Chuck Wickenhofer/Free Press Florida Keys staples such as egrets, above, and blue herons are thriving in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
UPPER KEYS — Loss of trees, vegetation and the presence of another algal bloom on Florida Bay after Hurricane Irma has impacted the local bird population, though according to one expert, most have weathered the storm and are thriving.
Last month’s annual Christmas bird count, a National Audubon Society tradition that started around 1900 and in the 1940s in the Florida Keys, reveals that pelicans and cormorants are a lot scarcer this year both in Florida Bay and on the islands. According to Audubon Everglades Science Center research manager and biologist Pete Frezza, this year’s algal bloom is likely a factor.
“We had half the number of pelicans we’ve had (in the past),” Frezza said. “That we could possibly relate back to the algal bloom. Our cormorants and pelicans need to be able to see in the water very well. Certainly the bloom could be affecting our pelicans.”
Frezza says the range of bird species that spend all or part of the year in the Keys reflect the health of the ecosystem, so while the drop in pelican numbers is a concern, other species appear to have fared well in the aftermath of the storm. He indicates that’s a good sign that this year’s hurricane likely spared the bay from lasting deleterious effects.
Among those thriving species are vultures, according to Jordan Budnik, assistant director of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. She says that due to all the strewn waste and stench left behind by the storm, vultures are quite happy here for the time being.
“It’s insane how many vultures are here now. Vultures are naturally drawn to places that are dump-like, so we’re seeing them in the mangroves a lot,” Budnik said, noting that many dead fish and birds accumulated in the mangroves after the storm.
Along with those homely scavengers, Keys staples such as egrets and blue herons are also thriving. Other birds not as often associated with island life, such as the bald eagle, are likewise here in slightly larger numbers this year.
Frezza says those numbers and the presence of other nesting birds shows that the ecosystem is fairly healthy and recovering three months after the hurricane.
Land-based birds face further challenges due to loss of habitat, creating increased competition among those species.
“For the most part it’s pretty good news in relation to a post-Hurricane Irma assessment,” he said. “One thing we did notice was that due to the loss of trees and the cutting down of trees, the (land-based) birds were more concentrated in areas where they still have good and decent habitat.”
Familiar species such as cardinals, blue jays and mockingbirds were relatively unaffected and will be a familiar presence at bird feeders and in the trees again this year.
One concern after the storm was the extremely high water level in Florida Bay, which Frezza recently reported was a major problem for wading birds that face difficulties feeding when waters rise significantly.
That concern has passed as the water level has steadily fallen, according to Frezza.
“The recession rate, which is important for wading birds, is looking really natural,” he said. “We’ve been seeing positive signs of nesting wading birds in Florida Bay in the past few weeks.”
The Christmas bird count is not only an opportunity for scientists to document and track various species, but for birding enthusiasts to add rare species to their life list. This was a good year for them, as Frezza says that one species, the northern rough-winged swallow, hasn’t been seen in the Keys for 26 years and was spotted last month.
“We’ve been doing this count since the mid-1940s and the northern rough-winged swallow was seen once in that time period, plus two individuals seen in 1991,” Frezza said. “That’s actually very rare for winter in the Florida Keys.”
Budnik also notes an oddity or two likely attributable to Hurricane Irma.
“We’ve seen some weird species blown inland because of the storm,” she said. “The brown knotty is a bird you don’t usually see inland at all. They spend the majority of their life totally out at sea to the point that they’ll roost on the backs of sea turtles instead of solid land.”
One was found here on the roof of a car.
The tumult Irma brought to Florida Bay and the Keys seems to have spared most bird species that thrive at both land and sea, and Budnik says that they’ll continue to bounce back as the natural cycle continues.
“My sense is that they’ll be fine,” she said. “Birds are very resilient creatures, (and) most of the birds here are bio-indicator species, so they respond directly to what’s happening in the environment. It may take them a little longer, but it’ll happen.”