The future remains uncertain for the struggling Florida scrub jay, an endemic state species that is increasingly difficult -- but not impossible -- to find in Palm Beach County. Statewide efforts to study and document the birds' population and habitat use may help to turn the tide for this gregarious bird.
A small group of nature enthusiasts recently spotted and photographed two unbanded birds during a hike in Jupiter Ridge Natural Area in northern Palm Beach County. Ecological factors -- including habitat loss and fire suppression -- have greatly diminished scrub jay numbers in South Florida, making this a rare spot. Unfortunately, state scrub jay experts warn that such sightings don't necessarily indicate that the species is bouncing back in the region.
"Sorry to report, but no rebounds in Palm Beach (County)," says Reed Bowman, research program director of avian ecology at Archbold Biological Station in Venus. Bowman, one of the state's foremost authorities on the bird, recently co-authored a report for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examining the jay's numbers on managed lands.
He says when comparing recent data (collected from 2009 to 2011) to statewide surveys from 1992 to 1993, the numbers are "not encouraging." He says Jonathan Dickinson State Park is "probably the only site in that region where some population growth has occurred and where management could still greatly increase the jay population."
Even there, though, new data "still shows a large decline since 1992-1993, but the recent trends have been upward." At last count, Jonathan Dickinson had 54 jays. Jupiter Ridge, meanwhile, had just 5.
For a species that is on the decline, every bird counts. As such, Audubon Florida is highlighting its Scrub Jay Watch program during a "Boots on the Ground" fund drive. The "citizen science program" is hoping to train more than 100 volunteers to help complete surveys to tally current jay populations. This data is used in part to form recommendations on habitat use and management.
The Herald-Tribune, in reporting on the hunt for volunteers for the annual Jay Watch, says "while not assigned 'canary in a coal mine' or keystone status, scrub jays are considered an indicator or umbrella species." Elsewhere in the state, conservationalists are performing habitat rehab -- including in Ocala National Forest -- to help nurture the state's estimated population of 7,700 to 9,300 jays, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
This post cites data from "Boughton, R. and R. Bowman. 2011. State wide assessment of Florida Scrub-Jay on managed areas: A comparison of current populations to the results of the 1992-93 survey. Report to USFWS. 37 pp."