Audubon Florida News

Good Water Management is Good for Northern Everglades Birds and Wildlife

Lake Okeechobee by Tabitha Cale

As the wet season is wrapping up, we are breathing a sigh of relief for the birds and wildlife in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuary ecosystems. Due to thoughtful water level management amongst the state and federal agencies this season, (and just the right amount of rain), our ecosystems are in a solid place as we enter the winter months.

During the wet season between May and October, Lake Okeechobee received slightly more than average rain.  Thanks to new management approaches and patience from the agencies, there were minimal summer discharges from the Lake to the St. Lucie, and mostly beneficial releases to Caloosahatchee Estuaries, allowing these delicate ecosystems to continue to recover from the devastation from last summer. Lake Okeechobee’s levels reached 16 feet in October, which is the considered threshold for harm. But with levels now dropping, lake levels are within the ideal zone for the end of the rainy season.

Lake Okeechobee’s ideal water level range is between 12.5 to 15.5 feet over the course of the year.  If the Lake is over 16 feet for too long, damage to the marsh occurs. The 50,000‐acre submerged marsh community is in deep enough water that plants begin dying from wave action and from the loss of light in the deep, turbid, water. Prolonged deep water eliminates the wildlife rich wet prairie communities from the Lake, areas needed to support wading bird foraging. Rapidly rising water can drown alligator and bird nests (including Everglade Snail Kites) across the marsh. Click here to learn more about the effect of lake levels on the wildlife of Lake Okeechobee.

An Everglade Snail Kite surrounded by eggs from an exotic apple snail.

Managing Lake Okeechobee’s water levels is not easy. One wet tropical storm can raise Lake levels several feet –  levels harmful to the marsh and perilous for Hoover Dike safety.  The Corps cannot lower the Lake as fast as it can rise so they must make proactive releases to avoid harmful levels.   The management plan for the Lake allowed Lake releases to the estuaries virtually all summer, but the Corps decided to minimize releases to the estuaries.  This approach prevented harmful Lake discharges.  Note that the estuaries did receive some water from polluted local basin runoff, but it was not nearly as harmful as the previous year.

Very importantly, the SFWMD experimented with new operations to flow over 200,000 acre feet of water (about 5 inches of Lake level) south to the Everglades- water that otherwise would have been released to the estuaries.

The Corps and SFWMD’s approach over the summer came with some risk, but Audubon supported it based on climate patterns and lake level trends during the summer.  Almost weekly, the Corps hosts “Periodic Scientist” calls to get input from scientists from myriad agencies and interests, including Audubon, on day-to-day system conditions from throughout the system.  This information is then used to guide weekly decisions on Lake management.

We commend the Corps and SFWMD for innovative lake management this season and look forward to a healthy spring drawdown.

Audubon Society of the Everglades Celebrates BIG Amendment 1 Victory

posted on November 10, 2014 in Land Conservation,Water Issues

Amendment1_YES_photo_smallThe Audubon Society of the Everglades members are taking great pride in the results of the vote on Amendment One because they were part of making it happen.  It began in early June when they met for their annual planning retreat.   They made “Vote YES on 1” their number one goal and devised a strategy focusing their efforts on the 3 months leading up to the November 4 vote.

August was a month for educating members and voters. For their August program they invited Audubon Florida’s Tabitha Cale to speak on the importance of passage of Amendment 1 for the future of Florida. Eighty members attended, had plenty of time for questions, and left really excited about Florida’s Water and Land Legacy Campaign.  The chapter bought several hundred “Vote YES on 1” buttons that were distributed that evening to members who agreed to wear them every day until the election.  70 went out that night and people were good to their word, they started appearing around town.

September was a month to get the word out.  The September KITE newsletter devoted one full page to the campaign which was reprinted by a number of other organizations.  They took advantage of local festivals to hand out literature and of course, buttons!  Even a casual conversation at the market or gas station often resulted in the exchange of information and the gift of a button.  The buttons prompted people to approach the wearers, and it was an easy sell.

