In a feathery twist of fate, protecting a bird threatens to get in the way of saving the Everglades.
Migrating birds called black-necked stilts are taking advantage of drought-strained South Florida conditions and nesting by the dozens in dry portions of stormwater treatment areas.
Those stormwater treatment areas are manmade filter marshes intended to clean pollutants from water that drains off farmland before heading to the Everglades. The treatment areas stretch across more than 50,000 acres of former agricultural fields, mostly in western Palm Beach County.
The timing of the black-necked stilts nesting during the lingering drought threatens to create federally protected obstacles to hydrating the Everglades when summer rains begin.
Drought conditions already leave the stormwater treatment areas with less water than they need. Trying to keep water away from the nesting birds adds another unwelcome hurdle, said Stephen Davis, wetland ecologist for the Everglades Foundation environmental group.
Keeping stormwater out of the treatment areas to protect the nesting birds could mean delaying much-needed deliveries to the Everglades or even dumping more water out to sea to avoid flooding concerns.
"It’s kind of a double-edged sword with these birds," Davis said. "We’re more concerned about getting clean water to the Everglades."
The black and white birds, with long legs and long narrow beaks, nest on the ground at the waterline.
In early May there were just four stilts nests in the stormwater treatment areas. One week later, more than 100 stilts nests had spread across the treatment areas, built on land that was once part of the Everglades.
It takes about 28 days for black-necked stilts’ eggs to hatch and for the newborns to leave the nest, according to the district. The stilt’s nesting cycle lines up with the usual late-May, early-June beginning to Florida’s summer rainy season.
Federal protections for migratory birds require the water management district to try to avoid disrupting their nesting, which restricts the district’s ability to raise water levels in the treatment areas, said Deborah Drum, the district’s deputy director of Everglades restoration.
The district monitors nesting locations and follows an "avian protection plan," created in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to lessen the impact of moving stormwater through the treatment areas.
"These birds are protected," Drum said. The district tries to "flow water in areas that either don’t have nests or have a minimal number of nests," she said.
The same nesting problem surfaced during previous droughts and is expected to get worse as the district expands the stormwater treatment areas to try to meet over-due water quality standards.
Better water management decisions earlier in the year could have helped avoid the dry conditions in the treatment areas that allowed the black-necked stilts to move in, according to Jane Graham of Audubon of Florida.
Audubon – dedicated to protecting birds as well as a strong advocate for Everglades restoration – called for tougher watering restrictions earlier in the year to try to beef up water supplies.
That would have allowed the district to have more water on hand to restock the treatment areas during the drought, which could have avoided the dry spots attracting nesting stilts, Graham said.
Now that the nests are there, flooding the birds shouldn’t be an option even though the Everglades needs water, Graham said.
"It’s definitely a strange situation," Graham said. "Not enough water was saved. … This is an example of what happens."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun