Conserve Wildlife Blog

MIGRANTS AND MANATEES

December 9th, 2012

FOLLOWING OUR FLYWAY “FRIENDS” TO FLORIDA

By Todd Pover, Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager

When cold weather settles in, as it recently did, our thoughts often turn to the south and warmer temperatures. Many of our long-distance migrant bird species are one step ahead of us, having already flown south for the winter.  Stephanie Egger and I, CWFNJ’s Beach Nesting Bird Project team, recently had the chance to join some of them in Florida.

The purpose of our trip was to attend the American Oystercatcher Working Group annual meeting to learn what our colleagues all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are doing to protect and study oystercatchers, and to share what we are doing in New Jersey as well. This year’s meeting was held in Cedar Key, Florida, a small town about two hours north of Tampa that is a very special place for oystercatchers. It is not unusual to find flocks of 500-1000 oystercatchers roosting on oyster shell rakes just offshore from this quiet gulf town, making it one of the most important wintering sites for this species in the U.S.

“New Jersey” oystercatchers are typically found in the Cedar Key flocks – birds that bred in New Jersey and were marked with orange color bands that have unique two-digit codes.  These bands and similar bands or flags used by other states, help researchers track movements and learn about the long-term survival of this species. 

This year, for the first time, we were also able to color band piping plovers in New Jersey, as part of a partnership with the State University of New York to study the localized movements and flights of plovers on their breeding grounds. While not the objective of the research, the bands have also provided some hints about migration and wintering patterns, as a small number of resights have been reported this fall. “New Jersey” piping plovers have been seen on Cumberland Island, Georgia; Joulter Cays, Bahamas; and most recently Madeira Beach, just southwest of Tampa where Stephanie and I just visited. That Florida plover, a female technically know as blue/orange; blue/yellow to represent the band combinations on both of her upper legs, but dubbed Kelly Ripa to make it easier to communicate about her amongst field staff, nested in Avalon, New Jersey this past summer.  She successfully hatched her eggs, but unfortunately none of her chicks survived. At least we know our “friend” is alive and well in sunny Florida – a nice choice for the winter given it was 75° on our recent trip while it was snowing back in New Jersey. We didn’t get a chance to track Kelly on this trip, but we are optimistic we will see her again when she returns to “Jersey” in the spring to nest.

The Florida Gulf Coast is obviously an important region for many of our migratory shorebirds. But our trip to Florida also provided us with an exciting opportunity to observe another extremely at-risk wildlife species that makes it home there.  Although manatees occasionally stray north to our waters in New Jersey they are native to the Southeast U.S., in particular, Florida. The warm waters and abundant springs of Kings Bay and Crystal River, halfway between our destinations of Tampa and Cedar Key, provide an important winter refuge for manatees. Scientists estimate at least 500 manatees are concentrated in this area in the winter, but upwards of 100,000 boats also annually use these waterways.

Therein lies part of the conflict. Much of this watershed is shallow and manatees are slow moving, making them highly susceptible to boat strikes. And in fact, prop scars were clearly visible on many of the manatees we observed.  Like most of our endangered species, a number of factors contribute to their precarious status, but human related threats remains front and center.

Potentially contributing to their risk is the mini-tourist industry built around viewing manatees. Manatees are extremely approachable and charismatic. They can reach 10 feet long and weigh in at 800-1000 lbs. And in the crystal clear shallow waters they are easy to see.  Even as a biologist who works with wildlife every day, I was wowed by what I saw. To put it non-scientifically….Holy (sea) Cow!!!

Which begs the question in this case, can we love our wildlife to death? While manatees are legally protected by endangered species laws that clearly establish they cannot be “harmed, harassed, or pursued”, interpreting when that line is crossed can be difficult to determine and enforcing it even harder.  Tourists and residents alike are understandably naturally drawn to manatees, but many feel compelled to swim with and touch them, or just in general, get as close to them as possible.

As in many things in life, finding the balance is the biggest challenge. With this in mind, Stephanie and I sought out a way to view and learn about manatees while disturbing them as little as possible. Among the choices we found to have a “hands on” manatee experience without having our “hands on a manatee” was a low-impact kayak trip with Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Co. We knew we made the right choice as soon as we met Matt Clemons, owner of the company and the guide for our manatee excursion. A biologist himself, Matt is a passionate advocate for manatee protection and knowledgeable about the behavior and science of manatees as well.

We were the only paddlers (or boaters for that matter) out on the water that afternoon. We saw upwards of fifty individual manatees, adults and juveniles alike, in pristine protected habitat like the Three Sisters Springs, which is part of the Crystal River NWR, but also in developed lagoons. Matt was adamant about promoting a “no touch” policy, but beyond that, even though we were able to float over or close to manatees, he was careful we didn’t linger too long or that our presence altered their behavior. To my mind, this was model eco-tourism in practice.

Of course, Matt pointed out that just a few days earlier, over the Thanksgiving weekend, this area was choked with boaters, divers/snorkelers, and kayakers seeking out manatees. Because manatees appear so tolerant of human presence, it is easy to assume we aren’t having an impact. Which brings me full circle back to some of the shorebird species Stephanie and I work hard to protect.  Here in New Jersey we have a very small population of piping plovers, on average just 120 pairs in a given year. Just as with the manatee population, the loss of just a few individuals or any sustained low reproductive success can have big ripple effects on the long-term survival and population of these species.  We need to err on the side of caution.

My first impression of manatees was that they presented an entirely different conservation dilemma than I am used to dealing with, but the more I learned and thought about it, I realized the basic issues are the same.  Finding that balance I spoke of – between species protection and allowing human recreational use of habitats shared by both, limiting human disturbance without turning off the public’s interest in conservation, and navigating  legal and regulatory protections in a reasonable manner – these are the same whether it be in New Jersey or Florida, or with respect to manatees or piping plovers.

On a personal level, the manatee encounter was an incredibly inspiring wildlife experience for me (and Stephanie)!  It also made me appreciate the challenges we face as biologists and wildlife managers and re-energized me professionally.

 

If you would like to support the work we do to protect New Jersey’s beach nesting birds, please click here http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/getinvolved/donate/

If you want to see what Save the Manatee Club is doing to protect manatees or view their manatee web cam, click here http://www.savethemanatee.org/savethemanateecam.html

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2 Responses to “MIGRANTS AND MANATEES”

  1. Rick Weiman says:

    Nice write-up Todd, sounds like a great trip. My parents live in Cape Coral so maybe we’ll take a day trip up to Crystal River and kayak with Matt on our next trip!

  2. Todd Pover says:

    Rick,
    I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you go – it was both fun and informative. And thanks for the positive feedback on the post. I was a little hesitant to write it at first because the manatee portion wasn’t necessarily related to our CWFNJ mission or native NJ species, but once I tied it all together it actually did seem appropriate. And a little variety is never a bad thing. Lastly, it also sparked a healthy debate with some folks about the issues I brought up.

 
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