In October, County Commissioner Paulette Burdick came to ASE general meeting and encouraged everyone to vote for the Amendment.  The group loved having their picture taken signaling “Vote Yes on 1” with the Commissioner and used it form their continued promotion of the Amendment.

During a congratulatory call to Audubon Society of the Everglades, President Paton White shared her excitement. “Our campaign was easy, fun and united our members in a common cause!”   While Audubon Society of the Everglades may not have been solely responsible for Palm Beach County’s astounding 85% support there is no doubt that their efforts paid off.

They have a great deal to be proud of.

EPA and Army Corps to Clarify Muddy Definitions of Wetlands and Water

posted on November 7, 2014 in Everglades,Water Issues,Wildlife

Audubon_WOTUS_FactSheet_CoverThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have proposed a new rule clarifying Clean Water Act protections for many streams, wetlands, and other waters critical to Florida’s and the nation’s water resources, wildlife and economy.  Because of confusion created by two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006 over what waters are protected or not, many have been at increased risk of pollution and destruction for more than a decade.  The sad result is wetland losses have been increasing nationwide for the first time since the 1980’s.  Just as sad is a torrent of misinformed objections to this very reasonable, science-based rule from development interests who want to keep this confused status quo.

Audubon Florida summarizes this important habitat and resource issue in a new “Clean Water Act Rule” Fact Sheet – click here to read itTo read a two-page EPA summary of the proposed rule’s clarifications of what water resources are protected by the Clean Water Act, click here.

Clean drinking water, flood protection, downstream fisheries, wildlife habitat and everyone’s local economy depend on clear standards and rules leading to healthier water and wetlands. Please send a letter of support for this proposed rule to EPA before the end of the public comment period on November 14, 2014.  If the rule is not approved, wetland losses and degradation of water will continue to accelerate in Florida and across the United States.

A New Northern Everglades Water Quality Project Breaks Ground

posted on November 5, 2014 in Lake Okeechobee

Photo by Paul GrayLast week, the Spring Lake Improvement District (SLID) broke ground on a new project that will clean up water before it flows to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. This innovative project will store and treat stormwater from their property before it enters Arbuckle Creek, on its way to Lake Istokpoga, and then on to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. 

The ground-breaking was initiated by (left to right) Highlands County Commissioner Don Elwell, Gene Schriner,  project engineer, Brian Acker of SLID, Marty Mielke, Senator Grimsley’s office, Representative Cary Pigman, and Highlands County Commissioner Greg Harris.

Currently, polluted stormwater from Lake Wales Ridge, Sebring Regional Airport and U.S. 98  flows the residential areas around Spring Lake. The new project  will capture this water and treat it in stormwater ponds  before it flows on to Arbuckle Creek and areas throughout the Everglades. In addition to these water quality benefits,  Spring Lake Improvement District plans to manage the area for wildlife viewing and enjoyment for its residents.

The 70-acre system is funded through a $416,000 legislative appropriation to the SLID with $625,000 of matching funds from a DEP grant. Sen. Denise Grimsley and Rep. Cary Pigman helped obtain legislative funding, with support from Audubon. This project is part of an admirable $4 million effort on the part of this small District to improve water management.

Photo by Paul GrayThe  Spring Lake Improvement District is an independent special district that provides services to Spring Lake, a community on the northern shore of Lake Istokpoga in Highlands County. The Spring Lake community was designed 50 years ago and has experienced stormwater runoff problems in recent years.

Audubon scientist Paul Gray has been following this project in its development and notes, “This project has the type of vision that helps meet stormwater goals for this community, by adding an amenity for its residents and protecting Arbuckle Creek and Lake Istokpoga, which are the natural beauty that attracted the development in the first place.”

Beautiful Arbuckle Creek will be a beneficiary of the Spring Lake project.

For more information on this project, please click here.

