Audubon Florida News

Topic: Birding,Citizen Science,Coastal Conservation,Northeast Florida,Wildlife

Florida’s State Parks Are Critical for Piping Plovers

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 and sightings as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.

TGreat Lakes Piping Plover overwintering at Little Talbot Island State Parkhe critical role of high quality habitat protected within Florida’s coastal parks and preserves was demonstrated recently by two recent, cross-state resightings of the same banded Piping Plover. On March 23, during a routine beach survey at Little Talbot Island State Park in Duval County, I detected a flagged plover in alternate plumage roosting with several other birds. Because none of the regional winter-resident plovers were as advanced in their molt, it had to be a migrant heading back to its northern breeding grounds. Careful study through a spotting scope offered partial views of the gray flag’s code, but positive identification was impossible. And then the birds flushed and vanished in the gloomy conditions.

BaldPointObserving other birds flying south with the wind, I elected to return to the park’s south inlet shore. Approaching the area, I found a large concentration of mixed shorebird species including a few piping plovers and the “lost migrant”.  Perhaps due to the harsh conditions and presence of migrating merlins, all the birds were nervous, rushing about the beach and taking flight repeatedly. As I carefully approached the birds, they flushed yet again with most landing on the opposite side of a shallow beach overwash but I soon detected my quarry running through the milling birds toward the distant inlet shore.

I removed socks and boots and waded through the chilly waters. Fortunately, the mass of birds ultimately settled down and I was able to approach the plovers to once again study the flag code. Some time passed before I was certain of reading the bird’s plastic leg marker correctly: a gray flag on the upper right leg bearing the code “E1”. At one point the migrant rested next to another banded plover carrying a black plastic flag with the code “J5” denoting it as a Maritime Canada plover that spent the winter locally.

Upon returning home, images were processed and a report was submitted to Cherri Gratto-Trevor in far distant Canadian Maritime Piping Plover with gray flagSaskatchewan, Canada. Cherri is a long time plover associate and the current director for piping plover banding efforts across Maritime Canada. As is her practice, Cherri quickly responded and informed me that the migrant was originally banded on May 29, 2014 at Crow Neck Beach in southern Nova Scotia. This bird spent the winter on Three Rooker Island, part of Anclote Key Preserve State Park in Pinellas County. Audubon Florida’s Marianne Korosy recorded the plover there on February 6th during Florida’s statewide mid-winter shorebird survey and it was last recorded there on March 9th.

A high percentage of migrant and wintering piping plovers are annually recorded in Florida’s state park and preserve beaches every season. Two Canadian Maritime plovers wintered in Little Talbot Island State Park and several others were recorded there during fall migration. Likewise, many banded plovers were recorded as migrants and winter residents in the Gulf Coast state parks – on Three Rooker Island and adjoining Anclote Key. Several other maritime plovers wintered in Cayo Costa State Park in southwest Florida. On both Florida coasts, banded plovers from the Great Lakes and Great Plains populations have been recorded frequently in passage or winter on state park beaches.

Huguenot Memorial Park: the bird protection area keeps flightless chicks from being harmed by vehiclesWith so much of Florida’s coastlines heavily developed and impacted by burgeoning numbers of residents and tourists alike, our undeveloped coastal parks will only increase in value to Piping Plovers and other shorebirds as time passes. We must be vigilant to increased pressures to expand development and carrying capacities in our parks if we hope to maintain their natural integrity and critical functions for native and migratory wildlife for decades to come.

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.

Banded Caspian Tern Déjà Vu

posted on September 26, 2014 in Citizen Science,Coastal Conservation,Northeast Florida

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

Closeup of band codeThe term “snowbird” is familiar to Floridians and understood to represent northern residents who annually shift south to escape winter’s harshest weather. But eons before humans adopted such behavior, countless generations of birds practiced a similar strategy flocking to Florida’s shores or passing through to more favorable winter digs in lower latitudes as the sun made its seasonal descent in the northern skies. Human snowbirds are readily identified by out-of-state license plates, but their avian counterparts are more difficult to distinguish from resident birds unless they carry unique markers that identify their point of origin.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of birds carry markers in a broad variety of shapes and colors, making it possible to report the coded information and gain insight into each bird’s migratory pathways and longevity, knowledge that contributes significantly to long-term research and conservation efforts. Some birds are resighted and reported in multiple years because they spend every winter in Florida on the same beach area, a phenomenon known as “winter site fidelity“. Transient migrants are less frequently recorded since they provide limited opportunity for detection during brief migratory stopovers in Florida.

