Audubon Florida News

Topic: Citizen Science,Florida Scrub-Jay,Land Conservation,Volunteering,Wildlife

Audubon Jay Watch Partners to Restore Rare Scrub Habitat

Audubon Jay Watch, FWC Ridge Rangers, and Highlands Hammock Park staff team

Timberrrr” calls were heard near and far on the morning of January 9th in the Tiger Branch area of Highlands Hammock State Park.  A lone pair of rare Florida Scrub-Jays calls this area “home” but the overgrown habitat could host many more birds if restoration is successful.

Paul Ahnberg, Jay Watch volunteer, cuts a sand pine sapling in a recently burned scrub zoneTwelve Audubon Jay Watch volunteers, 18 Ridge Rangers, a volunteer corps of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, three Park rangers, and three additional volunteers felled 1,891.5 sand pines up to 12 feet tall in 3 hours’ work using chain saws, pole saws, hand saws, and hand loppers.

That number, again: 1,891.5 sand pines cut. “I ran out of gas for my chainsaw while cutting the last tree,” quipped Jerry Burns, one of the three volunteers there that are both Jay Watchers and Ridge Rangers.

Audubon provided a hearty lunch for the hardworking volunteers and Park staff after a morning of cutting pines in 10 acres of scrub burned within the past year and another 27 acres planned for near-future burns.

Prescribed burn in scrub habitat; Photo by Chris Becker, Florida Park ServiceWhy spend the time and effort to cut sand pines? Years of fire suppression causes sand pines to become both tall and numerous. Sand pines have seed cones that are opened by fire, producing a new generation of saplings that create dense sand pine forest patches within overgrown scrub.

Sand pines hide fast-flying Cooper’s Hawks from the view of unsuspecting Scrub-Jays and pine stands also provide predator cover for small mammals and bird egg-loving snakes. Cutting the pines and leaving the downed wood to dry out before setting a prescribed fire prevents the cones from opening to release seeds.

Florida Scrub-Jay; Photo copyright: Susan Faulkner DaviThat’s why the sweat equity invested by 30 volunteers and Park rangers was vital to habitat restoration – work that, according to Park staff, would’ve taken them three or months to accomplish alone.

With a wave of their wings, the resident Florida Scrub-Jays say “THANK YOU” Jay Watchers, Ridge Rangers, and all who made this event possible with smiles and hard work.




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.


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 Rallies for Amendment 1 at the Capitol

posted on March 2, 2015 in State Government,Volunteering,Water Issues

rally_image_feb15Audubon Intern Brittney Deoliveira submitted this recap of her experience helping with the Rally for Amendment 1 & Clean Water on February 18. Thanks to Brittney joining the team that helped organize over 400 people in support of this very important issue. Enjoy!

On February 18, hundreds of Floridians gathered on the steps of the Old Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee to rally in support of clean water and Amendment 1, which 75% of Florida voted for on the 2014 election ballot.

As one of the many college students attending the rally on that cold, yet clear day, it encouraged me to see all ages peacefully united together at the Capitol. While volunteering at the Florida’s Water & Land Legacy tent and assisting rally attendees, I had the opportunity to speak with numerous constituents, many of whom traveled miles for this specific Capitol Day. A lot of networking occurred on the lawn, as well reencounters of past acquaintances.

Vehicles and trucks honked their horns as they passed by at the intersection of Monroe Street and Apalachee Parkway. The signs held at the rally not only showed creativity, but they each sent a certain message: “Save Our Springs,” “Buy The Land, Send It South,” and “Don’t Frack Florida”, amongst others.

After witnessing the optimistic passion of everyone, it became clear to me the motivation behind their presence at the rally and meeting with Senators later that day. Whether the interests were for Florida’s tourist economy, agriculture, the environment, or our children’s future, the preservation and conservation of Florida’s resources remains of essence in the hearts of Floridians, and they made it clear once again at the Capitol.

Join Audubon for the 2015 Statewide Mid-Winter Shorebird Survey

Red Knots in flightThe annual mid-winter survey period is right around the corner – February 6 -12, 2015.

