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Environment

DeLuca Preserve is surprise refuge for Florida’s most endangered bird

Fabby Baeza looking through a camera on a tripod
Kevin Spear
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Orlando Sentinel
Archbold Biological Station researcher Fabby Baeza searches for Florida grasshopper sparrows at DeLuca Preserve.

Scientists probe why Florida grasshopper sparrows nest among DeLuca Preserve cattle.

Fabiola “Fabby” Baeza-Tarin was born in 1994 in Ojinaga, Mexico, at the west Texas border, and raised three hours south at her family’s Rancho El Chamaco.

Baeza didn’t learn to drive in a car, only in roughhouse, four-wheel-drive pickups on rocky ranchland of little rain, thin air and the “El Salto” peak of 5,577 feet. Songbirds thrive at the isolated ranch, including those whose call suggests “tortilla con chile,” the eastern meadowlark.

Fabiola “Fabby” Baeza-Tarin driving
(Kevin Spear)
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This is Fabiola “Fabby” Baeza-Tarin, a researcher from Archbold Biological Station, who is documenting Florida grasshopper sparrows on the big tract. She is a native of Mexico and grew up on a remote ranch, where four-wheel-drive pickups were the only way to get around.

Baeza sees a lot of meadowlarks these days as she studies a different bird on the prairie and pasture of DeLuca Preserve, which escaped plans for thousands of homes and has since become part of one of Florida’s standout rescues of nature. Baeza heads a team from Archbold Biological Station supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She was raised amid lore that owls were witches and red racer snakes slithered onto the breasts of nursing mothers to steal milk.

Baeza earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife and grassland birds at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. Along the way, she urged her dad to accept raptors and reptiles as omens of healthy ecology. She would be patient, sharing science.

“I could never tell my dad how to run his ranch,” Baeza said.

In time, her dad was encouraging other ranchers to respect owls and spare red racers, further partnering with nature.

 Fabby Baeza looking through binoculars into a field
Kevin Spear
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Fabby Baeza, a researcher with Archbold Biological Station, watches for Florida grasshopper sparrows at DeLuca Preserve.

“I hope we can do that here,” said Baeza as she crossed the dew-drenched landscape near Yeehaw Junction in southern Osceola County.

“With ranchers, when they’ve been running land for so many years, you just don’t show up and tell them how to run their land,” Baeza said.

Genetic diversity

In the years since the Great Recession and growth regulations doomed a proposal to turn the 27,000 acres of Osceola County ranchland into a city of 250,000 called Destiny, alarms sounded over a small brown bird, the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

The sparrow was noted as uncompromising about where it would live, requiring a natural prairie of low grasses and shrubs and of no cows or trees whatsoever.

In that setting, the sparrows mimic lizards, often sprinting unseen rather than flying.

Map of DeLuca Preserve
A. Meeks, Archbold Biological Station, using priority data from UF Center for Landscape Conservation Planning
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Neighbors of DeLuca Preserve are some of the last refuges for Florida grasshopper sparrows.

Strongholds for that terrain are Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Avon Park Air Force Range and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, all wrapping around Deluca Preserve.

Most of the rest of that prairie habitat in Florida is gone, snatched away by development, roads or disruptive land uses.

A decade ago, the sparrow’s population at those refuges plunged to about 100. Nobody could explain the crash, but they knew a context. Florida infamously killed off a similar bird 30 years ago, the dusky seaside sparrow, which lived in marshlands of Central Florida.

The Fish and Wildlife Service deployed researchers into private lands in discreet probes for even isolated grasshopper sparrow refugees.

 Fabby Baeza examines a newborn Florida grasshopper sparrow
Kevin Spear
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Researcher Fabby Baeza of Archbold Biological Station examines a newborn Florida grasshopper sparrow at the giant property. Photo taken in 2021.

And they found a bunch of them on the Destiny tract. To their further surprise, the sparrows were thriving in unlikely terrain, improved pastures of planted grasses.

Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which kept its findings of sparrows at Destiny secret for years, said the pressing mission now is to probe why they are nesting on pastures somewhat akin to suburban lawns.

