Category Archives: Endangered

The Turtle Hospital

Back in September, Arthur and I spent a few days camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Middle Keys. One afternoon we took a break from snorkeling to visit the remarkable Turtle Hospital on Marathon.

Welcome to The Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital has an interesting history. Here is a brief overview (related from signage at the hospital; any factual errors are mine).

It started when a man named Richie Moretti purchased Marathon’s Hidden Harbor Motel in 1981. The hotel had a 100,000 gallon saltwater pool, which was converted to display fish starting in 1984. The following year, local schools started visiting the hotel pool for marine education programs. Students asked, “where are the turtles?” Good question!

In 1986, Moretti obtained a permit to rehab sea turtles. The first patient arrived at the facility, now named the Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, that same year. More patients arrived. Surgeries would be performed in re-purposed motel rooms.

The facility expanded in 1991 when the nightclub next door to the motel was purchased. The nightclub became The Turtle Hospital in 1992.

Turtle ambulances

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit the motel and hospital hard. Flooding to the property was extensive and the motel ceased operation. The entire facility registered as a non-profit organization and continued as a rehabilitation center and turtle hospital. Today, the motel rooms are used (in part) for storage, and to house interns, visitors, and staff.

There’s no doubt the facility used to be a motel!

In 2010 a brand new education facility, funded by the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate, opened at the hospital.

Life-size models of sea turtles

Lots of turtle information in the education center

turtle anatomy
Turtle insides!

Educational tours are offered several times daily. Our tour began with a presentation on the different types of turtles that come to the hospital.

The hospital used to be a nightclub!

Turtle classroom

Next we got to see where injured turtles are admitted and where operations and procedures occur. We could see that the patients can be quite large!

Turtle hospital operation room

The biggest patient ever admitted to the hospital

A turtle was recovering from a procedure when our tour came through. A member of the staff must stay with any turtle as it comes out of anesthesia to help it breathe — unconscious turtles don’t breathe on their own.

A patient recovers from anesthesia

We learned about the rehabilitation pools. The original sea water pool houses permanent residents as well as turtles at the last stage of rehab before release. Today the facility also has additional smaller tanks that can house turtles at various stages in their rehabilitation.

Map of the turtle rehabilitation tanks

Rehabilitation tanks

We learned about some of the patients. Jack was a Green Sea Turtle with the condition Fibropapilloma Virus. This may manifest as large growths, which can be seen on Jack’s front left flipper in this photo.


Xiomy was a Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was found in Islamorada as the victim of a boat strike. She had been admitted on July 29th, 2013. Xiomy was released in October.


We were surprised to learn that the hospital had an education turtle in residence. Zippy the Educational Ambassador is a Loggerhead Sea Turtle that came to the Hospital from Gumbo Limbo on July 28th, 2013. Florida Atlantic University has a research facility at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center; hatchling turtles are studied and then released. Zippy was kept to be an education ambassador; if I understood correctly, Zippy will eventually also be released back into the wild (with a very big head start!).

Hi Zippy!

Zippy with enrichment
Zippy’s tank includes interesting objects for enrichment

A few little hatchlings were in one of the tanks. These healthy little turtles would soon be released.

Loggerhead on the left, Green on the right

Finally we spent some time looking at the large pool, where we could see healthy turtles nearly ready for release as well as the hospital’s permanent residents.

Sea water pool

Rehab patients nearly ready for release

A patient in the final stages of rehab before release

The hospital has capacity to care for adult sea turtles that are no longer able to survive in the wild due to their injuries. Note the three round masses on the back of turtle in the lower right of the below photo. Those are weights; the turtle is unable to properly regulate its buoyancy on its own. Another turtle in the photo has one weight on its back.

Permanent resident sea turtles

We had a great time visiting The Turtle Hospital, and seeing the great work they do there. They have released over 1000 rehabilitated sea turtles back into the wild since 1986. Sometimes they invite the public to release events — they just released two turtles on February 14th. Keep an eye on The Turtle Hospital Facebook page to keep up with the latest news.

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Posted in Endangered, Florida, Herps, Nature Center, Not Birds | Leave a comment

Down with Red Tape, Up with Barn Owl Boxes!

I’m so proud of Lake-Cook Audubon for getting Barn Owl boxes installed at Illinois Beach State Park! I know it took a long time to get there, but the boxes have been installed thanks to the hard work of club members. Here are a few photos of the installation. All photos by Sonny Cohen, posted with permission.

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Roomy box!

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Adding wood shavings to box #1

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
That’s the idea!

