Audubon Florida News

Topic: Everglades,Florida Bay,Lake Okeechobee,Water Issues

Urgent: Tell the SFWMD to Fund Critical Water Resources Programs

takeaction_floridabay_largeThis Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board will vote on their 2014 budget. After years of deep cuts, they are considering decreasing revenues even more.

The SFWMD is the state partner in Everglades restoration. It is also in charge of South Florida’s water resource projects, water conservation, and land stewardship. You can take action right now by emailing the governing board to urge them to protect Florida’s water resources by not decreasing revenues. See the email list below.

Over the past few years there have been significant cuts to water conservation programs, vegetation management programs that help bird habitat on Lake Okeechobee, and science and modeling programs for the Everglades and coastal ecosystems. Funding for climate change science and adaptation programs is slim to none.

While there has been some good funding for recent Everglades projects, restoring revenue would allow important projects like the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Project Cutler Floway to move forward. This project, which will help restore freshwater flows to Biscayne Bay to improve estuarine habitats, is fully designed, and is currently sitting on the shelf waiting for funding.

lidaAudubon Florida Board member Lida Rodriguez Tasseff’s recent editorial in the Miami Herald puts the situation in perspective. She states:

Do we really want to force a public agency to choose between updating levees to hold back flood water or completing a restoration project that supports our future population’s water supply? Is it really a bright idea to significantly deplete funding water conservation programs and alternative water supply projects? SFWMD is even considering selling off lands acquired for conservation purposes to help fill in the budget gaps. They shouldn’t have to be in this position.

The ironic thing is that budget cuts are supposed to help property owners from paying more taxes. But instead, it exposes property owners to heightened risks from flooding, water shortages, and long-term loss of value. The difference in property tax for the average homeowner is minimal – less than the cost of a slice of pizza. That is a small price to pay for certainty in water management.

The Everglades needs your help. Let the Governing Board know that you want your water resources protected. Send your email right now:


Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and Pelicans on Lake Okeechobee

cloud of spoonbillsAudubon’s Jane Graham reports on her latest adventure on Lake Okeechobee with Dr. Paul Gray:

Last week our tour of Lake Okeechobee was one for the books. We saw pink clouds of Roseate Spoonbills, with White Pelicans and a few Wood Storks in the mix. I have never seen so many Roseate Spoonbills at the same time, and even Dr. Gray was impressed!

gallinulenestWhy the plethora of birds? It is the end of the dry season. As water levels are getting shallow, it creates perfect foraging conditions for wading birds, including Roseate Spoonbills.

We also saw areas with torpedograss, an invasive plant that grows aggressively in monocultures on the Lake. Fortunately, since 2004, the South Florida Water Management District has treated 45,000 acres (about 70 square miles!) for torpedograss and while there still are large areas of this grass, they are making progress tackling this invader. Birds on the Lake have responded and are enjoying the habitat.
group shot lake okie

Here’s a group shot of us in a torpedograss patch. (left)

As we drove back, we saw nests of a Common Gallinule (pictured above) and Red-winged Blackbird, and some exotic Purple Swamp Hens who appear to be increasing in population in the lake.

Mitch Hutchcraft,  a new SFWMD Governing Board member, Jeff Sumner, SFWMD, and Henrietta Armstrong, King Ranch, joined us.

Springtime on Lake Okeechobee

anhinga nesting on lake owebThere’s definitely something in the air. Spring is here and Lake Okeechobee’s marsh is bursting with life. In the last few weeks, our Audubon team has had multiple adventures on the lake.  A few week’s ago Audubon Florida’s Dr. Paul Gray and Jane Graham explored the Lake’s northern marshes with SFWMD Governing Board member Glenn Waldman and his wife Sheryl on a sunny day.  A few days later, Jane explored the south end of the Lake with Mary Ann Martin as part of a trip for the Water Resources Advisory Commission. And on April 7, we celebrated the first annual Everglades Day out on Lake Okeechobee.

We saw Everglade Snail Kites foraging for apple snails in the marsh. In the last few years, the population of this endangered bird has rebounded on the Lake, due in part their ability to adapt to exotic apple snails as a food source. Click here to learn more about Everglade Snail Kite nesting throughout the Everglades.


