Kudos to our Indian River County Scrub-Jay Volunteers

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
March 2014

The Florida Scrub-Jay, declared a threatened species by the USFWS in 1987, is found only in central Florida, is restricted to sand scrub habitat, and is federally protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is estimated the Florida Scrub-Jay has declined from 100,000 in the 1920s to 6000 (in 1999), only a tiny fraction of its historic range. Most of the decline is a result of humans destroying Florida’s scrub habitat (from groves, communities, highways, airfields, golf courses, to mines, power plants and industry). The habitat requires critical scrub-oaks (Scrub Jays eat the acorns), cover (protection from hawks), and open sandy areas (for caching food). Traditionally to maintain such habitat, periodic lightning fires clear the ground cover and prevent sneak attacks by snakes on nests while also keeping the trees low so that predators cannot swoop down.  Thus fire suppression together with human settlement further reduces usable habitat throughout the species’ original range. Not only are the Scrub Jays threatened, but also the plants and animals that share its scrub habitat.

We are very fortunate in Indian River County to have dedicated local Scrub-Jay volunteers.

Florida Scrub-Jay by Bob Montanaro.

As a part of Audubon’s citizen science, volunteer Joe Carroll, formerly with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, organized our JayWatch program.  He monitors  (with help from the volunteers listed below) the Scrub Jays at Indian River Club, South County Park, 65th Street, Vero Beach Airport and Wabasso Preserve.  In 2006, Joe Carroll and Pelican Island Audubon decided to expand our monitoring of the Threatened Florida Scrub-Jay population. The JayWatch volunteer program of The Nature Conservancy was expanding from the Lake Wales Ridge to a statewide count. JayWatch offered a protocol for monitoring Florida Scrub-Jays, which requires fieldwork to be undertaken in late June and July so that the juvenile or newly fledged jays could be counted with their different plumage.  This census period allowed the investigator to tell how successful each nesting season has been.   These results when combined with other census efforts give an idea of statewide population trends over time. The Nature Conservancy no longer is actively involved in the program, but by a joint effort of Audubon Florida, Archbold Biological Research station, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other supporters, it continues.

PIAS has been engaged in JayWatch for 7 years now as a volunteer project.  Board and chapter members, and even interested outsiders have spent time demonstrating to each participant a field, bird watching, biology oriented citizen science project. Three areas have been continuously monitored in central and southern Indian River County.  Others were followed for lesser periods since we are dependent on landowner’s permission for access. One banded bird has been observed now for 6 seasons and was still present this past summer. Several of the sites being monitored would not likely be counted otherwise, since there is no one assigned to manage the properties for the Florida Scrub-Jay. This effort has continued without chapter expenditures, just generous field time by the following volunteers: Jenn Anselmo, Brian Barnett, Jackson Carroll, Joe Carroll, David Cox, Bill and Darlene Halliday, Julie Hanson, Gary Hickman, Nancy Irvin, Roz James, Tina Marchese, Faith Mitchell, Bob Montanaro, Beth Powell, Jane Schnee, Jim Shea, Peter Sutherland, Tim Towles, Jens Tripson, Beth Viviano, and Billi Wagner.

Beth Powell, also the county’ Conservation Lands Manager, and Samantha McGee of the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park (SSRPSP) are paid staff, but they oversee and collect data to assess the success of habitat management efforts in the north county with the essential help of volunteers.  At the SSRPSP, Judy Elseroad and Jenn Anselmo, and Doug Sutherland do surveys and conduct conditioning in preparation for trapping and banding the Jays for the 33Scrub-Jay families each with their own territory.

From 1997-2007 PIAS partnered with Pelican Island Elementary School Principal Bonnie Swanson to enable purchase of 18 Scrub-Jay habitat lots with a $235,000 grant from the USFWS and donations that became the Pelican Island Audubon’s Martha Wininger Reflection Park adjacent to the School.   Beth Powell also overseas with volunteers Jane Schnee, Nancy Soucy, Jack Casselberry, Marion Conley, and Barbara Relva the Jays in this Pelican Island Elementary School Preserve and at North Sebastian Conservation Area, Sebastian Airport & Golf Course, Sebastian Harbor Preserve, private properties at Bristol/Barber, Wabasso Scrub, 66th Avenue and Vero Lake Estates.  These volunteers contribute many hours to watching, recording and trap training newly found and known birds.  Each year, juveniles are monitored and trap trained in order to be able to color band them as well. They have banded 142 Jays in 14 years.

Today there are approximately 33 families outside SSRPSP with about 85% of them color banded for individual identification.  In this way, each family’s territory is recorded and mapped and how many juveniles are fledged from year to year.  To date, we know that at least 10 jays have dispersed into the St. Sebastian Preserve State Park through color band verification.  
In addition, Joe Carroll and Roz James conduct monthly bird counts at Indian River Club Golf Course, which also has Scrub-Jays.  From October to April members of the Club are invited to accompany them.   Roz James and Jackie O’Brien also conduct bird counts monthly at Vero Beach Country Club.

To illustrate the life history of the Florida Scrub-Jay, Pelican Island Audubon Society office manager and wildlife photographer Bob Montanaro spent considerable time this past year under the guidance of wildlife biologist Joe Carroll waiting for opportunities to document Florida Scrub-Jay behavior through still photographs and digital video. “The Secret Life of the Florida Scrub-Jay” brings to life the often-elusive behavior of these birds and why the preservation of their habitat is one of the best ways to preserve the Florida Scrub-Jay along with the myriad other species that make the scrub their home. Hopefully it will educate the public about this unique and threatened bird and ways to protect it.

If you want to volunteer to be part of these teams, call our office 772-567-3520.

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