Fact sheet for the great outdoors in PensacolaWhite Sands, Local Shells, Wildlife & Plants
The Pensacola Bay Area is the perfect place for experiencing the diversity of nature along the vibrant and beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Here, you're never far from the wonders of the natural world. On our rivers, bayous, lakes and along the white-sand shores of Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key, nature is your companion, whether you’re hiking, kayaking or diving beneath our emerald waters.
Here are some things to look for to expand your understanding and enjoyment of one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes:
Much of the sand on Florida beaches is made up of quartz crystals produced by the weathering of continental land masses like the Appalachian mountains. The quartz is washed down America's great rivers into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico where it is carried onto the beaches by water currents and waves.
Combined with the sparkling quartz crystals may be shell fragments and coral, limestone, fossils and organic matter, which lend different colors to the sand. Beach sand along the southeast Florida coast and the Keys is often composed more of coral and mollusk shell fragments than of quartz crystals.
While strolling the shoreline, look for clam shells with a small hole. Sea snails use a radula, their ribbon-shaped tongue, to drill a hole in the shell of the clam. While drilling, the snails soften the shells by secreting carbonic acid and inserting the siphon. The clam is then digested inside its shell as the snail gulps down the remains of what Gulf Islands National Seashore park rangers call a "clam milkshake."
The lightning whelk (shell) is one of the most common, as well as one of the easiest whelks to identify. It is a left-handed whelk, meaning the opening is on the left side of the shell as it is facing towards you, while most other whelks such as tulip, pear or channeled whelks open on the right. Lightning whelks have a creamy color with burnt orange stripes and are often considered a prize find.
Visitors are sometimes puzzled by the appearance of what looks like a giant ball of twine on our sugar-white beaches. Called "hurricane knots," the balls are formed by island winds rather than by hurricanes. Propelled by the wind, sticks or small pieces of vegetation form the balls as they roll along, collecting items such as leaves, sea oats, crab legs, shells, debris and egg cases. The balls end up in sphere-shaped knots full of surprises.
Bird Watching and Wildlife Viewing
Gulf Islands National Seashore at Fort Pickens is home to a variety of animals from opossums, armadillos and rabbits to red foxes, river otters (who live in the brackish canals) and an occasional snapping turtle. The area is also an excellent spot for bird watchers with a large year-round population of ospreys, great blue herons, woodpeckers, shorebirds and songbirds. In addition, because of our ideal location between the Mississippi Flyway and Atlantic Flyway, many migratory birds can be spotted during spring and fall.
Of the seven species of sea turtles, four nest along the Pensacola Bay Area's beaches from May through October: loggerheads, greens, Kemp's Ridleys and leatherbacks. Before laying eggs, females dig a pit with their powerful flippers. During the nesting season, volunteers make early morning patrols to document turtle nests before roping off the area to protect the nests.
Many shorebirds such as plovers, terns and skimmers nest along our open beaches, making them vulnerable to humans and other dangers. Runners, bikers and walkers should take care to avoid active nests.
It is not uncommon to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming close to the shoreline. The dolphin's great curiosity brings the mammal in close contact with humans. Interestingly, though dolphins must surface frequently to breathe, they have the remarkable ability to let one half of the brain sleep at a time.
The University of West Florida's Edward Ball Nature Trail, a 1,600-acre nature preserve, offers miles of hiking, jogging and walking trails. While there, be on the lookout for the preserve's unofficial mascot, Captain Thunder, a 10-foot-long, three-legged alligator who makes his home in the bayou.
Yaupon Holley is a plant found throughout the Pensacola Bay Area. It produces bright red berries when the male and female plants are in close proximity. The leaves are loaded with caffeine and were widely used to make tea by Native Americans and Civil War soldiers alike.
Santa Rosa Island is not only one of the longest barrier islands in the world, it is also a prolific herb garden. A native mint, Conradina, looks similar to rosemary and is easily spotted on the island's western end as well as on Johnson Beach in Perdido Key. Other edible plants include muscadine grapes, wild onions and dewberries.