By Khari Johnson, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 14, 2008
Delray Beach - U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists have found nests and recently hatched birds of the endangered Everglade snail kite in a small wetland in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
These are the first nests seen in the area since 1998. The rare raptor was added to the endangered species list when it was created about 40 years ago. If current trends continue, they could be near extinction in another 40 years, officials said.
"Every nest, every bird that is produced right now is absolutely critical to keeping their population sustained through time," said Wylie Kitchens, who leads a team of researchers that tracks snail kite populations in Florida over the long term.
Last year, they predicted that about 1,200 snail kites were in Florida. This year, the population may be somewhere around 700 to 800 birds.
In total, 12 adult snail kites and four nests were found, one nest with three hatchlings and one nest with three eggs. The birds are in a 32-acre wetland near the southwest entrance of the refuge but far from their typical nesting grounds in the more than 100,000 acres of the park's interior. Water levels can be controlled in the area, which is surrounded by levees, and create optimal nesting grounds.
"The good news is some of them are finding opportunities. The bad news is there's not opportunity in the traditional nesting sites," Kitchens said. "There haven't been any birds to speak of coming out of the water conservation areas. That spells real trouble."
The hatchlings, which are about a week old, are visible to the public from the top of a levee. Refuge officials suggest visitors bring binoculars. The other three eggs should hatch soon, said Cindy Fury, the refuge's senior biologist.
Florida's snail kite population has been "backed into a corner" by a variety of influences, said Brian Reichert, a graduate student involved in the project.
Key among the bird's challenges are recent droughts and water management efforts. Erratic water levels hamper a delicate and necessary balance and threaten their main source of food, the apple snail.
"The highs have been too high and the lows have been too low in one year so you have these drastic water changes that essentially affect the snails and decrease the food for snail kites," Reichert said.
Runoff from agriculture and encroachment from development also could be factors. Kitchens said he is unsure how big a role global warming plays in the equation today but expects it to exacerbate erratic weather and water levels in the future.
The bird's best chance, he said, is the Everglades Restoration Plan which would restore free-flowing rivers and more natural water cycles.
"The hope is that the restoration initiative will iron some of this out," he said. "The concern is whether that will happen in time."