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South Florida's wading birds nested at near-record numbers

Two egret chicks can be seen in a nest as a pair of adult birds above them cross their beaks
Charles Lee
Audubon Florida
Two egret chicks can be seen in a nest as a pair of adult birds above them cross their beaks

In 2021, the Western monarch butterfly made an astounding comeback in California, the Great Barrier Reef displayed unmistakable signs of recovery in Australia, and a giant tortoise thought to be extinct for more than a century was deemed alive, well, and in desperate need of a mate in the Galapagos Islands.

Nature launched another environmental marvel closer to home in 2021, one just made public.

Wading birds, long-considered sentinel species because the health of their populations track closely with the well-being of the environment they inhabit, nested throughout the Florida Everglades in vast numbers not seen since the 1930s.

Nearly 102,000 egret, spoonbill, ibis, and heron nests were discovered during the 2021 season, according to the latest South Florida Wading Bird Report. A less technical overview can be found here.

The stunning total is 2.5 times more nests for certain common species than in recent decades, and is akin to the birds’ strong reproductive environment in the early 1900s before flood control dams and ponds were created that changed the effectiveness of the Everglades ecosystem forever.

Nearly 34 percent of nests statewide were found in coastal areas, a critical area for wading birds where avian restoration scientists have been working unsuccessfully to restore nesting habitat for years.

Wading birds in Southwest Florida did not do as well as the population as a whole, but were still more successful than during some years in the 1980s and ‘90s that produced less than 5,000 nests statewide. (For detailed 2021 nesting numbers at specific Southwest Florida parks and preserves click here and scroll to page 33.)

“We are so happy that in 2021, the Everglades experienced its second-highest nesting effort for many wading bird species in 80 years,” said Erika Zambello, a spokeswoman for Florida Audubon. “That tells us that if we get the water right, the birds will respond. If we restore habitats, they can have a successful nesting season.”

“Restoring the hydrology’

Wading birds need just the right combination of wet and dry conditions at certain times throughout the year to breed successfully, a complex dance of water-in, water-out, that for eons was a natural part of the annual rhythm of the River of Grass.

“We are so happy that in 2021, the Everglades experienced its second-highest nesting effort for many wading bird species in 80 years.” — Erika Zambello, Florida Audubon spokeswoman

The excitement over the strength of nesting numbers comes after more than a century’s indifference.

Ambitious plans to drain the Everglades came about in the early 1900s to create space for agriculture, land to house a population boom that continues today, and to profit from a growing interest in ecotourism.

Hunters brought to Florida on Henry Flagler’s train lines along the East Coast disappeared into the Everglades, devastating the wading bird populations, and emerging weeks later with just the animals’ plumes.

Major hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 caused deadly flooding south of Lake Okeechobee that prompted the Army Corps to build an earthen dike around much of the vast, shallow lake.

More strong hurricanes in the 1940s prompted the agency to continue flood control efforts that would result in more than 1,000 miles of canals, hundreds of pump stations, and levees that slice across the massive wetland ecosystem.

The efforts contracted the Everglades by more than 40 percent, but the wetland ecosystem is far too massive to be tamed.

For quite some time there was spirited, country-wide debate on whether the Everglades is a mosquito-filled waste of space where people can be killed by strange animals and plants, or if the millions of square acres of wetlands are a vital environmental icon bestowing vast resources that must be restored and persevered for all time, no matter the cost.

Today, the Everglades are in the midst of the largest ecosystem restoration in American history. The South Florida Water Management District is the lead state agency, sharing key decision-making and oversight duties with the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

Nowhere near completed, supporters of the multi-billion-dollar, multi-decadal effort started in 2000 point to some of the first fixes as responsible for the exceptional nesting numbers posted by the 2021 class of Everglades wading birds.

A white heron in flight
South Florida Water Management District
A white heron in flight

Mark Cook is a wildlife ecologist with the South Florida Water Management District who is in charge of a group of scientists doing research into the best ways to restore the Everglades. He is also a wading bird fanatic and author of the 2021 South Florida Wading Bird Report.

