Pat’s Wildways: Water!

By Pat Foster-Turley
March 24, 2023

I often wonder where all the wildlife in our area gets drinking water. Sadly most of the available surface water on Amelia Island is contained in retention ponds that are designed to capture the often hazardous effluents running off of our roads, paved surfaces and housing developments. These water bodies are contaminated—not suitable for drinking by us humans, and not even suitable for fish that we would hope to consume.

Our own backyard retention pond has done just what is designed to do. When we moved to our development there were still empty lots not yet covered with concrete, lawns and houses. I spent countless hours digging up native plants like duck potatoes, cannas, and irises from roadside ditches and replanting them in the pond. Bucko and I spent many happy afternoons watching the snakes and frogs and the diversity of visiting birds but now things are different. Twenty years of lawn herbicides in a fully developed deed-restricted community that mandates green lawns have taken their toll. All the plants I planted, broad-leafed plants, have died due to the chemicals on surrounding lawns that kill dollar weed. The frogs and snakes and dragonflies have disappeared as well, and now, to my eyes, this pond is nothing more than a contaminated eyesore. The animals that used to live here have gone. But where to? There’s hardly any place left.

To make matters worse, natural springs that once adorned our island have been plugged to keep water in the ground table so that we humans can extract it for our own needs. Somehow, some animals survive the pollutants from our retention ponds, although studies show that over time drinking water with certain contaminants can lead to impaired reproductive capacity, and eventually lower the animal populations.

A rainy day drive in the park provides interesting scenery.

But some lucky animals live in Fort Clinch State Park. There are a few uncontaminated sources of drinking water for wildlife there. There are the series of borrow pit ponds making up Willow Pond, there is a manmade shallow pond in a bird viewing area by the beach parking area, and maybe a few springs elsewhere.

When it rains here, though, sometimes it pours and some wildlife in the park reap the freshwater benefits. Recently after a heavy rain Bucko and I watched deer on the road drinking from puddles. I’ve seen flocks of robins at puddles and watched seagulls bathing in freshwater puddles in parking lots. But never have I ever seen a gopher tortoise drinking water. At least not until now.

Deer in Fort Clinch State Park drink from puddles too.
A gopher tortoise drinks from a rainwater puddle.

Bucko and I were doing our usual drive through the park when it was raining and he noticed an unfamiliar shape on the road in the middle of a new rainwater puddle. Upon closer inspection, it was a gopher tortoise slurping up water. This is a very unusual occurrence. Gopher tortoises generally get all the moisture they need from the succulent plants that make up their diet. Their habitat of sand dunes rarely if ever has standing water to drink from but the tortoises manage just fine without it. On the internet, the general knowledge is that gopher tortoises only drink water in extreme droughts, but hey, their habitat is always dry here.

But here it was, a lucky gopher tortoise standing in a wet puddle drinking water! I happily photographed this unusual scene and posted it on my Facebook page where I received astonished comments from some of my biologist friends. For the most part, they had never seen this either!

Bucko and I continued our drive through the park in the rain, and I was intrigued by the quick changes rain can make to the landscape. Many people here know that the resurrection fern plants that adorn the limbs of live oak trees look shriveled during dry spells, but within minutes, it seems, after a heavy rain they are rejuvenated (“resurrected”) into lush green ferny leaves. But something else happens when it rains in the park, too. All that greyish-looking Spanish moss (not Spanish, not moss) hanging from the limbs green up in moments too after a heavy rain. It took me years to notice this, because the moss turns grey again quickly, but I was able to catch it on film. Amazing.

A gopher tortoise drinks from a rainwater puddle.

The importance of clean fresh water sources cannot be over-emphasized for animals as well as people. We are lucky that Florida is a wet state, but even here we are using up our water supplies at a rapid rate, natural springs are drying, and water flows are reduced. Increasingly around the world, limited water is becoming an issue of conflict. And really, between the needs of humans and wildlife, the conflict is already here.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Chuck Hall
Chuck Hall (@guest_67847)
8 months ago

I leave fresh water for critters on my patio. Easy to do.

Lucy Peistrup
Lucy Peistrup(@lucyp74)
8 months ago
Reply to  Chuck Hall

EXACTLY! Everyone can do a little to help out wildlife! Instead of having a BIG patch of grass for a lawn, make some islands with native plants or wildflowers for pollinators. It’s less to mow and it looks more pleasing to the eye, too. It gives birds and small animals places to hide and live. 🙂

Lucy Peistrup
Lucy Peistrup(@lucyp74)
8 months ago

Oh Ms. Pat…our state is in peril because of the terrible greed of hungry developers and the inability of the legislators at ANY level to turn their back to the campaign funds they receive. I’m reading a book now about wetland mitigation and what a TOTAL and absolute failure it is, yet they continue to allow it. I’m completely heartbroken at what happens on a DAILY basis due to the “want” for perfect lawns and such. At what point do people stop and realize that we MUST compromise? Stop with the herbicides and pesticides—plant natives and promote wildflowers for pollinators? Without the flora and fauna that help pollinate our FOOD, we will be like China and doing it by hand! THANK YOU for sharing these beautiful images of these magnificent creatures! Everyone should seek to share their home with God’s creatures!!