Audubon Members Save Barr Hammock Preserve

posted on October 29, 2014 in Chapters,Land Conservation

Audubon Florida helped Alachua Audubon win an important decision at the Alachua CBarr Hammock Preseve Aerialounty Commission Tuesday, October 28, protecting an important piece of conservation land. The 5,719-acre Barr Hammock Preserve was bought between 2006 & 2010 by the Florida Forever, Communities Trust Program and Alachua County for preservation and passive nature based recreation.

The main feature of the preserve, a trail on a levee around Levy marsh, was opened allowing the public to view this important bird habitat. This spot is considered one of the best bird watching opportunities in the county.  After the trail opened, some adjacent residents with homes several hundred feet from the trail complained that trail users were interrupting their privacy. Even though the trail is hundreds of feet away from their homes, and generally screened by heavy vegetation, they claimed that trail users were making noise and were able to look into the windows of their homes.

County staff responsible for managing the Barr Hammock Preserve and the trail investigated the complaints, and found them not meritorious of any action.  The residents took their complaints to the County Commission and were able to get the commission to hold two lengthy discussions of the issue. At one point, some of the commissioners seemed leaning toward supporting the residents’ demands that a portion of the trail be closed.  The Alachua Audubon Society got to work, and obtained several newspaper articles, and an excellent editorial in the Gainesville Sun newspaper urging that the commission honor the original purpose of purchasing the preserve by keeping the trail open. Alachua Audubon also motivated dozens of members to turn out at the county commission meetings.

On October 28, following a two hour discussion and unsuccessful attempts by two commissioners to discourage public use of part of the trail with confusing signage and entrance features, the commission ended up unanimously voting to stick with the preserve’s original management plan and keep the trail open. Special thanks to Alachua County Commissioners Mike Byerly and Hutch Hutchinson who steadfastly argued to keep Barr Hammock fully open to the natural resource based recreation uses it was intended to facilitate.

This case demonstrates why Audubon Florida and all Audubon chapters must be forever vigilant against attempts to harm and degrade Florida’s important conservation lands.

For additional coverage from the Gainesville Sun, please click here.

This Season’s Nature Coast Surveys Resume with a Stink!

Banded Piping Plover resighted in Cedar Key.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. This is the eighth blog in which they share their experiences and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

Our first seasonal surveys on the Nature Coast brought a rude and troubling surprise when we visited sites in the Horseshoe Beach area the first week of October. Departing the boat ramp, all appeared normal as we initially ran south to an oyster bar in the open gulf to scan flocks arriving to roost during the high tide period. Though many birds concentrated there, we also observed large numbers roosting on distant bars and, as the tide swelled, those birds flew north to the traditional jetty roost. Given the predicted height of the flood tide, we knew that all birds would eventually shift to the jetty rocks thus we too set off for the distant structure.

Conditions were pleasant as we raced over the shallow gulf waters passing frolicking porpoise, but as we drew near the rocks a pungent smell was evident and, upon landing, we noted numerous fish carcasses rotting in the bright sun. We had never previously encountered such an event on the gulf and speculated on its cause. Later, while scanning the roosting birds from our drifting vessel, we noted an enormous carcass stranded in the jumble of limerock . At distance, the bloated body with projecting pectoral fins resembled a manatee, but closer inspection revealed it to be a Goliath Grouper. This specimen deepened the mystery, for why would a deep water species wash up so close to shore?

Goliath Grouper carcass washed ashore due to red tide in Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to our departure from the jetty and, in a repetition of last season’s first survey, a Peregrine Falcon strafed through the panicked mass of birds but quickly vanished through a cloud of “avian confetti” spread across the sky. As we drove out of the tiny hamlet we stopped at a tackle store to seek more insight into the fish kill and learned that it was associated with a red tide impacting the entire region but the details were sketchy. The full extent of the event would not be known until we purchased a regional paper and learned that it covered multiple counties on the upper gulf and was impacting inshore and offshore waters – thus explaining the Goliath Grouper carcass. Upon our return home, an internet search provided even more insight and disclosed the event dated back to July and covered many thousands of square miles in the gulf.