"This latest reporting year shows the benefits of Everglades restoration efforts when climatic conditions are favorable and the exciting potential for all the ongoing environmental restoration projects that will be finished in the coming years," Cook said. “This shows that as we are restoring the hydrology of the Everglades, getting the water right will allow Mother Nature to take advantage of favorable conditions when they are presented.”

Her name is Rio

Wading birds are among America’s most iconic avian species, well-known to generations if not by name then by appearance in film, in books, and in the wild.

The stunning, pink roseate spoonbill is well-known for its appearances in the animated films Rio" and "Rio 2" in the early 2010s.

The white ibis, with its bright-white plumage and long, curved bill appeared in the Zora Neale Hurston novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." The egret’s striking white plumage and black legs were featured in Kate Chopin novel "The Awakening."

The elegant tricolored heron, and the scruffy, balding-looking wood stork, are charismatic creatures often used on the covers of Florida bird-watching guides, and seen wading in the shallows feeding on fish and crustaceans.

A hurricane’s onslaught of rainfall late in the year, just before wading birds’ late-winter-to-spring nesting season, has been the pattern prior to all three of the top nesting seasons in recent years.

A lot of rain, followed quickly by the water draining away, traps little fish and other creatures in pools of water that is what makes wading birds wade: the prey is easy pickings so the adult birds can feed their young well.

That played out exactly leading into the 2021 nesting season, when ground already saturated by rains late that year were inundated with more than 20 additional inches by Tropical Storm Eta in November. The 102,000 nests are the second-highest nest count on record.

The 2018 nesting season, which was the year after Hurricane Irma drenched South Florida, is tops.

Last September’s Hurricane Ian continues to cause environmental havoc heading into the summer of 2023, with the nutrient pollution it washed into the Gulf of Mexico perhaps being a catalyst behind non-stop red tides from Tampa Bay south to Everglades City complete with fish kills, acrid air, and respiratory problems felt by beachgoers throughout the region

A tricolored heron wading in the water
South Florida Water Management District
A tricolored heron wading in the water

So far Hurricane Ian’s environmental legacy has been a nightmare, with untold tons of debris washed into the ocean, sand filled with a virus that can kill a human in short order, and non-stop red tides, fish kills, and respiratory problems that chase beachgoers back to the mainland.

Will Ian provide a break if there is a new record number of full and happy wading bird chicks in the Everglades being counted right now for the 2022 nesting report?

Poised to get better?

One year’s worth of notable comebacks in a few species, in a few places, are not enough to mount a challenge to the validity of planet-wide climate change due to human activity, but each episode indicates the resilience of specific ecosystems in certain places, at certain times.

Many of the same environmental issues messing with Florida’s wading birds are stressing out California’s monarch butterflies, notably climate change and habits destroyed for new homes and businesses.

The 50,000 Western monarch butterflies counted in 2021 did little to convince fans of the critter that it was a turnaround year since only 2,000 were discovered 12 months earlier.

But hopes of recovery were bolstered again last Thanksgiving when more than 335,000 of the fluttering insects were recorded wintering along California's central coast, far more than two years earlier but down from the millions typical in the 1980s.

In November of 2021, battered and bleached corals in Australia sent billions of newly fertilized offspring into the Pacific Ocean despite the damage to the Great Barrier Reefcaused by years of unusually warm water.

In May of 2021, Yale University biologists confirmed a female giant turtle found earlier in the Galapagos Islands was of a species last reported alive 112 years ago, but which can live to be nearly 200.

Tortoise conservationists in that part of the world are still on the lookout for a male mate to save the species, trace evidence of which was discovered during the expedition that found the female.

Florida’s wading bird report features contributions from most if not all of the public and private, local, state or federal entities involved in the Everglades restoration, or with in interest in the greater South Florida environment.

S.K. Morgan Ernest, an ecologist with the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation in Gainesville, voices concern over the lack of other positive milestones important to wading birds’ long-term survival beyond nesting, which she said may very well appear as the Everglades restoration nears completion.

“The lack of movement of the other measures suggests that the current hydrological management regimes are not powerful enough to nudge the timing of nesting, ratio of tactile foragers, or numbers of nesting (birds) further,” she wrote. “While this illustrates an apparent stasis, it should be remembered that full restoration of wading bird populations is predicted only as a result of full restoration of key historical (waterflow) patterns, which has not yet occurred.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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