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Spoonbill's struggles worrying researchers

An Audubon official said that the spoonbill's shrinking numbers indicate the Everglades is in dire need of water and help can't come soon enough.

Miami Herald - 3/6/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Curtis Morgan

The roseate spoonbill, a wading bird whose striking pink plumage has long made it a favorite with tourists and shutterbugs, is disappearing from the places where it was once most abundant: the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The birds just wrapped up the worst breeding season in Florida Bay in more than 40 years, managing only 292 nests -- down 37 percent in one year, and far short of a peak 1,260 in 1979, according to scientists with Audubon of Florida.

The decline, coupled with a series of spreading algae blooms, point to bigger, broader problems in Florida Bay, said Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon, which has monitored the spoonbill population for more than a half century.

''Last year, for the first time ever, there were more spoonbills nesting in Tampa Bay than Florida Bay,'' said Lorenz, an ecologist who heads up Audubon's research lab in Tavernier. ``Tampa Bay is heavily urbanized. Why would these birds prefer it to a national park?''

The answer is evident: Everglades National Park, which includes much of Florida Bay, is dying for more water. Roads, development and drainage projects have siphoned off and altered the flow of fresh water and historic seasonal cycles for wildlife.

Because spoonbills primarily feed in shallow marshes where the freshwater Everglades meets brackish Florida Bay, scientists have long considered them a key measuring stick of the health of a complex, interconnected ecosystem.

Without some fast fixes, Lorenz said, the prognosis is bleak for both birds and bay.

CANAL PROBLEM

One project, the C-111 canal dug in the 1960s to carry rockets from the defunct Aero-Jet plant, and increased in capacity in the 1980s to protect farms from flooding, has been particularly damaging.

The massive drainage canal worked too well. It diverts fresh water that once flowed down Taylor Slough in the southern Everglades and into Florida Bay, instead funneling it 20 miles east into Barnes Sound. The ripple effects have been devastating. The park and adjacent wetlands went too dry. Northeast Florida Bay turned too salty and Barnes Sound too fresh, hammering once-healthy havens for shrimp, redfish, trout and the tiny fish that fatten spoonbills.

As a result, Lorenz said, spoonbills have steadily abandoned what should be a major breeding ground. In 1978, Audubon records show, there were 333 nests in the Northeast Bay. Scientists counted only 41 when the the breeding season ended last month, Lorenz said. Most birds fled to nest on islands in the western bay.

The spread of algae into central sections of Florida Bay, still recovering from massive blooms that devastated once-rich seagrass beds, only adds to evidence that the bay is sick and possibly on the verge of ecological collapse, Lorenz said.

With statewide budget cuts a concern, Audubon intends to ask the Legislature to push for ''fast-tracking'' the South Florida Water Management District's plans to reroute and redesign the C-111. The project, part of the Everglades restoration effort, has been tied up in a series of disputes with environmental groups about how to do it.

Randy Smith, a district spokesman, said agency scientists pointed to coastal rains as a probable cause for the latest nesting decline, raising water levels and making it easier for fish to escape the foraging birds.

` FAST- TRACKED'

But he said the agency had spent $9 million to buy land for the C-111 fix and restoring flows to Florida Bay remained a district priority. The project already is ''fast-tracked,'' he said, and construction is scheduled to begin next year.

Help can't come soon enough, Lorenz said.

While the population of spoonbills, a relatively rare bird the state lists as a species of special concern, is rising elsewhere, they're at an increasing risk of disappearing in Florida Bay, he said. When the birds do breed, only about one in two chicks survives long enough to leave the nest.

''It's not even a sustainable population right now,'' Lorenz said.