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Wading birds had mixed success nesting in the Everglades last year

 Woos storks nesting in the Florida Everglades in 2020
Florida Audubon
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Woos storks nesting in the Florida Everglades in 2020

FLORIDA EVERGLADES – Roseate spoonbills that nested early in the Florida Everglades had a successful year raising hatchlings in 2020, but an early rainy season meant food became scarce so wading birds that nest later did not do as well.

The pink-and-white birds with the distinctive flat bill built twice as many nests last year as than they have done during each of the last ten years.

Audubon Florida, a well-known environmental group dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, published a report on last year's health and success of 43,680 wading bird nests from Fort Myers to Lake Okeechobee and south to Florida Bay at the southern tip of mainland South Florida.

Tricolored herons, great egrets, and little blue herons created less than 10,000 nests, each, down from previous years. Snowy egret nests declined by 27 percent on average. The early rains pummeled nesting wood storks, which before Everglades flood control efforts during the 1980s and 1990s, began nesting in November or December. In 2020, the birds began nesting in mid-January, but there was not enough time for many of the hatchlings to mature before the rains came, which led to widespread nest abandonment.

What really matters, according to the Audubon Florida report, is how the overall now compares to the overall then.

Even nesting numbers like those in 2020 are considered successful because the effort of groups working to re-establish rookeries in the Everglades are measured in decades-over-decades, and things are better overall in 2020 than in, say, 1988 before restoration efforts began.

“The science tells us that Everglades restoration works for wading birds,” said Kelly Cox, Audubon Florida’s Director of Everglades Policy. “This report shows that if we remain steadfast in our commitment to Everglades restoration, wading birds will have a greater chance of reaching their historic numbers.”

Too much or too little water remains a key factor affecting the survival of the hatchlings. Audubon Florida said climate change-induced variations in seasonal rainfall patterns, including stronger and more frequent storms, will make things tough on nesting wading birds.

Wading bird nesting around Lake Okeechobee was the lowest in 2020 than it has been since the extreme drought year of 2008. Researchers documented 1,951 nests last year. The ten-year average is 5,319.

For the ninth time in 14 years wood storks failed to nest in the Corkscrew Swamp watershed, likely due to changes in water flow caused by development and a resulting decline in the amount of crayfish and other critters the storks feed their hatchlings. Nearby, however, colonies on Lenore Island in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, and in inland Collier County, together built a total of 35 nests. The fate of those hatchlings is not known because a spike in cases of Covid-19 caused researchers fearful of catching the virus to cancel the flights used to monitor the nesting colonies from the air.

Audubon Florida reports Florida Bay accounted for 64 percent of the tricolored heron nests in the Everglades even though heron are not thoroughly surveyed. Unlike in the rest of the Everglades, tricolored herons in Florida Bay are not declining, and may be on the increase.

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