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Irma roughs up endangered snail kites, birds that help us gauge the Everglades' health

Hurricane Irma was as rough on some wildlife as it was on the humans. Audubon of Florida reported Thursday that the storm destroyed all 44 nests around Lake Okeechobee built by the endangered Everglades snail kite, a bird considered crucial to the River of Grass ecosystem.

HURRICANE IRMA: Read the latest coverage from the Tampa Bay Times.

Audubon's scientists had been keeping an eye on about 130 nests statewide. Losing 44 of them means a poor breeding season ends "on an even worse note," the organization's spokesman, Sean Cooley, said in an e-mail.

"Post-Irma assessments of the lake indicate that many adults and juveniles in the area rode out the storm and survived, but sadly, nests with eggs or flightless babies perished," he wrote.

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There were not a lot of nests to begin with. The nesting this year was hurt by the drought that occurred before hurricane season — meaning the birds were harmed by both dry and wet seasons.

The nesting this year fell far short of last year's, which saw more than 800 nests built by the imperiled birds. That means about 75 percent of the population did not even try to reproduce this year.

Known for its curved bill, square tail and red eyes, the Everglades snail kite has been a fixture on the federal endangered species list since the first one was issued in 1967. Thousands of them used to live in a territory that stretches from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, but that number has dropped to the hundreds.

Audubon considers them to be a barometer for the health of the Everglades and the success of the ongoing multi-billion restoration project. That's because the alterations to the River of Grass — nearly half has been drained for agriculture and urban development — have disrupted the volume, timing, direction and velocity of the flow of fresh water, as well as what kinds of vegetation grows in what is left. That has made it nearly impossible for the birds to find the native snails that they eat.

Snail kites swoop down on their prey and snatch them up with their talons. Their off-center beaks allow them to probe inside the spiral shells of the native apple snails, pull them out and eat them. But the apple snails' population has dropped as the Everglades has changed.

"Population models predict that if current trends continue, this majestic species could become functionally extinct in a matter of 20 to 30 years," Audubon Florida noted in a 2011 report.

But in recent years, the kites have been spotted feeding on larger, invasive snails from Argentina and Brazil. Whether that's helpful to saving the birds or not remains under study.

Ultimately the long-term impact that Irma had on the endangered birds has yet to be determined, said Julie Hill-Gabriel, deputy director of Audubon of Florida. But it does demonstrate "why we want endangered species like this to be more robust — so than can be more resilient," she said.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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