Changing weather patterns are affecting some Florida birds
SOUTH NEST KEY, Fla. (AP) Of the many ways used to diagnosis the health of the Everglades, the most bizarrely beautiful by far, with red beady eyes and bald greenish head, is the scarlet-plumed roseate spoonbill nearly wiped off the planet by feather hunters a century ago.
The Miami Herald reports changing water patterns linked to Everglades flood control compounded by rising sea levels are driving the birds away.
Changing weather patterns are also likely propelling an overall decline in other wading bird species in the Everglades that last year reached a decade-long low. Experts worry if changes aren’t made soon, the sight of spoonbills in Florida Bay may be doomed.
On a blustery morning in Florida Bay earlier this week, two adults and four chicks in training also demonstrated the birds’ tenacity.
As winds whipped the bay in advance of a late-season cold front, the birds repeated an evolutionary recon mission known as a weaning flight. Over and over, the adults spread their cotton candy-colored wings, flapped skyward and hoped the chicks, now about three months old, would follow. With gusts topping 20 mph, the chicks pursued for as long as they could before returning to their swaying perches among the mangroves on South Nest Key to rest. It’s a feat unique to the spoonbills among wading birds and a sight that still dazzles the biologist who has been tracking their movements for nearly 30 years.
“Once this wind dies, they’ll be out of here,” Audubon Florida’s Jerry Lorenz mused from the wheel of his boat. “They’ll be gone by the weekend.”
Lorenz considers the spoonbills Florida’s most telling canary in a coal mine.
“We don’t have a quote, unquote dry season in the bay anymore,” he said, describing the time of year when the bay becomes a massive nursery for spoonbills and all kinds of wading birds.
Nest Key and the surrounding keys in Northeast Florida Bay once contained the highest number of nests in the state. The population was all the more remarkable for the birds’ dramatic comeback: after plume hunters reduced their numbers to just 25 breeding pairs, Florida banned the trade in 1901 and set a national example for wildlife preservation. By the late 1970s, nearly 1,300 nests were spread across the bay, with most at the mouth of Taylor Slough, where seasonal surges of fresh water turned the estuary into a fish smorgasbord. Spoonbills feed by shuffling across the shallows to stir up mud and use their beaks to feel, rather than their eyes to see, prey.
Then Florida began installing the final piece of its massive flood control system south of Miami in the 1980s. The shifting water patterns slammed the birds, Lorenz said.
By 1990, the area that had once provided the best place to breed and raise chicks produced just over 200 nests. Accelerating sea rise only made things worse. Since 2000, water levels have risen around the bay by five inches, Lorenz said, essentially eliminating the season when subsiding waters pool and collect prey like fish in a barrel, perfect for parents feeding young chicks.
More and more, the bay’s birds – which historically nested on islands – are packing up and moving inland. A large colony was found on the mainland in Madeira Bay and far inland in Everglades National Park around Paurotis Pond, off the park’s main road, last year. And for the first time, spoonbills were found nesting as far north as South Carolina as they move north in search of fresher water.