Audubon Florida News

FWC Establishes First New Critical Wildlife Area in Decades

posted on November 23, 2015 in Coastal Conservation,State Government,Wildlife

Photo by Dave Graff/Florida DEPLast Thursday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted unanimously to establish a new Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) at Second Chance Sandbar in southwest Florida. The new CWA will close the bar to vessel landings during the beach-nesting bird season.

Second Chance is part of a shoal system south of Collier County’s Cape Romano. It has supported the region’s largest Least Tern colony in past years, as well as nesting Black Skimmers and Wilson’s Plovers. Least Terns and Black Skimmers are both state Threatened and Wilson’s Plovers are a declining species of growing conservation concern.

These ground-nesting birds are easily disturbed when beachgoers and their dogs approach too closely, flushing parents from eggs and chicks who can perish quickly in the hot sun, at the mercy of predators, or underfoot. Second Chance is so narrow that despite the best efforts of its manager, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), to post the nesting areas, there simply isn’t enough room on the upland to provide an adequate buffer for the birds.

Commissioner Liesa Priddy—a southwest Florida resident who has visited the site—was an impassioned advocate for passage. Commissioner Ron Bergeron also endorsed the protection, saying that he has fished this region since childhood and marveled at its bird wealth. Chairman Brian Yablonski told the Commissioners that there has only been one other CWA designation in the state in the last twenty years, but to look closely because “we’re going to be seeing more of these.”

Special thanks to Collier County Bird Steward and wildlife photographer Jean Hall for traveling 16 hours round-trip to the meeting in Panama City and to Bay County Audubon co-president Ron Houser for their testimonies on behalf of the designation.

But most of all, congratulations to the staff of Rookery Bay NERR, FWC, and Audubon, and the many volunteers who give their time to protect these special places. Because of your efforts, Second Chance CWA now has a real chance at success.

Attorney General Pam Bondi Releases Audubon’s 525th Rehabilitated Bald Eagle

posted on November 18, 2015 in Birds of Prey Ctr.,State Government,Wildlife

Bondi Release_webAudubon Florida chose to honor Attorney General Pam Bondi with a Bald Eagle release due to her consistent action as a member of the Cabinet to assure purchase of conservation easements on ranchland in the Kissimmee River Watershed.

The Kissimmee watershed is the stronghold of Florida’s Bald Eagle populations. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program operated by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services purchases conservation easements over ranchlands, preventing them from ever being developed. Attorney General Bondi has consistently acted to vote favorably on these conservation easement purchases.

The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey treats more than 700 patients annually with 12% being Bald Eagles.

Read Audubon Florida’s 2016 Conservation Action Agenda

posted on in Assembly,Chapters

Audubon_ConservationPriorities_2016_CoverImage_approvedEach year, Audubon members come together at the Audubon Assembly to approve our annual conservation agenda. Our conservation priorities are expressed in twelve state and regional resolutions.

The conservation priorities are approved by the Audubon Florida Board of Directors and guide our positions and work. Thank you to everyone who helped draft this important document.

Click here to download.

One Lucky Snowy Plover

posted on November 3, 2015 in Coastal Conservation,Wildlife

Before picA beautiful reminder of the importance of our coastal conservation work. This story was sent in by Paula Muellner, a field technician with the Audubon/Florida Park Service hybrid team in the Florida Panhandle:

On September 1, we went to Camp Helen State Park to conduct our weekly bird survey. Just like most days, we headed east on the beach and saw several different species of birds foraging at the Lake outfall. I set my scope up and scanned the area, and that’s when I saw it…that thing I don’t want to see but which I often encounter.

BeforeIt was an anomalous movement in my periphery, something clearly out of sorts. In this case, it was a Snowy Plover, hopping along the mudflat on one leg. Not just any Snowy Plover, but a recently fledged chick that we banded a few weeks prior.

When I zoomed in to get a closer look I saw a light colored monofilament tangled around its left foot. It didn’t look good and we were nervous he would potentially lose its leg.

IMG_3310bWith a bit of creativity and a lot of patience, we were able to trap the bird and assess its injury. To our amazement, the monofilament was not a fishing line, in fact, it was a human hair! The hair, as strong as a wire, was twisted around its ankle and acted like a tourniquet around its toes. The tiny bird’s foot was swollen and the skin was raw, but thankfully, nothing was broken.

Slowly but surely my colleagues and I we were able to remove the hair and clean the wounds. We released it back where we found it and crossed our fingers that we would see it again. Weeks and weeks passed without seeing the bird and I optimistically hoped that the bird migrated to a different wintering site.

IMG_3309aThis past Thursday, we were at Topsail Hill State Park and saw a young Snowy Plover foraging in a dune pocket. We snapped a quick picture and zoomed in on its legs and that is when I saw the unique set of color bands. It was indeed the resilient fledgling from Camp Helen!

