Audubon Florida News

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.

New Restaurant Steps Up For Panhandle Wildlife

posted on August 11, 2015 in Coastal Conservation,Volunteering

Culvers Crew volunteering at Navarre Causeway colonial nesting site.What does a colonial nesting seabird colony and a new restaurant have in common? In most cases, not much. But in Navarre Beach, it’s the same caring people.

Culver’s, a new chain restaurant based out of Wisconsin, has a new location opening up in Navarre beach. Prior to opening, the owner, Randy Smith, brought the staff he was training out to help at a volunteer opportunity hosted by Audubon Florida.

Volunteers installing chick fencing at Navarre causeway.Audubon Florida oversees the management of a nesting seabird colony with Black Skimmers and Least Terns. Currently 100 Black Skimmers and over 200 Least Terns have made this site their nesting spot for the summer. Part of the management for this site is to set up chick fencing along the shoulder of the road to prevent unflighted chicks from running into the road. This is quiet an effort and over 30 people showed up to help including the Culver’s crew.

One of the families being protected by volunteer efforts on the Navarre causeway.Thanks to all of those who came out including Randy and his staff and Kenny Wilder for calling on legion of dedicated Navarre citizens. Thank you to Kenny Wilder “Master Naturalist” for the photos.


Audubon Establishes “Reid Hughes Marsh Sanctuary” in Nassau County

posted on August 7, 2015 in Land Conservation,Wildlife

Seaside SparrowThe Florida Audubon Society has added nearly 200 acres of pristine Nassau County marshland to its system of wildlife sanctuaries thanks to a generous donation from Reid B. Hughes of New Smyrna Beach. Hughes serves as a member of Audubon’s Board of Directors and is a past member of the Governing Board of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Audubon will name the new sanctuary the “Reid Hughes Marsh Sanctuary” in honor of the donor.

Tree island SW property - Copy (Medium)The new Audubon sanctuary tract is located on the Bells River, which branches from the St. Marys River separating Florida and Georgia. The sanctuary is just offshore of the Pirates Wood subdivision near Yulee and consists of deep marsh with some tree islands. Audubon is increasing its efforts to protect the marshlands in the Northeast Florida area, as these marshes are vitally important habitat for both resident bird species and migratory species on the Atlantic Flyway.

The “Reid Hughes Marsh Sanctuary” is ideal habitat for Threatened Wood Storks, ibis, herons, egrets, many types of shorebirds, as well as the MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow and Worthington’s Marsh Wren, a Species of Special Concern in Florida.

Woodstork on sanctuary property“The Reid Hughes Marsh is a great addition to the Florida Audubon Society’s sanctuary system. It provides exactly the kind of habitat we are looking for to sustain important coastal bird species that are under increased threat from development and climate change,” said Eric Draper, Audubon Florida Executive Director. “Private environmental land donations have become ever more important in recent years because of reduced state land purchases. Individual donors, like Reid Hughes, are stepping up to make a positive impact for Florida’s imperiled birds and wildlife.”

For information on Audubon conservation efforts in Northeast Florida, contact Chris Farrell, Policy Associate, Northeast Florida (904) 325-9940.  For information on donating conservation land to the Florida Audubon Society, contact Charles Lee, Sanctuary and Land Manger, at (407) 620-5178.

Update: SFWMD Vote to Reduce Millage Rate Means Less Money for Everglades

posted on August 5, 2015 in Everglades,Water Issues

An Everglade Snail Kite surrounded by eggs from an exotic apple snail.Thank you to all our Audubon Advocates for making your voices heard on behalf of the Everglades. On Friday, Audubon Florida joined representatives from the Audubon Society of the Everglades, South Florida Audubon,Tropical Audubon Society, Emerge Miami, and Engage Miami to support Everglades funding at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).

Unfortunately, in an 8-1 result, the Governing Board voted against maintaining the tax millage rate from last year. This was the second time the Governing Board voted on this issue in the past month. Friday’s vote reversed a courageous decision from earlier in July when members elected to keep the tax millage rate the same.

Despite calls from prestigious organizations such as National Academy of Sciences to increase the rate of restoration, Friday’s vote means that the SFWMD will collect $21 million less for Everglades work this year. This year marks the fifth year in a row of millage rate reductions even as the need for stable and consistent funding grows more urgent.

Thank you again to everyone who spoke for our birds and wildlife. Only together will we be successful in our shared mission to protect and restore America’s Everglades.

Everglades Funding at Stake in SFWMD Board Vote

posted on July 30, 2015 in Everglades,State Government,Water Issues

The deeper parts of Okeechobee’s marsh are in wonderful condition for fish and wildlife, including Everglades Snail Kites.On July 16, the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District (the agency responsible for managing the state’s Everglades restoration effort) did the courageous thing and voted to keep their tax rate the same as last year. Click here to read our latest fact sheet on this issue.

Thank you to our chapter partners for joining us at the public meeting to advocate for the funding to keep Everglades restoration on track. By keeping the tax rate the same, the District will gain an additional $21 million in revenue that can be used towards protecting imperiled habitat and the wildlife that live there.

Now the Governing Board is under pressure from Tallahassee to undo their vote and cut the tax rate instead of keeping it the same.

This Friday, July 31, the board will vote to either keep the tax rate the same or cut the rate to a lower level and Audubon will be there. If the board votes for the cut, the savings would be small but the costs to the environment would be high. The owner of a $200,000 home would save less than $6.00 a year and would come at the price of defunding already slow restoration efforts.

Click here to read a recent Sun Sentinel editorial.

Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Everglade Snail Kites, and other iconic Florida birds depend on the Everglades ecosystem for survival. Restoration projects designed to repair this important habitat need funding to stay on track.

Click here to take action and ask the SFWMD Governing Board to hold the tax rate and protect Everglades funding.


BREAKING: The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has reversed a previous vote to maintain millage rate at same level as last year — now District will collect $21 million LESS for Everglades restoration work this year.

THANK YOU to our inspiring Everglades Advocates for emailing the SFWMD Governing Board about this issues AND to our Chapters and Allies for attending today’s meeting and making public comment. Your voices are vital to the Everglades restoration process.

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