Book excerpt: Florida Scrub-Jay by Mark Jerome Walters

Excerpted from Florida Scrub-Jay: Field Notes on a Vanishing Bird by Mark Jerome Walters. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

Journey to Venus

Venus, Florida, an earthly outpost of about a thousand people in southeastern Highlands County, is a hodgepodge of old and new, rich and poor, past and future, sacred and profane. The town is home to the Venus Project, an organization that promotes futurist Jacque Fresco’s vision of sustainable cities; a Methodist and a Baptist church; several major citrus growers, whose holdings consume an outsize amount of land in the area; assorted auto-repair shops; and one of the biggest car junkyards in the state, Ole South Auto Salvage. The only to-do item listed on TripAdvisor’s Venus web page is the Archbold Biological Station, the Grand Central Station of research on the Florida scrub. Archbold’s small cadre of scientists have published hundreds of scientific papers on scrub plants and insects and more than two hundred papers on the scrub-jay alone. Archbold is also the site of the longest nonstop study of wild birds in the United States. The study includes the meticulous annual mapping of every scrub-jay territory at Archbold since 1969.

Numerous world-class researchers have been drawn to Archbold by its location at the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge, which holds one of the world’s most interesting collections of endemic plants and animals. Formed by a series of elevated landforms left behind by high sea levels during different geologic ages, the Lake Wales Ridge’s seventy-five miles of white-sand uplands are visible from space.

The Lake Wales Ridge is a distinct landform within the larger central ridge, which begins just north of Ocala. These central highlands also include the Orlando Ridge, near the city of that name, and continue southward toward the more ancient landform of the Lake Wales Ridge, often referred to simply as the Ridge. Centuries ago, Florida scrub-jays lived throughout the sandy uplands along the entire length of these central uplands. Today they are concentrated on the Ridge, with the largest number of families residing in or around Archbold.

The scale of the scrub loss along the central ridge, much of it from conversion of scrub to citrus groves, is difficult to comprehend. In the 1960s, New Yorker writer John McPhee wrote in his book Oranges that citrus trees cover the ridge “like a long streamer, sometimes as little as a mile and never more than twenty-five miles wide, running south, from Leesburg to Sebring, for roughly a hundred miles. It is the most intense concentration of citrus in the world.” Before the arrival of citrus and other development, it was the most intense concentration of scrub-jays in the world.

Historically, citrus growing targeted the dry uplands, so scrub bore the brunt of the clearing. Hoodwinked by all the romantic lore, many people came to believe that the orange was as native to Florida soil as the cabbage palm. But the main role of sand is to act as a hydroponic substrate to hold the trees upright while growers input the vast amount of fertilizer, water, and pesticides the Asian fruit needs to survive in the alien environment. The myth of Florida’s “native” fruit of Eden has become so pervasive that the environmental costs of converting so much scrub to groves has largely been overlooked. The aroma of its blossoms so intoxicated the trees’ admirers that state officials proclaimed the orange blossom the state flower in 1909, even as the orange tree was wiping out the scrub-jay and other true natives of the Florida soil and sky. Groves blanket so much scrubland of the Lake Wales Ridge that their geometric footprint is visible from space, and by 1990, more than two-thirds of scrub along the Central Ridge had been lost to citrus. The surviving scrub-jays there have splintered into small groups in the remaining fragments of scrub and are at high risk of dying out. Despite the bad news, the Lake Wales Ridge, according to Reed Bowman, a scrub-jay researcher at Archbold, has “the most connected network of scrub preserves in the state, and survival prospects for jays are better than most.”

There are more reasons than jays for preserving the remaining scrub there. The Ridge comprises some of the oldest habitats in Florida. Like most other relict sand ridges in the state, it was left behind when high seas retreated. While high sea levels returned several times over the ensuing couple of hundred thousand years to reinundate most of the central ridge, the higher regions of the Lake Wales Ridge were not touched by seawater -- and haven’t been since around the time the scrub-jays arrived in Florida two million years ago. Given the Ridge’s age and isolation, many species there had thousands of millennia to evolve undisturbed. Two federally listed endangered shrubs, the pygmy fringe tree and the scrub plum, are mostly limited to scrub patches on the Ridge in Highlands and Polk Counties. An even rarer shrub, Garrett’s ziziphus (Ziziphus celata), with spiny zigzag branches, is one of the rarest plants in North America, and six known wild populations exist only on the Lake Wales Ridge. All told, nineteen federally listed species and numerous state-listed ones share this rare habitat with the Florida scrub-jay. Other still unknown plant and insect species likely await discovery.

With the sandy uplands having been under assault for more than a half century, nearly every acre of protected scrub that exists there today has been hard-won. Much of the credit goes to Archbold and the state, federal, and private conservation organizations the station helped knit into a broad-based network. Today the research station property is the linchpin of nearly fifty thousand acres of state-owned land and private conservation easements connected by a network of corridors and stepping-stones.

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