Caspian Tern sighted in October 2010On October 2, 2010, while Doris and I were conducting a routine regional survey, we noted several Caspian terns roosting among a flock of mixed species on Big Bird Island in lower Nassau Sound. One of the birds was banded with a large, light blue band engraved with the code (AEJ).  Knowing the data was of value to the researchers who applied the markers, we reported the code to the Bird Banding Lab and later learned the bird had been banded as a young chick on Gull Island in Lake Ontario on 7/02/08.  Since that time, we have recorded and reported other, uniquely-banded Caspian Terns but have yet to resight any of the same birds in the same area until this week.

On September 23, during a typical seasonal Nor’easter, I visited the jetty roost in Ft. Clinch State Park and found a large aggregation of mixed larid species hunkered on the shore sheltering from the gusty winds and light drizzle. Amongst the flock were less than ten Caspian Terns, including a bird with a light blue band engraved with the code (AEJ). As I photographed the bird, I wracked my memory and wondered if it might be the same tern resighted four years previously just south of Amelia Island. After processing the photos and checking our image archives I was pleased to discover that indeed, it was the same bird recorded and reported in 2010. Déjà vu!Caspian Tern sighted September 2014.

Although Doris and I have recorded hundreds of uniquely marked birds of multiple species and some over many seasons and after thousands of miles of migration, this bird seemed special. We see relatively few Caspian terns in this region and most occur for a few weeks in early fall. Consequently, our opportunities to locate previously resighted terns are few, yet the annual journey of this bird crossed our pathway once again leaving us to marvel at the wonders of migration.

Jacksonville’s Bluebirds Get New Homes

posted on September 3, 2014 in Northeast Florida,Wildlife

The team at Bacardi.Over the last 60 years, bluebird populations have steadily declined for a number of reasons including a lack of natural cavities in trees and snags and increased competition for nesting sites and food from non-native bird species. Nest boxes are an easy way to help bluebirds increase their population numbers.  Nest boxes are specifically designed to create an appropriate sized nest cavity for bluebirds, and when positioned and maintained properly, bluebirds will readily use them and fledge numerous chicks throughout the summer.

Native grassesAs part of its biodiversity program, Bacardi Bottling Corporation in Jacksonville, Florida, has restored five acres of native warm season grasses on its property, and installed a dozen bluebird nest boxes within the restoration area.  Audubon Florida staff recently joined Sally Cannon, Eric Hearn, Jen Lishen and Denise Guillet of Bacardi during their weekly Nest Watch to monitor their bluebird boxes.  Some of the nest boxes were empty, but many had the beginnings of nests or nests with eggs.  There was also an abundance of grasshoppers and other insects, otherwise known as bluebird food, living amongst the newly restored grassland.

Bluebird eggs in a box.Audubon Florida is happy to see many corporations creating environmental stewardship and sustainability policies in their corporate strategies.  Strategies including energy and water savings and land restoration are simple ways for corporations to generate a softer impact on the environment they depend upon.  We encourage you to learn more about the environmental policies of the corporations you frequent – what you learn may surprise you.

Least Terns Experience Fourth of July in Northeast Florida

posted on July 5, 2014 in Birding,Northeast Florida,Wildlife

July 4th was a busy weekend on the beaches of northeast Florida, for humans and terns alike. The Least Tern colonies from Nassau to Flagler counties all seemed to fare the fireworks and beach goers well. Some of our chicks even look like they may fledge very soon! Please spread the word to family and friends to share the beach the rest of the summer as our feathered friends continue to raise their young.


Second Saltmarsh Sparrow Banded in New England Resighted in Florida

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 fourth of several blogs in which they share their experiences and sightings, as well as the challenges these increasingly imperiled birds face.  

Saltmarsh Sparrow Photo: Patrick LearyA Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus) banded as a nestling in the coastal marshes of far-distant New England was recently resighted in Nassau County’s marshes.  Scouting local marshes in preparation for a spring study of resident marsh breeding birds, Amy Schwarzer and Erin Ragheb of the FWC Wildlife Research Lab and I visited a number of sites.  Large numbers of several bird species were found at most locations and such was the case at a small marsh island where we stopped for lunch. Erin searched with camera in hand and was able to photograph a briefly-sighted sparrow with a bright orange band. On a hunch, Erin later contacted Professor Brian Olsen, University of Maine, and was pleased to receive confirmation that the bird had been banded in either Maine or Connecticut as part of a multi-state population research study. The banding location is uncertain due to similarity of bands used on birds in both states.

