Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Florida's Blue Backwoods Gem, The Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a 2.5 to 3-ounce, 12-inch-long, blue and gray crestless jay that is endemic to peninsular Florida’s xeric oak scrub and scrubby pine flatwoods. In fact, the Florida scrub-jay is the only bird species entirely restricted to the state of Florida. In the adult plumage, a necklace of blue feathers separates the whiter throat from the gray underparts, and a white superciliary line or eyebrow often blends into a whitish forehead. The back is gray and the tail is long and loose in appearance. Scrub-jays less than about 5 months of age can be identified by their dusky brown head and neck and shorter tail. However, in late summer and early fall, juvenile scrub-jays undergo a partial molt of body feathers that renders them indistinguishable from adults in the field. Adult male and female Florida scrub jays are not distinguishable by plumage, but are differentiated by a distinct "hiccup" call vocalized only by females.
Florida scrub-jays occupy year-round territories averaging 22 acres in size. This species is one of the few cooperative breeding birds in the United States, whereby surviving fledgling scrub-jays usually remain with the breeding pair in their natal territory as "helpers,” forming a closely-knit, cooperative family group. Group size ranges from 2 to 8 birds, but pre-breeding numbers are usually reduced to either a pair with no helpers or families of 3 or 4 individuals (a pair plus one or two helpers). Helpers participate in scanning for predators, territorial defense against neighboring scrub-jay groups, predator-mobbing, and the feeding of both nestlings and fledglings.
Because of their cooperative breeding strategy, Florida scrub-jays typically delay mating until at least 2 or 3 years of age. Nesting is quite synchronous, normally ranging from March 1 through June 31 and nests are usually placed in shrubby oaks, 1 to 2 meters in height. Scrub- jay clutches usually contain 3 or 4 eggs, are incubated for 17 to 18 days, and fledging occurs 16 to 19 days after hatching.
Fledglings remain dependent upon adults for food for up to 2 months after leaving the nest.
Florida scrub-jays usually live their entire lives within a short distance of where they were hatched. Usually, a male pairs with an unpaired female within a portion of his natal territory ("budding") or within a few territories of his natal territory. Young females typically disperse from their natal territories earlier than males and wander greater distances from home before pairing with a male. However, most Florida scrub-jays pair and become breeders within two territories of their natal ground; most dispersals are two miles or less, and in suitable habitat, more than 95 percent of all observed scrub-jay dispersals are 5 miles or less in distance.
Scrub-jay dispersal behavior is influenced by the intervening landscape. Protected scrub habitats will most effectively sustain Florida scrub-jay populations if they are interspersed within a matrix of surrounding habitats that can be utilized and traversed by scrub-jays. Brushy pastures, scrubby corridors along railway and country road right-of-ways, and open, burned pine flatwoods provide links for colonization among scrub-jay populations. However, expansive bodies of water, dense forest, urban development, suburban residential areas, shopping malls, major highways, and treeless, wide-open pastures inhibit dispersal movement of Florida scrub-jays.

Florida scrub-jays forage mostly on or near the ground, often along the edges of natural or Man-made openings. Animal food items consist primarily of terrestrial insects, but may include a wide array of species weighing up to 1/3 the body weight of a scrub-jay including, treefrogs, lizards, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings, and juvenile mice.
Acorns are extremely important in the diet of Florida scrub-jays, especially from September through March. During this time jays harvest and cache thousands of scrub oak acorns throughout their territory. Each scrub-jay may cache 6,000 to 8,000 acorns per year. Acorns are typically buried beneath the surface of the sand in openings in the scrub during fall, and retrieved and consumed in winter and early spring.
The Florida scrub-jay was first listed by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission as a State-listed threatened species in 1975. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) subsequently listed it as federally threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act in 1987. A 1993 statewide census documented about 4,000 breeding pairs of Florida scrub-jays remaining in Florida, including 374 pairs in mainland Brevard County. Coupled with the estimated 850 breeding pairs of scrub-jays on the Federal lands of Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brevard County’s 1993 Florida scrub-jay population was the highest of any county in the state. However, State-wide Florida scrub-jay population trends are closely correlated with scrub habitat loss and the 1993 population estimate of 4,000 breeding pairs was no more than 15% of the pre-settlement population estimate. In spite of legislated protection by the Endangered Species Act, the most precipitous Florida scrub-jay population decline has occurred during the last 15 to 20 years with an estimated 25 to 50 percent reduction in jay numbers. Recent studies in southern Brevard County have documented a decline in scrub-jay breeding pairs of more than 33 % since 1993.

