Pelican Island Audubon receives the Audubon Florida 2016 Best Conservation Projects Award

The President’s Hoot
by Richard Baker, Ph.D.
November 2016

At the annual Audubon Assembly 2016, PIAS received the Audubon Florida 2016 Conservation Projects Award for our developing a new Spoonbill Watch and designation of the Indian River County Stick Marsh as a Critical Wildlife Area (CWA). Dr. Jerry Lorenz, State Research Director for Audubon Florida, has reported that Roseate Spoonbill populations in Florida are abandoning historical Florida Bay and Everglades nesting and foraging areas coincident with wetland loss in the Keys and salt-water intrusion from sea-level rise in their Everglades foraging habitats. Dr. Lorenz hypothesizes that the Spoonbills may be moving to central Florida to find better habitat for feeding and nesting. Spoonbill Watch is designed to collect data to test that idea in our area.

Dr. David Cox displays Audubon Florida’s 2016 Best Conservation Project Award to Pelican Island Audubon along with Audubon Florida’s Jacqui Sulek and Eric Draper. Photo: Richard Baker

As part of National Audubon’s Climate-Change Initiative, PIAS received a small grant to develop Spoonbill Watch, a citizen-science project designed to monitor Roseate Spoonbill colonies in our region.  PIAS focused first on the Stick Marsh islands in southern Brevard County where birders had, for several years, noted a colony of Spoonbills on two tiny islands within a 6,500-acre impounded wetland located in the 150,000 acre Upper St. Johns River Basin project.  PIAS enlisted the help of some 20 volunteers to monitor the colony and determine flight lines to and from foraging areas. A census of the islands conducted on April 1st by Dr. Lorenz and Dr. David Cox revealed 588 wading- and water-bird nests, including 140 Spoonbill nests. According to Dr. Lorenz, the Stick Marsh colony ranked among the two or three largest nesting aggregations of Spoonbills in Florida in 2016.

Disturbance is a major factor affecting nesting success. We have seen photographers getting too close, and even landing on the Stick Marsh islands to photograph chicks, causing the adults to leave the nests.  The result is that, without parental protection, the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predators such as vultures, crows, and snakes. Presently there is little we can do to stop this disturbance. However, the Stick Marsh colony is so significant that it is now being considered for designation as a Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). At the first FWC public hearing to consider the Stick Marsh islands as a CWA on July 25, 2016, most of 40 people attending were in favor of the designation. The final decision will be made at the FWC meeting at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg on November 16th .

Meanwhile, we have worked with St. Johns River Water Management District to install temporary signs around the Stick Marsh islands to provide a buffer for nesting birds.  If the islands are designated as a Critical Wildlife Area, more robust signage will be posted in the water and boats will be prohibited from approaching too closely to the islands. FWC wildlife officers will be able to cite boaters who violate those boundaries.

Roseate Spoonbill by Bob Montanaro.

PIAS scientists expect the pilot Spoonbill Watch citizen-science monitoring program to grow over the years and to include additional locations.  At PIAS meetings and on our website, we are asking volunteers to report new colonies and foraging sites in the region.  PIAS is developing a volunteer training manual, similar to Audubon Florida programs such as Jay Watch and Eagle Watch. Spoonbill Watch will be successful only with the help of trained citizen volunteers observing and tracking birds throughout Central and coastal Florida. Monitoring birds and wildlife and protecting habitats is an important part of what PIAS does throughout our region. One hundred years ago, Audubon fought the plume hunters to conserve wading birds in Florida. Today, habitat destruction and disturbance are imminent threats to our birds and their habitats. We must continue to be advocates for animals, plants, and natural communities in Indian River County though our actions, as that is the mission of PIAS.

Climate change poses serious challenges for conservation scientists and policymakers in protecting the environment. National Audubon Society’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change report found that 314 North American bird species may lose over half their breeding or wintering ranges by 2080 from climate change. Yet with these challenges come opportunities to engage communities of concerned citizens in climate science and conservation. With a $5,000 grant from National Audubon and their birds and climate science team, PIAS initiated not only Spoonbill Watch, but also produced “Spreading the Word on Climate Change,” a Florida-focused set of Power Point presentations and videos entitled Birds and Climate Change, showing how climate change is predicted to affect the ranges of familiar Florida birds: 7-, 14- and 17-minute versions of these YouTube videos are available at our website. These videos will be used to deliver presentations to a variety of audiences, including our regional Audubon chapters, over the coming months.

Osprey monitoring: PIAS members Bob Bruce, Dr. Bill Loftus, Susan Boyd, Donna Halleran, and I completed the second successful survey at Blue Cypress Lake,locating by GPS all 298 tagged Osprey nest trees this nesting season, and observing 265 active nests.  Geo-Mapping of the GPS data visually displays the nests on a satellite image of the lake.  This yearly survey is crucial in providing monitoring data collection to track changes in the nesting population to understand what is happening in our environment. However, the funding for the monitoring survey is finished and PIAS needs additional funding for future surveys.

Yearly, we add to our bird-monitoring efforts to help preserve Florida’s Scrub Jays, Eagles, shorebirds, Ospreys, and now Roseate Spoonbills. No experience is needed – Come volunteer, learn how, get involved!

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