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Box #2 going up

Barn Owl Box at IBSP Lake County
Box #2 installed

Sonny also posted a video of the box installation, which you can view here: Barn Owl Nest Box Raising. Barn Owls are an Illinois state-endangered species. A nearby county has a reintroduction program and it is hopeful that Barn Owls will find and use these boxes, which have been placed in ideal Barn Owl habitat. Yay!

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Posted in Conservation, Endangered, Lake-Cook Audubon | Leave a comment

Red-cockaded Woodpecker relocation & monitoring

After observing the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers during the early portion of last week’s field trip (see post Looking for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Ocala NF), we returned to an abandoned cluster of woodpecker cavities to learn more about how biologists study Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and how they establish new, active clusters.

Monica Folk, our field trip co-leader, is a biologist specializing in endangered species. She worked to reintroduce Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCWOs) in the Disney Wilderness Preserve, which now has a sustainable population.

The heart of establishing a new, successful cluster of RCWOs is the artificial nest cavities. Since it takes a male woodpecker up to 4 years to complete one cavity, biologists give the birds a head start by installing pre-made cavities into living pine trees. The cavities are made of solid cedar wood. A woodpecker-sized hole is drilled downward into the wood and then a panel is placed on top to close the box.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest box
Cedar nest box with PVC around the opening and wire reinforcement on the front

The hole is cut out of the front and then fitted with a piece of PVC pipe to prevent other woodpeckers (Red-bellieds and Pileateds, primarily) from taking over the box. If this happens, the box is “blown out” and will no longer be used by the RCWOs. Wire mesh is also added to the front of the box to prevent predation and damage by other woodpeckers.

Old RCWO nest box damaged by other woodpeckers

Chainsaws and crowbars are used to carefully cut out the hole in the living tree. The outside of the box is covered with adhesive and then the box is pounded into the tree. To make the cavity more attractive, hammer holes are pounded around the cavity opening to release resin. Once a bit of sawdust is added to the box, it’s ready to house a RCWO.

resin holes
Using the back of a hammer to make holes around the artificial nest cavity

Damaged cavities can be replaced, and cavities used by other species (Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Chickadees are two species that may use abandoned RCWO cavities) can be cleaned up to make them attractive to the woodpeckers once more. During the demonstration, Monica used a shop vac to clear out bluebird nesting material from an otherwise fine nest box.

Once the requisite number of cavities are set up within a cluster area (10 acres or so, depending on habitat), and the required and desired number of clusters are set up within a reintroduction area, site biologists may receive juvenile birds from established breeding sites. Retrieving birds is a very involved process which requires a lot of prior research and contingencies for a myriad of possible scenarios come “kidnapping” day.

net for capturing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers
A long net is telescoped up to the opening of a RCWO cavity

Birds are captured using long, telescoping nets. The net is placed over an active roosting cavity once the bird is inside for the evening; the tree is disturbed (tapped or shaken) to get the bird to fly out again, this time into the net. The RCWO flies out and eventually lands at the end of the long net. It is then safely removed from the net and then placed into a special box.

RCWO transport box. Notice rainbow-colored “sleeve” which helps prevent escape

The box has a cloth “sleeve” attached around the top. The sleeve allows biologists to open the wooden box and reach in to remove or replace the RCWO without the bird escaping. During the relocation process, the birds are captured at or after sundown, and sleep the night in the box. The next day, starting at sunrise, the birds are hand fed (!!) 3 prey items (ie crickets) every 45 minutes (!!), until sunset. It’s odd that these wild birds will readily accept food in the hand, but their natural biology has them eating nearly constantly every waking moment, so their hunger must override any fear they might have of humans.

Shortly after sunset, the birds are relocated to their new habitat. One young female and one young male are placed into a new cluster. Each bird is put into a cavity, where it sleeps for the night. A screen cover is placed in front of the opening to ensure the RCWO remains inside its cavity until the next morning. The cover is removed remotely from below with a string attached to the screen. RCWOs typically vocalize at waking, and keep in contact with their cluster-mates throughout the day. With this habit, the new birds are able to find each other at first light and hopefully begin foraging and/or exploring the new territory together.

peeper scope
Monica holds a “peeper scope” in retracted position

The woodpeckers are monitored during the breeding season. In the past, biologists had to climb ladders as tall as 40 feet in order to look inside nest cavities. Nest monitoring takes place every 7 days and a biologist may have several clusters to check – that’s a lot of climbing! Today biologists may utilize a “peeper scope” — a camera set up on a long telescoping pole with a monitor or viewfinder at the bottom. The scope is raised up to the level of the nest and gently poked inside.

