Wading birds in the Everglades built more nests in 2018 than any other year in the last 80, a record-breaking nesting event made possible by the right balance of wet and dry conditions in the delicate ecosystem. And after heading north to nest in recent years, the birds returned to the southern Everglades, their traditional nesting grounds.
More than 122,000 wading bird nests were counted in the Everglades during the 2018 nesting season, which ranged from December 2017 to July last year. Overall in South Florida more than 140,000 nests were found, the most since counting began in 1995, compared with an average of about 40,000 a year in the past decade.
“We have never seen anything like this in the last 80 years,’’ said South Florida Water Management District scientist Mark Cook, the lead author on the agency’s annual wading bird report released Thursday. “These numbers highlight the resiliency of these birds and that of the Everglades.’’
From the roseate spoonbills, the pink-plumed birds that were hunted to near extinction for their feathers a century ago, to threatened wood storks, which almost disappeared in the early 1980s, nesting activity for all wading bird species in the annual tally far exceeded their averages for the past 10 years. Wading birds are a key indicator of overall Everglades health.
Their performance was the result of a “perfect storm’’ of weather conditions, Cook said. As a nutrient-poor environment, the Everglades needs to get its delicate ecological balance right to sustain wading birds: lots of water during the rainy season to produce abundant fish and then a steep drop in water levels leading up to the breeding season, when the fish move into drier, more concentrated pools.
That’s exactly what happened preceding the 2018 nesting season. South Florida experienced record rainfall in 2017, driven to a large degree by Hurricane Irma and tropical storms. The unusually wet rainy season boosted fish and crayfish production over large areas of the Everglades, especially in higher elevation marshes as Big Cypress Basin. Typically, the area is too dry to produce all the prey that’s necessary for the birds to flourish.
The dry season was also unusually dry, and started slightly earlier, giving birds ample time to nest and allowing chicks enough time to gain independence before the return of the rains, when fish become harder to catch.
All species tracked in the report greatly increased their nest counts, with the threatened wood stork producing almost 6,000 nests, more than twice its 10-year average. With its scaly-looking head, the storks were regularly failing to reproduce in recent years because they began to build nests too late. The wood stork has a four-month incubation period and birds were starting to nest as late as April. By the time they were able to get their chicks off the nest, the rains would have arrived again, spreading the fish around and making it difficult to find food. That led birds to abandon their chicks before they fully developed. But last year wood storks started nesting in December, which gave them plenty of time to produce thousands of chicks.
The record-setting nesting performance showed what Everglades restoration could look like as it advances, and once water managers can replicate the successful conditions of the 2018 nesting season, said Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida.
“It shows that if we can get the water right, the right amount at the right time and at the right place, the birds will respond in spades,’’ she said.
And water did flow to the right places this time: down towards the southern Everglades. In previous years, nesting tallies revealed a worrisome trend of birds abandoning the southern Everglades, heading north in search of healthier conditions. The latest report revealed they returned to the coastal fringes of Everglades National Park where they historically nested, indicating that more fresh water flowed to these coastal systems.
Another bright spot in the latest count was the size of a super colony of 60,000 birds nesting in tree islands in a conservation area just north of Alligator Alley. It was the result of successful water management strategy to keep tree islands surrounded by enough water to keep predators away while birds could nest in peace.
The report comes as the Florida Legislature approved record funding for restoration efforts this year, giving Gov. Ron DeSantis nearly $60 million more than the $625 million he requested for environmental restoration and water resource management.
Additional funds could also be coming from the federal government, after the White House this week revised a budget request to Congress, with President Donald Trump pledging support on Twitter for a $200 million push to fund projects aimed at restoring Florida’s Everglades. That’s a boost of $137 million from an earlier proposal.