About 30 volunteers joined Paul Miller, biologist for the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, for a “sparrow drive” on the Preserve on January 29, 2011. It was a beautiful winter morning with highs in the 70s and the group included park visitors from Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, and various places around Florida. Participants also included biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Archbold Biological Station, Florida Institute of Technology, and myself, Paul Gray from Audubon (what do biologists do with their time off?).
At more than 50,000 acres, the Preserve holds the largest remaining tract of Florida’s endemic Dry Prairie ecosystem, and also the largest remaining population of one of our most imperiled birds, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. The estimates are maddeningly uncertain, but we think there are only a few hundred sparrows remaining, in three distinct populations (the Preserve, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, and Avon Park Air Force Range). Part of my Audubon work concerns another endangered bird, the Snail Kite. Unlike Snail Kites, who have many fans and a fairly steady stream of funding and attention, these attractive little sparrows seem quietly lost in remote native grasslands, almost unknown to citizens and policy makers alike. The managers of the “sparrow properties” work very closely together, but troubling gaps remain in our understanding of sparrow biology, and what kinds of management actions help these birds the most.
One of the purposes of the sparrow drive is to band Florida Grasshopper Sparrows for on-going studies. But most of the sparrows captured are other species, of interest on their own. On Saturday, we captured 3 Bachman’s Sparrows, one Eastern Grasshopper Sparrow (a migrant from up north), and an Eastern Meadowlark. This day, we didn’t get the prized Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.
The drives are remarkably simple. Sparrows don’t fly high, so mist nets (thin enough so birds don’t notice them and with pouches that catch the birds on impact) can be set. Then we just walk toward them dragging a rope and clapping. The sparrows flush ahead of us from the prairie grass and flutter into the nets. A Sedge Wren went into the net and out the other side—they are so small.
Once the birds are captured, the biologists band, weigh, and take various measurements before release. This affords a great chance for people to see the birds up close, learn about their biology, and get photos.
There are drives being planned for February and March and if you want to attend, contact Paul Miller, Paul.Miller@dep.state.fl.us, for scheduling. The activity level is moderate and people can stop when ever they like. And if you don’t’ want to walk the drives, you still can observe the banding.
Postscript: And even if you are not interested in sparrow drives, the Preserve itself is just spectacular. The wide grassland vistas astonish most Floridians. The remote location makes the sky one of the darkest in central Florida, with no traffic noise detectable. It has more species of plant per acre than anywhere in the United States. In turn, the butterfly list (plant pollinators) is the longest in the state. Audubon has had full time staff working in this region since 1936 and that long presence was pivotal in getting the Preserve established.