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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Breeding Bird Atlas II - Kenansville NE 6

Kenansville NE 6 was the last of my assigned blocks for 2015 and this morning I was finally able to visit.  The area is within St. Johns Water Management District's Upper Basin Project, northwest and west of T.M. Goodwin WMA's Broadmoor Unit.  Driving to the area requires a Special Use Authorization from the district.  Species list from BBA I was 27 species above Observed.  This morning I recorded 25 above Observed, a similar total but very different composition  This is what second BBA's are all about!

Prior to about 1988 (BBA I was 1986-1991) this area was farmland, mostly used for cattle ranching.  Around that time the water management district began purchasing these drained marsh lands for the dual purpose of providing better water management and for conservation and restoration of natural resources.  Currently the area is entirely flooded, the depth varying among the management units.  Vegetation varies from open marsh to heavily wooded edges, mostly Red maples, Cabbage palms, and American elm trees.  Only one levee remains available for non-boating traffic and it covers only about 1.3 miles in the northeast corner.  However, non-boating access is not so limited as it first appears.  The levee on the west side of Broadmoor is barely east of the block.  For two miles, one can peer into the block, scanning the open water and rows of willow trees, ghosts of farming times, for nesting wading birds and other species.

The species list from BBA I provides further ghosts of an agricultural past.  Burrowing owls, Northern bobwhite, and Eastern meadowlark found in the first BBA are but a memory today.  Marginal habitat for meadowlarks exist in some patches, but bobwhite and Burrowing owl are surely gone.  A couple of Wild turkeys appeared on the levee at the north end of the block.  This species is outside its safe date range, thus they were not recorded.  The presence of young birds, or some other higher indication of breeding would allow them to be recorded, but the mere presence of the species is not enough, especially given the marginal habitat in the area.  Perhaps they had wandered down the levee from a more suitable area.  Nice to see them nonetheless.  East of the spot where the oddball turkeys were observed, across a canal and another levee, there exists a small clump of mature Slash pines.  Slash pines are one of the first upland species to die off when a wetland is restored (and one of the first to invade when it is drained.)  Their presence indicates that at least a small part of the area remains above the flood, perhaps offering refuge to a few land lubbers like these turkeys.  Stranger than wetland turkeys and surely the most unusual bird of the day, between the levee and the island of pines, was a singing male Indigo bunting.  It is far too early for this species to be in migration and the fact that it was singing indicates that it is still not ready for summer to end.  Indigo buntings breed (bred?) in the northwest part of Brevard County, but are rarely if ever found in summer in the southwestern parts of the county.  Other indications of a departure from past land management strategies, woodland species like Chuck-will's-widow and Blue jay were found in BBA I.  They are not likely to be found in the current management scheme.  Agricultural use of the area is an aberration from its long history.  Open marsh and swamp habitat prevailed for thousands of years.  Even further back, during periods of higher sea level and prior to the current level of sand deposits from the eroding Appalachian Mountain Range, the St. Johns River Valley was a coastal lagoon similar to today's Indian River Lagoon system.  The habitat of today, while not a perfect representation of Pre-Columbian Florida is much closer to it than what was there during the first atlas.

Of the species found in BBA II but not BBA I, some are expected in light of the near restoration of the landscape.  Snowy egret, Anhinga, Tricolored heron, and Black-bellied whistling-duck are on the new list, no surprises there.  Black-belleid whistling-ducks are actually a recent colonizer, barely a presence at the time of the first atlas, but now found as far north as South Carolina on a regular basis, straying still further north.  Some are a bit more baffling.  Mourning dove, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-eyed vireo, and Northern mockingbird were recorded on BBA II but not BBA I.  These are generally upland species and are some of the most commonly recorded species in both atlases.  It seems more likely they would have been present in BBA I and "flooded" out in BBA II.

The species list (and lack of some expected species) from BBA I, gives me reason to believe that the block was visited only once in the inaugural atlas.  Effort data were not recorded in the first atlas.  In order to make a realistic comparison of effort between the two atlases, we have chosen to use the species list as a relative measure of effort.  27 species last time versus 25 species this time, also from a single visit, renders another visit unnecessary.  However, I do plan to visit next year in order to run a mini-route, something we did not do in the first atlas.  During today's visit, I collected data from 12 points on the mini route.  These won't count toward the official mini route.  The range of dates and time of day are set to coincide with peak singing activity in songbirds.  We are past the date range and I was past the time range for most of the morning anyway.  However, the point counts are a valuable addition to eBird.  Only six of these points were inside the block.  From five others, I could peer into the block from Broadmoor.  One offers no view of the block but is in line with the rest.  The last three continue north into block 5.  This is in keeping with the mini route methodology as they do not capture habitats or species not found within the block.

What fun!?!  This is likely my last field atlas work for the 2015 season.  I had hoped to see some congregations of Swallow-tailed kites and contribute to the survey conducted by ARCI, but alas, I only saw two.  Two more survey dates await; I still have a chance!