By Erika Webb
Hard-driving rain and drabness were not about to dampen an educational endeavor at Lyonia Environmental Center Saturday, Feb. 8.
LEC was set to host its second Florida Scrub Jay Festival come what may, said Site Manager Sandy Falcon in a phone interview the day before the event.
The eco-buggy tours were booked solid; the early morning hike and three scrub jay walks planned throughout the day would go on, she said.
The Florida Scrub Jay Festival is a collaborative effort of conservation partners, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Park Service, Florida Scrub Jay Consortium and Around the Bend Nature Tours. It moves from site to site around the state each year.
"We happened to be fortunate enough to host the first one in 2010," Mrs. Falcon said. "That could be because our facility had just opened, in October of 2009, that's kind of what I'm thinking."
In addition to hikes through Lyonia Preserve guided by scrub jay experts, there were educational exhibitors and a unique learning activity for kids.
"They have to go to every booth and get the answer to a question about scrub jays," Mrs. Falcon said. "Every answer earns a sticker and they go to the festival booth to get a prize for the stickers."
That is, after they are quizzed.
"The mission is to educate," she said. "We want it to be fun but we want them to learn."
Samuel Wade, a homeschooled fourth grader from Deltona, did just that.
"What are some other animals that live in the Florida scrub?" he was asked by Dustin Angell, education coordinator at Venus-based Archbold Biological Station.
"Gopher turtle, raccoon and possum," Samuel answered earning another sticker to add to his collection, -- after Mr. Angell corrected "turtle" with "tortoise."
Representatives from Lake Woodruff and Merritt Island Wildlife Refuges, Paul Rebmann of Wild Florida Photo Nature Photography, Ocala National Forest U.S. Forest Service, Volusia County, City of Deltona and several other environmental groups manned tables in the crowded exhibitor room.
Dr. Michael Brothers, director of the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, and a calm kestrel named Priscilla were a popular pair as they worked the room.
Central Florida Zoo Docent Nancy Geffner held "Alligator No. 2."
"Alligators don't have names," she said.
The still-on-the-smallish-side reptile was extremely laid back but getting big enough, Ms. Geffner said, that Lyonia might be its last public appearance.
"They can slow their heart rate down to one beat per minute," she told Anthony and Sarah Rivera of Palm Coast.
"That's what I do when my wife asks me to clean or do something," Mr. Rivera said. "I slow my heart rate down to one beat per minute."
Christopher Tozier, author of Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, the award-winning, middle-grade fantasy series set in the wilds of central Florida, signed copies of his first two books.
The second, Olivia Brophie and the Sky Island, was just published by Pineapple Press. Two years after the first, to say it was much anticipated might be understating things.
"I got harassed on the Internet by kids wanting the next book," Mr. Tozier said laughing."
The author, who lives west of DeLand, said the books are being used in Volusia County Schools as part of the English and science curriculum in conjunction with materials from Archbold Station for research, conservation and education.
The books are geared to students in grades 4, 5 and 6, Mr. Tozier said, adding some advanced-reading third graders also enjoy them.
"They're done with picture books but don't want kissing books yet," he said of his fans.
Keynote speaker was Dr. Reed Bowman, a leading scrub jay expert and researcher, who talked about the behavior and biology of the species.
A panel of experts answered questions about the only bird species unique to Florida, which is federally listed as a threatened species.
As such, officials say, it's equally necessary to educate about the birds' disappearing habitat.
"Scrub-jay populations are thought to have declined by as much as 90 percent since the late 1800s due to habitat loss," according to the FWC's website. "More recently, scrub-jays have continued to decline even on protected lands due to inadequate habitat management. Historically, periodic wildfires maintained the shrubby, open habitat that scrub-jays need to survive."
Volusia County Land Management's prescribed burn team was on hand along with a display of equipment used in the burns.
The free event was designed to educate the public about the birds and their habitat, Mrs. Falcon said.
It's difficult to tell, she explained, whether or not awareness has helped their numbers.
"They are very hard to count," Mrs. Falcon said, "because the scrub jays live in family territories and there can be up to 20 acres per family, so it's difficult to get an accurate count."
"The numbers fluctuate from year to year as the juvenile males go find territories of their own," she added.
She said Jay Watch, initiated by the Nature Conservancy, is comprised of "citizen scientist" volunteers, who visit scrub jay inhabited sites and count.
"It's not as accurate as they would like it to be," Mrs. Falcon said, "but it's as accurate as you can get."
"Scrub jays are bold, curious, charismatic and true Florida natives," the FWC reported.
Definitely, agreed Constance Gibb and Dianna Magnum, Florida Scrub Jay Trail volunteers.
The proof was sitting on the table in front of them in a photo of a young girl holding one of the nearly-neon blue birds in the palm of her hand.
Recently, Ms. Gibbs said, the volunteers were clearing land along the trail in Clermont when they saw some scrub jays nearby.
The workers stopped what they were doing and put the birds to the test.
"We just held out our hands to the side and they landed on them," Ms. Gibbs said.