“One thing it makes me think of, and this is just Larry speculating, that with any population you have genetic diversity, all these traits that make them more adaptive in different circumstances,” Williams said. “We will learn more about what those adaptations are and how to manage land in a way that makes sparrows and ranching compatible.”

By 2017, with grants from the wildlife service, Archbold Biological Station was sending teams for demographic studies of grasshopper sparrows at the former Destiny tract.

Researchers examine a newborn Florida grasshopper sparrow
Kevin Spear
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Researchers from Archbold Biological Station, Hannah Landwerlen, left, Nicole Rita, middle, and Fabby Baeza examine a newborn Florida grasshopper sparrow at DeLuca Preserve.

They confirmed further surprise: the dozens of sparrows there constitute the second-largest population of the species, trailing only the number of the birds at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.

That secret was unveiled when the land became DeLuca Preserve.

Tortilla con chile

It’s been the job of Baeza and teammates to investigate why sparrows appear to thrive at DeLuca.

As she finessed her four-wheel-drive truck through mud and sand, Baeza said they want to learn why sparrows and cattle get along, how to manage pastures for the benefit of both and what subtle features lure sparrows to build nests in any particular place.

 Researcher Fabby Baeza uses a spotting scope
Kevin Spear
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Researcher Fabby Baeza uses a spotting scope to find and identify Florida grasshopper sparrows at DeLuca Preserve.

Streaked in daybreak shadows, DeLuca Preserve’s scenery included ambling caracaras that ignored Baeza.

Meadowlarks sang “tortilla con chile.”

Native prairie revealed some of its best stuff, including meat-eating pitcher plants and a rare specimen, nodding pinweed, that suggests stars sprayed across a sky of wiregrass.

Baeza aimed a powerful scope at a male sparrow perched on a slender stem, vociferously greeting sunrise — buzzing like a grasshopper.

She stopped at an expanse of pasture to join teammates Nicole Rita and Hannah Landwerlen.

 This view of a Florida grasshopper sparrow is through the spotting scope
Kevin Spear
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This view of a Florida grasshopper sparrow is through the spotting scope used by Fabby Baeza, a researcher at DeLuca Preserve. Photo taken in 2021.

They set out to band a newborn sparrow in a nearby nest with practiced dexterity.

Above the treeless expanse, the sky suggested the Western sensibilities of blue and boundless. A tuft of grasses concealed the ground nest, making it impossible to notice without bending down.

Researchers on the ground in the middle of a field
Kevin Spear
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A team from Archbold Biological Station, Fabby Baeza, Nicole Rita and Hannah Landwerlen, examine a newborn Florida grasshopper sparrow. Photo taken 2021.
baby bird with its mouth open
Courtesy: Carlton Ward Jr.
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This Florida grasshopper sparrow hatchling was monitored by researchers at DeLuca Preserve.

The nest was ringed by an electrified fence to keep out cattle and a mesh fence to repel rodents. The immediate area had been spot-treated with scalding water to kill fire ants, a super-predator of sparrow babies.

Baeza approached and the mother flushed, landing a dozen feet away, instantly hidden in grasses. Baeza reached in with a gloved hand, brought out the baby and returned to Rita and Landwerlen.

My gosh, this one is so tiny,” Rita said.

“Which is surprising for a single nestling,” Baeza said.

The bird weighed 5 grams, as much as a nickel. They banded it, collected a saliva sample and returned the baby in less than five minutes.

Closeup of baby sparrow in someone's glove hand
Kevin Spear
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Researchers from Archbold Biological Station are documenting Florida grasshopper sparrows on DeLuca Preserve, including this newborn. Photo taken in 2021.

“There you go, buddy; go be a good sparrow,” Baeza said.

Big bite

The University of Florida Foundation holds title to DeLuca’s 27,000 acres.

Ducks Unlimited possesses the protective conservation easement for the acreage, with final say on what goes on there.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences owns the task of keeping the place in good condition as a working ranch and as a wildlife haven.

UF IFAS sign at DeLuca Preserve
Orlando Sentinel
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University of Florida IFAS signs for DeLuca Preserve can be seen near Yeehaw Junction along S.R. 60 and U.S. 441.

Deep in the core identity of IFAS is desire to show the world’s growing population how to produce more food, be it with newly evolving genetic modification, chemical application, factory processes or conventional ways.

