31 January 2008

Florida Scrub Jay Holiday

On my first full day at the Space Coast Birding Festival I signed up for the free Scrub Jay field trip. This trip met at the Merritt Island Visitor Center. This would be my first time seeing Florida Scrub Jays and it was definitely a high point of the festival for me. Not only would I see these goregeous birds but I would also have the opportunity to feed a few of them.

Our leaders took us to a restricted area of the Kennedy Space Center complex, seen above. And after explaining that this was a Scrub Jay research site, that we would be giving the birds a holiday. A holiday for the Scrub Jays means we would be feeding them peanuts. The researchers use this method to lure the Scrub Jays out and read their bands. They have 4 bands total, 2 on each leg. This information can tell you what bird it is and what colony is comes from. Research on these threatened birds will help with future conservation projects of Scrub Jay territory.

Florida Scrub Jays are the only endemic bird to Florida. Their current territory is very fragmented and this could lead to the collapse of their population. FL Scrub Jays have large family groups and the young will stay with the group for 2 years before moving to another family group. Fl Scrub Jays aren't the best fliers and tend to move short distances, often to the next family group over. These jays will have territories that border each other and will defend and conserve their food supply in each area.

The decline of FL Scrub Jays is mostly due to this fragmented scrub habitat which the birds prefer to be within a certain height. They are a fire-dependent species. What this means is that without prescribed burns, the scrub habitat will become too tall. Likewise, a scrub that is too short isn't ideal either. They need a healthy scrub area that also has open spaces so that they can cache their food supplies (they bury nuts and acorns for the slower season). Without an adequate space of scrub habitat these birds simply will be less and less productive each year. Eventually, mortality will surpass success and the group will die out.

Not all of the Scrub Jays would feed from your hand. Actually, there were quite a few that were very wary. For those, we would throw peanuts on the ground. The unusual thing about this trip was that our leaders just let us roam about the area unsupervised. They told us to explore the scrub and see what we could find. As I was walking down a sandy road I saw my first of many feral hogs in Florida. This was an adult and it quickly disappeared. On my last day of the festival I would see a whole group of young hogs, all black but one little brown one.

This was a great trip and I would recommend it to anyone that hasn't seen a Florida Scrub Jay up close. Other than the jays, there were only a few other birds seen. Some Roseate Spoonbills flew over and we saw one Loggerhead Shrike, in addition to the regular vultures seen overhead. This may not be the birdiest of areas but the Scrub Jays steal the show. They are simply beautiful birds and hopefully, with continued education and conservation projects their species will be protected.

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