07 April 2008

North Florida Habitat Conserved With Partnership Funding

Conservation of 3,328 acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands in North Central Florida will be possible with the recent award of a $1 million federal grant, and contributions from local partners.

Funding for the North Florida Wetlands Conservation Project came from the North America Wetland Conservation Act, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An additional $2,045,000 in matching funds will be provided by the Alachua Conservation Trust, Alachua County, the Florida Communities Trust, the Conservation Fund, and three private individuals.

The project - within five miles of Gainesville - "provides perpetual preservation of 3,328 acres of imperiled wetland habitat and related upland habitat," according to the grant summary. "There will be 2,643 acres protected through fee simple acquisition and 685 acres protected through a perpetual conservation easement."

"We will complete site protection with the funding provided by the NAWCA grant," said Robert Hutchinson, Executive Director of the Alachua Conservation Trust, Inc.

The Alachua Conservation Trust will hold title to 410 acres at Lake Tuscawilla and have a conservation easement over 685 acres at Kanapaha Prairie. Alachua County will have ownership of 2,233 acres at Barr Hammock.

The project site is in the general area of a band of "perched wetlands called wet prairies in the southern portion of Alachua County, Florida," Hutchinson said. "Wetland habitat types include prairie lake, depression marsh, basin marsh, and others."

[Aerial view of Lake Tuscawilla]

Aerial view of Lake Tuscawilla. All photographs courtesy of Robert Hutchinson.

Several tracts of land are part of the habitat conservation initiative.

"The Tuscawilla and Kanapaha Prairie tracts are primarily palustrine emergent wetlands fringed by hardwood hammock," Hutchinson explained. "The Barr Hammock tract is primarily palustrine forested and palustrine emergent wetlands intermixed with a variety of upland habitat types. The largest (20,000+ acres) is called Paynes Prairie, and is a National Natural Landmark, in part due its importance for migratory birds."

"These lands provide essential habitat for some of the rarest plants, animals, native communities and migratory birds, needed to sustain populations into the future," according to the grant application. "The North Florida Wetlands project is part of a unique Florida feature, the Sinkhole Lake, in this case, Pierson's Sink, into which the Barr Hammock and Kanapaha Prairie tracts drain. This sinkhole lake is small, and the surrounding land floods quickly and deeply, draining into the Floridan Aquifer and ultimately the lower Suwannee River. Its subterranean connection to the Suwannee River results in a direct impact to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf of Mexico."

The habitat conservation has several recognized benefits for resident and migratory birds.

"The project site hosts migratory and resident Whooping Cranes as well as migratory and resident Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks and several other federal and state listed endangered species, threatened species, and species of special concern. Kanapaha Prairie alone is a staging area for thousands of migratory Sandhill Cranes every year. The project area also hosts numerous migratory and resident waterfowl species, including priority species such as Northern Pintail, Mottled Duck, Lesser Scaup, Mallard, American Black Duck, Fulvous Whistling Duck, and Black-Bellied Whistling Duck. Herons, egrets, ibis and other waterbirds and wading birds utilize the area year-round. The properties in the project area also host neo-tropical migrants. Raptors congregate and forage within the area, notably Swallow-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Coopers Hawk, Osprey, and American Kestrel."

"The birding community is especially excited about Lake Tuscawilla Preserve, as it will now be fully accessible to the public," said John Winn, a member of Alachua Audubon Society.

"Lake Tuscawilla Preserve, even before its purchase by Alachua Conservation Trust, was known as a good birding spot because it is so visible from U.S. Highway 441. Winter is the best time for seeing unusual birds there, and these have included White-faced Ibis and Vermilion Flycatcher. These are birds usually found west of the Mississippi River, but they occasionally appear in the east. Another mostly western bird, White Pelican, although fairly common in winter along the Gulf coast, was essentially unknown from Alachua County up until about ten years ago; sometimes a single individual would show up, but now large flocks in winter are almost commonplace. But they can be quite irregular. On one Christmas Bird Count a few years ago, there were only two individuals counted, whereas in other years there have been hundreds. The winter of 2006-07 was particularly noteworthy for White Pelicans at Lake Tuscawilla.

