By: Celine Carniero
Growing up, I came across lots of stories about biologists working with rare and endangered animals. Specifically, I remember them recounting their experiences with seeing their study species disappear, even from what appeared to be untouched areas. These were the stories that drove my passion for protecting wild places and the wild things in them. For a long time, these stories were experiences I sought out. I wanted to be the biologist that would take long treks into the wilderness to protect some seemingly insignificant animal. Those stories fueled my aspirations as a kid. They were exciting and honorable.
As strong as my passions were, they were challenged when I began working with one of the most endangered birds in North America: the Florida grasshopper sparrow. It is one of many birds facing extinction that we may see in our lifetime. They’re habitat specialists and can only be found in Florida dry prairie, an endemic old growth ecosystem.
My research began at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, an isolated, untamed, and stunning place. It is 54,000 acres of beautiful prairie and the largest of three major areas to have it. Despite this, the Florida grasshopper sparrow has declined drastically. There are many reasons that might explain it, but researchers (including myself) are still trying to figure that out. One definite reason, as can be said for most species, is the historical decline in it’s natural habitat. Nonetheless, with what is left of dry prairie, the birds remain in small numbers.
Now, I was very excited to have this job. This was it! My chance to work with an extremely rare and endangered species. I get to wear muck boots and walk through beautiful Florida wilderness to try and find this bird to take various notes on it’s behavior and to track it’s reproductive success and participate in it’s conservation. Just like the biologists I aspired to be as a kid. Well, during that summer, I was faced with the frustration, heartbreak, and dread that comes with doing research on such a rare species. Frustration with being in the largest expanse of pristine prairie habitat and finding less than 10 sparrows. The heartbreak of coming to terms with reality. Finally, the dread of knowing what may be ahead. I could see that other researchers felt similarly.
Nonetheless, these feelings were balanced with excitement, hope, and determination. The excitement of FINALLY finding a sparrow and to eventually find the first recorded nest at Kissimmee Prairie in 10 years! Man, what a high. I had feelings of hope when I would see all the work and progress our state biologists and Florida State Parks put into protecting this species. Lastly, I was determined to continue working towards the conservation of the Florida grasshopper sparrow.
As difficult as it was to see the ugly face of the future of many species, I found reasons for hope. I think little me was not ready for the hurdles associated with endangered species research. Nonetheless, as an adult with some experience under my belt, I’ve come to realize that we (biologists, ecologists, conservationists, the public, etc.) cannot let those hurdles stop us.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.