Everglades wading bird nesting increases during drought

Drought conditions straining South Florida water supplies could actually lead to a wading bird baby boom in the Everglades.

Wood storks, spoonbills, white ibis and great egrets are taking advantage of lower water levels in the Everglades water conservation areas west of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, with increased numbers of the birds nesting in areas normally too soggy for reproduction.

Last month, the South Florida Water Management District’s nesting count found 1,050 nests for endangered stork nests, compared to zero in March 2010.

There were 200 spoonbills, compared to 20 a year ago while green egrets when from 130 last year to 7,180 this year.

White ibis nesting totals soared even higher, from zero in March 2010 to 10,000 in March 2011.

Water receding in some areas while still collected in others has allowed the wading birds to feed on concentrated amounts of small fish, according to the district.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Deborah Drum, district deputy director of restoration sciences. "We’ve got some favorable conditions in the Everglades that are creating this nesting effort.  …  Large foraging flocks of wading birds."

Whether the flocks massing in the Everglades lead to a population boom depends on how long the drought lingers. If water levels decrease too much, birds could abandon their nests before hatchlings are ready to be on their own, or the babies could be born in areas where food sources have dried up, according to the district.

"We are still 'holding our breath' for the rest of this drought, and hoping that the conditions do not get any more severe so we can see the positive results of the increased nest numbers," Drum said.

Farther north, the drought risk is already putting the endangered Everglade snail kite even more at risk.

That’s because declining Lake Okeechobee water levels are drying out the marshes around the edges of the lake where the finicky snail kite hunts for its main food source, the apple snail.

If the drought lingers too long, dry conditions will kill off apple snails and could prompt the adult snail kites to leave the nest before their young are able to care for themselves.

Snail kite populations have dropped from 3,000 ten years ago to about 700 today, according to Audubon of Florida.

"What we are worried about is the water levels going down so far it will leave them stranded," said Paul Gray, scientist for Audubon of Florida.

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