Audubon of Florida News Blog
Pat and Doris Leary are avid birdwatchers and citizen scientists from Fernandina Beach, FL, who volunteer their time and substantial skills to survey coastal waterbirds in Northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and Florida’s Big Bend. As they have done each winter since 2006, the Learys are conducting surveys in Florida’s Big Bend this year. Their skill at censusing wintering shorebirds—one of the most challenging groups of birds—resighting bands, and navigating this wild coastal region places them among Florida’s leading field experts on the habitat usage of shorebirds in North Florida. This is the second of several blogs in which they share their experiences and sightings, as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face. Enjoy:
On September 28 and 29, we returned to the Big Bend to conduct another series of shorebird surveys. Although the predicted tides were favorable, the gusty NE winds actually suppressed the flood tides by blowing the shallow Gulf waters away from land. Ordinarily we avoid such adverse conditions, but scheduling conflicts restricted our opportunities to travel to the Gulf during the migratory period.
Winds were predicted to decrease on the 29th, so we elected to survey more sheltered waters in Dixie County on the 28th. Upon our arrival, it was evident the tide was suppressed and only 35 oystercatchers occupied one traditional roost. After photographing a lone banded bird from our vessel, we next ran south in the bumpy Gulf to an alternate roost rake. Here too we found reduced numbers of birds, but we landed and collected six band codes amongst 52 birds. Sighting additional flocks roosting on low rakes throughout the area, we systematically approached and surveyed each for marked birds. At one point, a Peregrine appeared and coursed low over the trees of an adjoining island before harassing an eagle and disappearing from sight. Motoring to one exposed rake inside a creek mouth, we ran directly across an undetected oyster bed–a rude reminder of the inherent hazards of conducting Gulf surveys in unfavorable conditions.
Turning back toward our landing, we surveyed a few more rakes, recorded several more band codes, tallied a variety of shorebird species and sighted our first migrant Northern Harrier. With the tide still high, we decided to haul out and drive south to search for more oystercatchers. Arriving there, we immediately noted flocks roosting on rakes and bars in Shired Creek’s mouth. Amongst 54 birds, we recorded 8 band codes. Upon our return inland we noted an abundance of wildflowers blooming in the roadside ditches that attracted numerous butterflies.
Early Sunday morning, we drove to Cedar Key and found the winds marginally reduced, but we successfully motored through the open waters east of town to access the traditional roost sites. 150 oystercatchers were massed with smaller numbers of Marbled Godwit and Willet near Cedar Point. With the wind again suppressing the tide, we were able to land on a flooded rake east of the massed bird placing the sun behind us. Such a vantage point is highly advantageous to detect and read band codes in harsh low light. Shortly after setting up, we immediately detected a bird with a projecting antennae and confirmed it to be Oreo or DG[CF6], a bird satellite tagged by Audubon North Carolina in Wrightsville Beach, NC! After scanning the flock and collecting more codes, we noted additional flocks on low rakes to our east. As at Horseshoe Beach the day before, we motored from one flock to another, landing in shallow water adjoining each roost to scan and record band codes. Several eagles were active on Corrigan Reef’s outermost rakes, so there was no need to search there as oystercatchers habitually avoid eagles.
The day’s flood tide was at least one foot below its predicted height; consequently oystercatcher flocks were broadly dispersed across the inshore shallows. The largest of these was on a narrow rake east of Live Oak Key, but we were able to land on a flooded section of the same rake and scan for bands. Despite our close proximity, the mass of crowded birds limited our view into the flock and we likely missed some bands. While engaged with this flock, we noted nearby flocks flushing and flying toward Cedar Pt. Motoring through the maze of bars and submerged rakes we struck bottom several times attempting to return to the marked channel.
Approaching Corrigan’s Reef, we noted more oystercatchers roosting amongst American Avocet, Black Skimmer and smaller shorebirds. As before, we landed in shallow water, set up near the birds and collected more data before returning to Cedar Point. Arriving there we found more birds present, but on this occasion, we shifted to the reverse side of the rake due to screening vegetation. While scanning the many oystercatchers, we noted two banded Wilson’s Plovers roosting on the far left side of the long rake. These were the first banded WIPL we had encountered on the Gulf Coast.
With the tide now ebbing and the wind remaining brisk, we returned to the ramp and abandoned our plans to motor around to the city’s west side to survey flocks favoring that area. (Our route to and from the west side crosses a broad, shallow, expanse of the gulf fully exposed to the NE winds)
Despite the abbreviated survey and unfavorable conditions, we collected 49 band codes, photographed and documented the arrival of Oreo and collected two Wilson’s plover band codes. Additional oystercatchers will continue to arrive and we will return to document and monitor the population through the winter.
- Follow Oreo’s migration online by clicking here.
