Late in December, before dawn, 38 bird aficionados arrived at Myakka River State Park, one of Florida's oldest and largest state parks. Equipped with sharp eyes and ears, binoculars, and scopes, they counted birds — 19,903 to be exact — during the Myakka River Christmas Bird Count.
The Christmas Bird Count is a community science project organized by the National Audubon Society. Held annually, it contributes to a database that highlights conservation action required to protect birds and the habitats they need to survive. Like others, this count took place in a 15-mile-wide circle, within which all birds seen or heard were tallied — not only species but the number of individual birds, too.
But bird counts are not just about numbers. Tying a park record set in 2011, 125 bird species were spotted, including a first-time sighting of a whooping crane, one of the most endangered birds in North America.
And crested caracaras, an especially meaningful species for Myakka, also showed up to be counted. An important, yet increasingly scarce, yearlong resident of our Florida dry prairies, caracaras are habitat specialists, largely dependent on the open, treeless habitats of the dry prairie landscape, a globally imperiled ecosystem, endemic to the state.
Myakka’s prairies were species-rich prior to the 46 years of fire exclusion, which began in the mid-1930s. To mitigate the damage done due to fire exclusion, a focus of Myakka River State Park's staff is the restoration and maintenance of the park’s nearly 15,000 acres of Florida dry prairie, with prescribed fire being an important tool in this process. During the years of fire exclusion, caracaras were not observed residing in the park. But thanks in part to the reintroduction of fire starting in the 1970s, they have returned to the park’s dry prairies.
In fact, crested caracara observations in and around the park have greatly increased over the past 13 years. And, as you can imagine, it was an absolute delight to be able to include five of them in our count, when they were spotted, fittingly, foraging in the ashes of a recent prescribed fire.
Friends of Myakka River exists to support Myakka River State Park and the Wild and Scenic Myakka River. Together, we're protecting and sharing Myakka's Magic, to the benefit of future generations and our own.