Everglades has best nesting year in 6 decades

Success attributed to heavy rains, drought

January 21, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

PALM BEACH, Fla. - It's almost shocking to hear good news about the Everglades, but here goes: For many of the marsh's wading birds, last year was the best nesting year in six decades.

Not since the 1940s have the Everglades' imperiled white ibises enjoyed such a great year to raise families. For the endangered wood stork, it was the best nesting season since 1967.

And the snowy egret didn't do too badly, either.

The phenomenal year appeared to come from a combination of wet and dry years that proved nearly ideal for many species. A series of rainy years bred lots of fish, scientists said. Then two dry springtimes in a row made it easy for birds to catch them in shrinking pools of water.

You can credit Mother Nature or blind luck, and scientists can't say whether the trend will continue.

But scientists are cheering. That's because the same pattern of rising and falling water is what they're proposing in their $7.8 billion plan to restore the Everglades.

"It's almost like a little experiment to see whether the restoration will work," said John Ogden, a biologist at the South Florida Water Management District. "To me it says, `Yeah.'"

The restoration plan is designed to use pumps, reservoirs and storage wells to feed water to the Everglades at strategic times.

It will attempt to mimic the natural wet-and-dry cycle that existed in the Everglades before the 1880s.

After that, canals were dug that threw the entire process into disarray.

The plan's authors hope "getting the water right," as they put it, will help wildlife as well.

The numbers demonstrate that even the degraded Everglades can produce a bumper crop of birds under the right conditions, said Dale Gawlik, the district senior environmental scientist who wrote the wading bird report.

"It validates what scientists have been saying for a while," she said.

The Everglades' bird numbers might have been aided by the droughts parching the southeastern United States, which left South Florida as one of the few places in the region with abundant water last spring, researchers say.

The birds might also have been helped by an apparent drop in the Everglades' mercury levels, at least as measured by tests of nestlings' feathers, some scientists said.

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