Florida’s Endemic Bird: The Florida Scrub-Jay

Experiencing A1A will bring you the opportunity to spot much wildlife; along with its numerous zoos, marine mammal parks, and nature centers, venturing into the many miles of hiking trails, kayaking/canoeing trails, and boating opportunities will connect you to an abundance of wildlife and marine life.

(SAT word—endemic is what one refers to as a native plant or animal restricted to one place. The Florida Scrub-Jay is the only bird species from Florida and nowhere else.)

Manatees, alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, and deer (including the Key Deer in the Lower Florida Keys) are favorites among Florida travelers.

Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County welcomes numerous manatees to its constant 72-degree waters during the fall and winter months.
One of the stars of the dolphin show at Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea.
A low-flying bird’s eye view of an alligator at Blue Hole, the only freshwater lake in the Florida Keys.
Face to face with the Florida Key Deer in Big Pine Key.

And as Florida’s east coast is part of the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds from as far north as Greenland, there are numerous locations for birdwatchers to check off the many breeds that come through Florida. Within the counties that A1A connects, there are over 170 sites that are part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to a seven-mile loop, the Black Point Drive, a premier site of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Bird sightings on the Black Point Trail.

While Florida is also home to a number of year-round bird species, there is one that makes its home in Florida and never leaves—the Florida Scrub-Jay.

A wonderful introduction to the Florida Scrub-Jay. This film was a co-production between Archbold Biological Station (www.archbold-station.org) and Into Nature Films (www.IntoNatureFilms.org).

The Florida Scrub-Jay is a threatened species, mainly since it depends on a desert-like Florida scrub environment that is elevated and is prime land for developers. Only 10 percent of Florida’s original scrub remains: it is precariously protected land. It is land that is like no other in the world.

Along A1A, state parks that provide opportunities to see the Florida Scrub-Jay include Blue Spring, Jonathan Dickinson, North Peninsula, Savannas Preserve, and Seabranch Preserve.

Located inland near the St. Johns River, Blue Spring State Park’s Pine Island Trail, a 3.6 one-way hike takes you through Florida Scrub-Jay habitat.
Trailhead signage at Blue Spring’s Pine Island Trail, which leads into Florida scrub. Venomous snake warnings encourage hikers to not hike alone.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge also has Florida scrubland suitable for the Florida Scrub-Jay.

My first attempt to see a Florida Scrub-Jay was during a visit to Blue Spring State Park. The highlight for many visitors is to see the manatees that find refuge at Blue Spring. During my solo travel, my plan was to hike the Pine Island Trail; however, signage at the trailhead, which advertised a warning about venomous snakes, was somewhat intimidating. Not wanting to take the chance to hike through a trail that lacked hikers on this particular day, I held off for another day.

That other day was a group hike at Lyonia Preserve in Deltona.

“Lyonia Preserve is a joint project of Volusia County, the Volusia County School Board and the State of Florida to provide environmental education to the public and restore and maintain habitat for scrub-dependent species, including the threatened scrub jay and gopher tortoise. The preserve, named after the scrub plant rusty lyonia, consists of 360 acres of restored Florida scrub habitat.”

A display on the Florida Scrub-Jay provides information to attendees of the Florida Scrub_Jay Festival at Lyonia Preserve.

Lyonia Educational Center hosted the 2022 Florida Scrub-Jay Festival, which included hourly hikes through its preserve. A modest festival, it brings together Florida Scrub-Jay enthusiasts from throughout the state. The preserve is surrounded by developed neighborhoods in Deltona, providing challenges to its preservation efforts, including the need for prescribed burnings, an absolute need for survival for the Florida Scrub-Jay. Natural burnings, provided by thunderstorms, are not as dependable these days due to limited scrub habitat.

A hike through Lyonia Preserve brought me to my first-ever sighting of the…
Florida Scrub-Jay.

Other festival highlights included booths promoting Florida native plant gardens, representatives from the Sierra Club and Florida Audubon. and a movement from Seminole High School students to try to rename the Florida state bird from the Mockingbird to the Florida Scrub-Jay.

An article from the Audubon Society, “Why the Scrub-Jay Should be Florida’s State Bird— with Eva Rives” (March 9, 2018), on the push for the Florida Scrub-Jay as the Florida state bird can be read here.

In fairness, here is an opposing, though possibly tongue in cheek, viewpoint: “Opinion: The case against the scrub jay as Florida’s state bird” by Tampa Bay Times columnist Daniel Ruth (January 6, 2016).

It is a fascinating debate with some partisan political overtones, obviously pitting environmentalists against land developers.

The 2023 festival will be held at Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge. The 2025 festival will be held at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which offers the LARGEST Florida scrub in the state.

An expert-guided hike at Lyonia Preserve is offered on Fridays at 9 a.m.

My most recent Florida Scrub-Jay sighting occurred during my visit to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, the LARGEST state park in Southeast Florida. While this state park is known as a major destination for mountain bikers of all skill levels, and for its wild and scenic Loxahatchee River that is enjoyed by fishermen, kayakers/canoeists, and tourists via scenic boat rides—and for the legendary Trapper Nelson, it’s significantly, and relatively, large Florida scrub makes it ideal for Florida Scrub-Jay habitat, and its plentiful sand live oak, which provides the needed 6,500 to 8,000 acorns per Florida Scrub-Jay for caching each fall—and yes, they do remember where they bury their acorns.

Entrance to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, located in Hobe Sound.
The Camp Murphy section of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, once a World War II-era Army installation, now offers nine miles of mountain biking trails, mostly through Florida scrub.
A technical section of the off-road biking at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Hobe Mountain Tower offers an expansive view of the 10,500-acre Jonathan Dickinson State Park, as well as the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean.
A photo of Trapper Nelson, “the wild man of the Loxahatchee,” is part of an exhibit inside the Elsa Kimbell Environmental Education and Research Center at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Boat tours and kayak/canoe rentals are available to enjoy the wild and scenci Loxahatchee River at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

On my spring break visit to the park, I was not able to take the first boat tour which was to go to the Trapper Nelson site as I was the only one willing to pay for the 9 a.m. tour. As the boat tours are tide dependent, other tours for the day were shorter eco-tours; other than one distant alligator and a few blue herons, there were no other wildlife sightings. It was the lackluster part of the visit.

Biking was the popular activity of the day, with several dozen cars parked at the main departure area for mountain biking (at the main road and railroad tracks intersection).

As for looking for the Florida Scrub-Jay, the ranger at the main gate seemed excited to share information with me, acknowledging that I was the first in over a week to inquire about the Florida Scrub-Jay. As massive as the park is, he pointed out that the best area to spot the birds was behind the nearby River Campground.

As this was to be a solo hike, the thought of rattlesnakes again entered my mind, especially after coming across the following YouTube video.

Rattlesnake sighting by a family of mountain bikers at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

Not to be denied, however, I ventured on a short walk before having my truly special encounter with the Florida Scrub-Jay.

My Florida Scrub-Jay experience at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

First was the squawking sound made by these crow and blue jay-related birds (part of the Corvid group of birds). Then came the sentinel sitting on a shortened pine tree branch. Then came two others landing and scurrying on the trail near me.

The Florida Scrub-Jay is considered a very friendly, very curious, very intelligent, but also a very protective bird species. They tend to stay near the area of their birth throughout their lives, are cooperative breeders, and are territorial. Much of their natural tendencies were occurring only because I was within their realm of space.

So just how curious can these birds be? Here is one last video before signing off.

Happy traveling!

(P.S. The featured photo of the Florida Scrub-Jay painting can be seen at the Elsa Kimbell Environmental Education and Research Center at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.)

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