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Florida grasshopper sparrow

Searching for the sparrow

 It is early morning in one of the largest tracts of dry prairie ecosystem in the United States. A chorus of insects fills the chilled air and heavy dew soaks through my pants as I carefully navigate thick underbrush. My movements are slow and calculated. After nearly 45 minutes of hiking through Florida’s dry prairie, Rebecca Schneider, sparrow biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), abruptly tells me to stop in my tracks. “We are here.” she whispers, glancing down at her GPS. Slowly and quietly, I remove my heavy camera and tripod off my shoulder. As I adjust my equipment, I peer out into the golden prairie, seeing only the gentle waving of grass, welcoming the rising sun.

While watching tufts of tall grasses blow delicately in the wind through my viewfinder, a distinct tick tick pzzzzzz breaks the soft chorus of crickets. Rebecca’s eyes light up, “that’s it!” She exclaimed as a small bird rose from the ground and perched atop a palm leaf to announce his presence. My heart pounding, I scramble to zoom in on the bird, set my focus and begin recording. The bird’s soft calling continues - strikingly resembling the noise of a grasshopper - making the sparrow well deserving of its name. This is the behavior of a paired male, holding on to what territory remains in this shrinking ecosystem.

Found only within the State of Florida, it is believed there are less than 30 breeding pairs of these small but beautiful birds left in the wild, all of which live just 50 miles South of Orlando. 

Florida grasshopper sparrow vocalizations - tick tick pzzzzzzzz
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A Florida grasshopper sparrow fledgling navigates the thick dry prairie grasses around it’s ground nest before moving off on its own. This species spends most of its life along the ground hunting for small insects

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A hatchling is prepared to be weighed and vaccinated at White Oak Conservation as a part of their efforts to breed Florida grasshopper sparrows in captivity for eventual release into the wild of Central Florida

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A male Florida grasshopper sparrow perches on a prairie shrub to deliver his soft territorial buzz call in early mornings light. Sparrow nests and paris are identified solely by this behavior.

Florida grasshopper sparrow conservation

     The Florida grasshopper sparrow is an important species to Florida’s dry prairie ecosystem because it plays a central role in the food web. This bird eats a myriad of insect species while serving as an important food source for reptiles, small mammals and other birds. This sparrow is a very cryptic species, preferring to hop along the ground and hide amongst dense prairie grasses. With their delicate mottled rusty feathers leading to a small yellow crown atop their head, they are nearly invisible amongst the backdrop of the wild prairie plants. Florida dry prairie was once prevalent across Peninsular Florida, but has experienced an 85 percent reduction in habitat due to the ever expanding human population and agriculture. These birds are forced to make use of what habitat remains, putting them into closer contact with predators. As a result, Florida grasshopper sparrows struggle with extremely high rates of nest predation. This species also relies on seasonal wildfires, and the suppression of fire has led to drastic changes in the birds preferred ecosystem.

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One of the largest tracts of dry prairie ecosystem is found in central Florida. This ecosystem is characterized by grasses, small shrubs, sandy/dry soil and frequent wild fires. 

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USFWS biologists set up mist nets to catch new birds for research purposes and to put bands on the legs to keep track of individual birds in the wild. 

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A baby bird at White Oak Conservation that will eventually be released into the wild to help bolster the bird populations in the wild. 

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Photographer: Justin Grubb

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