JML is like lots of Keys folks: Summer up north and the rest of the year in the islands. But JML is not your average snowbird.
JML is a turkey vulture, part of a group of more than 200 that were captured and tagged in December 2013 at Naval Air Station Key West. The flock was regularly returning to the runway and tarmac, obviously a hazard to both the birds and the pilots. The tags were an effort to monitor the vultures' migratory habits.
JML is one of 10 or so select vultures that also were fitted with a radio transmitter that could track its movements minute by minute. From March to October last year, JML flew to Chicago and back, likely nesting somewhere in the middle.
This year, though, JML decided to stay in the Keys year-around, apparently making Big Pine Key its home. It was a surprise when Chris Johnson, owner of SeaSquared Charters in Marathon, found it last Monday in water near Porky's Bayside and Captain Pip's Marina and Hideaway around mile marker 47.5.
"Turkey vultures don't usually float in the water," says Kelly Grinter, director of the Marathon Wild Bird Center.
JML's tracker showed he was soaring at 4,000 feet before rapidly descending to 250 feet, then splashing down. Grinter called it a "mind-boggling" flight pattern.
Fearing the worst, Johnson called Grinter. She in turn called Dr. Michael Avery at the National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville, one of the people monitoring the vultures. After a week of determining if the bird was ill or ready to go, Avery gave the all-clear.
On Thursday, deep inside Marathon's Crane Point Hammock, Grinter released JML — but instead of flying away, he just went to a tree about 20 feet from where he was released.
"He wants to hang around for awhile," Grinter said.