"Tuscawilla and Kanapaha Prairies, due to their open vistas, consistently offer rewarding birding; there is always something to see, soaring hawks, elusive sparrows, the whites and blues of our wading birds," Winn said. "In winter, the area's large flocks of migratory Sandhill Cranes frequent the prairies. In summer, the fairly uncommon resident subspecies of Sandhill Crane, almost always in a pair, and sometimes with a chick, can be spotted by a careful observer. The prairies are dynamic places with fluctuating water levels, so the variety of birds is constantly changing. In wet winters, the prairies can host many species of migratory waterfowl, mostly ducks, but sometimes a few geese. In drier winters, such as we've had the past few years, standing water can be at a premium and these places can be even more important.

"Annual Christmas Bird Counts by the Alachua Audubon Society have been held in the area since the 1970s. The count circle is centered on Paynes Prairie State Preserve, and include portions of both Tuscawilla and Kanapaha Prairies. The diversity of the area's birdlife is reflected in the high number of species noted on the counts, usually over 140, an unusually high number for an inland location in Florida.

[Whooping Cranes at Kanapaha Prairie] [Cranes at Kanapaha Prairie]

Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes at Kanapaha Prairie.

"At the Lake Tuscawilla Preserve, owned by Alachua Conservation Trust, a regime of prescribed burning will restore the prairie to a more natural condition and also insure that trees do not encroach into the prairie basin and alter its value as bird habitat. The addition of adjacent acreage will facilitate burning. At Kanapaha Prairie, the conservation easement insures that development will be limited and prevent degradation of the habitat."

The NAWCA proposal indicated the "North Florida Wetlands Project represents phase I of an effort to protect critical habitat for migratory birds and other wetland-dependent species in north central Florida." Its "karst geology is also vital to the many springs in the north central Florida area and provides a direct connection to the aquifer. Keeping these lands in conservation is not only vital for wildlife, it is vital for a healthy human water supply," the grant said.

"The project site is a key component of a connected and diverse part of Florida's landscape, linking the Ocala National Forest, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Goethe State Forest, and finally the Gulf Coast, including the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. The majority of the project site falls within the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN)."

The FEGN, developed by the University of Florida and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is a decision support model used to help identify the best opportunities to protect ecological connectivity statewide.

The project site is within the Partners in Flight Bird Conservation Area 31 in peninsular Florida and lies within the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture's Orange Creek/Oklawaha Basin Waterfowl Focus Area.

The locale was also recognized as a "top 10" project site by the Alachua County Ecological Inventory done in 1996.

"Two smaller wetlands are miniature versions of Paynes Prairie: one is called Tuscawilla Preserve and the other is Kanapaha Prairie (these are Seminole Indian names)," said Hutchison. "In both cases, the wet prairies are partially protected, and our hope is to gain protection of the entire basin. These prairies have become very popular for upscale suburban development around the rim, and this causes management headaches for both fluctuating the water levels and fire, as well as problems with pets and exotic plants.

"In the case of Kanapaha Prairie, the neighbors attempted to buy the prairie basin when the owner sought to sell it for development. When their fundraising fell short, The Conservation Fund stepped in to make up the difference, and they will be selling a conservation easement to permanently protect the property. The majority of Tuscawilla was protected a few years ago by ACT with a grant from Florida Communities Trust."

White Ibises at Tuscawilla Preserve.

The FWS grant says that "Florida's rapid conversion of natural areas to agricultural, urban, and other land uses has caused the loss and degradation of critical habitat for breeding, wintering, and migrating birds including waterfowl, waterbirds, and neo-tropical migrants. Human encroachment and disturbance also threaten to adversely impact birds' ability to successfully breed, forage, and rest in what areas remain."

Public benefits identified by the federal grant application are: "The Tuscawilla property will have public access via a trailhead, nature trail and scenic overlook for wildlife viewing, as well as 12 educational classes per year. The Kanapaha property will have limited, organized access for Audubon's Christmas bird count, Whooping Crane and Sandhill Crane research, and conservation activities planned in advance and with supervision. The Kanapaha property also has volunteers conducting bluebird box maintenance and study. The Barr Hammock Preserve will have public access on more than 14 miles of hiking/biking trails, as well as a parking area/trailhead, several scenic overlooks, interpretive signage, and 12 regularly scheduled educational classes. In general, the public at large will benefit if wetland dependent species, such as Sandhill Crane and Whooping Cranes, continue to visit this region, which is critical for the species' survival."

"I think most birders appreciate that habitat conservation is essential if we are going to be able to continue to enjoy our hobby, passion, obsession, or whatever it is," Winn said. "We increasingly realize that habitat conservation entails spending money to purchase or otherwise protect land."

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