IFAS shows ranchers how to ranch but is not a big-time rancher.

“They’ve bitten off a lot,” said Mike Adams of Adams Ranch, one of the state’s oldest and largest cattle operations. “We will see how good they are as stewards.”

As UF has trumpeted, the 42-square-mile property will be a juggling act as an outdoor classroom for soil, water, insect, plant, wildlife, cattle and crop research and saving sparrows.

“This gift is a precious piece of Florida that will become the premier living laboratory for natural resource management research and study,” IFAS leader Scott Angle said in a statement.

One project gearing up will inventory wildlife with the traditional means of boots on the ground and by another means that IFAS scientists have been advancing for the past couple of years.

They will sample the DNA in the blood sucked by mosquitoes. Results will be compared to data from traditional surveys.

“Mosquitoes go to places that we can’t and they are out there all the time,” said Christina Romagosa, professor at IFAS’s Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department and one of five researchers in the project. “We are trying to get a really good measure of the diversity of wildlife on this property. It may be that mosquito blood meals are more effective or require fewer resources for doing that.”

Advisory group

Brent Sellers is in charge of DeLuca Preserve. He is the director of IFAS’s Range Cattle Research & Education Center in Ona, a crossroads community more than an hour west of the property.

Brent Sellers in the middle of a field
Orlando Sentinel
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Brent Sellers, director of the UF IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona on Nov. 3, 2021.

A professor, Sellers specializes in identifying problematic weeds in pastures and rangeland and along fence lines.

His job description has ballooned to include protecting one of the nation’s rarest birds while also accommodating cattle, hunters and UF scientists and their students.

Sellers comes off as a collaborator. He assembled an advisory group of experts, including from Audubon, Archbold Biological Station and from Florida and federal wildlife agencies.

One challenge at DeLuca Preserve, Seller said, will be in making the business case for rearing cows and rare species from the same, limited budget.

More cattle would bring more cash income, but more cattle also means more stomping, pooping and chewing on wildlife habitat.

Ranchers on horseback tending to cattle
Courtesy: Carlton Ward Jr.
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The vast expanse of wild lands between Central and South Florida was given a second chance for conservation when, in the heart of it, the Destiny development was reincarnated as DeLuca Preserve. The property has long been a ranch and will continue to contain cattle as DeLuca Preserve.

DeLuca Preserve has about 1,500 cattle grazing on 18,000 acres. “That’s fairly light,” Sellers said.

“We want to know how we can use the data we are getting to develop a management plan for other ranchers to maybe create more habitat for the grasshopper sparrow,” Sellers said.

DeLuca Preserve’s current annual income from leasing out land for hunting and agriculture is about $600,000 and the property annual costs are about $450,000.

The difference will cover unexpected expenses and support student and faculty work at the preserve, according to the University of Florida Foundation.

“We have worked closely with the DeLuca team to develop a business plan that enables the preserve to be self-sustaining,” the foundation’s Luke Anderson said.

Different perspective

Paul Gray, an Audubon scientist for 25 years and an expert on Everglades and grasshopper sparrows, was recruited for IFAS’ DeLuca Preserve advisory group.

“What this will do for IFAS is give them a working ranch. It’s one thing to write circulars about how to manage land and do animal agriculture,” Gray said.

Paul Gray driving an airboat
Kevin Spear/Orlando Sentinel/OSMG
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Audubon scientist Paul Gray, who owns an airboat and a small ranch, is part of an advisory committee for DeLuca Preserve. Photo taken in 2018.

Gray has an airboat and slaloms through marshes of Lake Okeechobee with ease. He runs his own ranch, testing best practices and squaring up to the realities of cash in and cash out. He experiences ranching and ranchland from both sides of the fence.

“When you have to pay all of the bills and balance your own checkbook,” Gray said of IFAS’ challenges ahead, “it gives you a different perspective.”

IFAS’ perspective will do much to shape the wild frontier remaining between Central and South Florida.

That landscape, it turns out, is regarded as essential for survival of one of Florida’s most challenging endangered species, the Florida panther.

Kevin Spear has reported for nearly 30 years on Florida protection of environmental lands. He tent camped, explored and joined researchers at DeLuca Preserve. kspear@orlandosentinel.com

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.