peeper scope in nest hole
Peeper scope peeping inside a nest cavity

RCWOs may lay up to four eggs. Incubation begins after the second egg is laid; the eggs hatch after just 11 days of incubation. The nest is usually in the male’s cavity. The female will incubate during daylight, where she is fed by the male throughout the day. The male incubates at night (which makes sense — the eggs are in his cavity, after all!).

peeping at a peeper scope monitor
No eggs, just nesting material from an old bluebird nest

Biologists check the nest cavities for eggs. Depending on the number of eggs found, they can calculate when hatching may occur. This is important to know, since the chicks develop quickly. Eleven days after hatching, the chicks are still featherless, but their legs have already grown to their full size. This is when the chicks are banded.

The procedure for retrieving the chicks for banding seems a bit tricky. The nest cavities are permanently installed in the tree; there is no hand-sized opening. Biologists climb up on a ladder and use a small, delicate plastic “noose” to gently pull the chicks, unseen, out of the nest. A simple mirror on a stick is used to check that all hatchlings have been removed from the nest. The chicks are carried down to the ground, banded and measured, and then gently returned back to the nest.

Monica shows the small plastic noose used to extract the chicks

RCWOs at the Ocala NF sites we visited are fitted with five bands each. Three color bands are on one leg, while the other holds the metal federal band and one color band. This means the birds can be monitored without further capture and RCWOs that branch out to new territories can be identified and followed.

It was fascinating to learn about Red-cockaded Woodpecker biology and monitoring. Life bird + learning cool biologist stuff = big win!

NOTE: I’ve composed this post from information that Monica shared with us during the field trip; hopefully I’ve gotten the facts straight but obviously any factual errors here are strictly my own.

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Posted in Banding, Endangered, Festivals & Events, Florida | 2 Comments

Looking for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Ocala NF

On Friday, September 28, Arthur and I attended a field trip at the Clearwater Recreation Area of Ocala National Forest. The trip, part of the inaugural Wings & Wildflowers Festival, was to look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and learn about how biologists study and conserve this endangered species.

Ocala NF trail
A part of The Florida Trail that crosses into Ocala National Forest

We began our walk out to a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) “cluster” just after sunrise. Along the way, trip co-leader Monica Folk told our group about RCWO ecology, family groups, and nesting behavior.

RCWOs are somewhat unique in that they are cooperative nesters. Just about 8% of bird species are known to be. Cooperative nesting means that offspring from previous nesting seasons may stay close to their parents and help raise subsequent broods. Young females are usually the first to branch out from the extended family, much like Florida Scrub-Jays (also cooperative nesters, also endangered).

RCWOs are also unique in that they are the only species of woodpecker to make their cavities in living pine trees. The birds roost in individual cavities at night, so a family group consisting of 4 birds should normally have at least four cavities within its territory (the cluster). The males excavate the cavities and it takes up to four years to complete one cavity. Active cavity trees can be identified by small holes bored around the cavity entrance. RCWOs create these little wells which cause the tree to exude resin; the resin helps protect the cavity from predatory rat snakes.

Shiny resin

RCWOs have a lot of other specific habitat requirements in order to successfully nest. The type of vegetation found in the ground cover, wildfires and forest rejuvenation, and even tree fungus (!) are just a few things that come into play.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers like to nest in the same kind of trees humans cut for timber on a mass scale in the last 150+ years. Habitat loss has resulted in the RCWO population currently estimated to be 12,500 individuals, which is about 1% of its original population.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat
Looking for RCWOs in suitable habitat

Biologists are helping RCWOs by preserving suitable habitat and identifying potential future habitat, and by introducing birds into areas fitted with artificial nest cavities (more about those in an upcoming post). Our walk brought us to an area fitted with a few artificial cavities where a lone male was known to live. The male was associating with a female who was thought to roost elsewhere (a commuter!). So when we came upon at least three individuals actively feeding at the cluster, it came as somewhat of a surprise. One of the birds was clearly exhibiting the begging behavior of a juvenile, indicating nesting success at the site.

The sun was behind the birds as we watched them, but I managed to take a few record shots. Our binocular views were much better; we were able to drink in this new life bird.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The below video isn’t in focus but you can see two RCWOs scooting upwards, with debris from a third bird falling below. They move around the trees, tearing off pieces of bark to find insects below. We were watching them have breakfast. Listen to their cute squeaky toy call, too.

In my next post I’ll share some of what we learned about how biologists establish new clusters and monitor the birds. Hint: some of it involves really tall ladders!

