photo by Larry Elkin
If you are an environmental scientist or a birdwatcher, you might have seen evidence in Florida’s wildlands that last year was a spectacularly productive one for many of our local bird species, and a hopeful sign of further improvements to come.
I am neither a scientist nor much of a birdwatcher, although I try to be observant of nature in my surroundings. But I still saw some of the same evidence of nature’s renewed abundance. In my case, I found encouragement in a Publix supermarket parking lot in Palm Beach County.
It was the last Saturday of 2018, late in the afternoon and roughly an hour before sunset. I had turned into the unfamiliar strip mall about 30 miles from my Fort Lauderdale home. Maybe I missed a turn – I don’t quite remember – but I found myself driving past a grassy area near the store’s loading docks. That is where I happened upon a sizable flock of wood storks.
In South Florida, wood storks usually linger in or near the shallow waters of the nearby Everglades – not in supermarket parking lots. At this particular Publix, a nearby retention pond may have provided a place to feed, and trees along the perimeter of the parking lot may have served as nesting sites. The storks like to nest in colonies. This particular flock was neither feeding (which these birds do by probing shallow water for fish or other prey with their long, curved bills) nor guarding their eggs or chicks in their nests. They were simply hanging around.
Although I had seen the species several times before, this sight was noteworthy enough for me to stop to take a photo. I added a corny dad joke about the “stork market” being open on a Saturday night and immediately posted it on social media. You don’t run into wood storks every day in Florida. While the birds are considered abundant over most of their tropical range across the Caribbean and into South America, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service lists them as threatened in the United States. Yet this status is an improvement from their former endangered classification.
Like many species, the storks have been under pressure for many years because of man-made disruptions of the Everglades water flows. Efforts to “reclaim” the Everglades for agricultural use in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to a system of canals and levees that have undermined the natural ecosystem. These disruptions, among other effects, reduced the birds’ breeding success. The storks are also prey to raccoons, which have an easier time raiding nests when the network of man-made canals built to control floods causes the water levels to drop too far.
Floridians of all political stripes are heavily invested in restoring the Everglades. Of course we differ over priorities, funding, and the degree to which development should be restricted in and around the vast and vital wetlands. But politicians of both parties have pushed to restore the healthy seasonal flows of clean fresh water that make the marshes one of the most productive and important environments on this continent.
In 1996 Congress authorized the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to coordinate federal, state and local agencies’ efforts to protect and restore the Everglades. The task force also works with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida to incorporate tribal conservation efforts. Various projects and proposals include raising certain roads to allow water to flow underneath; building a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee; and creating a systems of pumps and canals that would help restore the Everglades’ natural water flow.
Progress has been uneven. But in 2018, nature lent a helping hand – and gave us a hint of the rewards that might lie ahead when restoration efforts make further progress.
As reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, observers counted a major increase in wading bird nests in the Everglades last year. Wood storks, white ibises, roseate spoonbills and other species together built an estimated 138,834 nests – numbers not seen since the 1940s, according to state environmental officials. Of these, just over 59,000 formed a single “super colony” in western Broward County. This success was, in part, due to a water management strategy to ensure birds had sufficient environmental protection from predators.
Water management officials said that a favorable pattern of rainfall deserves most of the credit, however. High amounts of rain from Hurricane Irma and other storms made a large seasonal habitat for fish. When a dry spell then concentrated these fish in remaining pools, it was a gift to wading birds. Biologist Mark Cook described the result as an “amazing buffet” for storks and other species. Cook, who works with the South Florida Water Management District, further told the Miami Herald that “These numbers highlight the resiliency of these birds and that of the Everglades.”
The wet season has not quite started in South Florida this year. It generally begins at roughly the same time as hurricane season, which officially gets underway on June 1, and ends sometime in October or November. Some rains earlier this month have probably helped after a drier-than-normal start to 2019, but the critical period will coincide with the hottest months of the year, between June and September. The wading bird nesting season runs from December to July, which means that this summer’s weather will affect nesting in 2020.
Last year’s bird-breeding success story probably will not repeat itself, at least not any time soon. The Everglades still need a lot of restoration work, and we simply can’t count on the same near-ideal weather conditions recurring to compensate for man-made damage. But at least we have seen how readily the region’s wildlife can restore itself if we give it even a reasonable chance. Nature wants to meet us halfway. We should keep taking steps in the direction of restoring our natural balance.