Birding Today: Swamp ecology important to retain valued plants, other denizens essential to survival

The snail kite has been steadily increasing and has quickly developed longer bills to handle the non-native snail morphologically in only a short span of eight years.

Nearly three years ago, writer was thrilled to have gone to Florida to be able to bird. A couple of the top species on my list were the Limpkin and the infamous Florida Snail Kite, which I feared may soon be a thing of the past. A good friend took me to Joe Overstreet Road to find one of my nemesis birds, but while there, I also discovered a Great Blue Heron dining upon an invasive aquarium catfish. My heart still sunk, because where one finds the Limpkin, the Snail Kite is not far behind.

In a prior column I’d also made mention about the invasive species that were thrown into the Everglades ecosystem that didn’t help its plants or native animals.

Approaching a third of the native flora and fauna, many non-native species had entered the volatile ecosystem decades ago and it was cause for deep concern. The Burmese python, assorted iguanas, lionfish, cane toads, and many others were known to decimate birds, fawns, and even the python took on alligators. ALLIGATORS!

The island apple snail, a common aquarium denizen, was also expected to reach negative heights for many native plants when it entered the ecosystem in the late 1980s. Dozens of bubblegum pink egg masses on plants are one of the biggest signs of this South American invasive.

At the same time, the Florida Snail Kite appeared to be on its way out, as it was losing its native apple snails, a necessity to its well-being, or so we surmised. Years later the kite has been steadily increasing and has quickly developed longer bills to handle the non-native snail morphologically in only a short span of eight years. Concern for the survival of the inept juvenile birds quickly increased to over 60 percent has been unheard of since such a long-lived food species arrived in the Everglades. Shockingly, this highly ranked invasive is helpful for a bird in Florida that has been on the endangered species list for so long. What? They are known to destroy wetlands. It should be only a matter of time that Snail Kite population destruction will occur. Right?

Florida’s wetlands have always been known to be obstinate since our country was under settlement, and many wonderful animals were lost due this interference, like the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Later our country’s only native parakeet of the south also went to its demise, as did the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, and on and on.

For an invasive troublemaker that helped to bring back a beautiful legacy to the country, I am still in awe with the positive numbers that have been generated by the Snail Kite. We also wonder how we will retain the necessary components of an important swamp ecology to retain valued plants and other denizens essential to the survival of so many other indispensable parts of said life.

Where will we go from here?

Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!

Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.


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