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Florida and Me: Reflections From a Naturalist

By Mel White
From the Spring 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.
Swallow-tailed Kite by Jay Paredes via Birdshare
Swallow-tailed Kite in south Florida. Photo by Jay Paredes via Birdshare.

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We’ve got this thing, but it’s complicated.

One Wednesday in early May of 1985, two friends and I threw our stuff into a van and set off for Florida. We drove all night through the darkening Delta and into the pinewoods, across the Apalachicola and the Suwannee, taking turns sleeping. By late Thursday afternoon we were following Highway 72 into Myakka River State Park.

At a wetland just past the entrance we saw a Limpkin, the odd, snail-eating wader that’s a real Florida specialty. It was a lifer for all of us, and we considered it a good omen for our trip. Heading farther into the park—an evocatively subtropical place with palms and live oaks loaded with Spanish moss—we stopped beside the meandering Myakka. It was a perfect sunset: dead calm, golden, and ripe with the fragrance of jungle flora.

It’s possible, in those pre-Internet days, that I hadn’t even seen a video of a Swallow-tailed Kite flying; I may only have seen photos and read effusive, not to say fulsome, descriptions of their grace. In any case, the species was the grail of the trip for me, a quantum level above all the other southern Florida birds we were hoping to find.

I didn’t have to wait long. We’d hardly stepped out of the van when a kite appeared above the treeline nearby, heading our way. Oh, my. Another arrived, and then another, and another, until there were 10 Swallow-tailed Kites right over us, soaring and swooping. Oh, my, my. That praise hadn’t been fulsome, after all. Could the right word be ethereal? Angelic, maybe.

Thus began my first experience with Florida.

Fast-forward 29 years. I’m in a 757 banking over Miami to approach MIA from the west. It’s 5:30 P.M. on a Friday, and down below the freeways glow as seething parallel ribbons of red taillights and white headlights. Soon, I will be in that mess. I’m already tensing up.

This is my tenth trip to Florida. By now I’ve settled into what might be called a like-hate relationship with the state. I don’t love it, the way I love the Colorado Rockies or southeastern Arizona, but it’s impossible not to appreciate its marshes and flatwoods, swamps and prairies, karst springs and scrub.

Then there’s the other Florida: the excrescent growth along the coasts like mold on an orange. The freeways, the sprawl, the resort communities with their well-watered lawns and golf courses, the population that just last year surpassed New York to become the third-most-populous state in the country. And the traffic: Miami is a flat Los Angeles.

The good news is that more than two thirds of Floridians live within 10 miles of the coast. All that wide-open space in the middle is good for those of us who’d rather see a night-heron than a nightclub.

On that long-ago trip my friends and I followed James Lane’s 1981 edition of A Birder’s Guide to Florida all the way down to the Keys. We found friendly Scrub Jays at Oscar Scherer State Park, and 13 years later got a life bird when this state endemic was split as Florida Scrub-Jay. We saw Smooth-billed Anis, Gray Kingbirds, and Black-whiskered Vireos at “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a green treasure set among the condos and shell shops of Sanibel Island. We saw Whitecrowned Pigeons at Snake Bight Trail in Everglades National Park, and learned that the horror stories of mosquitoes were oh-so-true. It took some work, but we found a Mangrove Cuckoo at Sugarloaf Key, and we stopped to see the Burrowing Owls on the golf course at Marathon.

We even took a seaplane flight out to the Dry Tortugas (only $90 in those days) and experienced a bit of a migration fallout on tiny Garden Key. Purple Gallinules, Upland and Buff-breasted sandpipers, thrushes, Gray Catbirds, warblers, and Bobolinks turned Fort Jefferson’s parade ground into an open-air zoo.

As it happens, that’s the only trip I’ve made to Florida strictly for birding. All the other visits have been for assignments, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get a pretty good schooling in the state’s diversity.

I’ve crawled through palmetto scrub beside a zoologist tracking radio-collared black bears, part of a disjunct and threatened population. I’ve been snorkeling with manatees, floating motionless as one swam up, stared into my goggles, and passed by like a placid mini-submarine. I’ve cruised canals south of Miami in an airboat with biologists capturing and tagging American crocodiles, and held one in my hands. I’ve gone “slough-slogging” with a naturalist in Big Cypress National Preserve, wading across a marsh to a bald cypress stand, flushing American Bitterns and Barred Owls along the way. I’ve stayed at the Archbold Biological Station in the unique Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem, and learned about the long-running research project studying the Florida Scrub-Jay, with its cooperative breeding habits and fire-dependent life history.