Artificial RCWO cavity

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Posted in Endangered, Festivals & Events, Florida | Leave a comment

Scrub-Jays at Lyonia Preserve

Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida Scrub-Jay is the official city bird of Deltona, Florida. Not many cities have official birds, but in this case it seems appropriate considering Deltona is home to Lyonia Preserve, which is in turn home to several families of the endangered Florida endemic. I think it’s safe to say that a hike through the scrub habitat at the preserve will reward birders with a Scrub-Jay encounter more often than not.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

On a walk at the park last month, Arthur and I counted at least 9 individuals, some of whom were kind enough to pose for photos.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

Like most corvids, Florida Scrub-Jays are highly intelligent, and extremely curious. They are also known to be tame, but this trait can be a serious problem for this endangered species. Although they may approach humans for food, people should never feed wild Florida Scrub-Jays. Habituation to humans is unsafe for a variety of reasons, one of which is that being provided food not normally available in their natural habitat can be disruptive to healthy development of growing chicks.

Florida Scrub Jay
Many of the jays at Lyonia sport color bands

Earlier this year, Arthur noted an online announcement for a field trip hosted by a local Meetup group: Lyonia Preserve: Hike. The main purpose of this trip was to “do a short hike and feed the Scrub Jays” (emphasis mine). Participants were advised to bring along pine nuts. What the HELL? Unfortunately, the fact that feeding Florida Scrub-Jays is bad for the birds, not to mention illegal, does not discourage some people from this practice. When we visit Lyonia, we are thrilled with every bird sighting and every natural, un-baited Scrub-Jay encounter.

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Posted in Endangered, Florida, Volusia Birding | Leave a comment

Big White Birds

Efforts to save the highly endangered Whooping Crane included the attempted establishment of a non-migratory population in central Florida. Since this effort was deemed unsustainable due to high mortality and low reproduction, the flock today is down to just 20 birds from 53 individuals in 2006.

The birds are still being monitored, however, and last year camera traps were set up to study nest sites. One nest site is also being monitored by a data logger, which measures temperature change and other data.

Birds from the Florida non-migratory population are spotted by birders fairly regularly, so when a pair was reportedly seen on a farm field in nearby Lake County, Florida, Arthur and I drove out to see if we could find them. They were hanging out close to a flock of Sandhill Cranes and very easy to find. We kept a respectful distance and observed them, using our car as a hide.

Whooping Crane with Sandhill Cranes

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane
Distortion from heat shimmer was intense – this photo has not been filtered

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Cranes sightings should be reported. Birds seen in the eastern United States can be reported to USFWS using this form. Based on the band colors these birds are wearing, we knew they were part of the non-migratory population. Migrant Whooping Cranes are also found in Florida during the winter, and those sightings should certainly always be reported to USFWS. Although we are grateful to be able to see these birds after their location was mentioned on a public mailing list, we believe that all sightings of Whooping Cranes in the wild should be shared with extreme discretion.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Cranes

Flying Whooping Crane

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Posted in Endangered, Florida | Leave a comment

Birds at the Central Florida Zoo

For a while I was considering the docent program at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. The zoo, in Sanford, is just about 10 minutes away from where we live. Arthur and I paid our first visit to the zoo earlier this month, to see what the park is like and to see some of the raptors and other birds in the zoo’s programming.

Every Saturday and Sunday there are two scheduled bird programs.

At 11:30AM we saw the “Bird Show” on the Magpie Jay Stage. Here we learned about several different species which were either brought out on the glove or flown. Both Florida native species and birds found elsewhere were included in this program.

Two birds flew. A Harris’s Hawk flew between perches around the audience, and a Red-shouldered Hawk flew between handlers across the spectators.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk

Other birds in this program were the Guira Cuckoo, found throughout South America, and the Black-throated Magpie-jay, found in Mexico.

Black-throated Magpie-jay
Black-throated Magpie-jay

Black-throated Magpie-jay
The incredibly long tail feathers of the Black-throated Magpie-jay

Guira Cuckoo
Guira Cuckoo

Three birds native to Florida were presented: an Eastern Screech Owl; a Red-tailed Hawk, and the previously-mentioned Red-shouldered Hawk. These three were all permanently non-releasable birds with injuries; the Red-tailed Hawk was originally found in our new hometown of DeBary. I was interested to learn that in our part of Florida, grey phase Eastern Screech Owls are more common than red phase, which is the type in their program. This bird was originally found in the eastern part of Volusia County.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

At 1:00PM we went to the “Raptor Encounter” program, which was a short informal program featuring Ray, a Florida Bald Eagle with a permanent wing injury. The handler was joined by a fellow zookeeper who told us about Bald Eagles in general and about Ray specifically.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle & handler
Bald Eagle and handler

The zoo has a number of other birds on display, though I’ll admit my focus during this visit was mainly on the birds in the educational programs.