Florida scrub-jay densities may increase in sparsely developed suburban areas where many patches of scrub remain and build out is 33 percent or less. These population increases in modified habitat probably result from supplemental food sources and the initial creation of openings in the scrub and visual buffers (buildings) to neighboring jay families. However, as development escalates toward complete build out, the survivorship of fledgling jays declines and failed nesting attempts increase. Because adult scrub-jays are long-lived, resident pairs often persist for years in some of the most densely human-populated Florida suburbs. Although these breeding pairs may continue to nest, they incur high nest failure rates and all suburban scrub-jay populations studied are declining. Annual nesting productivity must average at least 2.0 young fledged per pair for a population of scrub-jays to remain stable for the long-term.
Scrub Conservation and Development Plan (SCDP)
The Endangered Species Act protects endangered and threatened species from Federal and non-federal actions that result in the unauthorized "take" of individual protected animals or that may jeopardize the continued existence of a protected species. The FWS describes a take of protected species to include nests, eggs, young, adults, or habitat and is defined as harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.
A 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to issue incidental take permits for situations where development of private property conflicts with the habitat needs of endangered or threatened species. In order to receive an incidental take permit, the property developer must prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan that outlines steps to avoid or minimize impacts to listed species or mitigation for unavoidable impacts. The Habitat Conservation Plan is a negotiation among diverse interests and a consensus building planning process. All affected parties must support the solution.
In June 1991, a letter from the FWS informed the County of its potential liability for third-party violations of the Endangered Species Act or a "take”. This resulted from the County issuing development permits for habitat occupied by Florida scrub-jays, thereby facilitating modification or destruction of habitat and disruption of normal scrub-jay behavior. In December 1992, the Board of County Commissioners authorized a planning process leading to the design of the Scrub Conservation and Development Plan (SCDP). The SCDP is a Habitat Conservation Plan for scrub and Florida scrub-jays in Brevard County.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded the SCDP process. Brevard County received a $310,000 federal grant to finance all elements of the planning process. The County contracted with consultants to conduct the research necessary to draft a county-wide plan. The County also provided administrative support for the SCDP and committed a part-time environmental specialist to manage the project. The Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy accepted an invitation from the County to facilitate the planning process.
The Board of County Commissioners appointed two citizen ad-hoc committees to develop the SCDP- the SCDP Citizen Steering Committee and the Scientific Advisory Group. Representatives of these committees met over a period of three years in an effort to develop the goals and objectives of the SCDP.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Florida Bobwhite Quail

     For all this time I've been writing on Quail's Hollar Farm and I noticed I've completely forgot to do a post on the darn quail, well ok  themselves. So here it is, my post on my favorite Florida bird, sorry mocking bird....

                              The Famous Face of Our Farm, Bob

     Here in Florida there is only one local ground bird, that being of course the adorable yet imposing and obnoxious bobwhite quail. These tiny little birds are about the size of a hamster and are local to the Florida pinewoods and grasslands. They're not as common as the used to be, but thanks to ecological restoration projects, they're making a comeback, and a loud one. The reason why these birds are called bobwhite is because the males make a "bobwhite' noise, the call actually sounds as if the bird is calling for bobwhite. It's a pretty sound just loud. Word of advice for all of you urban farmers out there, DO NOT put them right outside your window, unless of course you like it when a rooster-like bird has an obsession with a white bob and just feels determined to voice his opinion. These wonderful little plump partridge family members are hunted during the fall, no not be me, but by others, I can't imagine who would want to hunt them though. Some people right? tsk tsk tsk...

Despite their common look they actually only thrive in a specific kind of habitat, because of their size, they're vulnerable to predation. That means they can't go too far into the grass lands as there's the chance a hawk will be watching them while they're looking for insects. Yet they can't venture too far into the woods either, because of, well a ton a animals are rather found of quails in a culinary sense. Really to be honest they're on the bottom of the food chain. In a nutshell, the only place they really thrive is on the edge of the forest, that way they can retreat to either side if there's a predator anywhere around. So this is a hint to all you land owners out there, don't bother cutting the grass around the edge of your tree lines for at least twenty feet, why? Well weren't you listening? For the bobwhites of course... It's crucial that we don't loose this little quail, because other more endangered animals are also dependant on them for food.

These Danny Devotes of the bird world are raised basically anywhere, in apartments, urban farms or even released back into the wild if you have the correct environment to offer. I've found that they do best in hutches or small aviaries. They seem to like to feel enclosed on three sides so make an effort to provide them with that type of setting. They're not sensitive to too many diseases but that doesn't mean you should keep them in terrible living conditions. Always make sure their quarters are clean. I feed my birds game bird crumble with some green foodstuffs from the vegetable garden, they seem to like roughage. I've only had a few birds at a time so I've noticed these birds do best in pairs, they're not french enough for 'menage a trios.' I used to have three, one male and two females. Then the one dominant female ended up almost scalping the other female so I had to sell the lesser dominant one. (I guess it's true, someone in those situations always get less attention) Keep them clean, in pairs and with a place to hide, they're not very vain. Here's a tip, never keep a male alone, they'll crow night and day twenty four -seven. Always have a female around, they do not do well solo, keep them in pairs.

