Everglades 2021-Second largest nesting event since pre-drainage period in the 1940s

Words of Dr Mark Cook, Wildlife Ecologist | Restoration Scientist | Wildlife & Scientific Photographer | Public Speaker | Science Communicator/SFWMD

“As the rainy season finally kicks in after a late start, and the wading bird nesting now draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on a very successful nesting season. Final nest numbers and fledging rates are yet to be calculated but in general we can say this was the second largest nesting event (over 80k nests!) since the pre-drainage period in the 1940s, and very likely the most successful year in terms of the number of young birds produced! The photo here shows just one of the large flocks of young wood storks (note the yellow beaks not the black beaks of the adults) that recently fledged and are now recruited into the population. The late start of the wet season was certainly helpful because it allowed the vast majority of late hatching birds to fledge before the rains started and lost their food supply. It also extended the period of excellent foraging habitat which increases the probability of survival for these young, naive birds. It’s likely that all wading bird species nesting in the Everglades experienced a significant boost to their populations this year.” –Dr Mark Cook, 6-24-21, Facebook

Today I share photos of a helicopter tour taken June 18, 2021 under the direction of South Water Management Districts‘ Dr Mark Cook. Twenty-seven year veteran, JK Wells served as pilot, and Mr Sean Scully, Bureau Chief, Applied Science -Kissimmee River was a guest -just like me.

JK flew us “everywhere. This post will focus on Water Conservation Areas 1, 2, and 3. (WCA) and Everglades National Park. This flight was taken so that Dr Cook could document one of his final bird counts for the year. Most juvenile birds had fledged their nests. This is fantastic news. So we did not see the “super colonies,” some with up to thirty thousand birds, that were present just a few weeks ago -but we did see fledgling birds and parents and the Everglades landscape itself.  Spectacular!  I want to share these photos today.

~And kudos to the birds of 2021! So happy you had a great year! Thank you Dr Cook for letting me tag along!

-Pilot JK Wells, Mr Sean Sculley, JTL, and Dr Mark CookAt 7:00 am the machine rose like a dragonfly and West Palm Beach came into view. Within a short time we were over Water Conservation Area 1, also known as “Aurthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.” This area is famous for its tree islands. -West Palm Beach below1. Water Conservation Area 1

-Tree island with remaining wading bird colony-Amazing tree islands in WCA1. “Tree islands are important centers of biodiversity in the Florida Everglades; they have two to three times the plant and animal diversity of the surrounding wetlands. This high diversity is due primarily to their higher elevation relative to the adjacent wetlands. In the natural Everglades system, water levels fluctuated seasonally with rainfall, and tree islands were the only sites that escaped flooding during the wet season. These seasonally dry sites provided refugia and nesting sites for animals and allowed tree and shrub communities to flourish.“USGS -Another view of this remarkable habitat! -Large tree island amongst smaller ones. The difference has to do with soil type and topography. Aren’t they spectacular? Biodiversity reigns here. -Note dead Lygodium or Old World Climbing Fern below that has been treated, now dead hanging in tree islands.Below: “Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment,” LILA, -“human-made tree islands.” This research will eventually help recreate the many areas that have lost their tree islands. 2. Water Conservation Area 2

WCA 2 has experienced high phosphors and nitrogen levels going back to the 1960s. We could see the impaired landscape as we entered WCA2. The vegetation really started to change. The tree islands were no longer visible as the nutrient pollution has altered the flora and fauna. This is what happens when loads of phosphorus and nitrogen from agriculture and developed areas flows through pristine areas. They are lost, but there is hope…

-Leaving Water Conservation Area 1, going over the Hillsboro Canal into Water Conservation Area 2. Note vegetation changes compared to WCA1. -Hillsboro Canal-Note lack of tree islands. The vegetation has gotten so thick and tight Mark Cook says even an alligator cannot push though. There are many plants but mostly cattail, sawgrass, and willow. Dr Cook explained a program entitled “Cattail Habitat Improvement Project” or CHIP.

He showed us -large rectangles-cut into the thick vegetation. This was done a an experiment and is showing to be quite successful. Mark said just a few weeks prior, the birds were “going crazy” feeding here. These cuts-outs become “pools of life!” You can see them below.

-Thick vegetation WCA2 -CHIP- the wildlife and birds do return to these areas were vegetation has been cut out and improved. This gives hope for the future of WCA 2. 3. Water Conservation Area 3

Next we crossed the North New River Canal entering gigantic Water Conservation Area 3.

Here the lands are also impaired due to pollution but not as much as Water Conservation Area 2. One can still view here the Ridge and Slough that made up just about all south of the sawgrass prairie that today is the Everglades Agricultural Area.

-Note the small white specks – birds on giant tree island-A side view-Further west in WCA 3 – very clear Ridge and Slough pattern -Further Southwest above the Tamiami Trail – cypress domes and cypress forest. So pretty! -Juvenile birds feeding away from their nests

4. Everglades National Park – below the Tamaimi Trail. Dr Cook said the green in the water is water lettuce.

-This handout from earlier in the year shows the areas of the greatest bird nesting (red ovals and stars). Look at the numbers!

Final words of Dr Mark Cook

“This morning I completed my last survey of the breeding season and I’m excited to report that pretty much every nest in the Everglades (all 80k of them) has now fledged. Despite the start of the rains and the increased water levels there are still thousands of foraging birds in the freshwater marshes and along the coast meaning that the Everglades is still affording the young birds plenty of foraging opportunities which is critical at this early stage of life. The photo is part of a large flock of ibis in the western marl prairies of #evergladesnationalpark -“

-Dr Mark Cook, Facebook, 6-25-21

Thank you for JK for a very smooth flight!


  1. WCA 1-tree islands
  2. WCA 2-impaired Everglades
  3. Super colony in WCA3
  4. Cypress domes southwest WCA 3 in slow motion

3 thoughts on “Everglades 2021-Second largest nesting event since pre-drainage period in the 1940s

Leave a Reply