Red tides are rare on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but even extreme northeast Florida was impacted several years past with large fish kills washing ashore and noxious vapors irritating beachgoers during periods of onshore winds. Fortunately, that event was restricted to offshore waters, but the impacts were felt on the beach for two weeks or more.

The following day, we surveyed sites on both sides of Cedar Key and found high numbers of American Oystercatchers and other shorebirds present but no signs of the red tide’s impact. For unknown reasons, the roosting flocks were unusually nervous, continuously flushing and shifting locations throughout the high tide period. Never previous had we been compelled to move and relocate so often during a day’s work. On some occasions soaring Bald Eagles explained the behavior, but at other times no clear threat was evident in the expansive gulf sky, but perhaps one clue was discovered later in the day when we visited one of the oyster reefs and the entire shorebird population exploded into the sky when yet another Peregrine Falcon materialized and casually passed amongst the panicked flocks before moving on.

Doris Leary surveying American Oystercatchers on an island near Cedar Key.

As often occurs on the gulf, the day began with sunny skies, unpredicted winds and choppy waters that later gave way to overcast skies and dead calm conditions enhancing the region’s often tranquil ambiance. By day’s end we had recorded dozens of American Oystercatcher band codes, two new Piping Plover flag codes, two Red Knot flag codes and two unusual Wilson’s Plovers banding codes. Subsequent to reporting the observation data, we learned that the two Piping Plovers were banded on adjoining alkali lakes near Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southwest South Dakota; one as an adult and the other a hatch year chick. Like so many other banded Red Knots recorded on the gulf coast, the two resighted near Cedar Key on this survey were of the population that winters in the southeast and passes through Delaware Bay each spring. One of the birds is now at least eleven years old.

The marked Wilson’s Plover is likely a bird resighted in the area last fall, but now wearing new bands replaced for the originals that faded. Such replacements are not unusual for many shorebirds if they are recaptured by researchers in subsequent seasons. For many years, young Piping Plovers returning to the Great Lakes have routinely been recaptured and fitted with new or different markers to identify them as breeding adults. Across their entire range, researchers have experienced problems with band fading and endeavor to recapture such birds to replace them with more durable color bands or coded flags. Because multi color bands are used to uniquely mark individual birds, faded bands defeat their function and make field identification highly problematic even with photographs. Recaptured Red Knots may receive new markers and/or tracking devices depending on location and circumstances.

Unfortunately, many Red Knots banded in Florida now carry flags with faded codes that are impossible to decipher under all but ideal conditions. Faded bands are now occurring amongst the growing research sample of marked Wilson’s Plover and are being replaced when possible per the aforementioned bird.

Given the unanticipated winds encountered during our first survey day, we abandoned our plans to travel south to survey the distant barge canal waters and returned to Cedar Key the following day. Not surprisingly, conditions were calmer and we ventured north to a nearby island. There we resighted one of the prior-recorded Piping Plovers and a growing concentration of American Oystercatchers and other species. From that vantage point, we could see another island lying low in the offshore waters and like many landforms along the Nature Coast, that island is now much reduced in dimension since our initial visits just eight years previous.

Formerly, the mangrove islet featured a raised sandy beach and projecting spit that hosted legions of American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and shorebirds. All that remains today is an ever-shrinking cluster of mangroves. Sandy shores and other loose-sediment structures throughout the Nature Coast are rapidly diminishing and may have long term impacts on shorebird populations, especially their roosting behavior.

American Oystercatchers amassing on an island near Cedar Key.

Due to the astronomical spring tides impacting the region we visited many traditional roost sites that were submerged on high tide and thus hosted no birds. When recreationist occupy alternative roost sites, the birds are compelled to shift wherever adequate habitat exist to rest during the flood tide periods. Most shorebirds seek low, open and exposed sites away from uplands to roost and such sites are highly sensitive to disturbance and vulnerable to usurpation by recreationists. We often find kayakers, canoeist and motorized vessels landed in such habitats. Protection and conservation of such sites may soon become a management imperative in many coastal areas.