A few Anhingas nested atop a tree a tree island, as a few Great Blue Herons swooped around foraging for food. An alligator sunned itself the the bank.

Lake levels are relatively deep and shorebird habitat is sparse but we found a flock of a couple hundred birds including Long-billed Dowitchers, Stilt and Least Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Stilts in the northern marsh. Black-necked Stilts have the longest legs in relation to their body size of any bird in the world. There were also Caspian Terns, which are fairly common around the Lake.


On the south end of the Lake, we boated by a spoil island  with around thirty  Brown Pelicans and other wading birds.

Have you recently explored Lake Okeechobee?What did you see?

For more updates, follow the Everglade Snail Kite on Facebook.


Bold Steps Needed For A Healthy Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee as seen by NASAAudubon is working hard to improve the water quality of Lake Okeechobee.  Recently the Department of Environmental Protection began its interactive stakeholder process to formulate a new plan, known as a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), to improve Lake Okeechobee’s water quality. Our Audubon Florida team was there at the kickoff meeting in Okeechobee advocating for bold steps to reverse the trend of continued degradation of water quality in Northern Everglades watershed.

Large amounts of phosphorus in the Lake are linked to the increased possibility of blue green algae blooms. It can also contribute to the accelerated growth of vegetation like cattails that block navigation and damage wildlife habitat in the Lake’s marsh.

SNKI2 Larry FroggeIn 2001, Florida established a water quality goal for Lake Okeechobee that set a maximum level of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee – a target to be met by 2015. Today the Lake’s water quality is not on a trajectory toward meeting the goal.  Recent averages of phosphorus flowing into the Lake are three to six times the state’s water quality goal.  The state has designed numerous plans to clean the water entering Lake Okeechobee over the past few decades, but these plans have not resulted in significant reductions.

Audubon is urging the state agencies in charge of Lake Okeechobee’s water quality- the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS), and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), to make the most out of the BMAP process to significantly improve the Lake’s water quality.  What the agencies will propose during the process is not decided yet and the process is open to public input.

At the meeting,  Audubon advocated for the agencies to update incentive programs for agriculture in the Okeechobee watershed, known as best management practices (BMPs), to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus from fertilizer and animal feed added to the watershed. Audubon urged DACS  to work with environmental groups and landowners to seek adequate additional funds from the Florida Legislature to aid landowners in installing structural water management improvements that would hold more water on the land, encourage water reuse, and reduce phosphorus discharges.

Paul and DecoyAudubon also stated concern about the lack of documentation of “Class AA biosolids” (human sewage sludge) still allowed to be used as fertilizer in the Northern Everglades basin. DACS personnel indicated they had no way of measuring just how much of this phosphorus laden material is still being spread on farms in the watershed.

We look forward to continuing to speak with agencies to improve Lake Okeechobee’s water quality.  For more information on Audubon’s strategy to clean the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee, read Audubon’s position paper and Restore article . Check back here for updates on how you can take action to  protect the liquid heart of the Everglades.

Winter Shorebird Survey: Lake Okeechobee Sanctuaries

posted on February 19, 2013 in Birding,Lake Okeechobee

Route taken during the 2013 Winter Shorebird Survey on Lake Okeechobee.  The Kissimmee River enters the lake on the top of the photo and the suothern end of the survey was bounded by the Indian Prairie Canal that crosses the marsh to open water.

Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray reports from this year’s Winter Shorebird Survey on Lake Okeechobee. Enjoy:

The annual Winter Shorebird Survey is a relatively new effort to record the distribution and abundance of waterbirds in Florida.   On February 5, I conducted the survey on the Lake Okeechobee Sanctuaries with Tyler Beck, avian ecologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.   These Sanctuaries were designated by the Governor and Cabinet in 1938 to be managed cooperatively between Audubon and the Commission.

An Everglade Snail Kite forages above recovered Okeechobee marshes during the survey.This survey is focused  specifically on ducks, shorebirds, terns and gulls, wading birds and raptors.  Species NOT counted include songbirds, cranes, rails or coots, vultures, doves and other  groups.  Although this leaves birds uncounted, it allows focus on birds of interest.  In our case, we were relieved not to count coots and gallinules as they are so abundant they would have monopolized our time.  As it was, we often encountered open areas with so many species that I could not record them all.