- Join the conversation! Click here to share your Florida banded bird sightings on Facebook.
For those who have never seized the opportunity the CBC involves heading out early with a small team to a specifically selected area (the same each year) on a designated date (between Dec. 14 and January 5) to count all the birds, that’s right, every single bird seen! This provides a snapshot of how and what our feathered brethren are doing. Using data reaching back to 1900, scientists continue to identify trends in avian populations.
Each count circle is 15 miles in diameter and the teams cover as much of the area as possible within a 24 hour period. It stands to reason that many pairs of eyes and binoculars are needed to get the job done. Teams travel on foot or by boat, bicycle, horse or whatever else suits the terrain. The more variety of habitats explored the great number of species are likely to be seen. Birds can be found in woods, pine plantations, agricultural areas, urban and suburban neighborhoods, on or near rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries, islands, public and private lands and even the dump.
The consistency of being with the same team each year has its benefits. If you are a repeat counter you will delight in seeing some the same “snowbirds” returning each year. And if you are new you can learn from those who already know what to anticipate. On the personal side, there is a special bond that develops within the team during the experience that is rekindled each year on the same date, an annual reunion.
For all the information you need to know (and more) about this extraordinary citizen science program you can visit the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count website. If you are considering joining a Christmas Bird Count, the Florida Ornithological website has posted a list of locations and dates.
Most (though not all) counts welcome newcomers. If you don’t feel that you know enough about bird identification there is always need for a “recorder.” So, if you have the time and enthusiasm, why not add a CBC to your holiday calendar. There is no better way to learn more about birds, experience a new area and enjoy the camaraderie of a knowledgeable team.
And at the end of the day one counter wrote: “The Christmas Bird Count had left us all tired, yet once again oddly energized having spent all day long doing one of our very favorite things.” With over 70 counts scheduled in Florida alone there are more than enough to fill the 12 days of Christmas!
Just when things were about to heat up, we received some great news. Wind Capital Group has announced they will not be pursuing the giant wind turbine proposal in the Everglades Agricultural Area. According to a consultant for the project, the company pulled out of Florida due to lack of economic viability and instead will focus efforts on wind projects in the Western United States.
According to Jane Graham, Audubon’s Everglades Policy Associate,
“Alternative energy is critical for our future needs, but it must be in the right place. This large scale project would have posed unreasonable risks to our treasured wildlife, given its proposed location on the Southern Atlantic Flyway, and surrounded by vulnerable and globally significant conservation areas including Lake Okeechobee and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.”
This is on the heels of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issuing a permit for the project on November 12 without notifying the public. Tuesday, Audubon sent a letter to DEP stating opposition to the issuance of the permit, and requesting to be kept informed of any further developments- including any attempts to transfer the permit to other entities. Moreover, we stated the need for DEP to develop clearer procedures in the future to balance the development of green energy with the protection of birds and other wildlife. The federal permit proposal has apparently been withdrawn, but we are still tracking it closely in case anything else develops.
For more coverage of this news, please see the following links:
Audubon’s Fall/Winter Report on the State of the Everglades is now available for download!
The year’s tragic conditions in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries exemplified the need for urgency in restoring the Everglades. Projects that allow more water to flow south will reduce the occurrence of toxic algae blooms and associated wildlife impacts.
Audubon recommended specific actions to respond to this environmental disaster and many have already been advanced by state and federal decision-makers. Your participation made a difference!
Take a moment to check out our latest report for a comprehensive and concise examination of these recent successes and other progress in the fight to restore the River of Grass.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner! Download this report to your iPad, Kindle, or other e-reader and learn about Florida’s wildlife while you enjoy this special time of year. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and our blog to get the latest Everglades news, information, and ways to help.
Have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday from the Audubon Florida Everglades Conservation Team!
P.S. Check out page 5 for the update on Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s Wood Storks!
Todd Glazebrook, Senior Trainer in the Bird Department at SeaWorld San Diego, reports on his time spent learning from staff at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida. Read his second report below:
It has been my great pleasure to represent the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund as an ambassador in our partnership with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey over the past two weeks. The time has flown by and yet I cannot remember what it was like to not feel personally connected to this place and the impact it makes. This week I was completely immersed in the business of the center, helping in the clinic with critical care birds as well as shadowing educational presentations, learning how to handle permanent collection birds, and working with the staff and volunteers to do maintenance projects and build needed equipment. The dedicated staff and amazing volunteers are an inspiration and a compelling reminder of what people can do when they truly care.
