Florida population

Endangered snail kite spotted at Paynes Prairie. Although her future is unclear

It took decades for this endangered bird to recover its habitat.

One of Florida’s most endangered birds, the snail kite seemed to be in the midst of a complicated success story after Hurricane Irma inundated Paynes Prairie in 2017. The high water created new habitat for it. wildlife and allowed an invasive aquatic snail species to continue crawling across North Florida. Uniquely adapted snail kites followed.

But the endangered snail kite might not hang on any longer.

A snail kite flies over the flooded meadow from the sky while another perches on a dead snag below. Sustained high water levels at Paynes Prairie have allowed a population of Kite snails to reappear
in Gainesville. (Justin Bright / WUFT News)

Water levels in Paynes Prairie never remain stable for too long, rising and falling with changing conditions. Snail kites depend on wetlands. And right now the water levels are dropping rapidly. The snail kites’ population peaked at 151 birds in April 2020, before dropping to less than five in May 2021 as their new hunting grounds dried up.

Kites have been nearly eradicated from the state after years of degradation of wetlands and water quality. By the early 1900s, they were common in the undisturbed wetlands of southern and central Florida, where they hunted snails, a sticky delicacy that makes up most of their diet. As Florida drained its marshes and contaminated its fragile waterways during the mid-century development boom, snail kites retreated to the Everglades and disappeared from their historic breeding grounds.

snail kite
Caroline Poli rings and weighs snail kite chicks during a field research in 2019. Banding allows scientists like Poli to track birds over time, providing information on things like territory and reproductive behavior. (Photo courtesy of Joe Marchionno)

Caroline Poli was the first to spot a snail kite on Paynes Prairie after Hurricane Irma; it was only the eighth sighting in Alachua County since 1985. A visiting friend had invited her to Sweetwater Wetlands Park on a work day, but that didn’t stop Poli from going out.

“I never turn down an opportunity to go bird watching,” Poli said, a snail kite finder and postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida.

His snail kite sighting was unexpected, as was the arrival of other birds in the following weeks.

But Poli was not surprised.

Paynes Prairie is one of the largest wetlands in North Florida that remains unspoiled and is an ideal habitat for kites. Of course, they need a large population of aquatic snails to survive, and the invasive apple snails had already made their way from South Florida to Paynes Prairie through the state’s connected waterways. Kites also need a mixture of open and vegetated water for food in addition to dead willows – their favorite nesting spots.

“When you have good prey and good hydrology, you have all the right conditions for a kite to nest and hang out year round,” Poli said.

As it turns out, birds don’t mind the large, invasive snails – which grow up to three times the size and produce 300 times more eggs than native apple snails. Snail kites have large talons specially designed to catch floating snails and a deeply curved beak to separate the body from the shell.

snail kite
A close examination of the specially adapted beak of a female kite. Snail kites eat exclusively
aquatic snails, and they have the material to show it. (Justin Bright / WUFT News)

Although they appear to have conquered the invading prey, other factors call into question their ability to reestablish a stable population and lift them out of danger status. Invasive plant species have wreaked havoc in Florida’s wetlands, causing chemical and biological imbalances. For kites, dense vegetation makes it difficult for snails to see the sky and increases the risk of predators in their nests, according to Poli.

Poli also identified the lack of comprehensive wetland management as a threat to existing populations of kite snails. Wetland systems change naturally over time and without a network of protected wetlands in an area, kites would have nowhere to go if their current habitat dries up, as is currently happening in Paynes Prairie. .