Audubon Florida News

Topic: Birding,Everglade Snail Kite,Everglades,North Everglades,Water Issues

Good Water Management is Good for Northern Everglades Birds and Wildlife

Lake Okeechobee by Tabitha Cale

As the wet season is wrapping up, we are breathing a sigh of relief for the birds and wildlife in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuary ecosystems. Due to thoughtful water level management amongst the state and federal agencies this season, (and just the right amount of rain), our ecosystems are in a solid place as we enter the winter months.

During the wet season between May and October, Lake Okeechobee received slightly more than average rain.  Thanks to new management approaches and patience from the agencies, there were minimal summer discharges from the Lake to the St. Lucie, and mostly beneficial releases to Caloosahatchee Estuaries, allowing these delicate ecosystems to continue to recover from the devastation from last summer. Lake Okeechobee’s levels reached 16 feet in October, which is the considered threshold for harm. But with levels now dropping, lake levels are within the ideal zone for the end of the rainy season.

Lake Okeechobee’s ideal water level range is between 12.5 to 15.5 feet over the course of the year.  If the Lake is over 16 feet for too long, damage to the marsh occurs. The 50,000‐acre submerged marsh community is in deep enough water that plants begin dying from wave action and from the loss of light in the deep, turbid, water. Prolonged deep water eliminates the wildlife rich wet prairie communities from the Lake, areas needed to support wading bird foraging. Rapidly rising water can drown alligator and bird nests (including Everglade Snail Kites) across the marsh. Click here to learn more about the effect of lake levels on the wildlife of Lake Okeechobee.

An Everglade Snail Kite surrounded by eggs from an exotic apple snail.

Managing Lake Okeechobee’s water levels is not easy. One wet tropical storm can raise Lake levels several feet –  levels harmful to the marsh and perilous for Hoover Dike safety.  The Corps cannot lower the Lake as fast as it can rise so they must make proactive releases to avoid harmful levels.   The management plan for the Lake allowed Lake releases to the estuaries virtually all summer, but the Corps decided to minimize releases to the estuaries.  This approach prevented harmful Lake discharges.  Note that the estuaries did receive some water from polluted local basin runoff, but it was not nearly as harmful as the previous year.

Very importantly, the SFWMD experimented with new operations to flow over 200,000 acre feet of water (about 5 inches of Lake level) south to the Everglades- water that otherwise would have been released to the estuaries.

The Corps and SFWMD’s approach over the summer came with some risk, but Audubon supported it based on climate patterns and lake level trends during the summer.  Almost weekly, the Corps hosts “Periodic Scientist” calls to get input from scientists from myriad agencies and interests, including Audubon, on day-to-day system conditions from throughout the system.  This information is then used to guide weekly decisions on Lake management.

We commend the Corps and SFWMD for innovative lake management this season and look forward to a healthy spring drawdown.

Lake Okeechobee: A Perfect Ten

posted on April 28, 2014 in Everglade Snail Kite,Lake Okeechobee

happinesswebAudubon’s Jane Graham details her most recent expedition on Lake Okeechobee:

Last week, Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray and I ventured out on Lake Okeechobee. Our crew included Congressman Tom Rooney, Kevin Powers of the SFWMD Governing Board and his kids Sarah and Paul, and Don Fox of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

There we were amidst blue skies, a floating garden of white and yellow water lilies, and endangered Everglade Snail Kites gliding twenty feet from the boat.

“If you were to rate the Lake today, what would you say it is?” Kevin asked Don.

A perfect ten.”

lilyonlakeoWe saw Great Blue Herons, White Ibises, Belted Kingfishers, Purple Gallinules, and a variety of coots and ducks. No visible alligators, but we did see a few large splashes as gators avoided the oncoming boats.

When people hear “Lake Okeechobee”, they generally think of an unending pool of dirty water stretching for miles beyond the horizon. This is not quite the truth. About one-third of Lake Okeechobee is shallow marsh around its perimeter– filled with clear clean water that is prime habitat for a variety of wading birds, migratory birds, bass, and other wildlife.

