by Judy Althaus
Atop the ancient sand dunes of the Lakes Wales Ridge, The Nature Conservancy initiated a program that carefully monitors the Florida scrub-jay. Jay Watch keeps tabs on Florida’s “endemic” bird – the only one that lives nowhere else on Earth.
The Florida scrub-jay teeters on the brink of extinction. Its habitat has rapidly declined until 90 percent of the tightly knit scrub-jay families that once inhabited Florida are gone.
Jay Watch is a program based on volunteers—known as citizen scientists—who remain determined to protect this charismatic bird and the habitat it depends upon. Find out how you can join the team below.
Why Jay Watch matters
Conservancy biologist Cheryl Millett, who directed the program for years, says the Florida scrub-jay is a very endearing bird.
“It’s friendly, curious and relatively fearless around humans. Plus its family life is intriguing. Florida scrub-jays mate for life and form small families that live in 25-acre territories,” Millett continues.
“They aren’t strong fliers, and never stray far from home. A juvenile bird stays with its parents for a year or more, helping raise the next nestlings and serving as sentinel for hungry hawks and snakes.”
To scientists like Millett, the scrub-jay is an indicator species of Florida’s oldest wild lands: the ancient islands that are today’s scrub. “When the scrub-jay doesn’t thrive, something is wrong with the habitat.”
The program evolves
The Conservancy directed Jay Watch from 2002 through 2010, but today the lead is being taken by Archbold Biological Station (ABS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) with Conservancy support. All of these experts give high praise to Jay Watch volunteers.
Each summer, the volunteers are paired with field biologists to survey scrub-jay populations and, on alternate years, they also monitor vegetation conditions. From mid- June to mid-July, these trained teams venture into scrub-jay habitat. It may be hot, but it’s also prime time to observe the year’s young birds. Hundreds of volunteers have documented more than 800 jays on multiple sites in as many as 14 counties.
Field results are then compared with those from previous years to show the jay’s populations trends. Jay Watch tells us where the jays are doing poorly, and where they thrive. From these data, maps are created that help land managers decide where and how to improve habitat.
How are the scrub-jays doing?
Millett says that the information acquired is valuable in protecting the jays. “Where scrub habitat has been restored to low and open conditions, we see the birds survive and thrive.”
“Over the long term, however, there has been regular decline. Scrub-jays have disappeared from many counties and that’s a wakeup call to protect scrub habitat.”
Recent Jay Watch results are mixed. Many survey sites showed reduced populations, while only a few saw increases or stayed the same. The good news is that scrub-jays are moving more quickly than expected into areas with restored habitat. It’s key to improve habitat near existing, relatively large scrub-jay populations.
- Habitat loss. Scrub-jays require a rare “oak scrub” habitat, which is unfortunately perfect for citrus groves and human neighborhoods. Conservationists have defended this limited acreage for years, but lose more battles than they win.
- Loss of historic fire patterns. Although wildfires can be destructive, lightning has routinely touched off fires in Florida for thousands of years. Many species like the scrub-jay need fire to maintain their homes. Controlled burns applied by Conservancy professionals actually reduce the intensity of wildfire by thinning out overgrowth and buildup of dead vegetation.
Volunteers are welcomed!
Interested individuals may contact Claire Sunquist, Northeast Volunteer Coordinator for the FWC, at Claire.firstname.lastname@example.org or at (352) 732-1225.
Jay Watch will transition into its new system during 2011, with Claire as a volunteer’s first point of contact. Thanks to Jay Watch’s dedicated volunteers, past and present, we look forward to another exciting year in the scrub!