Near the end of the field work, we visited another island just offshore of downtown Cedar Key. On one visit last winter, that sandy habitat supported many hundreds of small shorebirds and one Piping Plover, but on this visit is was entirely underwater and not a single bird was present.

H‏álpata Tastanaki Preserve Saved From Pipeline

posted on October 11, 2014 in Land Conservation

H‏álpata Tastanaki Preserve from SWFWMDThe 8,146 acre H‏álpata Tastanaki Preserve in Marion County has been saved from serious impacts threatened by the Sabal Trail Natural Gas Pipeline. The original route for the pipeline would have passed directly through the preserve lands owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD).

Audubon Florida and Marion County Audubon Society urged SWFWMD to stay firm in the agency’s objections to the pipeline route across the tract. Audubon also contacted Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Governor’s office, urging support for SWFWMD’s staff positon.

The 8,146 acre H‏álpata Tastanaki Preserve contains one of the most robust populations of the endangered Florida Scrub-Jay in the state, and the original pipeline routes would have threatened this habitat.

After a meeting on October 10th with representatives from DEP, SWFWMD, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff, and both Audubon Florida and Marion County Audubon, the Sabal Trail Pipeline agreed to change the pipeline route to skirt the edge of H‏álpata Tastanaki tract, avoiding any significant impact. Pipeline construction will also be coordinated with the construction of a multi-use trail planned for the Cross Florida Greenway.

Many thanks to SWFWMD, DEP, and the Governor’s office for protecting these important conservation lands!

American Oystercatchers Return to Gulf Coast Via Detour Through NE Florida

posted on October 10, 2014 in Birding,Northeast Florida,Wildlife

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. This is the seventh blog in which they share their experiences and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

Two American Oystercatchers from North Carolina on their way to the Gulf CoastEvery fall we look forward to resuming our annual surveys of American Oystercatchers wintering along the “Nature Coast” and each season finds new birds venturing south on their first migration along with veterans of many years returning to their favored locations from Horseshoe Beach in Dixie County to the power plant jetty just south of the Barge Canal spoils in Citrus County.

On rare occasions, we will encounter birds of that population in northeast Florida. Such an event occurred October 1st in lower Nassau Sound during a routine shorebird survey. Approaching a favored roost site for local Oystercatchers and other coastal species, I noted two birds resting near a flock of migrant Caspian Terns. Presuming these to be “resident” birds, my first binocular view brought quite a surprise: both birds carried dark green bands with alpha codes! With multiple Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons present in the sound I rushed to set up a tripod and mount my scope to read the bands. Experience has taught us that marked birds can flush and fly over the horizon in minutes taking all valuable data with them, and  a flying Peregrine Falcon at any distance can compel birds to flush without warning and abandon a site.  Fortunately, no raptors appeared and the resting birds provided ample time to study their bands and record the codes.

I immediately knew that both birds originated from North Carolina, but we have recorded far too many band codes to recognize a previously sighted bird and I would have to wait until I returned home to search our records before confirming any resights. Doing so, I learned that one bird (EO) was indeed a winter veteran recorded on the gulf every year since 2007. The second bird (UT) was more problematic. Banded at North Core Banks, Cape Lookout, NC in 2010 UT had been resighted there multiple times but nowhere else. However, Doris reminded me that each season we record a few “problem” codes that cannot be matched in the database. Typically, this is attributable to misread codes, data entry typos or incorrectly recorded codes. The original “wrap around” alpha codes have always presented a challenge to read and record correctly due to partial exposure of one or the other letter. Depending on distance, wind vibrating optics, ambient light, flock density, vantage point and other factors, Xs can resemble Ks, Fs with Rs, Ps with Rs, Os with Js, Js with Us and so on. Often, even photos cannot resolve a “suspect code” if only a partial letter is exposed. Such factors may have contributed to our lack of records for the UT bird on the gulf coast. It’s possible the bird was present for one or more years, but due to our failure to correctly read and report its bands, the sighting could not be entered into the database.

