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.