Sarasota, FL–-The swamps along the edge of Florida’s Myakka River are teeming with life.
From alligators to Seminole whitetail to mottled ducks, the wildlands just outside of Sarasota are rich in biodiversity.
The short, thin pines reminded me a bit of the habitat on the Upper Coast of Texas where I live, but it looked uniquely Florida. With scattered palms and thick palmetto, this place looked subtropical.
It would have been easy to get lost in the majesty of it all, but I was on a mission.
That mission was to get a photo of an Osceola turkey.
Turkey Revolution is a project I founded to raise awareness of turkey conservation. As turkeys go so do America’s forests.
This year I set out to get quality photos of the “Grand Slam” of turkeys which are the Rio Grande, eastern, Osceola and Merriam’s.
This was number three to scratch off the list as I had already gotten the Rio Grande and eastern but in my mind those made sense in terms of location.
I found the Rio Grande along a very remote roadway among many hundreds of thousands of undeveloped acres in the Texas Hill Country.
The eastern came from rolling hills and farmland new Auburn, NY in an area that any turkey hunter would mark as a prime location.
While Florida has plenty of forested lands, it also has many highways, subdivisions, businesses, and tourist destinations.
That made it feel a little off during the research process and the epic travel from Orange, TX.
Things changed once I found myself along the banks of the Myakka River. It felt wild although I was only three miles away from a subdivision.
It was an interesting dichotomy-tourist Florida vs. turkey Florida.
I had done many studies to end up in this location to find Osceola turkeys.
And since I am doing this all on my coin, I was low on time. I had from sunrise to noon to make something happen.
One particular area looked seriously promising, and within 30 minutes there I spied my prize.
A hen Osceola turkey gave me a curious look on the edge of a palmetto thicket and shortly after that followed another hen and a brood.
They made their way into a clearing and fed down toward the edge of the river. It was great to see a brood because much of this habitat was thicker than I suspected it would be. Prime turkey habitat has relatively open forest. The suppression of natural fires has created enormous undergrowth, and that allows predators a better shot at turkeys and destroys some of the turkey’s best forage opportunities.
Something else that caught my attention was a great blue heron struggling to eats a plecostomus (think suckerfish in your aquarium) just past the feeding turkeys.
It was a picture of a very determined bird trying to eat an exotic that has had an impact on this ecosystem at the aquatic level. Florida is full of land-dwelling exotics too from Burmese pythons to feral hogs and even monkeys. Add that to the pressures of human development in the Sunshine State, and I was concerned about this turkey’s status.
That is why I consulted David Nicholson, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in Florida.
I inquired specifically about population trends.
“Unfortunately, there is not a reliable/accurate way to estimate wild
turkey populations at a large-scale and therefore the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) does not currently estimate wild turkey population size in Florida,” he said.
“Instead, the FWC utilizes spring turkey season harvest estimates from an annual mail survey as an index to population size. These harvest estimates are either on a statewide scale or a regional scale, so, therefore, do not necessarily track harvest rates of the Eastern and Osceola subspecies separately in Florida.
Nicholson said that given this data is derived from mail surveys, and the harvest estimates are currently only available through the spring of 2018 and information is not yet available for 2019.
“In examining the spring turkey harvest estimates provided by FWC, it appears populations in Florida have been stable to slightly declining over the last decade depending on the region.”
Harvest data suggests the slight declines were observed more in Northern Florida coinciding more with the Eastern subspecies and harvest rates since that time have been more stable in Central & South Florida where the Osceola subspecies occurs.
Nicholson said research is being conducted to determine the cause.
“While no exact cause has been determined yet, it is likely due to many factors, which may be different for certain areas. Factors likely include: decreasing habitat quality, changing land use, and land conversion (e.g., development), but may also include other factors we don’t fully understand yet, but active/planned research is looking into them.”
All of those factors seem entirely plausible, and the word “decline” has been omnipresent during this Turkey Revolution quest. Louisiana and New York have both seen significant declines, and now Florida seems to be on the down swing.
What is going on with turkeys and how widespread is the problem? That’s something we will be investigating heavily.
As both a wildlife journalist and a turkey hunter it is concerning.
This is not a situation of birds becoming threatened, but we could be seeing a trend that ends badly if exact reasons for decline are not determined.
I genuinely believe that as wild turkeys go America’s forests go with them. Poorly managed forests equal minimal turkey numbers. Highly managed forests see optimal turkey numbers.
And many other factors-some which we may not even understand yet are at play. I am glad they have dedicated people at the NWTF and in state fish and game agencies investigating this phenomenon.
And speak of a phenomenon I was able to get my fourth species of turkey this month-the Merriam’s but there is something very unique about it. I am getting the photograph examined to learn more.
You will see something on it here within the coming month and it is worth the wait.
Big things are happening with Turkey Revolution, and I believe we have just begun what may an epic journey.
Chester Moore, Jr.