Signs of hope for the endangered Everglades kite

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J. Scott Angle

We know if the Everglades kite becomes more or less threatened every few hours. At least we do at Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho, for short), an 18,810-acre lake southeast of Kissimmee.

A research team from the University of Florida is still counting. They use GPS trackers, nesting cameras and airboats, not to mention old-fashioned binoculars, to check the data coming in through the gadgets.

Constant updates inform decisions to let water in or out of the lake. It also guides decisions to restrict access around nests or pull weeds to make way for bass and tour boats without starving the bird.

Even if you don’t care about birds, this job could protect something you care about — bass, if you’re an avid fisherman; ducks, if you are a hunter; airboat tours, if you are a visitor, business owner or employee; and taxpayer dollars, if you’re a Floridian who benefits from the economic activity that a healthy snail kite home generates.

Rob Fletcher, an ecologist with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, leads the statewide snail kite monitoring program. Fletcher is largely responsible for providing science-based information to answer questions of when to turn lake plumbing on and off and other human controls on a wilderness space surrounded by busy boulevards, condos and businesses.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and South Florida Water Management District depend on the data to decide what to do at the lake and elsewhere in the deer range -ruffles.

This range includes Everglades National Park, Lake Okeechobee, Lake Kissimmee, and Lake Istokpoga in Highland County. He’s even been spotted on Paynes Prairie outside of Gainesville and in the Panhandle.

The kite takes its name from where it was first spotted over a century ago.

Fletcher just wants what agency officials want — the data and information they need to make the best decisions possible. They all want you – and your grandchildren – to have the chance to see such a rare bird.

If you see it, you can help Fletcher and his team by recording your sighting on eBird, where you can see where others have spotted it.

Angle

Fletcher wanted me to see it too, so he and FWC snail kite expert Tyler Beck took me out on Lake Toho. And they brought along their colleague Vicki Garcia from the USFWS, who enforces the Endangered Species Act.

The fact that it only took about 15 minutes from the time I got out of my car until I had a kite in my sights is a testament to the quality of their work.

The kite is one of the success stories of conservation. Although it remains on the federal endangered species list, management efforts like that of the government-university team have helped the bird return from the brink of extinction. By 2008, the population had fallen to around 750. That’s almost triple today.

This is why we need public support for environmental science. This can take the form of funding, public participation in public policy forums, or citizen science initiatives like eBird.

New questions arise as conditions change. For example, when an invasive snail populated Lake Toho, authorities had to decide whether to better control the weeds that these snails feed on. Was it a case of invasive species versus endangered species? Fletcher, Beck and others found that the snail kite fed very well on the exotic snail, and lake managers adjusted their weed control strategy accordingly.

Beck and other agency officials make Fletcher’s work relevant. What they do is allow us to live to the edge where a bird fights extinction.

One of the strengths of a great public research university is the way it combines teaching and research. Graduate students in Fletcher’s lab count birds, document nest locations and track movements.

Field experience, education, and working with professionals from government agencies prepare them to become the next generation of another select little species – the wildlife scientist.

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, as well as a leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). He can be reached at jangle@ufl.edu or on Twitter @IFAS_VP

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