Fire and water: The elements of rebirth

Fire and water: The elements of rebirth

By Joe Polidoro, Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.

These days, you’ll find eggs in more places than just the dairy section and candy aisle at Publix. They’re also starting to appear in the nests of scrub jays.

Eggs symbolized rebirth long before there was an Easter, which seems to be celebrated around the vernal equinox only because some early Christian had the good sense to marry a pagan rite of spring with the new faith.

At Oscar Scherer State Park, the scrub jay eggs suggest the rebirth of native scrub habitat that the park’s staff have labored over for years. They’ve resurrected it with fire and water.

Fire and water, “are Florida’s two main elements,” says John Roche, the park manager. “The presence and absence of either one will determine whether a given patch of land is pine flatwood, scrub, prairie, or hardwood hammock.

“When I first joined the park service,” John Roche, the park manager, told me, “the philosophy was to bring the land back to what it was in 1513, before the white man arrived in Florida.”

“That was in the 1970s. Now our goal is to bring the land back to what it would look like today — if the natural cycle of fire and water were allowed to occur.”

Scrub habitat is as unique to Florida as the high desert is to eastern Oregon or the Pine Barrens are to central New Jersey. Scrub habitats are the highest — and, as a result, the driest — habitats in peninsular Florida. These remnants of ancient sand dunes and sand bars are the closest thing we have to mountains and hills.

Some of them — like the Lake Wales Ridge — are several hundred feet high. The elevation of these old dunes in our counties isn’t very noticeable, even to a hiker. But they’re far enough from the water table to make them very slow-growing. Rainfall percolates rapidly through their sands. Because they’re higher than their surroundings, even if only by a foot, they experience stronger winds and lower humidity, which also contributes to the habitat’s desert-like character.

What a hiker does notice of the park – what this hiker noticed today, walking on the white trail – is a completely different set of plants from that seen in the pine flatwoods.

Instead of tall slash pines cuffed with saw palmetto, there’s a low-growing thicket of tall shrubs or small trees that look like hollies (myrtle oak and sand live oak), plants that look like heather (Darrow’s blueberry and shiny blueberry, both with edible fruit and both in the heath family), and ground cover with bright green, live oak-like leaves (gopher apple).

Because it’s high and dry, scrub habitat is especially attractive to builders. “Most of south Venice is built on scrub,” says John. Scrub was also prevalent in northeast Sarasota County and Englewood. Mr. Roche estimates that there were once 10,000 acres of scrub in Sarasota County. Now, 800 acres of scrub remaining — 400 acres in the park and 400 in parcels scattered around the county, much of it on private land. The largest contiguous piece of scrub habitat in Charlotte County is Deep Creek, on the west bank of the lower Peace River.

Development has been the kiss of death for scrub habitat, which is now as rare as its most famous species, the scrub jay. This smart, inquisitive bird, the vivid blue of pool chalk, is almost as lionized as the manatee. But while manatees will sleep anywhere, as long as it’s warm (including power plants), scrub jays live purely. What they need is a pure, healthy scrub habitat.

Everything a scrub jay needs to survive can be found in scrub habitat: the insects and acorns it eats; the brambled oaks for cover and nesting; the occasional tall pine it uses as a sentinel, but not so many tall trees that hawks — their major predator — feel comfortable.

Even the small patches of bare sand in scrub habitats are vital, as places to bury acorns. “One scrub jay can bury 8,000 acorns in a season,” says Mr. Roche.

The rare lupines that grow in scrub also have their place. These plants are specially adapted to life in a water-scarce environment. Their leaves, which are thick as felt, hold onto the little water that comes its way, in the form of evening dew.

At this time of year, lupine leaves may be moth-eaten. Caterpillars eat their way through the lupine’s leaves, getting fat and providing the scrub jay with an excellent source of protein during the spring as it nests, lays its eggs, and feeds its chicks.

“Scrub jays are the first species to nest in spring, from March to about May,” says Mr. Roche. “They nest early so their chicks can fledge before the fires start in again.” Fires naturally occur in late spring and summer, when lightning strikes are most common.

The best indicator that a scrub habitat is healthy is the presence of scrub jays. Where there aren’t any, something’s wrong.

There were no scrub jays in Oscar Scherer in 1986. Pines had taken over and the sand live oaks had grown old and taller. Hawks and other raptors had comfortable perches.

“Fire-dependent habitats that don’t burn like they should get overgrown,” says Mr. Roche. “Their species dwindle to a few major ones.” They become less vital places — the above-water equivalent of a sandy or muddy flat versus a grass flat. “When an area is overgrown, it’s not going to have the wildlife it would normally have.”

Surges in the number of exotic species — for example, feral hogs, which feast on acorns – can also drive out the jays.

Then there are the refugees. As land gets developed, any animals that aren’t killed are forced to move. Scrub jays that are driven out of these parcels often make their way to Oscar Scherer, putting additional pressure on the jays already there. “With 400 acres and 20 acres per scrub jay family, we can support just 20 families.”

When John and his team started prescribed burns, they knew scrub habitats burned anywhere from every eight to every 25 years. What they’ve learned is that their scrub is at the very bottom of that range — it needs to burn every six to eight years to stay healthy.

One clue is acorn production. After seven to eight years, the acorn production drops off. “That’s an indication of our scrub habitat’s natural fire cycle, as acorns provide a key source of fuel for fire in scrub habitats,” says Mr. Roche.

Mr. Roche also discovered that even a highly disturbed scrub habitat can make a comeback. On a plot of land purchased by the park in 1991 was a former pine plantation. “There was no clue that this was once a scrub habitat.” Roche and his staff burned it, chopped it, and treed it. Five years later, this 33-acre parcel was supporting three families of scrub jays. Miraculously, the scrub habitat had come back.

“We don’t manage for scrub jays. We manage the habitat.” If Mr. Roche and his team do a good job bringing back and maintaining the original scrub habitat, their success will be reflected in the number of scrub jays they can support. For Mr. Roche, scrub jay counts are like a company’s stock price — a very simple, transparent measure of success.

By that yardstick, the Park is doing very well. Assuming a family of scrub jays is five birds, the park should support 100 jays (20 families on 20 acres). “In 1999, we numbered over 100 jays. Our population has dropped since then — we’re not sure why. It could be all the development happening around us.”

Nevertheless, he has worked the seemingly impossible miracle of bringing dead habitat back to life “It shows you that no matter how badly a community is tortured, if you get it back to the natural cycle, it will return.”

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