Bob Carroll enjoyed making the hourlong drive to Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve in Levy County to look for what he said should be the state bird: the Florida scrub jay.
Just one bird call on the side of the road, he said, and “Whoosh, scrub jays would come out.”
Now, the trees are silent. They have been quiet for the last four to five years, said Carroll, 69, a Gainesville resident and member of the Alachua Audubon Society for decades.
“The fact that they’re disappearing from a habitat that’s being managed by the state for them is a scary thing for me,” he said. “That’s very disturbing.”
He’s not alone. Fellow watchers around the U.S. and Canada have seen bird numbers drop by 3 billion in 48 years, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York. Its study of net population changes across the countries, the first of its kind, details “devastating losses.”
Asked if the loss has affected Alachua County, Carroll didn’t hesitate: “Oh, absolutely.”
Carroll earned a doctoral degree in education at the University of Florida before serving as an adjunct professor there for four years and then as a teacher with the Alachua County Public Schools. He started leading bird watches for Alachua Audubon after he retired in 2012.
He said the distressing results of the Cornell study can be felt across the county and state.
Rex Rowan, 63, a former president of the society, moved to Gainesville in 1988. He said he logged bird data for hundreds of area bird enthusiasts for more than a decade, and he is writing a book about the county’s birdlife using historical observations going back to 1886.
Rowan said several species have seen local losses including northern bobwhites, loggerhead shrikes and American kestrels. In the area’s annual bird count, he said, the average number of northern bobwhites decreased from 100.3 to 13.3 between 1971-80 and 2009-18, respectively.
The main reason for the local decline, he said, parallels the threats listed in Cornell’s study.
“Not to sound like a broken record – it’s habitat loss,” Rowan said.
The human population in Alachua County has more than doubled from 1970 to 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This growth hurts natural lands that host wildlife like birds, Rowan said, by overrunning them with cars, tall buildings, chemicals and pet cats.
The Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection is trying to limit this widespread residential growth, which Stephen Hofstetter calls “sprawl.”
Hofstetter has been the department’s natural resource program manager for a decade. Its Alachua County Forever program combats sprawl by protecting natural habitats across the county.
“Having these smaller systems intertwine with the bigger conservation lands just adds to the overall survivorship of birds as well as other species,” Hofstetter said. “You need that combination to be successful.”
The program has totaled 21,212 acres of conserved land in 65 properties around the county, said Andi Christman, a senior environmental specialist for the county. Each plot can host rare plants and animals, she said, or be the “missing jigsaw puzzle piece” connected to a larger habitat.
Geoffrey Parks, the nature operations supervisor for the Gainesville parks department, and a past board member of Alachua Audubon, heads a staff that manages the city’s 3,000 acres of nature parks. He said threats to specialized habitats are among some of his top concerns.
For example, the long-leaf pine savanna is a diverse habitat that has lost 98% of its lands across the Southeast, including Alachua County, Parks said. He said he’s most proud that his department has made strides to revive long-leaf pine savannas in Gainesville’s parks.
Its work brought back a bird species the parks hadn’t seen in a decade: the Bachman’s sparrow.
That reemergence, Parks said, “made us feel like, ‘OK, our goal was creating a habitat that’s suitable for the species, and the species are telling us we’ve done it.’”
After nearly two years as a ranger at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Darby Guyn said she has seen a dramatic increase in bird diversity. According to eBird, an online database of bird observations, there were 340 bird species countywide and 249 in the park alone as of this month.
But despite the greater diversity of birds that live in the county year-round, Guyn said the area has experienced declines to some migratory species that they see seasonally.
Guyn’s findings and the Cornell lab’s study come as no surprise to experienced bird watchers like Andrew Kratter, curator of the ornithology division at the Florida Museum.
“This has been talked about by bird watchers for a long time – how you just don’t see the migrants like you used to,” Kratter said.
Even if Alachua County was the perfect place for birds, Kratter said, it would have very little impact on migratory species. The county is a “little postage stamp in the huge fabric of this continent,” he said, and the entire country needs to work together to solve the crisis.
What happens if the bird numbers continue to decline?
“That’s an experiment I really don’t want to test,” he said.