|The three Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks found floating in flood waters are healthy and eager to be fed. Photo by Mary Peterson/USFWS|
Mary Peterson, a biologist in our South Florida Ecological Services Office, tells us about a team effort to save some Florida grasshopper sparrows from heavy rains.
An unpredicted, freak rain event on May 4 flooded nearly all of the first Florida grasshopper sparrow nests of the season, prompting the Service and its partners from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to carry out an emergency rescue of chicks and eggs when the second round of seasonal nesting attempts was threatened by heavy rains last week.
After the first round of storms, FWC field crews paid increased attention to nests at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and a private ranch where these highly endangered sparrows are being studied. Late on the evening of May 17, these crews became increasingly concerned about the approaching rain storms and decided to check nests they knew had chicks or fledglings.
Three 1-day-old chicks were found alive floating in water while the female continued to try to incubate them. One 9-day-old fledgling was also found alive. The birds were collected and cared for overnight. Just before sunrise the next morning crews checked all the known nests and found all of them to be either flooded or in danger of being flooded, with another round of storms on the way. In consultation with FWC, we collected 30 eggs from all the nests at both sites.
We took the eggs and young birds collected to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) in Loxahatchee, Florida., to be part of the Florida grasshopper sparrow captive propagation program—where just a few days earlier, the first captive-bred Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks had hatched.
Of those 30 eggs, 20 were still viable and at various stages of development. They’re currently being incubated at RSCF. Some of the more developed eggs may begin hatching any day now. The young birds are also being cared for at RSCF and doing well as of May 23.
The effort to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow is truly a team effort. The rescues May 17 and 18 wouldn’t have been possible without the talented and dedicated field crews and Dr. Erin Hewett-Ragheb of FWC’s Florida Wildlife Research Institute. Hats off to Florida grasshopper sparrow technicians Lindsay Wagner, Neil Pearson, Annie Meyer, Conor Eagan, Alison Fox and Michael Maples, and University of Maryland Baltimore County Ph/D. student and expert nest-finder, Archer Larned. They’re all true conservation champions.
Although these floods couldn’t have come at a worse time for the sparrows, this species has been known to re-nest as many as five times and produce as many as three successful broods during a single nesting season. So, fortunately, the reproductive potential is still there to produce young in the wild during this breeding season. All Florida grasshopper sparrow nests found across all sites are being protected with predator fences, which are nearly 100 percent effective. If water levels recede and dry patches of habitat become available, these sparrows could begin building new nests by late May.