Team leaders are organizing volunteer survey crew members to walk miles of Florida’s beautiful coastline during this 7-day period, tallying numbers of shorebird and seabird species. If you can readily identify these species individually and in flocks of 50 or more birds, WE NEED YOU! 

Teams will be counting PipingSnowyWilson’s, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied Plovers, American Oystercatchers, a multitude of sandpiper species including Red Knots, several species of terns and gulls, Black Skimmers, and others. The data is reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as to state and local park managers. This is an annual survey that could not be accomplished at a statewide scale without the help of citizen scientists. Team leaders will enter the data in a Google spreadsheet so that anyone interested can see what other teams found across the state.

David Macri. Winter birds with BLSK in flight. Matanzas.120108_staug_DMM0216

No experience is necessary to join an experienced team in your area that will survey beaches accessible from the mainland. Most teams will walk a minimum of 1-2 miles. Come on out and join other citizen scientists for Florida’s one-time annual winter shorebird survey!

For information on how you can get involved with surveys in:

A New Bird Steward’s Perspective at Huguenot Memorial Park

posted on August 6, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,Volunteering,Wildlife

RoyalTern_feeding_HalSnyderDid you ever what it was like to be a volunteer Audubon Bird Steward? Please take a moment to read the following post from Abby Paganucci, one of our dedicated stewards from Jacksonville. Enjoy!

Locals and visitors crowded the beaches of Huguenot Memorial Park.  It was my first day as a volunteer bird steward on a weekend, and it was a busy one.  After City of Jacksonville Parks Naturalist Shelley Beville showed me the ropes, I went ahead and set up under the stationed shaded tent on the beach.

The beach is split up into zones, which makes it easier for lifeguards to identify locations in case of an emergency.  When you step onto Zone 11, there is a distinct difference in the number of birds that inhabit the area, and cars are not allowed to drive past this point.

RoyalTern_group_HalSnyderTwo species of birds dominate the area – Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns.  My duty was to inform the beach visitors about the birds that colonized in the area to mate.  More specifically, to educate visitors about and protect the numerous chicks that recently hatched.  Although the Royal Terns are rather peaceful, the Laughing Gulls do possess a competitive side.  Stewarding not only helps protect the chicks from car traffic, but also helps reduce disturbance which prevents the chicks from scattering and stumbling into another bird’s territory.  In turn, this helps reduce bird-on-bird aggression.  Unfortunately, there were still some chicks wounded by adult gulls and some that wandered away from their parents and ended up on the other side of zone 11, where the cars are parked.

I was incredibly satisfied with the amount of people who came up to me concerned about bullied chicks.  Some would carry the chicks over themselves; others would offer to bring me over to them.  It is important for chicks to stay with the rest of the colony where they have safety in numbers and their parents can find them to feed them.  Returning the chicks to the rest of the colony protects them from getting run over and also gets them back where they can be tended to by their parents.

It was a very nice experience to see that so many people would take time out of their beach day to express concern for the wounded animals, and also good to know many of these chicks recover and fledge successfully.  I look forward to my next time volunteering.



Rooftops as Alternative Least Tern Nesting Sites

posted on April 25, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,Volunteering,Wildlife

ROOFTOPNESTINGLeast Terns are colonial nesters, raising their chicks in large flock groups, and naturally nest on open sandy beaches throughout the coastal United States.  Eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in areas with little to no vegetation and no overhanging trees.  Nesting together in a large flock provides chicks greater protection from predators since there are more adult eyes on the lookout.

However, due to development, sea level rise and human disturbance, much of the natural beach nesting areas has declined, leading to a decline in Least Terns throughout their range.  Least Terns are now on the Federal Endangered Species list in California and along the Mississippi River and are listed as Threatened by the State of Florida.