To my surprise, I found that Florida is home to some of the largest cattle ranches in the country—vast tracts that in some cases have been held by the same family for generations. I learned, too, that at least a few of these multimillionaire landowners are seriously dedicated to preserving their ranches as open space, home to Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, Crested Caracaras, black bears, gopher tortoises, and more. (A cynic might point out that some of them have made even more millions by selling conservation easements on their property—but a well-managed ranch is far better than yet another Happy Village golf course community.)

Not long ago I met a dedicated group of folks working to publicize a potential Florida Wildlife Corridor, a network of connected habitats stretching from the Everglades north to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and west to Alabama. This ambitious concept would preserve 15.8 million acres—60 percent of it already protected lands, with 6.3 million acres yet to be given conservation status either through acquisition or easements.

There’s quite an involved back story to the corridor effort. Once, Florida was in the forefront among states in its conservation outlook. Through two far-sighted programs, Preservation 2000 and its successor, the Florida Forever Land Acquisition Program, the state provided funding to protect large areas for conservation. In addition to parks and wildlife refuges, much of this land was overseen by powerful entities called water management districts, charged with protecting the very limited water supply—both above ground and in aquifers—that’s essential not just to Florida’s growth but to its very existence.

This changed drastically with the election of 2010, which brought an administration and legislature far more interested in economic development than conservation. Scores of people seen as environmentalists (or just insufficiently prodevelopment) were fired from state agencies, including water management districts. The land-acquisition budget of Florida Forever was cut by more than 90 percent. One Florida conservationist told me that “in one year they undid twenty years of environmental progress.”

Which brings us to November 4, 2014, when Florida voters passed, with an astounding 75 percent approval, the Water and Land Conservation Initiative. This measure—in theory, anyway—directs the state to restore funding to Florida Forever. At this writing the state legislature is in session; conservationists are worried that antienvironmental politicians will find loopholes and, ignoring the overwhelming public directive, channel funds away from land acquisition into other projects. Some Florida Forever backers have been wearing buttons around the state Capitol reading “75%” to remind legislators of their duty.

In many ways Florida is at a critical moment for conservation. After years of stagnation, Florida Forever could once again begin protecting additional habitat for the state’s many unique, and in some cases endangered, plants and animals. At the same time, biologists are struggling to deal with the issue of introduced species, which threaten ecosystems in existing preserves. Exotic fish and plants such as Brazilian pepper have already displaced native species over wide areas, and now the Burmese python has caused the virtual extirpation of small mammals such as rabbits, foxes, and raccoons in Everglades National Park.

The multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), covering 16 counties, aims to restore something like the original water flow of southern Florida, including the “river of grass” that feeds the Everglades ecosystem. Now about 15 years into its projected 30-year span, CERP has restored natural meanders to the Kissimmee River (which had been turned into a string-straight canal), and used water-control structures to shunt more water to the Everglades.

The news is mixed regarding CERP’s effect on wading-bird populations in southern Florida. In June 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “down-listed” the Wood Stork from endangered to threatened status, with surveys indicating an increase in numbers of 76 percent in the past 30 years. Some conservationists protested that the action came too soon, and their position may have been bolstered when a 2014 study showed that populations of waders such as Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Snowy Egret were down 60 percent over the preceding five years. This could be a temporary anomaly caused by higher-than normal rainfall making feeding more difficult, but it indicates that biologists need to remain vigilant, and ecosystem restoration efforts are far from complete.

When I see conservation news from Florida I wish the best for those fighting the good fight: the people walking the entire length of the proposed wildlife corridor to publicize its importance; the people trying to protect manatees, both by saving the springs they need and by restricting the motorboats that kill so many each year; the people competing with big agricultural interests to get water allocated to the Everglades.

If conservationists regain their influence in Florida, maybe they’ll be able to steer the state back on a course of resource protection and land preservation. Because, although millions of tourists arrive each year to lie on the beach or stand in line at amusement parks, plenty of us think of Florida and imagine paddling through mangroves and hiking through the pine flatwoods.

I have many wonderful memories from trips to Florida: a Snail Kite flying almost literally over the “Entering Big Cypress National Preserve” sign on the Tamiami Trail; a gorgeous indigo snake crossing the road in Myakka River State Park; a Short-tailed Hawk soaring over a scrub preserve near Lake Placid; a no-holds-barred fight between a Barred Owl and a Red-shouldered Hawk in a quiet baldcypress swamp; the stalking gait of Wood Storks, which somehow manage to be simultaneously ugly and beautiful; skeins of Roseate Spoonbills in the Everglades and clouds of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns at the Dry Tortugas; the manatees, the crocodiles, the panthers.

That’s the Florida so many of its citizens love—and rightly so. That’s the Florida they’re trying their hardest to save for all of us.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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