Wednesday, September 03, 2008

ENV: Everglades Kites

Endangered birds find new refuge By STACEY SINGER, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, September 02, 2008
An afternoon drizzle coats the slate-brown bird in a miserable-looking shroud of dampness.

She shakes it off. The Everglades snail kite sits atop a wax myrtle bush, head bowed in keen-eyed concentration, waiting for an apple snail to surface within the geometric confines of a Loxahatchee wildlife refuge impoundment.

Fewer than 700 of the critically endangered Everglades snail kites exist, ecologists estimate, down from about 3,400 birds in 2000.

More worrisome, they're having a devastatingly bad breeding season, with no nests at all in many parts of the Everglades that have been reliable nurseries in the past.

And yet somehow, in this man-made wetland lying steps away from a farm, a half-mile from State Road 7, surrounded by hiking paths and binocular-wielding bird-watchers, this damp snail kite devotedly feeds a chick in a nearby nest.

Before Tropical Storm Fay, this 35-acre impoundment west of Boynton Beach had nine kite nests with two or three eggs in each, and a 10th nest that had three chicks, say Gayle Martin and Cindy Fury, biologists at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

It appears that Fay, and a hungry owl, may have taken a toll on several of the nests, Martin says. A post-storm survey found eight failed eggs from five nests. And at least two of the kite chicks recently became owl snacks. But on the bright side, two other kite chicks have been banded and a third may have fledged. Six other eggs still have a chance. The biologists are hopeful other kite chicks will survive.

Not long ago, kites routinely nested around the northwestern part of the Loxahatchee refuge, next to an area slated to become a new Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority landfill, Fury says.

There was also a time when they commonly nested around Lake Okeechobee and north toward the Kissimmee River. Not lately, though.

So why did the snail kites choose Loxahatchee this year?

"It probably has to do with the good food supply and the right supply of vegetation," Fury says.

Research ecologist Wiley Kitchens, whose group at the University of Florida tracks Everglades snail kites, has a more blunt assessment of the birds' choice of nesting ground: "Desperation."

Snail kites are raptors, sharp-eyed, hawk-like birds recognizable by a wide white strip across the back of their tails.

They feed on apple snails. The golf ball-sized, brownish striped snails live in the grassy shallows along wetlands, ponds and canals.

Habitat degradation, an influx of exotic snails, droughts in 2000-01 and 2007 and perhaps water management practices have taken a heavy toll on both the native snail and the kite.

Ecologists predict the Everglades snail kite is on track to become extinct in about 30 years.

The agencies involved in Everglades restoration are relying on snail kite proliferation as a measure of their restoration success. But Everglades restoration has gone slower than planned.

Meanwhile, the kite is faring badly, even in areas where restoration appears to be furthest along, such as the Kissimmee River basin.

Complicating matters, its needs can conflict with another endangered Everglades species, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, forcing water managers to proceed with great caution.

"Kites are in trouble. Time is not in their favor," Kitchens says.

"The thing that does give me some optimism is that people are starting to listen. People are getting the message that the kite's in trouble."

Meanwhile, for a few more weeks, the remaining kites can be viewed with binoculars in the C-8 impoundment on the eastern edge of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

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