In the face of beach disturbance from development, vehicles, people and pets, Least Terns have started using an alternative nest site on top of tar and gravel rooftops.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently reported that nearly 80% of Florida’s Least Terns are nesting on rooftops!  While these rooftops may provide protection from disturbance and predators, there are drawbacks that do not make rooftops an ideal nesting situation.

chickaboom1Least Terns can nest in flocks as large as several hundred birds with on average two eggs per nest.  This can result in a great many chicks and adult birds occupying a relatively small area.  Adults are very busy flying back and forth from foraging grounds to the nest site and can become noisy and messy around the nest building.  Within a few days after hatching, chicks start to walk around and can fall off roofs that do not have a lip of barrier, or become washed down a rainspout after a storm.  Once a chick is on the ground it faces numerous hazards such as feral cats and dogs, fire ants, vehicles and foot traffic, and over-heating.  Neither the chick nor the adult can get the chick back on top of the roof themselves.

chickaboom2Luckily, Audubon has many concerned volunteer bird stewards who are trained on how to carefully assist the chick back to the rooftop.  There is also a newly developed protocol for temporary fencing on those roofs that lack a lip or barrier to help prevent falling chicks.  Audubon and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission collaborate with building owners and managers that have nesting Least Terns to try to harmoniously accommodate the terns and store patrons.  Even though rooftops may not be the natural or ideal nesting site, they do provide an alternative that could be managed to ensure successfully fledged chicks and the continued survival of Least Terns.

If you are interested in helping Audubon with beach-nesting and rooftop bird surveys and monitoring in the northeast region, please contact Audubon’s Stefanie Nagid at

Volunteers Help American Oystercatchers in the Tolomato River

posted on April 1, 2014 in Coastal Conservation,Volunteering,Wildlife

Andrea Small (Aquatics Preserve Manager), Nicki Dix (GTMNERR Research Coordinator) and Stefanie Nagid (AF) on the nesting rake at high tide.American Oystercatchers lay their eggs in hollows on bare sand or shell bars, called “rakes”, raising their chicks right by the water’s edge.  This keeps the chicks close to food sources and mom and dad while the parents are foraging, but also makes eggs and chicks vulnerable to drowning if waves or tides over-wash their nest sites.  Ideally, adults choose sites less prone to over-wash, but with extensive habitat loss, waves caused by boat wakes, storm surges and sea level rise, safe sites are harder and harder to come by.

Over-wash is a persistent cause of nest failure in Florida.  To help reduce the likelihood of over-wash for one oyster rake in the Tolomato River north of St. Augustine, the Northeast Florida Aquatic Preserves undertook an ambitious project in late February with support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Audubon Florida and students from Bethune-Cookman University and Santa Fe College.  The goal was to buffer an oyster rake from passing boat wakes with 4,500 pounds of bagged recycled oyster shell, hoping to give this season’s oystercatcher chicks a better shot at survival.

Volunteers unloading bagged shell from one of the boats.Andrea Small, Aquatics Preserve Manager, led the adventure at 6:45am from the Vilano boat ramp.  The project was tide-dependent and required four boats to ferry the 150 thirty-pound bags of shell from the shell-packing area to the nest rake.  Low tide was at 1:00pm, so installation needed to be completed before then otherwise the boats, and volunteers, could be stranded until the tide returned.

Volunteers laying bagged shell in the three designated locations as the tide is receding.The weather the week prior had blue skies, sun and 80-degree temperatures, but the morning of the project was clear, windy and near freezing.  Even with suboptimal temperatures, everyone was eager to work.  All volunteers arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to tackle the challenge.  Everyone was provided with waders, gloves and life vests, loaded onto the boats and dropped off on the rake.  The boats made their way up-river to the packing area, were loaded with the bagged shell and then returned to the rake for the volunteers to unload.  Shortly after 9:00am, the first bags of shell arrived to the rake.  Volunteers formed a hand-off line and the boats were quickly unloaded.  The bags were stacked in three layers along three points of the river side of the rake and secured in place with rebar to prevent shifting from the on-coming waves.  The volunteers could see almost immediately that the bagged shell was diminishing the wave action on the rake!