Lake Okeechobee is located at the end of the funnel for numerous migratory routes across the country. Sandhill Cranes, ducks, and White Pelicans from the Great Lakes region, shorebirds from the Arctic Circle, and Neotropical migrants such as warblers, orioles, and cuckoos from the northeastern forests all enjoy this beautiful American water resource.

kite with snailLate April is the height of the dry season, so the Lake’s water level is receding. Right now it is just over 13 ft. This is healthy and natural for the lake.  A few years ago, the same areas of marsh so abundant with life today were barren. When the Lake had risen too high -above 16 feet for extended periods of time, 70 square miles of marsh were completely drowned out.

TomandPaulwebToday, the Lake is managed within the ideal range is between 12.5 and 15.5 feet, with some exceptions.  A few years ago the Army Corps’ changed the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule for public safety reasons and ecological concerns. The depth of the water must ebb and flow with the seasons, not staying too high or too low for too long. When the water recedes, the seed bank is still there and the vegetation naturally grows back.

Lake Okeechobee is gorgeous right now. Get out there and see it!

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.

Why Aren’t Everglade Snail Kites Nesting in the Central Everglades?

posted on January 31, 2013 in Everglade Snail Kite,Everglades,Water Issues

Audubon_EvergladeSnailKite_FactSheet_CoverPageThe January release of Audubon Florida’s 2012 Everglade Snail Kite Nesting Summary documents some disturbing trends for the iconic Everglade Snail Kite (Kite).

The most recent data shows virtually no nesting in the Kite’s traditional habitat in the Central and Southern Everglades. This region is the largest Kite habitat in North America and historically supported the majority of the bird’s nesting and breeding.

From 1990 to 2010, Everglade Snail Kite populations experienced a dramatic 80% decline, highlighting the urgent need to advance Everglades restoration work. The future success of the Kite is an indicator for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and a way that Audubon measures the success of Everglades restoration projects.

Snailkite 8991©rjwileyWhile overall nesting numbers in 2012 improved from previous years thanks to increased Kite nesting in Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the north, Kites in this region are largely relying on exotic apple snails for food – leaving the sustainability of this nesting questionable.

Audubon continues to advocate for restoration progress for all areas throughout the Kite’s range. Additionally, the Audubon Everglades Science Team is working hard to better understand the impacts of these exotic apple snails on Florida’s fragile ecosystems and wildlife.

Your support is needed to ensure that necessary restoration initiatives like the Central Everglades Planning Project and expanded Tamiami Trail bridging are expedited to reestablish the historical water flow patterns of the Greater Everglades. Become a friend of the Everglade Snail Kite on Facebook for an easy (and fun!) way to stay engaged.

You can learn more about Audubon’s Everglades restoration recommendations and the iconic Everglade Snail Kite by downloading our latest fact sheet here.

A Step Forward for the Loxahatchee River and the Everglades

posted on August 9, 2012 in Everglade Snail Kite,Everglades,Water Issues

Audubon Florida urges the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board to support a land exchange with Palm Beach County to acquire a parcel of land that will be used to help restore the Loxahatchee River, one of Florida’s wild and scenic rivers.

The Loxahatchee River, which meanders through a variety of creeks in Northern Palm Beach County and empties into the Atlantic Ocean through the Jupiter Inlet, is one of two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida. A variety of endangered and threatened species call this slow moving river their home, including endangered Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes.  Nearby Grassy Waters Preserve is home to a population of endangered Everglade Snail Kites.

The parcel of land that the SFWMD would gain through the exchange is Mecca Farms , 1,920 acres of land in Palm Beach County. This land will play a key role in the Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, an Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) project. The purpose of this project is to capture, store and treat excess water that is currently discharged to the Lake Worth Lagoon and use that water to enhance the Loxahatchee River and Slough and provide for water supplies to the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area. Click here to learn more about the project.

This land exchange is the product of creative problem solving on the part of SFWMD staff. Previously, the CERP project would have had water storage through the L-8 reservoir in Palm Beach County. However, because of the L-8’s location and size, the SFWMD was able to utilize it as a key component in the Everglades Water Quality Plan. The land on Mecca Farms will be able to help store the water the CERP project needs to nourish these ecosystems.

Audubon is at the today’s SFWMD meeting and is advocating for this step toward protecting and restoring the Loxahatchee River, our wild and scenic river.