A big THANK YOU to all of our coastal volunteers, partners, and donors – without you, stories like this would not be possible!

Ninth Season of Nature Coast Surveys Begins With High Shorebird Numbers

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 continues a blog series in which they share their experiences, sightings, and photographs as well as observe the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

American Oystercatcher flockTaking advantage of seasonal spring tides and a break in persistently inclement weather, we conducted our first Gulf surveys in mid September. Fortunately, persistent summer rains abated somewhat and allowed for productive outings. Beginning on the west side of Cedar Key, we noted much higher numbers of American Oystercatchers compared to a pre-season survey  three weeks earlier and, scoping the roosting flocks for markers, we noted migrants had arrived from several Atlantic coast states.

One favored, traditional, roost site was usurped by a stranded sailboat Sailboat stranded off Cedar Keycompelling the birds to seek refuge elsewhere. Fortunately, state officials were aware of the nuisance vessel for months and contractors were scheduled to remove the offending vessel. Florida FWC researchers documented the oystercatchers’ critical dependence on eroding roost sites in the region. Protecting the integrity of surviving sites is an ever-higher priority.

As frequently occurs on the Nature Coast, favored Oystercatcher roosts are often cohabited by multiple shorebird species. This was the case at one roost rake where ten federally Threatened Red Knots were present. Although none were marked, seven were hatch year juveniles – a good sign for this seriously declining species.

Due to brisk headwinds and chop we elected to avoid the Gulf and navigate through a protected, hazardous maze of salt marsh taking us to the east side of Cedar Key. Exiting the maze of marsh waters, a dense flock of American Avocet, Willet, and Marbled Godwits greeted us at the first shell rake on the edge of a wooded Key. We continued on to an Shorebird flock, Cedar Pointexpansive series of low rakes stretching into the open gulf. Approaching closer, we noted dark masses of birds clustered on several rakes and these soon proved to be densely-packed Oystercatcher flocks. We were now challenged to determine which flocks provided nearby vantage points where we could land our vessel and scan the birds for markers. During this process, we noted “clouds” of shorebirds swarming over the most distant shell rake and it soon became apparent that the flocks were being flushed by wading anglers hiking along the shorelines. Roosting shorebirds flushed by waders.

Disturbances to roosting shorebirds is a universal problem requiring considerable public education and outreach. Typically, disturbance is not intentional but the impacts can be significant where roost/rest sites are few as they are around Cedar Key or where disturbances are frequent and/or associated with pets.  Often impacts can be minimized with a little consideration for the birds, but the growing unfamiliarity with birds and associated conservation issues by today’s recreational public remains a challenge to declining bird populations. Doris and I plan to work more closely with the community and state agencies to raise awareness of these issues on the Nature Coast.

For the remainder of that afternoon, we carefully shifted from rake to rake, recording the diversity and numbers of birds and documenting unique markers.  In addition to the many marked Oystercatchers, we recorded several Red Knot bands among densely-massed flocks. One interesting observation was noting numbers of Western and Least Sandpipers perched in low vegetation on several rakes. This behavior is somewhat curious since adequate substrate is available for the normally ground-roosting birds. Least Sandpiper roosting in tall vegetation

In addition to the hordes of shorebirds, we also noted small numbers of larids, including migrant Caspian Terns but none were banded. One small flock of Blue-winged Teal passed low over the rakes as they continued south to unknown destinations. The next day, we traveled to Horseshoe Beach in northern Dixie County and visited a low shell rake south of that diminutive community. Over many seasons, we have learned where the flocks stage prior to shifting to the low jetties in the Gulf nearer the town. Initially, few birds were present, but as the tide slowly rose, many more birds arrived until ninety crowded the roost. At one point a small flock of Oystercatchers was spied passing far offshore suggesting they were actively migrating. Similarly, a lone Northern Harrier came in off the Gulf – our first sighting of the species since spring migration carried them off to northern breeding grounds.

Predictably, the oystercatchers eventually shifted north to the jetties where we found them flushing frequently and flying over open water. Oddly, no other shorebirds flushed off the rocks and we assumed that an unseen eagle must be cruising high aloft. For unknown reasons, Oystercatchers react more adversely to eagles than any Oystercatcher with coded leg markersother raptor on the wintering grounds.  Once the birds settled down, we slowly cruised along the rocks collecting digital images for later review to identify band codes that were missed or that we were unable to decipher at the distant rake.