Volunteers securing the corners of the bagged areas with rebar at low tide.By noon, all the bags were in place and low tide was coming quickly.  Everyone was loaded back on the boats and returned to the boat ramp.  Even through the wind and cold and wet feet, everyone was pleased at being able to participate in some small way for the conservation of the American Oystercatcher.  This and other oyster rake sites along the Tolomato River will be monitored by FWC and Aquatics Preserve staff and other volunteer bird stewards during nesting season in hopes of reporting successful nests and fledged chicks.

Audubon Florida Presidents Consulted for Planning of Non-Native Species Awareness Program

Feb. 23-28, 2014 was National Invasive Species Awareness Week .

non-native snail eggsSadly, due to cuts in funding, many programs that have been documenting the spread of non-native plants and animals have had to look elsewhere manpower.   Audubon members are in a unique position to help.  They are observant, spend considerable time outdoors both close to home and away, and are generally knowledgeable about plants, wildlife and of course birds.  Who better to notice unwanted visitors,   expanding ranges of established species and new arrivals?  But then what?

There is a website dedicated to training and tracking non-natives that is complete with materials and certifications.  There is an app called “Ivegot1” available for both Android and I-phones that can be used in the field.  Snap a photo and send it to the data center along with some notes and voila! phone app to report invasive species locations

It seems simple enough but according to a recent survey Audubon members as a whole are not doing it.  Why? Awareness.

When over 50% of Florida’s Chapter Presidents completed a short survey developed by Audubon staff results were mixed.  Some did not understand the importance of tracking the movement of non-natives. Others felt they did not have the capacity (manpower and time) to take on additional projects.  But the most common response was they did not know about available online resources and tools that could be used in the field during the many outings they plan throughout the year.

As a result the Chapters Committee has planned to include a workshop at the upcoming Audubon Academy April 11-13  called Apps, apps and more apps.  Participants will be asked to bring their smart phones, download apps and practice using them.  In addition, all members will be encouraged to become REDDY certified online. (We might even launch a contest for the chapters with the most certified members.)

program logoAlthough The National Invasive Species Awareness Week highlights a week, the problems relating to non-native species exist throughout the year.  Audubon’s capacity through regular chapter activities is a natural fit with these important programs.  We look forward to sharing this fun technology with all while providing valuable data as citizen scientists.

Florida’s mid-winter survey: 39,000 shorebirds and counting!

Black Skimmer flock. Photo: Jacqui SulekThe February 7 – 16, 2014 time window for Florida’s annual mid-winter shorebird survey is at the half-way point. So far, team leaders reporting online have logged shorebird and seabird counts for 85 beach sections around the state – a total of 39,452 birds! This is Florida’s only synchronized, statewide winter survey and volunteer citizen scientists contribute mightily to the results.

Foot and boat surveys along the majority of the state’s coastal beaches within a narrow window of time provides a snapshot of the numbers and locations of imperiled bird species, “watch” species, and the opportunity to record band codes and combinations for researchers wanting to know where northern breeding birds spend their winters. Winter surveys help us locate foraging and roosting hotspots and develop strategies to protected those special places.

Bonaparte's Gull. Photo: Susan BergmanTallies of the five focal species in this year’s survey to date are: 588 Red Knots, 375 Snowy Plovers, 216 Piping Plovers, 144 Wilson’s Plovers, and 65 American Oystercatchers. Many of us think that Bonaparte’s Gulls are an unusual winter find on Florida’s coasts but volunteers have reported a whopping 1,926 birds so far. The count for Great Black-backed Gulls stands at 48 and the count of Lesser Black-backed Gulls is 52 at the survey half-way point.

Volunteers are also using their seawatching skills to tally near-shore pelagic seabirds and diving ducks, with 424 Northern Gannets, 326 Horned Grebes, and 11 Red-throated Loons!
Survey crew at Three Rooker Island. Photo: Dana KersteinAnd these are just a snapshot of the counts recorded online with many beach sections remaining to be surveyed on dates through the final weekend of February 15th and 16th. The count’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional coordinators are collecting data sheets that team leaders elected to send by snail mail or email. Help us help the birds by completing your surveys and reporting the data online, via email or snail mail. For more information consult the Florida Shorebird Alliance’s Winter Shorebird Survey protocol online.



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