By SCOTT KAUFFMAN
A study of waterbirds in southwest Florida golf communities has spawned optimism about the viability of course wetlands and ponds as healthy breeding grounds for such wildlife.
That’s the opinion of University of Florida researchers who recently wrapped up the second phase of an intensive two-year study of 12 courses.
“In rapidly urbanizing areas, golf courses will have enormous potential to provide wildlife habitats,” said Martin Main, Ph.D., wildlife ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s not all species. You’re certainly not going to have bears and panthers running around. But for a number of species, this can be viable. And we think in the future (golf courses) will become increasingly important as a habitat as we lose land.”
According to Main and University of Florida graduate student LeAnn White, who co-authored the study, “Habitat Value of Golf Course Wetlands to Waterbirds,” there were a total of 4,864 observations of 31 species of waterbirds in the first five months of last year. In all, there were 183 lakes on the 12 courses surveyed, and each course was visited eight times.
The effort was duplicated this year from Feb. 1-May 1, when the concentration of waterbirds is highest in southwest Florida and before some migratory birds move north.
“We are measuring the same factors as last year – the number and types of waterbirds, and various characteristics of the lakes such as productivity, slope of the banks, water depth, vegetation type and density, and surrounding landscape features,” said White, who wrapped up her 2002 field work earlier this month.
“The data will be compared between the two years to monitor variation in bird abundance, as well as changes in other factors, such as vegetation density,” she said.
One surprise sighting was a large population of hooded mergansers at Mediterra’s South Course in Naples, a Tom Fazio-designed layout developed by The Bonita Bay Group.
“I don’t recall ever having seen hooded mergansers on a golf course before,” White said. “They are an uncommon species, especially for South Florida.”
Main says survey results will help shape recommendations for how to make ponds and lakes even more productive, such as modifying shorelines to expand feeding areas for wading birds.
“Our goal is to identify how different habitat characteristics of golf course ponds and lakes influence use by wading and other waterbirds,” said Main, who works in Immokalee, Fla.
According to Main, the estimated $50,000 study was funded by Bonita Bay Group, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Golf Association’s Wildlife Links Program.
Of the 12 courses studied, nine were Bonita Bay properties, including seven Audubon International Signature or Cooperative Sanctuary Program participants: Mediterra; Bonita Bay Club West’s three courses designed by Arthur Hills; Bonita Bay Club East’s two off-site golf courses designed by Fazio; and North Naples’ TwinEagles Golf & Country Club Talon Course co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II in Naples.
The two non-Audubon courses were the Spring Run at The Brooks in Bonita Springs and Copperleaf at The Brooks in Naples, both designed by Gordon Lewis.
The study’s other participants were WCI’s residential golf communities: Arnold Palmer-designed Wildcat Run Golf & Country Club in Estero, Burnt Store Country Club, a Ron Garl and Mark McCumber collaboration in Punta Gorda, and Fazio-designed Gateway Golf and Country Club in Fort Myers.
Burnt Store superintendent Luis Olivarez describes the story as “very important.”
“I think a lot of things have been said about golf courses being careless on the side of pesticides and not doing anything for the environment,” he said. “I embrace these type of studies. It could be bad or good.
“But having a graduate student doing research backed up by the University of Florida gives us a lot of credibility.”
Main and his staff picked courses at various points of maturity to evaluate the habitat systems at different stages, and also chose a mix of Audubon program participants and nonparticipants to “evaluate how Audubon-certified courses compare to courses that have not participated in the program.”
Kim Fikoski, environmental manager with The Bonita Bay Group, says the study will provide a database that identifies the “best management practices for creating, enhancing and maintaining wetland habitat for water birds on golf courses.”
“This is the first time a broad-spectrum study has been done on golf course properties to quantify the relationship between created wetland waterbird habitat and the use of these areas by water birds,” Fikoski said. “We anticipate the information the study yields will help developers to create and protect habitat in the most beneficial ways for the greatest number of species.”