In response to recent sightings of the endangered snail kite at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection surveyed the park and discovered a nest containing three chicks.
Declining snail kite populations led to protection of the species under federal and state law in 1967. In 2016, Alachua County residents spotted a snail kite for the first time in nearly 20 years. Since then, estimates have put the snail kite population in the Paynes Prairie basin in the single digits.
Last year, Hurricane Irma destroyed dozens of snail kite nests around Lake Okeechobee, the more common nesting area for the imperiled species.
The Paynes Prairie sightings sparked the interest of the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Florida. Wildlife biologist Brian Jeffery led the survey expedition along with Florida State Park Environmental Specialist Keith Morin.
“The habitat of this bird has improved a lot with our recent efforts to reduce wetland trees, which crowd the areas where these birds hunt,” Morin said. “Water quality also has improved over the past decade as the park has improved treatment marshes. Those factors, coupled with weather conditions that have helped drive up the apple snail population, the snail kite’s primary food source, have benefited the bird greatly.”
The state park also partners with the Alachua County Audubon chapter. “They provide us valuable location information on a number of species, including snail kites, through their monitoring and surveys,” Morin said. “Audubon volunteers often alert us when they see a new species present in the area. We can then investigate and survey the area as needed.”
"We are absolutely thrilled to see the number of snail kites increase at Paynes Prairie," said Debbie Segal, President of the Alachua Audubon Society. "Not only is this great news for the species, but it is also good for Gainesville's ecotourism industry. Bird watchers from around Florida, Georgia and other southeastern states are visiting Gainesville, specifically to see this iconic bird species."
DEP also partners with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Fletcher Lab at the UF Wildlife Ecology and Conservation school to help monitor sensitive wildlife in the Paynes Prairie basin.