Managing Florida Scrub-Jay Habitat

Three juvenile Florida scrub-jays perch in a sand live oak tree.

In 2001, the state purchased a 446-acre tract that bordered the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway to the south, I-75 to the east and a major housing subdivision to the west through the Florida Forever program. This piece of pie-shaped land was sand pine-dominated scrub that had not been burned for a long time with complex management concerns due to its location.  

Satellite map view of the area showing the property adjacent to I-75. (Property boundary is denoted by a black line.)

 

Dense, tall sand pines form a canopy before restoration of the property.
Dense, tall scrub oaks with thick understory before restoration of the property.

Looking back, I would never have imagined just how much time, effort and money it would take to reach success. I also could not imagine how much pure joy would come from tackling this project that initially seemed too onerous.

The Discovery of Florida Scrub-Jays

At the time of the purchase we were not aware that there was a possibility of Florida scrub-jays on the property or nearby. We had contracted with the Florida Natural Areas Inventory to conduct a Cross Florida Greenway-wide natural community study, and based on their findings, we began the process of scrub restoration by first removing the sand pine overstory. In 2006, one of my co-workers saw Florida scrub-jays on the site in an area that was not part of the clear-cut but consisted of very dense, tall scrub oaks. I knew nothing about this bird other than the little I had learned in school and from various meetings with other land managers. I reached out to Craig Faulhaber, Jimi Gragg and Karl Miller at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They conducted a preliminary survey and found about eight Florida scrub-jays. FWC staff members did some initial banding, which involves capturing a bird, placing a uniquely numbered aluminum band around its leg and then releasing it. Banding allows an individual bird to be identified when it is recaptured or found dead.

About the Florida Scrub-Jay

Florida scrub-jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens) are endemic to Florida, meaning it lives nowhere else in the world. This bird, about the size of a robin, has a vibrant blue head, wings and tail and pale gray back and belly. Its song is a scratchy weep, a harsh scold and/or a screech. Florida scrub-jays form family groups that consist of a breeding pair and up to six non-breeding birds. They are frequently seen hopping on the ground or in trees and shrubs looking for insects. These birds are only found in low-growing oak scrub and scrubby flatwoods with sandy soils. The Florida scrub-jay is an endangered species because of loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat throughout Florida.

Craig Faulhaber with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds a Florida scrub-jay during the banding process.

Restoring the Land

In 2008, I reached out to Cheryl Millett (then head of The Nature Conservancy’s, now Audubon’s Jaywatch, program) and we recruited volunteers to help with summer surveys as part of their citizen science Florida scrub-jay program. Every year the number of Florida scrub-jays increased. In 2011, we converted an additional 230 acres of the sand pine-dominated scrub to the south of the original restoration area by utilizing a combination of traditional logging and mulching. By this time, we had about 50 birds and 550 total acres of scrub. Approximately three years later, in 2015, the Florida scrub-jay population had moved into this newer area, and the population had almost doubled. Encouraged by our success thus far, we looked to further increase the habitat, and in that same year, we restored another 292 acres of scrub, separated from the original restoration area by a quarter mile to the south. Three years later, in 2018, we had three new family groups here and in 2019 one of those families successfully raised two fledglings. We now have close to 900 acres of restored scrub with an estimated 36 territories and 145 birds. 

 

Graph demonstrates the increase of the Florida scrub-jay population between 2009 and 2019.

This past summer saw a record 48 fledglings.

Three juvenile Florida scrub-jays perch in a sand live oak tree.

One of the complicating factors with this property, as mentioned earlier, is the location. Although prescribed fire is the best management tool for scrub, we were unable to utilize it extensively as the main method for maintaining the scrub, due to smoke concerns on I-75 and the large subdivision of homes to the west. We did manage a couple of small acreage burns that we were able to mop-up completely on the same day, but, I knew this wouldn’t be enough to maintain the tight parameters for good scrub-jay habitat. The rotation of prescribed fire for this fast-growing scrub is probably on an average of five years. I began experimenting with different mechanical treatments to create results as close as possible to that of prescribed fire. My goal was to reduce the density and height of oaks and create sandy areas.

Clearing after mowing to create sandy areas.
A banded Florida scrub-jay caching acorns in the sand to save for later. Each bird can bury up to 5,000 acorns each year.

Measuring Success with a Bird Banding Program

Unsure of how to measure the success of these efforts, I decided to pursue banding the birds so that I would be able to follow Florida scrub-jay groups through time and gauge their responses to management efforts. I reached out to contractor Monica Folk who came highly recommended from other land managers that had bird banding programs. She has been banding Florida scrub-jays on the Cross Florida Greenway for three years and we have banded over 145 birds. 

A Florida scrub-jay is released after being banded by Monica Folk.

Along with Monica, I have wonderful volunteers from Audubon who have stuck with me for the past 10 years. They help with Jaywatch, trap conditioning and bird banding. Experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Forest Service have also helped. 

Laurie (back right) with dedicated volunteers who help with counting, trapping and banding Florida scrub-jays.

I should probably amend my title to “if you build it they will come…if they’re close.” My ultimate goal is to keep attracting more Florida scrub-jays to the point that we reach carrying capacity and then hopefully, we can be considered as a donor site to help other locations. A couple more successful breeding years and we’ll be close! 

A curious Florida scrub-jay watches as we take its photograph.

About the Author

Laurie Dolan, biologist at the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway

Laurie Dolan has worked on the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway for 20 years. Her first position was as a Senior Forester working with the Florida Forest Service to assist with the Cross Florida Greenway’s fire and timber management programs and then as a Department of Environmental Protection Environmental Specialist II. Laurie grew up in South Florida and obtained a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida International University and a master’s degree in forestry from the University of Florida. 

About The Biologists Tell the Story Series

In this series, we will learn a little more about our biologists, as they share stories of their work in Florida’s state parks. The leadership and scientific research our biologists provide is essential for our legacy of conservation and land management. This series is an opportunity to connect these projects to the places where we ensure the health and sustainability of Florida State Parks.