After three relatively poor years for nesting wading birds in the greater Everglades ecosystem, the numbers were up more than 50 percent in 2013 and Audubon Florida couldn’t be happier.
A big reason is improved habitat from water-restoration projects, said the Audubon’s Tabitha Cale.
“Where we have restoration projects put in place, that’s where we are seeing signs of hope,” said Cale, an Everglades policy associate with the non-profit organization. “This really shows restoration works.”
The data come from the South Florida Water Management District, which released its annual wading-bird report Thursday. The information comes from collaboration among a diverse group of ecologists, who reported a combined 48,291 wading-bird nests across South Florida, with white ibis, wood storks, and great egrets showing the largest increases.
After three years where the average number of nests had fallen to around 30,000, this was a bright sign. However, it was still only about half the number of nests recorded in 2009 — the best South Florida nesting year on record since the 1940s.
“More nests mean more chicks being produced, more baby birds for the future,” Cale said. “That’s good for the population numbers going up.”
Last year was an especially good year for the roseate spoonbill, whose nesting in Florida Bay had been in steep decline from 2005-2011. It began to rebound in 2012 and last year there were an “encouraging” 880 nests recorded.
Cale said one reason is the C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project that began operation last year. Audubon scientists have found the restoration work has led to regrowth of submerged aquatic vegetation and more favorable salinity levels.
“Once the vegetation improves, the fish come back,” Cale said. “And when the fish move back in, the habitat that the spoonbill depends on is healthier.”
Another area in which nesting has rebounded is in Lake Okeechobee. In 2008, there were only 39 nests recorded. Last year, there were 8,461, with an abundance of great egret, white ibis, and snowy egret. It was the fourth-largest number tallied on the lake since 1954.
The high-water level of the lake during the summer of 2012 “gave fish populations a chance to rebound,” said Dr. Paul Gray, manager of Audubon’s Lake Okeechobee Sanctuaries.
During the annual dry season, tiny fish were forced to congregate in shallower water.
“This made it easier for the birds to catch fish to feed themselves and their chicks,” Cale said.
But the report also states that nesting in some historically strong nesting habitat continues to be down. Wood storks once again did not nest in the western Everglades area where there has been an abundance of wetland habitat lost to development.
Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida, said in a statement: “I’m hopeful that as new restoration projects come on line we will see wading birds returning in larger numbers to their historic nesting grounds in the Everglades.”