Riverwoods Field Lab sits along the banks of Riverwoods Run, a historic 5-mile section of the Kissimmee River. Riverwoods Run’s floodplain was severed from the river’s flow since the channelization was completed in 1971. The dried-out floodplain had reverted to dry pasture lands and the river levels were very low and had no flow for many years. However last year, the restoration reached Riverwoods and the flow was restored to Riverwoods Run! With the restored flow and flooding resulting from Hurricane Irma – the wetlands adjacent to Riverwoods are coming back to life! The return of aquatic invertebrates and juvenile fish to the restored floodplain have provided a buffet banquet for wetland and wading birds. The most exciting indicator of the health of the restored river is the return of the endangered Everglades Snail Kites!! The reflooded wetlands have provided excellent conditions for the apple snail, the Snail Kites’ primary food source, to return to the Kissimmee River.
According to Tyler Beck, Snail Kite Conservation Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), there has been an astonishing 533% increase in the number of Snail Kite nests in the restored Kissimmee River. Between 2016 and 2018, there was astounding number of successful nests with an increase from two to twenty-five – an increase of 1150%! Nesting success means that at least one chick survives and thrives.
High praise from a Lakes Region Audubon Bird Club participant in our Explore the Kissimmee River Eco-tour in November 2018; “Our Bird Club members thoroughly enjoyed the Kissimmee River Restoration presentation and tour yesterday. The results of the restoration are dramatic and we were all overwhelmed by the presence of large numbers of Snail Kites (we counted 80!) . . . You can be very proud of your work and ongoing efforts to bring this river back to its former glory.”
Paul Gray, Audubon’s Lake Okeechobee Science Coordinator and our avian expert, tells us that the kites are versatile in their nesting behavior, now using wetland willow and buttonbush shrubs and even nesting on tussocks – floating islands of vegetation. The Snail Kites are survivors, and able to adapt rapidly to find suitable habitats and food sources.
The Florida Apple Snail is rapidly disappearing and being replaced with the exotic Island Apple Snails. The snail kites have been able to adapt and are now thriving on a diet of the exotic apple snail found all along the Kissimmee River. It is very interesting scenario, where an exotic snail is helping a rare and endangered bird to survive and thrive!!