By Jim Cox, Vertebrate Ecology Scientist
Education and outreach have been a huge part of the Vertebrate Ecology Program this winter and spring. Since January 1, the program has led three field trips for professional land managers and natural resource professionals, hosted two university classes, made presentations at a national conference in San Diego as well as before two civic groups, met with nearly a dozen land owners and land managers in the Red Hills region to discuss new cost-share programs available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, been featured in a front-page news article in the Tallahassee Democrat, and also led six impromptu field tours for local dignitaries and civic leaders. These activities might not have the big splash of landing a large research grant, but they have an important trickle effect and incrementally increase our exposure and effectiveness in research, conservation, and land management.
Another primary focus for Vertebrate Ecology this winter has been collecting DNA samples from Brown-headed Nuthatch populations. This species has become rare south of approximately Orlando in Florida, and the remaining populations may be losing some of their genetic variation as a result of their increasing isolation and dwindling sizes. The samples are being analyzed by collaborators at the University of Florida, but some interesting field notes have resulted. Nuthatch populations associated with flatwood sites throughout Florida are much larger and healthier than population associated with upland sandhill sites. For example, nuthatches were observed at 97% of the sample locations in flatwood sites on the Ocala National Forest but only 35% of the sample locations in sandhill sites in the Ocala National Forest. Flatwood populations also have larger family group sizes, averaging 2.75 individuals per family group in flatwoods while the averaging only 2.0 individuals (i.e., only pairs observed). This variation deserves further study and may provide insights into both the factors that have reduced nuthatch numbers in many areas as well as the underlying factors influencing cooperative living.
The harsh winter of 2009-2010 has had a lingering effect on some wildlife. Nesting season for the brown-headed nuthatch typically starts up in early March, but nesting on many sites is delayed this year as nuthatches try to replenish food reserves before attempting to produce and incubate eggs.