By Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt
The November 2020 to July 2021 breeding season produced approximately 81,000 nests, according to preliminary counts.
These conditions led to high rates of nesting success. More than twice the 10-year average, that’s the second highest nest count since the 1940s. Following on the heels of the banner season of 2017-2018 with over 138,000 nests, another outstanding season in such quick succession is great news. Many great egrets, roseate spoonbills, and white ibises fledged young, and even though wood storks started nesting in March of this year, rather late in the season, many of their chicks also fledged. On another bright note, this year’s numbers of surviving fledglings may rival those of the 2017-2018 season due to good current conditions.
High rainfall in the preceding wet season of 2020 created water levels that remained above-ground for extended periods across large areas of the Everglades. These conditions led to high rates of nesting success. This likely boosted the production of wading birds’ prey – fish and crayfish – over large areas of the ecosystem. Then, during the dry season, we had a relatively continuous decrease in water levels across the Everglades, which allowed for the concentration of prey. This provided optimal foraging conditions for birds across large areas of the Everglades until late into the dry season.
This set of conditions (i.e., high water levels in the wet season transitioning into a consistent recession of water levels throughout the dry season) is exactly what Everglades restoration should improve upon on an annual basis. As a result, dry years won’t be as bad for wading birds as they are today, and average-to-wet years are expected to be even better for wading birds than they are today.
Read on to learn more about 7 of our favorite species monitored over the breeding season:
This petite bird, adorned with white feathers, a red, curving bill, and matching red legs, is a familiar site to many Floridians. One of the more abundant wading birds in South Florida, they are a common visitor in urban areas. Large aggregations in the thousands to tens of thousands of breeding white ibises, or supercolonies, used to be common in the 1930s and ‘40s. Less common now, the frequency of supercolonies is an important indicator of the health of the Everglades ecosystem. According to Native American folklore, the white ibis is a symbol of danger and optimism because it was the last animal to seek shelter before a hurricane, but the first to emerge afterwards. White ibises are found across the southeast U.S., as well as Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and northwestern South America.
Foolproof to identify, the bizarre yet beautiful Roseate spoonbills are bright pink with spatula-shaped bills. In the unlikely case you spot another pink bird on the landscape, that’s an American flamingo, which has a long, elegant neck, greater stature, and black-tipped wings. To feed, spoonbills sweep their odd-shaped bills through shallow water to capture prey. By the early 1900s, spoonbills had dwindled to only 15 pairs in Florida, and nearly vanished entirely from our state. The culprit was the plume trade, and while their numbers have rebounded, spoonbills are currently listed as threatened by the state of Florida. Their range stretches from the far-flung reaches of South America to the sandy shores of the southeastern U.S.
One of the less graceful wading birds, wood storks are a sizeable mass of white feathers, long legs and bills, black-tipped wings, and bald heads. This lack of charisma spared them from the plume trade that devastated so many other bird populations in the early 1900s. However, they suffered from habitat loss and changes in hydrology in the U.S. and dwindled down to a few thousand pairs by 1980. At that time, they were listed as endangered at the federal level, and while their numbers have increased, they remain a threatened species. Storks figure prominently in mythology, associated with luck, fidelity, and of course, babies! The idea that they deliver babies is attributed to another species, the white stork, and may have been a way of explaining the origins of babies to young children. Their range covers the southeastern U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America.
Graceful and elegant, these pure white egrets are adorned with yellow bills and black feet. Like snowy egrets, they grow long, beautiful feathers called airgrettes during the breeding season. This made them a prized target during the plume trade at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, when hunters slaughtered an estimated 95% of their population across North America. Although their numbers have since increased, they face threats from habitat loss and degradation, as well as pollution. The species has a worldwide distribution, graces coins and bills, and is the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
Once described as “one of nature’s daintiest and most exquisite creatures,” these delightful little egrets are renowned for their beauty. Smaller than the great egrets, they have all-white plumage, jet black bills and legs, and “golden slippers,” or bright yellow feet. A favored target during the plume trade, their long, wispy feathers grown during the breeding season were worth twice their weight in gold. They were nearly driven to extinction, but since hunting migratory birds was banned in 1918, they have bounced back. Currently, they are not listed as imperiled. Excluding the northernmost states, their range extends across the U.S. and down to the southern reaches of Argentina and Chile.
Little Blue Heron
A charming petite heron, “little blues” are decorated with a maroon neck and head, and a gray-blue body. Juveniles are all white and when they molt to their darker, adult plumage, they resemble a canvas covered in brushstrokes of blue paint. Unfortunately, populations of these beautiful herons have declined significantly since the 1960s, and they’re listed as threatened by the State of Florida. Habitat loss and degradation, changes in hydrology, reductions in prey availability, predators, disturbance, and pollution are all factors that may be behind their decline. In the U.S., little blue herons mainly inhabit the Southeast, but they’re also found in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.
Delicate, and long-billed, these medium-sized herons come in shades of blue-gray, purple, and white. A distinct white stripe down their necks and bellies distinguishes them from other wading birds, especially little blue herons. They have a comical way of foraging by dashing around while dramatically turning and pivoting. These eye-catching herons were decimated by the plume trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and have been declining for the last few decades in Florida. Listed as threatened by the State of Florida, they’re imperiled by changes in hydrology, habitat loss and degradation, disturbance, and pollution. Tricolored herons make their homes in California, the southeastern and eastern U.S., Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America.
America’s Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The Everglades ecosystem is a unique mosaic of sawgrass marshes, tropical hardwood hammocks (island forests), mangrove swamps, cypress and pine forests, and freshwater prairie, all of which support wildlife like wading birds. The Everglades Foundation’s work to restore and protect the Everglades, in turn, protects the habitat that is critical to the life of wading birds.y.
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