White Ibises forage in a shallow wetland surrounding their colony of 20,000 birds in the Water Conservation Area of the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone

Photography

Birds Galore! Spectacular Photos of Florida's Nesting Boom

Thanks to optimal conditions, wading birds are breeding in huge numbers throughout the Everglades this year

When the conditions are just right, the Everglades become a sprawling, soggy, chick-making machine, supporting unfathomable numbers of nesting wading birds. And this spring, thanks to an especially rainy June and an early September deluge from Hurricane Irma, Florida's famous ecosystem is flush with water and experiencing near-perfect conditions. The result has been a huge spike in breeding birds. 

The numbers are mind-boggling: almost 8,000 Great Egret nests, up to 18,000 White Ibis pairs, and more than 28,000 White Ibis nests in total. In the Everglades Protection Area, which includes Everglades National Park, surveyors have tallied more than 2,800 Wood Storks. At Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, staff have counted more than 400 Wood Stork nests since December. The birds had mostly abandoned the place until recently. And in the Florida Bay, an estimated 400 pairs of Roseate Spoonbills began nesting as early as November. 

These counts are some of the highest in recent decades and welcome news for researchers and conservationists, who had been watching Florida's wading-birds nesting numbers shrink until last year, which was another benchmark breeding season in the past quarter century. But the Everglades are resilient, and despite more than a century of human inteference and engineering, when the water levels are high and age-old natural processes are allowed to take place, the landscape can rev right back up.  

For our recent story covering the nesting boom, Audubon asked photographer Mac Stone to document the scene. After two shoots—both of which included aerial sessions in planes—Stone captured in jaw-dropping detail not only the colonies, but also the size and splendor of the Everglades. Despite having spent significant time photographing birds there and even working as a field biologist monitoring Roseate Spoonbills for Audubon, Stone says he wasn't prepared for what he witnessed from above. 

"Flying over and all of the sudden the entire island is white with birds, you kind of have to rub your eyes and question if what you're seeing is real," he says. "When they’re in the super colonies, you look down and it's like every piece of real estate is taken up with nesting birds." 

We featured a handful of Stone's photos in our original story, but with so many amazing images to choose from, we had to share more. The birds and rookeries shown below are surely a positive sign, but they are also a reminder of how far we have to go. While the abundance is impressive, it still pales in comparison to what is believed to be the Everglades' historical nesting highs. Considering the sheer size of this year's colonies, it's hard to imagine what those historic gatherings looked like. And though it is unlikely that we'll ever see those numbers again, if we continue to restore and preserve the Everglades, perhaps the nesting boom of 2018 will eventually become the new normal. 

"This is the Everglades that we all envision and hope to see every year," Stone says. "It’s really encouraging." 

White Ibises fly over an old-growth cypress slough in Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Photo: Mac Stone
A patchwork of islands forms a maze of water in the Ten Thousand Islands, part of Everglades National Park along the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Mac Stone
Against the gray skies of an approaching storm, juvenile and adult White Ibises in breeding plumage fly in to roost at the Pine Glades Natural Area. Photo: Mac Stone
The distinctive formation of a White Ibis flock looks painted onto the drying landscape as the birds head back to their colony in the southern Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone
A slough of pond and drawf cypress runs through a wetland near Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo: Mac Stone
Rush hour in the Everglades: Flocks of ibises and egrets come and go from a colony of more than 15,000 birds. Photo: Mac Stone
The most effective way to travel through the wetlands, an airboat navigates the sinuous waterways of the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone
Colonies of Wood Storks thrive in the cypress domes and sloughs next to Big Cypress National Preserve. With ample foraging grounds created by heavy rainfall from Hurricane Irma, adults are able to raise multiple young in their nests, which are often located right on top of each other. "You look down, and it’s like condos of birds stacking up on these cypress trees," Stone says. Photo: Mac Stone
Human development has resulted in huge amounts of water being diverted from the Everglades. When the water levels are as they should be, the ecosystem can support super colonies. Photo: Mac Stone
A colony of more than 12,000 White Ibises, Wood Storks, and egrets forms in the marsh and mangrove ecotone in Everglades National Park. Photo: Mac Stone
White Ibises make their way back to a colony in the southern Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone
While the nesting boom largely has to do with water levels, efforts to restore and protect the Everglades have bolstered populations of wading birds and provided the habitat they need for nesting during optimal conditions. Photo: Mac Stone
A roost of egrets, herons, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbills hunkers down beneath a lightning storm in Pine Glades Natural Area. Part of Palm Beach County’s 31,000-acre Natural Areas system, Pine Glades is home to a wetland restoration project that eliminated invasive plants and restored water levels to protect a large swath of pine flatwoods and mixed wetland. The area now provides nesting and roosting to thousands of birds. Photo: Mac Stone
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