Last edited 8 months ago by lucyp74
Stan Cottle
Stan Cottle (@guest_67851)
8 months ago

Thank you Pat Foster Turley for your wonderful article on a rainy visit to Ft. Clinch. I always enjoy your articles!

Gary Martin
Gary Martin (@guest_67853)
8 months ago

In our back yard is a preserve. I fill our bird bath at least three times a day. It is heartwarming to see the abundance of wildlife drinking and bathing in fresh water, wherever it is found. The Bible speaks a great deal about water. For centuries we have been warned to prepare for a time when water will be worth more than gold.

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
8 months ago

Perhaps you could join your HOA board and change the rules so that xeric and native landscapes can be used instead of lawns and pesticides and fertilizers.

Pat (@guest_68007)
8 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

someone younger than 70 should take this on. And bigger fish to fry. I pity anyone interested in nature these days.

Mary Phinney
Mary Phinney(@phinney-mgmail-com)
8 months ago

The water drinking gopher tortoise is amazing. I mourn for your retention pond’s pollution. I remember tales of Little Duck/Pied-billed Grebe and Great Blue Heron. My mother lived in Fernandina from 1938-1988. She told all visitors about the resurrection ferns! Thank you!

James Lang
James Lang(@jrichlangcomcast-net)
8 months ago

My experience on Titleist Drive, Parkway North led me to believe the HOA hiring Lake Doctors to add chemicals to the water is an even greater reason native plans and animals are eliminated from retention ponds.. The Titleist Drive retention pond circumference is greater than 60% City Golf Course. When I built in 1995 and for several years there were water lilies, native plants around the whole circumference, wide mouth bass, and frogs/crickets so loud conversation at times difficult next to the pond. After about 4 years pond scum was noted for about two months of the year around August. The HOA hired Lake Doctors and the scum went away as did the lilies, native wild flowers, pond bottom grass and the noise.

Pat (@guest_68008)
8 months ago
Reply to  James Lang

No doubt it is a contributing factor. But lawn fertilizers and herbicides are the worst offenders. All bad for a pond, but fine for a holding reservoir for contaminated water, like our “pond” is, doing its job of wiping wild nature off our planet.

Ernie Davis
Ernie Davis(@epd3)
8 months ago

The springs on the island also sustained the Native American communities that prospered here. Every community had reliable water source close by.

Dredge and fill was banned on the coasts for good reason. The planned developments destroying our forests are using the same methods. They will continue until the public cost of the environmental disasters cancels the developers’ profits.

Robert Prager
Robert Prager (@guest_67863)
8 months ago

Hi Pat, thank you for the article. In less disturbed dune systems rainwater is stored in a groundwater mound in secondary dunes and slowly seeps out. It often forms small shallow ponds used by wildlife, including gopher tortoises, and eventually support wax myrtles and other woody plants on its way to become maritime forest. You can observe this at Burney Park where the tall vegetated dunes do a great job of storing water and slowly replenishing the valley between the dunes.

Pat (@guest_67865)
8 months ago
Reply to  Robert Prager

Robert thanks for this. I greatly respect your knowledge. Too bad most of Amelia Island is not like the area around Burney Park. Do you think the work to extend sewer systems in American Beach will have an impact either way?

Robert Prager
Robert Prager (@guest_67877)
8 months ago
Reply to  Pat

Pat, I haven’t looked at any details but in general getting rid of septic fields is a great thing. I doubt that the sewer mains will have much effect on general groundwater flow and should not effect the groundwater elevation in the dune system. The impervious surfaces that are already there have slowed groundwater recharge from rain but irrigated landscape adds back to recharge. Without doing a lot of work it’s hard to say. A strong dune protection ordinance would do the most good followed by conservation-based site design, engineering with nature (nature-based design), and smart development.

Active Member
8 months ago
Reply to  Pat

The people who own property in AB are well acquainted with the history of the tender mercies exercised (or not) by government and the population at large. They have no interest in sewers. How many poeople know about Franklintown?

Virginia Szarowicz
Virginia Szarowicz (@guest_67864)
8 months ago

I love reading your articles. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us.

Ruthellen Mulberg
Ruthellen Mulberg(@rmulberg)
8 months ago

This should be required reading, especially by our local elected officials.
The environmental degradation and loss of habitat resulting from seemingly unbridled development is a disheartening tragedy!