Published: January 19, 2015
SEBRING — Ecologists consider it one of the most endangered birds in North America.
Mostly black and gray with speckles of brown on the nape and the back, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which calls Central Florida home, is heard more than it is seen.
Archbold Biological Station’s Reed Bowman, who has been studying these reclusive subspecies of the grasshopper sparrows on public land such as the Avon Park Bombing Range, estimates there are 200 of them left.
The secretive bird, which is 5 inches long, runs more than it flies, he explained.
In spring, the males peek out of the scrub and grassland of Central Florida’s dry prairie to sing on top of vegetation and claim their territory. That’s when ecologists try to count them. The females stay under the radar and remain there, eluding the human eye.
The bird’s population has been under assault as its natural habitat has been lost to urban development, but more perplexing is how the best management practices ecologists have put in place the last 10 years to conserve the bird have not stopped its decline, Bowman said.
Surveys in 2004 found seven occupied locations, with a total estimated 1,000 birds. Surveys in 2012 indicated the lowest number of males ever seen on public land: 75 singing males on three properties -- the bombing range, the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.
In April, they counted one singing male on the Avon Park Bombing Range.