During our recent travels along regional highways going to and from boat launch sites, we noted remarkable amounts of flooded forest, ditches and fields resulting from the deluge of summer rains.  Most ditches were saturated with water and lush Gulf Fritillary butterflyaquatic foliage in full bloom attracted numerous butterflies. How the rain waters impact the native flora and fauna we cannot know, but if the health and abundance of regional oysters is dependent on influxes of fresh water, their historic declines may soon be reversed to the benefit of American Oystercatchers and humans alike.


FWC Adopts Audubon-Supported Panther Policies

posted on September 29, 2015 in Everglades,State Government,Wildlife

Florida Panther by RJ WileyIn June 2015, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) released a controversial plan to reprioritize state resources for Florida panther recovery. The proposed plan would have negatively affected collaboration with the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) on expanding panthers’ breeding range, an essential part of recovery.

Audubon Florida and many wildlife advocates strongly objected.

In response, FWC, led by commissioners Liesa Priddy and Ron Bergeron, revised the policy statement in a positive way. The policy statement now makes three vital points supported by Audubon: 1) the Service should greatly increase its role in panther recovery work, especially range expansion; 2) FWC will continue to collaborate with the Service on panther recovery, including range expansion in Florida; and 3) FWC, with the Service, will address human/panther conflicts, including impacts from panthers eating livestock on private lands, which is an increasing threat to recovery.

The FWC made significant progress on its first panther policy goal when the Service’s national director, Dan Ashe, southeast regional director Cynthia Dohner, and Florida supervisor Larry Williams attended the FWC Commission’s meeting in Ft. Lauderdale on September 2.  They made mutual commitments to work together on recovery of the Florida panther and other imperiled species.  The Service also committed to bringing more staff and financial resources to panther recovery.

Audubon was also encouraged to hear specific mutual commitment to an innovative program that incentivizes ranchers to manage their land for wildlife and panthers while running their commercial cow-calf ranches. “Payment for Ecological Services” (PES) programs that pay per-acre stewardship fees have excellent potential to resolve conflicts between landowners and panthers.

Audubon Florida, with these agencies, will continue to advocate on behalf of Florida panthers as part of the Service’s stakeholder-driven Panther Recovery Implementation Team. We will also remain engaged with major ranchers and farmers in occupied panther habitat as a partner in the Florida Panther Protection Program in southwest Florida.

Audubon is committed to the future success of the Florida panther. The vast habitat needed by these great cats also serves many other imperiled Everglades species.

“Parks: The Heart of Natural Florida” – Summer 2015 Naturalist Magazine Now Available

posted on September 28, 2015 in Publications

Audubon_Naturalist_Summer_2015_cover_SMThe heart of Florida is not a theme park, a palatial shopping mall, a beach lined with sprawling resorts, or a designer golf course. You find Florida’s heart in its nature parks and conservation lands.

Picture windswept dunes and sun-kissed beaches, clear springs that make you feel like you’re flying, not swimming, Florida Scrub-Jays in their rare scrub habitat, perched high and dry along Florida’s ancient backbone, moist and mysterious oak hammocks where time seems to stand still, and sprawling marshes of sawgrass, mangrove islands, and of course, the famed River of Grass.

We are fortunate that our predecessors had the foresight to set aside many of these special places through programs like Florida Forever, Preservation 2000, and municipal environmental lands programs.

State forests, wildlife management areas,water management district lands, and local conservation areas, combined with our award winning system of 171 state parks and trails, help make up the remarkable and accessible habitat mosaic of natural Florida.

Yet while the benefits are well understood, Florida’s parks have never been under greater threat. This issue of the Audubon Florida Naturalist Magazine is a celebration of these special places and a call to action for citizens to defend their parks.

Click here to start your free PDF download. Please feel free to share!

Thank Osceola County Commissioners for Protecting the Northern Everglades

posted on September 25, 2015 in North Everglades

Commissioners need to hear from you that you support their conservation efforts. 

Northern Everglades Landscape1Having redrawn its “Urban Growth Boundary” to accommodate foreseeable growth out to the year 2080 in the northern tier of the county, Osceola County commissioners stepped up efforts to protect the Northern Everglades from development encroachment at their meeting on Monday, September 21st.

County Commissioners approved a new growth boundary extending east to the county line incorporating part of the Deseret Ranch property. At the same time, commissioners acknowledged that more effort was needed to acquire easements from ranchers south of the urban boundary in the Northern Everglades to keep that area in ranching in perpetuity.  County staffers explained the situation and the need to the commissioners in a memo which read:

  • “The County’s UGB and its potential expansion with the North Ranch Sector Plan will provide more than enough capacity to accommodate the County’s future growth and development through the year 2080.  This essentially provides for 2/3 of the County to continue as agricultural and rural lands.
  • There is considerable interest on the part of rural landowners to participate in programs that purchase conservation easements on their lands.
  • A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect its associated resources. The easement is sold by the landowner and constitutes a legally binding agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place on the land in perpetuity while the land remains in private hands.  Easements offer landowners revenue from the sale of an easement while allowing them to retain many private property rights and to live on and use their land as they have traditionally.  Easements may also offer landowners potential tax benefits.
  • For the public, conservation easements extend conservation dollars by protecting ecologically important private lands without using fee purchase, thus freeing limited funds for other projects.  They also support continuation of the County’s agricultural economy and the jobs associated with it.”

