Endangered wading birds making a comeback

By Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

It was a rare sight: three young wood storks, perched awkwardly atop two tree islands deep in the Everglades.

Photo gallery

See more photos

An hour later, five more appeared about 100 yards away, loping in a line through the watery saw grass of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. At various times, the storks - all less than 2 months old - briefly took to the air, as if to test their wings in these final days before they leave their nests for good.

Wood storks, the only storks that breed in the U.S. and the only Everglades wading birds listed as endangered, are showing up this year in numbers not seen in decades. Within the refuge, it's been eight years since scientists spotted a single baby stork and another 11 before that, in 1990, that a new stork successfully left a nest, said Cindy Fury, the refuge's senior biologist.

"We have at least 40 that will be successful this year," Fury said. "It's been a really, really good year."

So, too, throughout the Everglades, where about 3,500 of the enormous birds, with their curved beaks and 5-foot-plus wingspans, are expected to cross into adulthood.

That's up from virtually none last year. Throughout the entire Everglades, only 12 baby wood storks survived last year, all on tiny Lenore Island in the Caloosahatchee River. Even the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary produced none - for the second year in a row.

"We haven't had this kind of effort - this many nests and eggs - since the 1930s," said Dean Powell of the South Florida Water Management District. "It's literally a once-in-a-lifetime deal."

The population explosion is good news to ecologists who say that as go the wading birds, so goes the Everglades. The Everglades lost about 90 percent of its wading birds to a combined assault in the early 1900s from plume hunters who used their feathers to make hats and engineers who ditched, diked and dammed the natural wetlands to make room for housing and farmland.

The wood stork population plunged from an estimated 20,000 nesting pairs in the 1930s to a low of about 2,500 pairs in 1978, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recently, the storks have been staging a comeback. A survey found 11,279 pairs in 2006, the first time since the 1960s that the nesting population surpassed 10,000 pairs. But the survey also found that the numbers may be a misleading indicator of good health for the South Florida ecosystem, as the majority of the population, native to the southern Everglades, now breed north of Lake Okeechobee - including some as far north as Georgia and the Carolinas.

Nevertheless, the Florida Home Builders Association has cited the overall numbers in petitioning the federal government to downgrade the wood stork's status from "endangered" to "threatened."

Bird watchers attribute this year's success to the shift from the heavy rains that filled the Everglades marshes last fall to the prolonged, drought that slowly dried them up, concentrating the small fish on which the birds feed in smaller and smaller pools of water.

The sudden end of that slow dry-down in mid-May, with nearly daily rains that dropped about a foot of water over the next month, probably tempered the success of this breeding season, making hunting difficult and food for chicks scarce.

"If those rains hadn't come, and we had kept going for another two or three weeks, we would have had twice as many," Powell said. "It would have been unheard of."