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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Are We Making Progress On Everglades Restoration? Ask Florida's Wading Birds

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Mac Stone Photography
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Roseate spoonbills in Florida Bay. The birds sweep their distinctive bills in an arc through the water to dredge up fish and insects.

Wood storks, roseate spoonbills, ibises and egrets are among the many birds that fly, paddle and wade through the Everglades.

They draw visitors, particularly photographers, to the ecosystem. But the Everglades' birds are important for another reason: The health of wading bird communities says a lot about progress on Everglades restoration.

Read more: Rare Subspecies Of Birder Found In South Florida: Counters. As In Bird Counters

"Particularly the wood storks, the spoonbills and the ibises, they need really high densities of prey," said Mark Cook, a lead scientist and avian ecologist for the South Florida Water Management District. "To get those high densities of prey, it’s a function of hydrologic conditions."

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Credit Kate Stein / WLRN
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WLRN
Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, west of Boynton Beach, is home to wading birds including egrets, herons and wood storks.

Water quality, quantity, timing and delivery influence whether there are fish, insects and crayfish for the birds to eat. If there aren’t many birds, or if they’re not in their normal habitats, other species are likely struggling, too— and scientists take that as a sign restoration isn't going so well. But if there are a lot of wading birds, it means there’s progress.

Read more: What We Talk About When We Talk About Everglades Restoration

Cook said he and his team will be releasing their annual report on Everglades wading birds in the next few weeks. Last year's report found the number of nesting wading birds had fallen to its lowest level in a decade.