Lake Okeechobee is designated as critical habitat for the endangered Snail Kite and offers more habitat than any ecosystem in Florida, outside of the Everglades. But low water levels in 2019 and 2020 resulted in no kite nests in either year. The Everglades also had very dry conditions in 2019 and 2020, resulting in an estimated 25% drop in the population of Snail Kites in one year (1).
This year, Lake Okeechobee has been deeper and as of early June, 151 kite nests have been found. This good news is tempered by bad; researchers report that about 75% of the nests have failed. Snail Kites tend to have lower nest success than other raptors, but these numbers are low even for them. A major factor appears to be very rapid declines in water levels during April and May, when Lake Okeechobee dropped more than a foot per month. That is twice as fast as the goal and many of the nests had very little water under and around them when they failed. Low water allows terrestrial predators to take nests and reduces the ability of kites to get snails as conditions dry.
Hot, dry weather is partly to blame for the rapid recession rate, but so is massive water withdrawal by farmers around Lake Okeechobee. As the US Army Corps of Engineers works on the new lake level management plan (called LOSOM), the question arises as to whether giving so much water to farmers can be done without undue harm to Lake Okeechobee, and to Snail Kites and other organisms that live around Lake Okeechobee.
Audubon is very engaged in the LOSOM process and will continue to be the leading advocate for Lake Okeechobee and all the ecosystems it supports.
(1) According to data provided by the University of Florida.