Paul Gray on Indian Prairie, in the midst of a flock of Least Sandpipers that can't be seen from this angle.We tallied 38 species within the count groups, including 5 gull and tern species, 7 shorebirds, 10 wading birds, and just 4 duck species.   Most abundant were Ring-necked Ducks at more than 1100, most fun for me might have been the 17 Everglade Snail Kites, 39 Limpkins, and 9 American Bitterns.   Some floating tussocks had gulls and terns stacked on them.At a water level of about 14.5 feet, the lake marshes are almost entirely flooded with little area shallow enough for shorebirds.  And most of the shallows have too much vegetation for shorebirds.  We did find a concentrated group in the southwest end of Indian Prairie marsh where the plants were thinner and 7 shorebird species were present.  This region also had numerous Glossy and White Ibis flocks with smatterings of other waders.  We did not count them, but there were at least 1000 migratory Sandhill Cranes across this large marsh.

Floating tussocks provide roosting habitat for gulls and terns far out in the marsh, and are often loaded with empty apple snail shells from Limpkins who return to tussocks to shuck themThis was our first count on Okeechobee and we plan to continue them.  There are surprisingly few systematic counts recorded for the lake—one by the Corps when levels were deep and shorebirds scarce, and one co-authored by me when levels were extremely low and shorebirds extremely abundant.   By doing annual counts we will be able to develop a more representative data set of Okeechobee’s shorebird habitat.  Tyler also is FFWCC’s first avian ecologist to focus almost exclusively on the lake, which will help us build our knowledge.

Click here for Dr. Gray’s full survey list.

Restore: Time to Take Action for the Health of Lake Okeechobee

posted on February 8, 2013 in Everglades,Lake Okeechobee,Water Issues

MacStone_LakeOkechobee-3614Lake Okeechobee is an Eden for birds and wildlife and the lifeblood of the Everglades. A multitude of wading birds, ducks, endangered birds like Everglade Snail Kites, and alligators call it home. Water from the lake flows south to Everglades National Park, and east and west to the delicate St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries. But if we don’t reduce the amount of pollution from phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the Lake, the future of this Floridian paradise is in jeopardy.

Large amounts of phosphorus in the lake are linked to the increased possibility of blue green algae blooms. It can also contribute to the accelerated growth of vegetation like cattails that block navigation and damage wildlife habitat in the Lake’s marsh. Too much phosphorus means that valuable marsh habitat suitable for nesting and foraging of Okeechobee birds is choked with thick patches of noxious vegetation.

For decades, Audubon Florida’s Okeechobee team has vigorously advocated for bold steps to clean our treasured Lake. We have advocated for state agencies and private partners to reduce the amount of fertilizer, animal feed, and phosphorus-laden water from urban areas from entering the watershed. Click here to see our latest Audubon Fact Sheet.

A Least Bittern and Baby on Lake OkeechobeeBut as years go by, the amount of phosphorus entering the lake has not significantly decreased. In 2001, Florida set a water quality goal for Lake Okeechobee that set a maximum level of phosphorus entering Lake Okeechobee – a target to be met by 2015. We are approaching 2015 and the latest average of phosphorus flowing into the lake is over three times the state’s water quality goal.

The time to take action is now.  In the next few weeks, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will unveil a process to develop a plan to clean up Lake Okeechobee, known as a Basin Management Action Plan.

Audubon is asking the State of Florida to protect Lake Okeechobee’s habitat by:  

  1. Updating incentive programs for agriculture in the Okeechobee watershed, known as best management practices, to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus from fertilizer and animal feed added to the watershed. The State of Florida should also increase funding to implement, staff, and monitor the success of these programs.
  2. Reduce phosphorus from urban areas by restarting efforts to develop a Northern Everglades Stormwater Rule. This rule will limit the amount of phosphorus coming off of new development in the watershed. Close the loophole in Florida law that allows dried-out residuals from human waste being used as fertilizer.
  3. Increase funding for water storage projects on private lands throughout the Okeechobee watershed.

