Volunteers remove exotic grass, help restore scrub-jay habitat
LAKE PLACID - Highlands Hammock staff recently teamed up with Bill Parken, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission volunteer coordinator, and the Ridge Rangers at Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park. Assistant Park Manager Brian Pinson had proposed two workdays. The first project involved removing exotic natal grass and the second, was restoring Florida scrub-jay habitat. Natal grass, an annual native to South Africa, was introduced as a forage species. It thrives in dry conditions and is quick to invade old fields, unimproved pasture lands and disturbed areas. Fire serves to spread the grass by acting as a stimulus for reseeding and re-sprouting. Natal grass displaces and interferes with the regeneration of native vegetation.Four Ridge Rangers joined Park Services Specialist Scott Paterson and two other staff members on a Saturday morning in early June to pull and bag the grass, which was encroaching into the scrub. The grass was carefully removed from areas in close proximity to several rare and/or state and federally listed plant species including the endemic wedge-leaved button-snakeroot. The morning's haul, stuffed into 13 garbage bags, weighed in at 163 pounds. The following week, Pinson and five other park staff were joined by Parken and two Ridge Rangers to work on scrub jay habitat restoration at the north end of Lake June. They spent the morning, chainsaws in hand, downing large sand pines within a 6-acre section. As fire had been absent on this acreage since 1998, prescribed burns were planned and carried out in the first phase of resource management prior to the tree removal. A total of 82 acres was burned in the fall of 2012 and May 2013. One burn required care in circumventing a bald eagle's nest. The objective of this restoration is to expand the range for four existing scrub jay families. Upon completion, the enhanced habitat should encourage the birds to establish new territory and new breeding pairs. The gopher tortoise and other wildlife species will also benefit from these efforts. Park resource management is not without recreational concerns. Improvements occurred on June 20 with the help of the youth organization Camp Fire USA's Sunshine Council. The group of 12 traveled from Lakeland to assist park staff Andrew Dupuis with a major trail maintenance project on the Tomoka Run Trail. They cleared and widened the trail and also removed overgrowth from around the park's lake facilities. The maintenance was a follow-up to a recent bridge replacement on this trail. Volunteers are needed at Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park. Highlands Hammock is seeking volunteers with mechanical maintenance experience including chainsaws, weed-eaters, zero-turn mowers and small engines. If interested, call the park services specialist at 471-5324. If interested in volunteering with the Ridge Rangers, visit myfwc.com/get-involved/volunteer/ridge-rangers/.