Two Bald Eagles were on display in a completely open exhibit; both are non-flighted but we watched them move around with ease among their open-air perching.

Bald Eagles

We also saw three macaws in a different open-air display, including a snoozing Green-winged Macaw.

Green-winged Macaw

The Central Florida Zoo is involved in 11 Species Survival Plans, working on captive breeding critically endangered species, an impressive number for a small institution. Though the zoo is relatively small, we enjoyed our visit. The docent program looks like a good one; unfortunately the timing of the training this winter/spring doesn’t really work out for me / us right now. The training usually takes place twice a year; we may think about it again in the fall!

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Posted in Conservation, Endangered, Florida, Zoo | Leave a comment

Older mother birds in the news

The oldest known wild bird, a Laysan Albatross first banded in 1956 and believed to be at least 60 years old, was spotted on Midway Atoll a few weeks ago. The bird was seen with a newly-hatched chick, making the albatross, known as Wisdom, one phenomenally old mother bird.

Wisdom isn’t the only old mother bird making headlines this week. Research into the breeding success of older versus younger Great Tits was recently published, with bad news for more mature birds:

The offspring of older great tit females are much less successful than those of younger mothers. Things mainly go wrong in the later stages of the upbringing, concludes evolutionary biologist Sandra Bouwhuis.

Great tit
Great tit by chapmankj75, Creative Commons on Flickr

Bouwhuis studied birds in Oxfordshire in the UK and Vlieland in the Netherlands. The research further revealed:

Although great tits can live for nine years, breeding success declines rapidly after the age of two. Nevertheless, older great tits keep on breeding every year, says Bouwhuis: ‘They carry on to the bitter end’. What is remarkable is that at the start of the breeding period there’s very little difference between the nests of older and younger females. Bouwhuis discovered, however, that massive mortality occurs just after the young leave the nest.

The precise reason for the breeding success of younger Great Tit females versus older tits was not clear. Also not clear – the influence the age of male Great Tits has on breeding success.

Great tits also have age-related defects
Oldest known wild bird returns to Midway Atoll to raise chick

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Posted in Endangered, Ornithology, Science & Tech | 1 Comment

Whoopers on their way

Operation Migration [OM] has been working to reintroduce critically endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild since 2001. Their goal is to establish a migratory population of Whooping Cranes in the eastern part of North America. Each fall, part of their work involves flying first-year birds from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin down to wintering grounds in Florida with the aid of ultralight aircraft. On Sunday, October 31st, Arthur and I were lucky enough to see the cranes as they departed their Fall 2010 stop in Winnebago County, Illinois. Arthur wrote up a nice post, which contains more information about OM, on our personal blog: Whooping Cranes and Operation Migration in Winnebago County, IL.

Volunteers with OM were on hand at the viewing site to let us know what the pilots were doing. The first step was to test the flight conditions. Once the initial flight was made, and conditions were deemed suitable for flight, the ultralight planes circled back to get the birds*, and they were on their way. Two ultralight planes accompanied the flock of 10 birds. The first plane appeared in the distance.

OM ultralight aircraft

OM ultralight aircraft

As it approached, we could hear other crane viewers shouting – “there they are!” and “I see birds!”

Soon we could all see the flock of birds-and-aircraft heading our way. The flightpath brought them directly over us as we waited in the viewing area. It was very exciting!

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

I stopped taking photos and stood in awe as they passed right over my head. I snapped a couple more pictures as they headed off towards the sun.

OM class of 2010

OM class of 2010

Here is the group of “craniacs” at the viewing site shortly after the flyover.

OM Flyover spectators

Over the next few weeks, the cranes will follow the ultralight aircraft as they make their way to Florida. Several stops along the migration route provide viewing locations, so you can go and view the birds flying overhead, as we did. You can also watch the birds online via the Operation Migration Crane Cam, and follow along with their progress via the Field Journal. You can help support Operation Migration by making a donation, becoming a member, or purchasing Operation Migration merchandise.

*This is an extreme simplification of the process. Follow the Field Journal to learn more about the process of teaching these young endangered birds how to migrate.

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Posted in Endangered, Illinois | 2 Comments