The bobwhite quail is a wonderful little bird to have on the game farm, it's recommendable as a beginner bird or as another member of an aviary, they aren't aggressive and are seldom seen if they're given the room. Yet you can be treated to their presence at around dinner time where you can watch them all come out of the brush while they look for food (those of you with aviaries). That's why they're the face of our farm, they bring me a sense of home every time I see one. So why not bring a part of the Florida backwoods culture to your home? They're like the real deal minus the banjo and tobacco stains!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Where dem' Oranges at?!?!

That's what I'm asking myself, where in the living god are the orange groves? I live in a town with the word orange in it's name yet for as long as I lived here, I've never seen one orange orchard. Then I looked into it, (because what else would I do?) It turns out actually that our town, oh I'll just say it, "Orange Park" not only had orange groves before the the freeze wiped them out in the thirties (much like my 09' tomato crop), but they also had monkey research facilities, yes, monkey research facilities.....I'll explain.

Orange Park was the home of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, one of ten regional centers for primate research. The Orange Park center, established in 1930 by psychologist Robert Yerkes and Yale University and the Rockefeller Foundation, was the first laboratory in the United States for the study of non-human primates.

Part of the land on which the Foxwood development sits was once a monkey research facility called the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology (1930-1965). Prior to the Yerkes facility opening in 1930, Yerkes was engaged in his own research with two great apes, aptly named “Chim” and “Panzee”. His findings convinced officials at Yale University, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation to sponsor the Orange Park facility. Initially designed to house about 25 chimpanzees, researchers worked with an estimated 65 chimps (and possibly more) during the lab’s 35-year history. This location was home to chimpanzees nurtured as humans such as Gua chimpanzee and Viki and other primates from the estate of Madame Rosalia Abreu in Havana. It was home to some of the leading behavioral scientists of the time, some of whom either liked or hated living in the humid South. These researchers studied various aspects of primate behavior, including basic biology, sensory function, reproductive systems, behavioral patterns, physiology and anatomy. Comically, rumors about the place by Orange Park residents included those of scientists cross-breeding humans with apes. Yet, the term “Monkey Farm” was (and still is) the popular name given to the Yerkes Labs by Orange Park residents.

The plot of land in Orange Park which Yerkes Labs sat upon was 188 acres, about a mile from the town of Orange Park. The actual research buildings sat on less than an acre, on what is now part of the Foxwood Center plaza (facing Orange Park Medical Center on Kingsley Avenue and next to the kangaroo which I drive by every day nearly). In 1966, the abandoned buildings and adjacent land were purchased by Developer Marvin Wilhite of Ahpla, Inc., who still lives in Foxwood and built other communities such as Foxridge. He chose the name Ahpla (using a backward arrangement of the letters) after a female chimp named Alpha, who was the first chimp born at the Yerkes Labs on Sept. 11, 1930.

Foxwood Center still has some of the original laboratory buildings that once housed the chimps, the grounds caretaker, and administrative offices. These stand alongside others that have been added, including the Orange Park Chamber of Commerce building. The old caretaker’s house is now The Granary. (WHAT?! the granary my favorite store mind you, was a monkey keeper's house?!?!)

I was just as baffled when I read this as I'm sure you are, who in the world would have thought we had some sort of "Planet of the Apes" facility here? I mean ok I understand every small town has it's weird residents, like the crossing guard who waves to everyone at the corner, who isn't a crossing guard..... But a monkey facility? Wow...just wow....

What was I talking about before? oh right the orange groves...we had oranges, there I said it, yay, we had orange groves then all the darn things froze. But a monkey facility people! in Orange Park, what's next? A black hole in the local WinneDixe janitor's closet?!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall Greetings

So it's fall again, that wonderful time for Florida whern the leaves start to change and we can finally get back to work in our vegetable gardens. One of the few things I like about living in northern Florida is at least we get to see the change in seasons, although I am a bit peeved because some winter days can be in the 70's. Yet just cold enough at night to prevent me from growing my tomatoes. Anyways, so I encourage everyone to start planting all of the cold loving plants, those being cabbage, kale, broccoli, basically all of the brassicas as well as the leuttces. I haven't had much time to write anything really because of my school work, but with my ever so dissapearing free time I hope to be wrinting again soon. Happy October everyone!