One of my favorite experiences has been following the case of and injured eagle from intake to flight enclosure. I was fortunate to hold a young male Bald Eagle upon intake to the clinic. This bird has physical damage from being shot, including fragments of ammunition still visible on x-ray in his wing. He is one of the lucky ones because he has a fighting chance to recover and be released with the excellent care he is receiving right now at the center. Moving this bird from the clinic to a recovery flight was a highlight for me since I was able to be a part of his recovery and watch him exercise his wings as the next step in his rehabilitation. I invite everyone to participate by watching this eagle or others like him on the web cam.
Finally, late this week, I was able to follow some volunteers as they checked an active eagle nest in a suburban neighborhood north of town. It was then that I really understood the far reaching influence of the center and the good people of Audubon. We came upon a nest extremely close to homes where the residents see the eagles as a point of pride, a relationship fostered by the kind education of a team of well managed volunteers. The nest in question is perennially active but was empty as we talked to neighbors about the birds. As dusk settled, imagine how thrilled I was to witness the return of a beautiful female Bald Eagle to the nest with a stick in her talons for a bit of home improvement. She tended to the nest a moment and then flew off to a roosting perch and called loudly, letting everyone know she belonged there. This experience really summed up my impression of the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. Their mission is simple and effective…protect the wild birds of Florida and beyond. I am a part of that mission too.
- Todd Glazebrook, Senior Trainer, Bird Dept. SeaWorld San Diego
We thought it had gone away, but it is back. The Sugarland Wind Project in the Everglades Agricultural Area quietly received an environmental resource permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last week- without a notice of intent. The public was not informed prior to this bad decision.
This is the project that proposes to place 124 Statue of Liberty sized wind turbines in prime bird habitat between Lake Okeechobee, the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and the Stormwater Treatment Areas. It poses a genuine risk for emblematic species like the federally endangered Everglade Snail Kite and Wood Stork, and to countless migratory birds, ducks, and bats. Even with an “Avian and Bat Protection Plan,” we fear the project’s impacts will be too great.
Audubon Florida supports green energy, but it must be in the right place. A huge project within the footprint of Everglades restoration and in the middle of a key migratory bird path on the Atlantic Flyway is very problematic.
For this project to actually proceed, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) must ok a Section 404 permit, which is still under consideration. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has demanded more data to show there will not be impacts to endangered species. Eric Draper, Audubon Florida Executive Director, has recommended the Corps denies the permit or defer until the applicant has provided information to prove there will not be unacceptable impacts to birds. Stay tuned for more information on how you can get involved and protest this poorly cited project.
Already pressured by a steady loss of habitat, many of Florida’s imperiled and iconic coastal waterbirds are vulnerable to declines in small fish that are necessary for their survival, according to a report by Audubon Florida and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Fins and Feathers: Why little fish are a big deal to Florida’s coastal waterbirds“ examines the crucial link between birds and the diverse array of small fish that are a critical food source. Declines in the populations of these fish, known alternatively as forage fish, prey fish or baitfish, could threaten imperiled birds such as Brown Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Black Skimmers and Reddish Egrets, according to the report.
“In Florida, our environment is directly linked to our quality of life and our economy,” said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s Director of Wildlife Conservation. “This report shows how important baitfish are to Florida’s coastal birds, environment, communities and economy. Fisheries policy must consider the ecological and economic vitality that hinges on these smallest of fish.”
Few regulations limit the amount of forage fish such as sardines and herring that are hauled out of Florida’s coastal waters each year. Fishery managers can help conserve Florida’s forage fish and its natural resources by accounting for the needs of predators such as seabirds when setting fishing rules in Florida’s coastal waters. Bird conservation efforts historically have focused on other threats such as habitat loss, with less emphasis on ensuring prey abundance and availability. With many birds already pressured by a steady loss of habitat, this report reveals a new and critical conservation gap at a time when leaders can act before it’s too late.
In light of the report’s analysis, Audubon Florida and Pew encourage the state to:
- Account for the forage needs of coastal waterbirds before expanding current forage fisheries or allowing the development of new forage fisheries.
- Ensure sufficient abundance, variety, and sizes of forage fish species to meet the needs of coastal waterbirds and other marine wildlife when setting management limits on forage fisheries.
- Identify and map foraging areas for nesting coastal waterbirds and areas subject to forage fisheries; analyze potential overlap of these areas and activities; and consider conservation and management options to avoid or minimize potential conflicts.
- Protect forage fish habitat such as mangrove and seagrasses, as well as water quantity and quality in the estuaries.
Coastal development in Florida directly harms seagrass beds, mangrove forests and salt marshes, all of which serve as critical nursery habitat for forage fish. Similarly, changes in the quantity, quality and timing of freshwater that flows into estuaries threaten to degrade and diminish the quality of these important places for fish. At the same time, habitat loss and coastal development also pose risks to many of Florida’s bird populations.
For additional information, including details on specific species, see the full report here: http://bit.ly/FinsandFeathers (16mb)