**Update – The Mecca Farms land exchange passed UNANIMOUSLY on August 9, 2012! 

See the South Florida Sun-Sentinel ‘s coverage of this news by clicking here.

Press Release: Everglade Snail Kite Receives “F” Grade from National Research Council

posted on June 22, 2012 in Everglade Snail Kite,Everglades,Press Releases

For Immediate Release: June 21, 2012

Contact: Megan Tinsley, Everglades Policy Associate,, 786-295-4954

Everglade Snail Kite Receives “F” Grade from National Research Council

Audubon Florida supports National Academies’ assessment

Miami, FL – Today the National Research Council of the National Academies released their “Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades: The Fourth Biennial Review,” which assesses the progress made toward accomplishing the goals of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

The assessment provided grades based on the status and trajectories for 10 ecosystem attributes.  While many ecosystem attributes received poor grades of “C” or “D,” only the Everglade Snail Kite (Kite) received a failing grade of “F.” The Everglade Snail Kite is a system-wide indicator species for the success or failure of the CERP.

Megan Tinsley, Audubon Florida Everglades Policy Associate, remarked:  “As a system-wide indicator species, if the Everglade Snail Kite receives a failing grade, so too does the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.  We must drastically improve our ability to move water through the central to southern Everglades to improve habitat for this critically endangered bird. ”

Audubon has called extensively for increased effort to remedy the problems plaguing the Everglade Snail Kite before populations decline past their already dangerously-low levels. The report identifies recent Kite declines as being related to the degradation of habitat in previously productive areas, namely Lake Okeechobee and the Water Conservations Areas.

With its own scientists witnessing the effects of continued ecosystem degradation, Audubon Florida supports the independent panel of scientists’ statement that “substantial near-term progress to address both water quality and hydrology in the central Everglades is needed to prevent further declines.”

Audubon Fact Sheets and Other Everglade Snail Kite Links:

For continuing coverage of Audubon Florida’s work with Everglade Snail Kites, please see the Everglade Snail Kite category section of our blog:


Everglade Snail Kite Nesting Update – End of Dry Season 2012

The dry season is winding down and the Everglade Snail Kite (Kite) nesting season has passed the half-way mark. Some nests have already produced young, many are in progress, and a few more might be initiated.  Because the summer rains appear to have begun, we do not expect a repeat of the low water problems that plagued Kite nests on Lake Okeechobee in 2011. Audubon’s Dr.Paul Gray offers this mid-term report and projection for the rest of the nesting season.

The good news is there have been more than 200 nests this year. Lake Okeechobee hosted the most nests of any lake so far, at last count, 59 – the most nests on Okeechobee since 1993. The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, especially East and West Lakes Tohopekaliga, have almost 100 nests. Lake Istokpogais up as well, with 11 nests.

The exotic apple snails appear to be supporting most of the nesting on Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Chain. While the full ecosystem impact of these snails is yet to be seen, these exotic snails appear to be a boon to Kites (and perhaps Limpkins as well).  For one, they survive droughts and associated extreme drawdowns better than the natives. Audubon’s Everglades Science Team will continue to track Kite success in these productive areas.

Audubon’s largest concern is the ongoing impairment in the most important Kite habitat in the United States, the Everglades between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay. This year only about 20 nests total were attempted and all the nests failed. There were few birds this year for such a vast region and of the 18 nests in the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs), five had marked adults. All these birds were older than 12 years old, which reflect an aging, and increasingly geriatric population. We don’t know how long Kites can breed in life, but the fact that there are few birds, who appear old, indicates this part of the population may be dying out. Some have said the low numbers in the WCAs are because the Kites went elsewhere, mostly to the Kissimmee region. But we note there formerly were more than 3000 Kites, and now there are less than 1000.

The lost kites did not move- they died, because those losses were greatest during droughts, it appears the mortality occurred when habitats and food became scarce in the vast shallows of the Everglades.

Audubon is working closely with agencies and researchers to determine what the major problems in the WCAs are, and what we must do to correct them. Having all remaining Kites in northern lakes is not a sound long term conservation plan. The Everglades and WCAs are designated critical habitat for the Kite and one of the only places with a large enough area to sustain these endangered birds long-term. Stay tuned for more information as we enter our annual wet season.