Commissioners then approved the following agenda item:

“Direct County Staff to develop and present recommendations to the Board, within 120 days, concerning establishment and funding of a County program to acquire conservation easements and agricultural easements from willing sellers of properties outside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB); establish a new Legislative Priority for Osceola County to seek additional State funding for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program and the Florida Forever Less Than Fee Program, for the purpose of acquiring conservation easements and agricultural easements from willing sellers of properties outside the UGB; and authorize the County Manager and the County Legislative Liaison to advocate this priority item at upcoming meetings of the Osceola Legislative Delegation.

Osceola County Growth Map copyThe most certain and immediate impact of the Osceola commission’s action will be to ramp up legislative delegation support for additional funding for the Rural and Family Lands easement program of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and for easement purchases through the Florida Forever program. Only $15 million was approved for the Rural and Family Lands program in 2015, and Florida Forever appropriations were also less than $20 million statewide.  The county will proceed to evaluate re-establishing a county land acquisition program to aid the state in acquiring easements with the County Manger to report back to the County Commission making recommendations in 120 days.

This is a very important step for the protection of the Northern Everglades.

Audubon Florida Commends the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for Commitment to Cape Sable Restoration

posted on September 9, 2015 in Coastal Conservation,Everglades,Gulf Oil Spill

EastCapePlug_MG_7647On August 27, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced a $2 million grant aimed toward protection and restoration of the coastal wetlands on Cape Sable, located in southwestern Everglades National Park.

The grant, awarded to the Everglades Foundation, is one of 29 announced as part of the Gulf Conservation Grants Program. The funding is meant to enhance coastal wetlands of the Gulf Coast while bolstering fish and wildlife populations.

Audubon Florida commends NFWF for recognition of Cape Sable as a coastal wetland of significant importance. We also thank our partners at the Everglades Foundation for their continued commitment toward fulfillment of restoration of Cape Sable.

The interior wetlands of Cape Sable are one of the most ecologically productive environments left in Florida. The area serves as critical habitat and foraging grounds for Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, many other wading bird species, shorebirds, and important game fish. A number of endangered species including the American crocodile and smalltooth sawfish also live and breed in these waters.

Roseate spoonbills and other shorebirds hunt on the mud flats during low tidesDespite this areas importance to wildlife, the region has suffered over the decades from a network of historic canals dug into its interior. The canals have led to saltwater intrusion and breakdown of the once productive marsh.

Audubon Florida has long recognized the importance of Cape Sable to local wildlife. Decades of Audubon’s Everglades science work has shown that the increased flow from the Gulf of Mexico through the canal network was having cascading negative consequences for the ecosystem. Most importantly, our team has documented a loss of forage fish. These tiny preyfish are a crucial food for the myriad wading birds who depend on these wetlands for survival.

Audubon’s findings were influential in the National Park Service’s acquisition of $10 million in funding to construct the first set of dams to slow the flow of saltwater through the harmful canals. There has been early signs of success with this project and the recent NFWF grant is an integral step toward acquiring the approximately $8 million needed to complete the second phase of restoration on Cape Sable, which involves the building of four more impediments to flow.

We believe this restoration work is essential toward increasing the success of the bird life in the region and are continuing our research and working with our partners to achieve restoration success on Cape Sable.

West Pasco Audubon Advocates for Rocky Creek

West Pasco Audubon Society Members With about 25 West Pasco Audubon Society members in attendance, the Pasco Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to pay $3.1 million to buy the Rocky Creek property, which is located just south of the Florida Audubon Society’s Gibbons Sanctuary.

The new coastal preserve is a high quality wetland and coastal hammock habitat, which is valuable to wading and migratory birds. The unanimous vote comes about a month subsequent to a proposal by some Pasco Commissioners to divert environmental lands funds to drainage and stormwater uses.

The Rocky Creek parcel received the highest conservation scoring of any parcel reviewed by the land selection committee to date. The parcel is comprised of 30 acres of saltwater marsh, 1 acre of mangrove forest, and 22 acres of wetland forest, with the balance comprised of uplands that had been previously approved/slated for residential development.

Thanks to West Pasco Audubon chapter and their friends from the Florida Native Plant Society  for communicating with commissioners and turning out to testify in favor of the Rocky Creek purchase.

The photo shows just some of the chapter members on the courthouse steps after the vote.

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