed that it was getting warmer outside.

“He was brought inside in late fall or early winter because of the cold weather,” Michelle Pettis, a wildlife health technician at the refuge, said March 1, when outdoor temperatures reached the upper 70s. “He has been essentially hibernating and has not come out to eat. But just this morning I saw him come out and go to his food bowl. We’ll soon be able to move him outside.”

Landlord was brought to the refuge in 2011 after being hit by a vehicle, which caused significant damage to his shell. Refuge staff repaired the shell and made him a permanent, educational animal ambassador, meaning he will live at the refuge for the rest of his life.

Soon, the 10-year-old land turtle will be able to dig around in his sandy outdoor pen at the refuge.

“We’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of him” outside his home, Pettis said.

Like Landlord, various other signs of spring are beginning to appear. The flora and fauna, it appears, are embracing the warmth with the same gusto as college students ready to hit the beach. 

Baby animals

Fawns and baby opossums, squirrels and raccoons are some of the common types of wildlife that are born in the spring, Pettis said. She said now is the time that residents are more likely to come across what they mistakenly believe to be orphan animals.

“It might seem that the mom is not around, but it may be that Mom and Dad are out looking for food for the babies,” Pettis said.

That scenario is a common one among deer, she said.

“Fawns are often found in odd places, like in someone’s yard or by someone’s bush,” she said. “The deer moms will do that. They’ll leave for about four to six hours to forage for food. If you see a fawn with all of its spots on it, leave it alone. Even if it has moved 2 inches from its spot, that means the mom has nudged it and has left it in the yard.”

Pettis said people who see baby squirrels that have fallen from the nest should try to return them to the nest.

“After a couple of hours, look for the parents to return,” she said.

If a dead adult squirrel is found, the babies probably are orphaned and should be brought to the refuge, where they will be cared for into adulthood, Pettis said.

As for feathered friends, young bald eagles and great horned owls are among various birds that are now preparing to make their first flights from the nest, said Alan Knothe, vice-president of the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society.

“The songbirds are maybe migrating back about now,” he added. “They’re going to be going into their courtships. We also have a lot of birds, such as terns and snowy plovers, that will be nesting over the summer on our beaches.”

Knothe said purple martins, which are North America’s largest type of swallow, usually start showing up in the area around mid-February.

“The males will scout for territory, then the rest will show up in March or April,” he said. “They do breed here locally in martin houses. They eat a lot of flying insects” such as biting flies, but do not eat many mosquitoes.

Springtime, as many Northwest Floridians know, is also when Florida black bears become more active.

“With temperatures increasing, bears are out of their winter dens and moving around in search of food,” said Bekah Nelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s northwest region office in Panama City.

She said black bears do not technically hibernate in the Sunshine State, but go through a period of reduced activity that is often called denning or carnivore lethargy. The bears will search for potential mates starting in June, Nelson said.

The black bear is Florida’s largest land mammal. The state has about 4,050 of them, including an estimated 120 in the West Panhandle and about 1,060 in the East Panhandle, Nelson said. 

Reptiles and fish

Another sign of spring are the tiny lizards known as anoles, which lately have been spotted scurrying on tree branches and across sidewalks and backyard patios.

Native Florida anoles are green or brown — and can change from green to brown — while the non-native anoles from Cuba and the Bahamas are only brown. The non-natives are quite common in Central and South Florida.

Wayne Bennett, a marine biology professor at the University of West Florida, said the non-native anoles might have arrived in Florida after getting into boxes on cargo ships.

For anoles in general, “Typically when the weather cools off, they go into kind of a resting state,” Bennett said. “They’re too small to migrate very far, so they’ll usually find a protective place, like under the eave of a house or underneath a log,” where they hunker down and conserve calories until warm weather returns.

Bennett said when warmer weather returns, the male anoles will expand their “dewlaps,” or pouches under their chins.

“And they’ll do pushups to try to impress the ladies,” he said. “We will see more of that mating behavior as the weather heats up.”

The anoles’ food supply includes worms and insects, save apparently for pesky fire ants.

“I did some experiments with anoles and they left the fire ants alone,” Bennett said.

As the Gulf of Mexico warms up, staff from the Destin Fishing Fleet Inc. has been seeing trollers bringing in Spanish and king mackerel, said Jonelle Bell, who manages the fleet’s charter services.

“A little later in the spring we’ll start seeing wahoo and other sport fish,” she said.

Fishermen also are seeing plenty of bottom fish that are found year-round, but cannot necessarily be kept year-round. These include triggerfish and smaller snapper, such as vermilion, black and white snapper, as well as scamp, red grouper and amberine, Bell said.

In bloom

Pear, peach and other fruit trees now are almost in full bloom, said Larry Williams, the residential horticulture agent at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Office in Crestview.

And with unseasonably warm daytime weather in February, a lot of lawn grasses have come out of dormancy, and azaleas, flowering dogwoods, native red bud trees and some native red maple trees have begun to bloom, he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of plants with new growth early, which there are some concerns about,” Williams said. “That new growth is very tender and susceptible to a frost or a freeze. For Okaloosa County, from the coast to the north end, the average date for the last killing frost comes around March 20.”

Williams advises people to wait until about mid-April, when the area should have consistently warm nights with temperatures in the mid-60s, to fertilize their lawns and prune their cold-damaged plants.

“You should wait until the new growth comes out, then you’ll get a better picture of what is actually dead,” he said.  “The best practice right now is to have a little patience.”

Jennifer Bearden, the Extension Office’s agriculture agent, said strawberries are almost ready to be harvested a little ahead of schedule.

Farmers are starting to prepare the ground for their peanut and cotton crops, and corn also will be planted soon, she said.

“We try to caution people that through March we can still get freezing temperatures, so don’t put tender plants in yet,” Bearden said.

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