This is the second, color-banded Saltmarsh Sparrow recorded in the region this year.  The first was recaptured by Banding a Saltmarsh Sparrow. Photo: Patrick Leary
 Borowske, University of Connecticut, during her February 2013 field work in Florida. Alyssa’s sparrow was traced to a breeding population in Maine.  These sightings are remarkable due to the high number of birds dispersed across thousands of acres of Florida marsh, the sparrows’ tendency to remain concealed, and the brief opportunity observers have to detect and record the tiny markers.  In Alyssa’s case she was fortunate to trap one banded bird amongst hundreds encountered during her field work here.

Northeast Florida’s coastal salt marshes support significant nesting populations of Seaside Sparrows and Marsh Wrens, but their numbers are substantially bolstered by an influx of migrant Seaside, Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh Sparrows each fall and winter.  Most originate from more northern Atlantic coast marshes, but some Nelson’s Sparrows breed in inland freshwater marshes hundreds of miles from the coast. In the winter, these species forage in the “drowned prairie” of coastal saltmarsh cordgrass and, despite their numbers, are seldom viewed by humans. On high tides, the birds concentrate in dense grass along marsh watercourses and on isolated marsh islands, but even there remain well concealed in vegetation. 

Florida's coastal saltmarsh habitatDue to early evidence of sea level rise and related tidal perturbations, concern is growing for the survival of these species whose lives are directly dependent on the thin margin of tidal marsh stretching along the coast. Consequently, more attention is being focused on the status and health of these birds to identify important habitats and environmental requirements. As data is gathered, it is becoming evident that our regional marshes support not only significant numbers of resident sparrows, but also substantial populations of migrant and wintering birds.

The next time you gaze across our expansive marshes be aware that, in addition to the colorful Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, herons, egrets, and the myriad of smaller shorebirds, the rich ecosystem also supports an abundance of marsh-adapted sparrows and wrens concealed from view in the dense stands of cord grass that are the key element in the ecosystem’s fecundity. Stop, listen, and look carefully and you may catch a glimpse of these cryptically-colored birds that will give you a new awareness of the life within Florida’s coastal saltmarshes.

Make Your Voice Heard on Army Corps Plan to Deepen St. Johns River in Jacksonville

posted on October 24, 2013 in Northeast Florida

stjohns_jaxIn Northeast Florida, JAXPORT is seeking approval to deepen thirteen miles of the St. Johns River in order to accommodate huge, post-Panamax ships.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently released a draft Environmental Impact statement (DEIS) that is meant to address the potential impacts of deepening the channel to 47 feet, widening it by as much as 300 feet and removing as much as 18 million cubic yards of material by dredging and blasting the river bottom.

The lower St. Johns River is home to a number of imperiled species such as manatees, sea turtles, and even right whales, and is connected to thousands of acres of critical marshland that support untold numbers of birds.  Because the study was “fast tracked” under the Federal “We Can’t Wait” economic initiative, the Corps has shortened the environmental study by 14 months and relied almost exclusively on estimates of impacts generated by computer modeling.

As a result, the DEIS report is lacking in important detail and depth of analysis, and many important studies have not been completed at all. Even so, the Corps has set October 24 as the deadline for comments.

Audubon has submitted comments expressing our concern that if this project moves forward it may have lasting impacts on the largest and most diverse saltwater marsh system on the east coast of Florida, as well as on freshwater marshes and forested wetlands in the impact zone. For the sake of the river, its wetlands, and the abundant wildlife that depend on them, we need to take the time to get this right. We hope that the Corps will extend its project timeline and the opportunity for comment.

In the meantime, you may submit your comments regarding the draft EIS to Paul Stodola with the Army Corps of Engineers at (904) 232-3271 or by email to

Audubon Thanks the Great Backyard Bird Count Citizen Scientists!

During the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), people all over the country – and all over the world now that the GBBC has teamed up with eBird – become citizen scientists and count birds, in their yard, their neighborhood or their favorite park.

GBBC. Vilano Beach. Black Skimmers and Forster's Tern. Feb. 2013. Photo Monique BorboenA partnership between Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is held annually in February. People are asked to count birds for at least 15 minutes, record their effort and enter their data into a centralized database. The data can be used to track year-to-year changes in the abundance and distribution of birds, to learn about the complex patterns of winter bird movements, and to look for trends that indicate how well birds are faring in the face of environmental changes such as urbanization, global climate change, and disease.

