National Audubon Important Bird Area by Peggy Baker

Blackwater River State Forest has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area (IBA) with a global priority (the highest).  This designation means that this area in Northwest Florida is vital to birds and other biodiversity.  It provides essential habitat for the survival of one or more species.   In 2009, Francis M. Weston Audubon Society (Pensacola) undertook the task of surveying the birds in the (Blackwater River State) forest.

During the three years of weekly bird survey trips into Blackwater River State Forest, the FMWAS (Pensacola Audubon society) team made these observtions:

The team identified 181 different bird species within its 240,000 acres of forest.

The number of species of birds seen in the forest varied greatly from season to season.

1) There were 51 species there year around.

2) In addition, 39 more species were seen only during summer months.

3) There were 59 species observed only in winter.

4) There were 32 species of birds seen only during spring and fall migrations.

5) The most species and numbers of birds were seen in winter when 110 species were   observed.

6) Ninety (90) species of birds nest and raise young in the forest.

Under the Migratory Bird Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a list of Birds of Conservation Concern — 1008.  Twenty-three (23) of these bird species have been surveyed in Blackwater River State Forest.   These include

Bald Eagle                                                        American Kestrel

Swallow-tailed Kite                                         Solitary Sandpiper

Roseate Spoonbill                                          Common Ground-dove

Chuck-will’s-widow                                        Whip-poor-will

Red-headed Woodpecker                             Loggerhead Shrike

Brown-headed Nuthatch                              Wood Thrush

Sedge Wren                                                   Black-throated Green Warbler

Prairie Warbler                                              Cerulean Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler                                   Swainson’s Warbler

Kentucky Warbler                                          Bachman’s Sparrow

Henslow’s Sparrow                                       Le Conte’s Sparrow

Rusty Blackbird

Some of the most important conclusions drawn from the BRSFBS  (Blackwater River State Forest Bird Survey) results include:

The acquisition of the Yellow River Ravine has created a wildlife corridor connecting Eglin AFB, Conecuh National Forest and Blackwater River State Forest.   This provides migratory birds a safe and supportive habitat on their journey across the Gulf of Mexico to and from their breeding grounds.   This corridor is unique in northwest Florida.

During spring and fall migration, 23 species of warblers were identified in small numbers in Blackwater River State Forest.   These warblers depend on insects and worms found in oak, pine, beech and a variety of other trees in the forest to help them recover from their long flight across the gulf or to prepare them for the long trip.  Other migrants, particularly Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes, were found eating the buds of bay trees during fall migration.

The food plots planted for deer and other wildlife attract wintering sparrows in great numbers.  Large flocks of Chipping and Vesper Sparrows were present on every winter trip to these plots.  Numerous wintering warblers including Palm, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers were also found in these plots.  These plots provide a very important winter habitat for many bird species.

Dead snags left standing have attracted large numbers of woodpeckers.   In addition to the Red-cockaded Woodpecker project of the Forestry Department which has been very successful, the forest is the home of good numbers of nesting Pileated, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers.  There are a good number of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and a few Hairy Woodpeckers in the forest during the winter season.

Eastern bluebirds nest in the natural cavities of the dead snags.  The Brown-headed Nuthatches are also plentiful in the forest and use the dead snags for nesting.

Bachman’s Sparrows, a threatened indigenous species, were heard or seen in eleven of the thirteen survey areas in the forest during the spring breeding season.

Southeastern American Kestrels were seen feeding young in a clear-cut area in early spring.  Nesting boxes were erected by the FWC (Florida Wildlife Commission) in 2011 and two pair have been documented nesting in the last two years.  This sub-species has had an overall decline of 82% in the last 70 years.  This nesting evidence is important to the survival of this sub-species.

Wood Ducks were seen in ten of the thirteen survey areas during the nesting season.   Other migratory ducks were observed in low numbers during the winter season in the lakes in Blackwater River State Forest.

Birds that need larger, natural cavities in older oaks are almost non-existent in the forest.  There were no Barn Owls seen or heard in the forest.  Only a few Screech Owls were heard.

Red-headed Woodpeckers, a bird on the national watch list, are present in good numbers in the summer.  However they are less abundant in the forest in the winter because their major food in that season is acorns.  It appears that there are not enough oaks in the forest to provide enough food for these birds in the winter.

Kentucky, Hooded and Swainson’s Warblers were heard and seen in low numbers in the nesting season in the thicket areas along the waterways within the forest.

The ponds at the FWC (Florida Wildlife Commission) Fresh Water fish Hatcher located in BRSF (Blackwater River State Forest) attract migratory shorebirds and wading water birds.  Bald Eagles sometimes perch in surrounding trees looking for feeding opportunities.

Wintering Hermit Thrushes and Blue-headed Vireos have been found in surprisingly large numbers in the pine plantations and in areas of thick undergrowth.

Areas in the forest that should attract wintering Henslow’s and Le Conte’s Sparrows have not been located.  One sighting of each bird was reported in the food plots.

Clearcuts and replanted areas of small (pines) attract birds that prefer tall grasses or short bushes and trees as a nesting site.   These birds usually relocate once the new pines reach head height.  Yellow-breasted Chats, Prairie Warblers, Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings were found nesting in planted, pine areas until the trees were about six feet tall.   Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings also nest in clearcuts and grassy thickets.

In areas where the Sand Pines have been thinned, the numbers and species of birds increase immediately as they find a food source that was not previously accessible.

It is our hope that our findings will impact the management and conservation of this Important Bird Area.

Peggy Baker is with the Francis M. Weston Audubon Society and the director of the 3 year bird survey in Blackwater River State Park which ended in early 2012.   She attended  the Florida Forestry Service Liason (group)  meeting in July and attended a meeting of the Florida Forestry Service 10 Year Plan Steering Committee in early August and nothing was reported on the GRASI proposals.   She found out about the GRASI proposal at the GRASI scoping meeting in August.

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