Key West Botanical Garden In The News

Research biologists search for white-crowned pigeons

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

An update from Gina Kent - September 17, 2013

I was able to create a map of the White-crowned Pigeon tagged (WCPI) at the Botanical Gardens. We are getting excellent data from it and would like to share it with you. These are all the high quality locations since the date he/she was tagged (9/4) to date. Note that with all satellite doppler locations, there is error, so some of the locations over the water may just be from the error in the satellite triangulation calculation. The good thing we do see is that it has been moving around Stock Island. It seems to have favorite locations on the golf course.

Gina Kent
Research Ecologist and Coordinator
Avian Research and Conservation Institute
Gainesville, FL, USA

www.arcinst.org

BY GWEN FILOSA, Key West Citizen Staff
gfilosa@keysnews.com

Gina Kent, a wildlife biologist from Gainesville, can spot two eagles in the Key West sky without looking up.

"I can hear them calling," Kent said on Saturday, while scouting the grounds of the Key West Tropical Forest Botanical Garden just after-hours with a colleague.

Sure enough, a pair of the American icons were flying above.

"That's a good omen," said Kent, while preparing to set up a 45-foot long net of very fine black material stretched between two tall portable poles as part of her Lower Keys hunt.

But Kent and Marjesca Brown, of the nonprofit Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI), weren't in town this weekend looking for eagles.

Instead, their concern was the white-crowned pigeon, an imperiled species that thrives in the Caribbean, which offers their favorite sustenance: tropical hardwood tree fruit.

By 5 p.m. Saturday, Kent and Brown had set up their "mist net," designed to gently catch a bird long enough for the researchers to affix to its left leg a tiny satellite transmitter weighing about five grams.

The mist net, which resembles a badminton net, was raised high into the air within minutes by the women to show a visitor how it works. Various types of birds flew over it or did sharp turns to avoid it. At one point a swallow flew right into the black webbing, turned nearly invisible to the eye by the dark tree leaves behind it.

But he recovered in a snap and on a second try, flew right through one of the small holes.

Kent and Brown landed in Big Pine Key a few nights ago and by Sunday had set up shop on private property in Marathon for a day before heading down to Key West on Saturday.

They were looking for four white-crowneds to tag with the new transmitters, priced at $3,000 a pop, with the plan to track each bird for two to four years via a satellite service that costs $100 per month per transmitter.

"They just made the transmitter small enough to fit a white-crowned pigeon," said Kent, a native of Hartland, Wisc., who has a masters degree in biology and has worked for ARCI since 2000. "These will last over five years."

The botanical garden, 5210 College Rd., a nonprofit preserving 11 acres of lush trees and shrubs that attract butterflies, birds and other wildlife, such as Florida Box Turtles, of which there are 11 on inventory, welcomed ARCI to stake out the birds on its land.

White-crowneds once were a common sight, comprising two flocks that foraged and loafed at the Gardens before heading back to their mangrove nests to feed babies.

The devastating storm surge that followed Hurricane Wilma in 2005, however, changed all of that, said Misha McRae, executive director of the garden.

"This is so 'National Geographic,' I love it," said McRae on Saturday afternoon while giving the two women a tour of the property. "This used to be one of the prime habitats for them before Wilma came. Being able to show you where they might be is a big step from two years ago."

White-crowneds aren't listed on the U.S. roster of endangered species, but they are deemed rare by Florida wildlife officials and "near-threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The bird's natural habitat, which can include Miami but primarily hunkers farther south, has declined over the years. Hunters in the Bahamas and other Caribbean spots have a penchant for the quick birds, named for their white heads and known for being extremely flighty, even for a bird.

"Of all the species I've ever captured, they're pretty skittish," said Kent, dressed in various shades of khaki from her baseball cap to pants with binoculars around her neck. "They go into stress a lot more than other birds which is scary. So we work very quickly and quietly and calmly."

By 2 p.m. Sunday, the Key West catch-and-release hadn't netted a transmitter-worthy white-crowned pigeon, said Brown.

"Only a juvenile," said Brown via text message. "Which is too young to put a transmitter on."

The women, though, placed an aluminum band around the young bird's leg, which are bright red and known to be hot to the touch.

Kent showed patience on Saturday, when asked how long she would stay in the Lower Keys before packing it in without a transmitter-fitting. A brief downpour only gave them time to check their smart phones. A box turtle crawled past the pair's Nikon camera, hidden under their bagged duck blind which will serve as a watching post.

"I have a meeting Wednesday," she said.

Courtesy Key West Citizen