The fact that the two North Carolina birds were together certainly suggest they will eventually cross over to the gulf coast and join the wintering flocks there. Given the mystery of the UT bird, it will certainly be on our radar as we resume our gulf surveys and hopefully we can confirm its presence there soon. Some might recall that bird DG[CF6] with satellite transmitter was tracked from North Carolina to the vicinity of Amelia Island last fall before turning and crossing over to the gulf toward Horseshoe Beach. Later that winter, the bird shed its transmitter but was resighted prior to spring migration. Perhaps we’ll cross paths with that bird too sometime during the next several months.

Observations of My Backyard Woodpeckers

posted on October 7, 2014 in Birding

Caroline Stahala is Audubon Florida’s new Panhandle Program Manager located in Panama City. Caroline has lived in Florida since 2005 and worked in a variety of ecosystems and bird species including woodpecker species, shorebirds, wading birds, grasslands songbirds and tropical parrots. Enjoy her latest post, below.

Red-headed Woodpecker by Lorraine MargesonI have always had a fondness for woodpeckers, therefore, I was thrilled when a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers set up a nest in a dead oak tree in my new northwest Florida sandhills backyard.  These birds are expected in managed forests but I didn’t really expect them in my backyard!

This species has been on a consistent decline since the mid 1960’s with an estimated 50% population reduction. This summer I had the pleasure of sitting on my back patio watching the parents fly in and out of the cavity in the dead oak tree. No wonder they picked my backyard, Red-headed woodpeckers are cavity nesters that seem to prefer existing cavities in snags for nesting and roosting. This means dead trees or dead snags are vital to the species. Of course most of us remove these sorts of snags from our yards.

It was obvious when the chicks fledged because of their begging calls.  The chicks would start calling in a far pine tree and that’s when the distinctive white flash of the parents’ wings would appear headed straight for the chicks, most likely to feed them. This species is known to cache or store food for later on. Although I did not observe this particular behavior, these woodpeckers did exhibit some remarkable mid-air insect catches and also foraged on the ground quite frequently. Towards the end of August, the chicks were identical in silhouette to the parents but the young woodpecker’s could still be heard begging.  I hope they were calling due to laziness and not because they couldn’t feed themselves yet, because in mid-September, they disappeared. Although they are resident in Florida, they must have been looking for habitat that was better suited to their needs.  Maybe an area with more acorns or insects. It is common for these birds to move from breeding locations even as residents.

Maybe more oaks in my backyard would provide them with acorns for the winter, but that could also decrease some of the open space they like to forage in. Well, I will just have to wait for them to return next spring.  But in the mean time, maybe this means the sapsuckers that left rows and rows of holes in my oak trees will now be returning.  Stay tuned and I will let you know if they show up.

For more information on Red-headed Woodpeckers or other bird species, please visit Audubon’s website birds.audubon.org.

 

Advocates Stand Up for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

posted on September 30, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,Land Conservation,Wildlife

topsailhill_map_arrowCongratulations to all the advocates for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park who packed a special hearing of the Walton County Commission last night!

Despite the fact that Topsail Hill’s main entrance never runs at capacity, commissioners were considering sending a request to the Florida Park Service to provide a new, unstaffed boardwalk access into one of the most undisturbed parts of this important preserve. This boardwalk would have benefited a small number of neighborhood residents at the expense of public tax dollars and imperiled natural resources including federally endangered Choctawhatchee beach mice and state Threatened Snowy Plovers.

In a tremendous show of civic engagement, Walton County advocates packed the chamber and defenders of Topsail outnumbered boardwalk advocates more than 2 to 1 in testimony. Ultimately, the board voted not to file the request with the Florida Park Service, especially citing the fact that the proposed use of Tourist Development dollars to create a boardwalk to benefit a limited number of residents was inappropriate.

Congratulations to the dedicated advocates of Walton County whose time and dedication produced this terrific result for Topsail. The high, windswept dunes, beach mice and shorebirds thank you!

You can view the commission hearing and advocates’ impassioned testimony online by clicking here.

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