In St. Johns County, thanks to the Anastasia Island library, the GBBC reached far and wide into the community.  People fabricated and decorated bird houses; kids and adults wrote bird-themed haiku poems. Library visitors judged bird houses and poems that were entered into a contest. Library volunteers provided an afternoon of kids’ crafts focused on birds. Audubon staff gave a lecture for people interested in becoming citizen scientists. The St. Augustine Record provided welcome press coverage on the weekend’s events.One of the Haiku poems entered in the competition at the Anastasia Island Library. Feb 2013.

On the GBBC weekend of February 15-18, courageous participants braved an Arctic front to count birds on their own or with teams led by birding guides from St. Johns County Audubon Society. For some people, it was their first experience surveying birds!

Nine year old John Brice, who was recognized as Junior Volunteer of the Year at the Audubon Assembly, led a beach walk at Fort Matanzas with his grandma, a beach where they volunteer as bird stewards. At Vilano Beach, a Peregrine Falcon was seen causing quite a stir in a flock of over 100 Black Skimmers.

Fort Matanzas beach walk led by Audubon volunteers John and Peggy - orange caps. GBBC Feb 16 2013. Photo Monique Borboen .The GBBC events sponsored by the Anastasia Island Library introduced many new people to bird surveys. And surveys are an important first step in bird conservation. Audubon wishes to thank the library for its leadership and to thank all of you new citizen scientists for your collaboration: the birds we are protecting need you!

We encourage all first-time and returning participants to keep up the good work by entering bird sightings into eBird and by helping us with other bird surveys throughout the year. To find out if regular bird surveys are being held in your region, contact:

Florida Times-Union: Popular beach proves essential to Florida’s bird breeding

posted on September 24, 2012 in Coastal Conservation,Northeast Florida

Thanks to a dedicated park naturalist assisted by volunteer bird stewards, Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville has proved once again to be an essential breeding ground for many of Florida’s most iconic bird species.

This year, Royal Tern nests fledged more than 2,000 chicks. These young birds will go a long way in helping statewide populations recover from the rain, wind and storm surge caused from a devastating Hurricane Debby on the Gulf Coast in June.

From the Florida Times-Union:

“Huguenot is a perfect example of why multiple breeding sites are the best defense for beach birds against natural or manmade disasters,” said [Audubon’s Monique Borboen]. “Hurricanes are a common and natural occurrence in Florida, that’s why nature doesn’t like to put all her ‘eggs in one basket.’ One strong storm has the potential to devastate miles of shoreline habitat and cause the destruction of multiple breeding bird colonies.”

Huguenot Memorial Park: A Summer to Remember – May

posted on September 17, 2012 in Coastal Conservation,Northeast Florida,Wildlife

In May 2012, Audubon Florida hired Forrest Penny as our Bird Conservation and Outreach Coordinator at Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville. Please enjoy the following series of posts where Forrest describes some of the highlights from his time on Huguenot’s beautiful and important shores. Huguenot is a great example of how bird stewards make a difference for our wonderful coastal wildlife. Have you ever visited this special place? Did you get a chance to meet Forrest when you visited? What kind of wildlife did you see at Huguenot? Let us know on our Facebook Page! Now, please enjoy Forrest’s first report:

I embraced the opportunity to monitor the status and progress of large flocks of migrating red knots and other shorebirds as well as a large mixed breeding colony of seabirds, predominantly Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls at this City of Jacksonville managed site. Our goals included efforts to reduce conflicts between public access and the birds through proactive on-site education. Long term area residents will likely be familiar with the history of mixed uses for this popular site.

Throughout the month of May, the scene was dominated by up to 600 Red Knots using the shallows of Ft. George Inlet to forage for small mollusks in an effort to increase weight and fat reserves so vital for their continued migration north to the Arctic tundra for breeding.  By late May, however, up to 8000 seabirds were also present and nesting in the beach dunes of the park. Also present were smaller groups of Wilson’s Plovers and Black Skimmers, both species of with did lay eggs at the site, which eventually succumbed to the high tides associated with Tropical Storms Beryl and Debbie.

By the end of May, we had confirmed Laughing Gull chicks hatched and prepared to leave the dunes to venture on the beach. We also confirmed the presence of at least one Sandwich Tern nest and egg at the edge of the dunes. The first Royal Tern chicks were not observed on the beach until June 11, at which time the park staff installed a rope barrier with seabird protection signage to prohibit vehicle traffic access further north where nesting activity is concentrated. One of our challenges is to educate park visitors of the presence of the chicks, show them photos, and provide guidance on the best path to use if walking north to minimize disturbance.

Huguenot is one of Florida’s Special Places – stay tuned for more from Forrest later this week!


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