Large expanses of marshlands dotted with waterbirds. That’s what the Everglades is famous for and over a billion dollars have been spent to maintain and renourish this system. Much effort has gone into attaining high flows of good quality water to restore historic wet season water levels to preserve these wetlands. Equally important though, and often forgotten, is the need for seasonal drying. It is, in fact, this periodic drying that supports the Everglades’ notoriously high numbers of waterbirds. Fish congregate into few remaining pools of water, traditionally maintained by alligators at their holes and nowadays man-made canals provide alternatives. As the fish become ever more concentrated in these pools they become easy prey for wading birds, not only because of their high densities in relatively shallow waters, but also because they begin to die from insufficient oxygen. Feeding aggregations of herons, storks, egrets and numerous other birds flock to these fish kills and even time their breeding seasons to coincide with this abundance of prey, a perfect time to be feeding insatiable young. I’ve long known these facts about the Everglades, but up until recently, I’d never experienced such an event. Not surprisingly, reading about it and being in the middle of it are two entirely different things.
I’d actually gone to the Everglades to celebrate the opening of the new bridge on Tamiami Trail, an important milestone in Everglades restoration attempts to regain water flow to a thirsting ecosystem. The ceremony itself was mostly spent waiting on Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to arrive, greet people, take photos, do interviews, and drive across the bridge while the rest of us were held at bay by gun toting rangers in starched uniforms. It confirmed my notion that I’m not one for political formalities. Fortunately, it was salvaged by the stunning views of the Everglades from atop the new bridge and a constant stream of Wood Storks, White Ibis, Night Herons and Great Egrets flying across the horizon. Well, ok. Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimble, gave a pretty cool speech too. Nonetheless, the true highlight, came upon returning to our parking area near a boat ramp where years of airboats have created a pool of water adjacent to drying glades.
The smell of dead fish and sounds of squawking birds greeted us as we got out of the shuttle. Clearly something exciting was going on and I found myself drawn ever closer to the stench. Chaos in white awaited me at the boat ramp. Brilliant white storks, herons and egrets contrasted starkly against the brown landscape, demonstrating why white birds are the beacons of these aggregations. A core huddle of Wood Storks shifted through the water, heads down as they probed the muddy bottom. The pattern was punctuated by incoming or outgoing storks, heads thrown triumphantly into the air to wrangle large sunfish or bass, or ensuing fluttering of wings as quarrels erupted to determine the final owner of said fish. Great Egrets gracefully skirted around and through the Wood Stork huddle, milling slowly while carefully eyeing the water, then pausing motionless before strategically darting their bills down to claim feasts of their own. Black-necked Stilts stealthily roamed on the outskirts of the huddle, also strategically plunging their heads for prey. White Ibis in the same area, and even further away from the huddle, used the same tactile method as the storks, bills methodically churning the mud below. Snowy Egrets hunted in the foreground, dangling their bright yellow toes along the surface of the water to attract fish, then elegantly snagging their prey with a downward swoop of their neck, never once interrupting their flight. Great Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons hunted patiently a little further out and Little Blue Herons and Green Herons could be seen in the distant marsh, keeping clear of the feeding frenzy where they’d likely be picked on but benefiting from the aggregation nonetheless. Night Herons roosted in nearby trees, waiting patiently for the diurnal birds to head home so they could claim their spots next to the Wood Storks. At the base of the boat ramp, and along any available bank, were clusters of Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures and Boat-Tailed Grackles, all impatiently waiting for a dead fish to float within range, at which point battles vying for the prize ensued. Grackles attempted to sneak off with the prey while the vultures tussled, alternatively shooting up in the air and clawing at their opponent on their way back to land. There was so much activity in every direction that it was truly overwhelming. It was near impossible to focus on any one species, much less an individual as birds foraged, squabbled and criss-crossed this way then that. The energy and dynamism of the event was contagious, even to sideline human observers such as myself. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more exciting it would’ve been when waterbird populations were at their peak, when this seemingly large gathering would’ve been comparatively small. Maybe someday I’ll know first-hand. There’s at least room for that hope now with the dream of restored water flow becoming a reality one section of bridge at a time.