“In our work at Conservian, we’ve done aerial surveys before, but this was the trip of a lifetime,” says conservation biologist, Margo Zdravkovic, following six days of surveying the Bahamas with LightHawk volunteer pilot Jimmy Roswell of Jupiter, Florida.
With Roswell at the controls of his bright yellow Piper PA-18 Super Cub seaplane and Zdravkovic photographing the coastline below, the pair completed the first comprehensive aerial surveys ever accomplished in the Bahamas to document all visible shorebird habitat and incidences of the invasive plant species casuarina pine (Casuarina equisetifolia) for each island surveyed.
The aerial images and data collected over 2,800 miles of the undulating Bahamian coastline is proving invaluable for Conservian. The information is allowing the organization to save time and resources by accurately prioritizing their actions in the Bahamas to target high-quality shorebird habitat and bypass areas that lack habitat.
Zdravokovic co-founded Conservian, a non-profit that channels her passion for protecting shorebirds throughout the Western Hemisphere. Planning to survey the Bahamas, Zdravkovic had been hoping to partner with LightHawk since she first heard of the group, which uses flight to accelerate conservation efforts.
Pilot Roswell is “…an excellent stick and rudder guy, probably the best pilot I’ve ever worked with,” says Zdravokovic. This was Roswell’s first LightHawk mission and he covered more than 2,800 miles in six days. “We’d be up at 6:00am and in the air by 8:00am. Jimmy was really gung-ho and incredibly passionate about accomplishing our goals,” recalls Zdravkovic.
Conservian requested LightHawk’s assistance, seeing aerial surveys as the most efficient way to reach its conservation goals in the Bahamas Archipelago. “Before we could do anything,” explains Zdravkovic, “we had to identify the existing shorebird habitat and shoreline presence of invasive Casuarina pine (Casuarina equisetifolia). There was no comprehensive documentation. The new aerial photo data gives us exactly what we need.”
Although solitary beach-nesting species are known to nest throughout the Bahamas, very little data exists on breeding distribution or abundance for the Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) or American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates). The new aerial habitat data will allow Conservian to focus ground surveys on the areas that have the greatest potential to support these species.
Showing her affinity for the solitary nesting shorebird species, Zdravkovic says, “They’re very interactive. To protect their nests, the birds try to lead you away from the area, but if you keep searching, suddenly you see three eggs in the sand, well camouflaged but still so vulnerable on the open beach.”
Casuarina, also called Australian pine, is an invasive tree species that grows throughout the Bahamas. The tree has allopathic seeds and needles that destroy the surrounding ground vegetation. “The invasive species has a very shallow root system,” explains Zdravkovic, “so when a storm hits, the trees fall over, taking the sand with them, causing the beach to erode. The pines make it impossible for sea turtles and shorebirds to nest because there’s no shoreline.”
“Casuarina pine destroys the beach for humans, too, because the trees grow to the water’s edge,” Zdravkovic explains. Eradication efforts in the Florida Keys have been successful and Conservian plans to implement a long term program to control the pines in the Bahamas.
“The project would be almost impossible without LightHawk and the aerial surveys,” says Zdravkovic. “We’re talking about an archipelago of 700 islands and 2000 cays. Without the data made possible through LightHawk flights, we wouldn’t know where to begin. To gather all the information that we were able to collect in only six days of flying, we’d have had to walk every beach on each one of the islands and cays.”