My first two weeks of field work have been very productive! While most of my Florida Scrub-Jay groups are still getting used to me, one group has really gotten the idea of associating me with peanuts. On a visit this week, 5 jays were less than 10 feet away from me while they hopped around and snatched peanuts from all around the dummy trap. One even landed on the trap, and one stuck its head inside the trap to grab a peanut! Some were even comfortable enough to sit out in the open and break the nut open in front of me. Where I place this trap appears to be on some kind of territory boundary, as the peanuts have triggered some aggression between individuals (where they basically fly at eachother and body slam the other off a branch). There are clearly at least two family groups that are drawn in here, totalling 8 individuals, and maybe more. Through an hour and a half period, the 5 jays returned twice for peanuts, and a pair returned 4 times! An Eastern Towhee even hopped by and grabbed a peanut, as if to say “Thanks human, but I don’t need trained!”
One of the benefits of field work is obviously getting to work outside all day, usually in very unique habitat that most people don’t spend very much time in. Searching for your target species almost always puts you in a situation to see much more than you are looking for. The Ocala National Forest is full of wildlife, including the Florida Black Bear (a subspecies of the American Black Bear). Hunting of the Florida Black Bear has been outlawed, and vehicle collisions appear to be the number one cause of death; not a good thing for a species experiencing habitat loss and fragmentation issues. There are thought to be only around 1500 indivudals in Florida, so when I glanced down a side and noticed a large black critter in the road, I promptly turned around to glimpse my first Florida Black Bear! This bear was a massive full grown adult, and it slowly walked towards my jeep before trotting into the woods. I was extremely happy to have my first encounter with a Florida Black Bear from a vehicle, especially since this one was so large! Black bears are actually very shy, and usually run from people, even when on foot. I’d been seeing bear sign all over the forest, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d see one. And I am sure I will see many more, so I wasn’t too mad about not getting my camera out fast enough!
At my next field site, while travelling at a decent speed down a soft sandy road, I noticed a long stick in the road…at the last second, I realized that this stick has a few strange curves in it, and I immediately stopped the car inches in front of an Eastern Corn Snake! It was a little chilly out due to gusty winds and cloud cover, and the snake was simply stealing some warmth from the sand. It was very obliging and let me take a few pictures. Lucky for the snake, bird activity was low, and he was able to stay out in the open without being harassed by the birds of the scrub.
On the American Kestrel side of the project, Karl and I put up 3 new kestrel nest boxes in the Ross Prarie State Forest. While the pines were a bit dense and the turkey oaks were a bit numerous in spots, we found a few ideal “openings” in the habitat with limited understory that just might attract a pair of breeding south eastern American Kestrels. A number of wintering raptors were using the surrounding areas, including Red-tailed Hawks and my first of year Northern Harrier, the latter of which often shares hunting spaces with American Kestrels. The Ross Prairie State Forest is basically surrounded on most sides by fast highways and housing developments, so it is an extremely important connection for wildlife in the region, along with the Cross Florida Greenway on its northern border. In time, kestrels may find the boxes, but in the meantime, I am sure Eastern Screech Owls and Flying Squirrels will keep the boxes occupied.