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."