The White Ibis and Wood Stork as indicators for restoration of the everglades ecosystem


Large numbers of colonially nesting herons, egrets, ibises, storks and spoonbills were one of the defining natural phenomena of the historical Everglades. Reproduction of these species has been tracked over at least a century, and some clear responses to dramatic anthropogenic hydrological alterations have been established. These include a marked decline in nesting populations of several species, and a movement of colonies away from the over-drained estuarine region. Ponding in a large portion of the freshwater marsh has favored species that hunt by sight in deep water (egrets, cf. 25–45cm), while tactile feeders (ibises and storks) that depend on concentrated prey in shallow water (5–25cm) have become proportionately much less common. There has been a marked increase in the interval between exceptionally large breeding aggregations of White Ibises (Eudocimus albus). Loss of short hydroperiod wetlands on the margins of the Everglades have delayed nest initiations 1–2 months by Wood Storks (Mycteria americana) resulting in poor nesting success. These responses are consistent with mechanisms that involve foraging, and the availability and production of prey animals, and each of the relationships is highly dependent on hydrology. Here, we define a group of characteristics about wading bird dynamics (= indicators) that collectively track the specific ecological relationships that supported ibises and storks in the past. We suggest four metrics as indicators of restoration success: timing of nesting by storks, the ratio of nesting ibises+storks to Great Egrets, the proportion of all nests located in the estuarine/freshwater ecotone, and the interval between years with exceptionally large ibis nestings. Each of these metrics has historical (e.g., predrainage) data upon which to base expectations for restoration, and the metrics have little measurement error relative to the large annual variation in numbers of nests. In addition to the strong scientific basis for the use of these indicators, wading birds are also a powerful tool for public communication because they have strong aesthetic appeal, and their ecological relationships with water are intuitively understandable. In the interests of communicating with the public and decision-makers, we integrate these metrics into a single-page annual “traffic-light” report card for wading bird responses. Collectively, we believe these metrics offer an excellent chance of detecting restoration of the ecosystem functions that supported historical wading bird nesting patterns.

Ecological Indicators