Click here for our fact sheet with more detailed suggestions.

Snowbird Season on Lake Okeechobee

posted on January 28, 2013 in Birding,Lake Okeechobee

paul and decoyWintertime means snowbirds out on Lake Okeechobee – and by snowbirds we don’t mean tourists from up north. Last week Audubon Florida’s Paul Gray, Jane Graham, and Audubon Florida Board member Jud Laird went on a Lake Okeechobee airboat adventure with SFWMD Governing Board member Kevin Powers and Nicole Mader, a dolphin researcher from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor BranchHere’s an account of what they saw:

It was perfect weather to enjoy the abundant wildlife on Lake Okeechobee. Areas of the marsh that were bone dry in 2011 and dry for most of 2012 have refilled with water. With Lake Okeechobee’s water levels just below 15 feet, the lake marsh is entirely flooded and is a little too deep for most wading birds.  We are looking forward to water levels drawing down this spring, which will open plentiful habitat for wading birds.

kevin and lizardOn our voyage, Paul drove us into a thick patch of cattails.  Lake Okeechobee is historically a nutrient poor system, with some cattail vegetation. However, the influx of phosphorus from fertilizer and animal feed from the Northern Everglades watershed is linked with an overgrowth of cattails, which hampers navigation and degrades habitat. Audubon is advocating for measures to reduce the amount of phosphorus from human induced sources entering into the Lake.

Audubon Board Member Jud Laird, Dr. Paul Gray, Nicole Mader, and SFWMD Governing Board Member Kevin Powers (Audubon's Jane Graham took the photo)We saw several species of ducks, coots, gallinules (including the nuisance Purple Swamp Hens), and a few Great Blue Herons, Everglade Snail Kites, Kingfishers, and White and Glossy Ibises. It was a little surprising that we did not see any alligators, but a green anole, which is a native lizard, crawled aboard the boat and took a liking to Kevin Powers’ leg!

While we saw a plethora of birds on the Lake, the stars of the day were the migratory Sandhill Cranes. There were flocks of hundreds of Cranes flying across the Indian Prairie marshes in elaborate patterns. Dr. Gray explained that these Sandhill Cranes were probably from up north, most likely the Great Lakes region and/or Canada, because these cranes have less iron stain and Florida Sandhill Cranes typically are not in such large flocks.

It was a gorgeous day out on Lake Okeechobee! Never a dull moment in the Everglades’ liquid heart.

The Istokpoga Canal: Kissimmee River Restoration in Progress

posted on October 10, 2012 in Everglades,Lake Okeechobee

Thank you for joining us for another exciting update from Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray! In this post, Dr. Gray updates us on Kissimmee River restoration, focusing on the Istokpoga Canal. Read on for the very latest about this exciting project. Enjoy!

Lake Istokpoga is Florida’s fifth largest lake and used to flow to the Kissimmee River through Istokpoga Creek on its east side. Professor W. S. Blatchley paddled up the creek from the Kissimmee River on February 22, 1913, noting it had a three mile per hour current, an average width of 25 feet, and myriad trees arching across its crooked turns. A large canal was built down the creek thereafter and a structure installed to separate flows between the lake and river. Today, Lake Istokpoga drains through the S-68 structure southward toward Lake Okeechobee, but can drain down the canal during emergencies.

The Kissimmee Restoration project will change these management plans. During wet periods, the Kissimmee floodplain will have water levels higher than Lake Istokpoga, which will prevent the canal from being able to help drain the lake. To compensate for this lost drainage capacity and prepare for river restoration, the US Army Corps of Engineers recently built an additional gate next to the S-68 structure, called S-68X.  The structure on the Istokpoga Canal also has been replaced with a new structure, the S-67, that has a companion, S-67X, in the old creek channel.