Click  here for additional information on the Everglade Snail Kite and to learn more about Audubon Florida’s work to protect this iconic species.

Lake Okeechobee and Estuaries 2012 Dry Season: Need Common Sense Decisions for Shared Prosperity

On Thursday, April 12, 2012, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board has the opportunity to allow small releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee Estuary for much-needed environmental benefit.

At the March 2012 SFWMD Governing Board meeting, despite Governing Board members Daniel DeLisi and Glenn Waldman’s urging to continue small releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to sustain the Estuary’s salinity, the Governing Board decided in a 7-2 vote to cease these small releases.

The Caloosahatchee Estuary is a partially enclosed body of water on Florida’s Southwest Coast that has a free connection to the open sea and is also an endpoint for the freshwater Caloosahatchee River, creating a vibrant and diverse brackish ecosystem. Water in the Caloosahatchee River primarily comes from Lake Okeechobee. Releases from the lake through the river system are controlled and managed by the SFWMD and the US Army Corps of Engineers. During times in the dry season, small water releases are needed from Lake Okeechobee to help the delicate balance of freshwater and sea water in the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

A very small amount of water (about an inch total) released from Lake Okeechobee this April and May could sustain the Estuary’s diverse and productive estuary life, including oysters, sea grasses, and the critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish, not to mention support the local multi-billion dollar tourism and fishing industries. As of now, these crucial water releases to the estuary have been stopped completely. If this continues, it is likely that virtually all estuarine plants and animals will be severely harmed and a full recovery may take years. There is an expected high risk of a harmful algal bloom if there is little rain in the area and no Lake inputs over the coming weeks.

With only about an inch from Lake Okeechobee needed, the releases will not significantly impact the Lake’s water levels or endangered Everglade Snail Kite habitat. Nearly all of the Kite nests reported on the Lake last week are in enough water that dry-out is not a concern for any viable nests.

This projection from the SFWMD shows only a 10% chance of any water rationing at all (dropping below the purple dashed line), but the Climate Prediction Center forecast for May through July predicts an equal chance of wet, medium, or dry weather, making the lowest 10% possibility unlikely.

According to the SFWMD weekly climate update, our rainy season (starting in June) is currently predicted to be a normal to wet season. If the driest scenario unfolded and lowered the lake that much, it would likely be of short duration. Even if a worst-case drought were to develop, against current predictions from the SFWMD weekly climate forecast, water restrictions would likely be minor.

Taking into account this year’s low risk to the Lake, growers, and Everglade Snail Kites, and the extreme stakes for the vibrant Caloosahatchee system, Audubon Florida recommends the SFWMD help the estuary by continuing small water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Our Everglades Scientists are looking forward to working with officials to ensure that this important Everglades habitat is protected.

Controversial Wind Farm Closer to Reality in Palm Beach County

Yesterday, the proposed Sugarland wind farm moved one step closer to approval.

In a 5-1 vote, the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission approved zoning plans for the project which would place 114 turbines in the ecologically sensitive area between Lake Okeechobee, the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and numerous Everglades restoration projects.

This area is known for endangered birds such as the Wood Stork and Everglade Snail Kite, federally protected Bald Eagles, as well as migratory birds and wading birds. The Zoning Commission decided to add a condition to the resolution to demand adequate and continued radar collection on the impact of birds.

Audubon Florida’s Everglades Policy Associate Jane Graham along with representatives from the Audubon of the Evergades Chapter urged caution and advocated for increased site-specific research to better determine the impacts to birds – before the project proceeds.

Although Audubon Florida strongly supports alternative energy, all projects must be properly sited and undergo a comprehensive scientific evaluation to know the potential impacts to wildlife.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted Jane Graham as saying:

“It has to be in the right place,” said Jane Graham of Audubon. Building the wind farm without more study of the effect on Everglades birds “equates to gambling with the future of this world-class treasure.”

Check out CBS 12 news coverage as well, with footage of Jane Graham’s testimony:

Palm Beach County Commission will be hearing this proposal at the end of March.  More details to come.


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