Important Bird Areas

Chassahowitzka-Weekiwachee

Florida

In extreme northwestern Pasco County, and western Citrus and Hernando counties, encompassing most of the area west of U.S. Highway 19 from Homosassa Springs south to Aripeka, including Sun West property. Contiguous with the Crystal River Marshes IBA to the north, and near the Coastal Pasco IBA to the south.
Several contiguous conservation areas along the central Florida Gulf coast from the mouth of the Withlacoochee River south to Fillman Bayou. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 and is accessible only by private boat. It receives 35,000 recreationists and hunters annually, and contains a 23,000 acre (9308 hectares) Wilderness Area. The Chassahowitzka River and Coastal Swamps SOR Tract is located north and east of the Wildlife Refuge, and contains the headwaters of the Chassahowitzka River. It was purchased in 1991. Weekiwachee Preserve was purchased beginning in 1993 and protects thousands of acres (and hectares) of temperate hammocks just inland of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as some tidal marshes. About 80% of the Preserve is within the 100-year floodplain. Public access is limited to day use, and motorized vehicles, horses, pets, and hunting are prohibited. The Preserve receives 4000 recreationists annually. Along with the Crystal River Marshes IBA, this IBA protects virtually the entire coastlines and associated uplands of Citrus and Hernando counties, including dozens of offshore islands. This IBA is essential to sustain a population of black bears in coastal west-central Florida. Vehicle mortality continues to threaten the long-term survival of this population. 

Ornithological Summary

Coastal marshes at Weekiwachee Preserve contain a previously unknown population of Black Rails, and breeding populations of probably large numbers of Clapper Rails, Marsh Wrens, and Seaside Sparrows. The hammocks are important for Neotropical migrants, and support large numbers of wintering passerines, including Yellow-rumped Warblers. Disturbed areas around mine pits have been used as nesting sites by small numbers of Wilson's Plovers and Least Terns. Overall diversity is 273 native and 8 exotic species. A MAPS banding station has been established at Weekiwachee Preserve.

Conservation Issues

Weekiwachee Preserve: A management plan has been prepared. The Preserve is designated as urban fringe parkland, and management for public recreation will be balanced with protection of wildlife, including black bears. About 560 acres (226 hectares) of the property consist of disturbed areas surrounding 500 acres (202 hectares) of pits from which limerock was extracted; much of the area is succeeding to oldfields. These pits are 40-60 feet (12-18 m) deep, have a limited shoreline, and are relatively sterile. Future recreational use will be concentrated in an area around some of the pits to minimize disturbance to sensitive and native habitats. However, about 200 acres (80 hectares) of the mined area is a designated Research Area for use by breeding Wilson's Plovers and Least Terns. About 18% of the Preserve consists of fire-maintained uplands, which will be prescribed-burned on a regular rotation. Additionally, 304 acres (123 hectares) of sand pine scrub near the main spring at Weekiwachee was restored to Florida Scrub-Jay habitat in 2002. This area supported the last known scrub-jay groups in Hernando, but the birds were last seen in December 1995. Perhaps attempts will be made to translocate Florida Scrub-Jays into this area. Salt marshes will be prescribed-burned in small units on a 5-6 year rotation. Exotic plants present onsite include Brazilian pepper, cogon grass, air-potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), and skunkvine (Paederia foetida). These are controlled when encountered, and the perimeter is monitored for additional exotics invading from areas outside the Preserve. Damage from feral hogs appears to be minimal; special hunts will be considered if needed to reduce the hog population. Pine plantations comprise only 54 acres (21 hectares) of the Preserve; these will be thinned and replanted with native species. An Environmental Education Center is being built along the river.

Ownership

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge), Florida Division of Forestry (Withlacoochee State Forest), Southwest Florida Water Management District (Weekiwachee Preserve, Chassahowitzka Rivers and Coastal Swamps SOR Tract, Sun West and other tracts around Aripeka), and private owners (remaining acreage of the Chassahowitzka Rivers and Swamps SOR Project and the Weekiwachee Riverine System SOR Project)

Habitat

Weekiwachee Preserve: *temperate hammock, *tidal marsh, pine flatwoods, sandhills, sand pine scrub, fields, freshwater marsh, cattail marsh, sawgrass marsh, estuarine, riverine, artificial (mostly mine pits).

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