The first Corps plan to build the S-67 structure on the canal called for cutting all the old trees from both sides of the canal for miles, and dredging it deeper.  To their surprise, I sent them a paper by Dr. Ken Meyer that documented the trees along the canal were so mature they hosted nesting Short-tailed Hawks.  This was not new, Don Nicholson saw Short-tails along Istokpoga Creek in 1910 (Florida Naturalist 1951.  24:32-33).  Indeed, I noted the canal was so old it had partly silted in and had much biological value in its channel and along its shores.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with Audubon and helped negotiate with the Corps to spare almost all the trees (except those where the new structure would be) and only dredge the part of the canal that needed deepening for boat access to the Kissimmee floodplain. I recently kayaked down the Istokpoga Canal with USFWS staff members, Bob Pace and Steve Schubert, to see the structures and inspect the canal. A Merlin zipped around us, the new structures were in and ready to function, and the trees and creek remain a unique biological resource.

Oddly enough, I also realize I like a canal.

Audubon Advocates on Behalf of Treasured South Florida Habitats

posted on October 3, 2012 in Everglades,Florida Bay,Lake Okeechobee,Water Issues

The South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) process to update the regional plans to protect water for environment in southern Florida is in full swing. These plans, known as the Lower East Coast and Lower West Coast Water Supply Plan updates, impact some of our most treasured habitats through Florida, including Lake Okeechobee, Florida Bay, the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park, and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries, among others. The plans are updated once every five years with a 20 year planning horizon.

Our Audubon Florida team and dedicated Audubon chapters have been advocating for these plan updates to increase protections of our delicate ecosystems. We are urging the SFWMD to modify the water supply plan updates to:

  1. Develop and/or update rules and operations to provide true protections for ecosystems, including Biscayne Bay, Lake Okeechobee, Florida Bay, and the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
  2. Increase focus on water conservation and water use efficiency to curb demands.
  3. Enhance water shortage management to better protect natural systems and provide better parity for natural systems and users.
  4. Plan for sea level rise that may result from climate change.

It is crucial that as water managers plan water supply for our region for the next 20 years, they account for the water needed to sustain the environment. Likewise, ecosystems such as Lake Okeechobee must continue to be treated as ecosystems to protect habitat rather than as a reservoir.

Last week Audubon and Audubon chapters on Southwest coast submitted comments on the Lower West Coast Water Supply Plan. Also last week, Audubon Florida gave a presentation “Protecting our Ecosystems for our Economy, Future, and Way of Life.Click here to download a PDF copy.


Stay tuned for further developments.

On Lake Okeechobee with Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Greco

posted on July 5, 2012 in Everglades,Lake Okeechobee,Water Issues

Another day another adventure with Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray, who recently spent the day with the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Greco and others exploring sites on Lake Okeechobee. There never seems to be a dull moment with Dr. Gray! Enjoy:

Lt. Col. Thomas Greco is the new Deputy District Commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers in West Palm Beach, and Audubon Florida welcomed him by taking him and John Kilpatrick, Chief of the Corps’ Multi-Projects Branch, on an airboat tour of Lake Okeechobee in conjunction with Don Fox of the  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Also accompanying us from the Corps’ South Florida Operations Office was Chief Steve Dunham, and Assistant Chief Rob Schnell.  Last but not least, Terrie Bates, SFWMD’s Director of Water Resources, and Jane Graham and Julie Hill-Gabriel of Audubon came along.

We went on the north end of the Lake near the Kissimmee River and were able to see many Everglade Snail Kites working the marshes. Okeechobee has had more Kite nests than any place in Florida this year. We were able to discuss the impact that recent very high, and very low, water levels have had on Kites and the lake’s marshes and biota.  We also inspected some of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission restoration sites where organic material was removed and healthy sand-bottomed plant communities have returned.

Along with recovering plant communities, there has been a remarkable recovery of the Large-mouth Bass fishery. Unfortunately, the Black Crappie fishery still has not recovered from the 2004 and 2005 hurricane/high water seasons.

On our return, we drove the boat to the Corps’ Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) test well along the Kissimmee.  There are many concerns about the use of this technology, but Audubon supports studies to determine the possible advantages and disadvantages to their use, before forming an official position.

The Corps of Engineers has a controversial history on environmental issues, but with recent efforts to restore the Everglades and other South Florida ecosystems, we have found them to be very cooperative in trying to do the best they can for natural system management, considering the significant limitations of our aged water management system.

We appreciate the time the Colonel and his staff, and that SFWMD and FWC took, to see the lake and discuss the issues surrounding it.

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