Weecology, the Everglades, and Wading Birds, oh my!

A funny thing happened on the way to the pandemic…

In the summer of 2019 a colleague of mine, Dr. Peter Frederick – an expert in the wading birds of the Everglades – emailed me. Peter and I served on some university committees together, so I assumed we were just getting together to chat about changes in graduate student admissions or something else administrative. To my surprise he cracks open his laptop and says, “I want you to think about taking over my long-term study of wading birds in the Everglades.”

Picture of Peter Frederick

Dr. Peter Frederick – UF Emeritus professor and Everglades wading bird expert

It took me a while to stop laughing, then I had to make sure he wasn’t messing with me. But he was serious.

Since the mid 1980s, Peter Frederick has been monitoring wading birds across a large swath of the Everglades ecosystem – specifically Water Conservation Areas 1, 2, and 3. If – like me – those terms are meaningless to you, then let me explain. The Water Conservation Areas comprise ~1350 square miles ( 3,496 sq km) of Everglades marsh habitat that are part of the water supply and flood control system of south Florida.

Image from Google earth showing a white polygon outlining a region of south Florida and a tiny red square in the middle of it

A Google Earth image of part of southern Florida. The white polygon outlines the three water conservation areas. To the north, the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee can be seen. To the east is the Miami Metropolitan area. South of the polygon is the norther edge of Everglades National Park. If you can find the red dot in the photo, it is a scaled representation of the size of my other study area – the Portal Project.

For over 30 years, Peter’s Everglades group has been monitoring all the wading bird breeding colonies across this ~1350 sq mile expanse. This involves an intensive field effort from January to about June (late May-early July is typically the end of the breeding season) to conduct monthly aerial censuses to count nests and weekly visits to a subset of colonies to monitor nest success. How – one might ask – does one accomplish this? Have you seen the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Well, to monitor wading birds in the Everglades its Planes, Trucks, and Airboats.

Planes are used to find colonies across the area and estimate the number of nests in each colony. Trucks are used to move the airboats around to different launching points. Airboats are what get people from the edge of the Everglades out to the tree islands where the colonies are.

Video from an airboat as it moves across the Everglades

Once in a colony, transects are set up and nests are visited weekly to track nest success from egg laying to fledging. Sometimes nests are easy to monitor.

Morgan Ernest standing next to a nest writing on paper

Recording data on nest contents in one of the colonies in the Everglades. Photo from Lindsey Garner

Sometimes, though, they take a little work

Me and Lindsey Garner (my amazing field manager, Everglades guru, and project coordinator) using mirrors on extendable poles to look into nests up in the trees. Photo from Holly Coates

Peter explained all of this to me, showing me pictures and data from the field project, talking about the long-term nature of the project and their recent push into using drones to monitor colonies.

I smiled politely, told him I’d think about it, and then went home to laugh with Ethan about the absurdity of me running a large-scale monitoring program of wading birds in the Everglades that involved planes, airboats, and drones. After all the Venn diagram of my expertise as a small-scale long-term desert rodent field ecologist and the expertise needed for a large-scale, long-term tropical wetland avian ecologist are nearly non-overlapping.

And laugh we did. Laugh and throw out wild ideas. Ideas related to multi-scale spatial and temporal ecology. Ideas related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and drone-based field ecology. Ideas related to testing large-scale forecasting in a system undergoing unprecedented restoration efforts in the face of unprecedented environmental change.

And then we stopped laughing.

It took a trip to south Florida to visit Everglades National Park and a heart-to-heart conversation with our project manager, Glenda Yenni (who has been with us for so many years now that saying it out loud would force us to confront how old we’ve gotten) for us to finally make a decision.

The trip to Everglades National Park really hit home what we knew intellectually – the Everglades is one of the iconic ecosystems of the world. Unique. Beautiful. And brimming with interesting ecology. Oh, and the big wading birds are super cool.

Great Blue Heron at the water’s edge at Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park

When we broached the possibility with Glenda, we were braced for her to laugh at us for even thinking about something so outlandish. But it was Glenda’s unbridled enthusiasm for the coolness of the project that finally overcame our reservations. She pointed out how the project really integrated a lot of themes we’d all been invested in (machine learning, ecological dynamics, forecasting) in ways very complementary to those we’d been exploring with Portal. Questions we can address with Portal would be difficult/impossible with the Everglades and vice versa, which meant there was a potential for feedbacks and synergy that our really broad portfolio of research had not been amenable to before.

Of course, all of this was before I knew I would be taking over the project in the middle of a global pandemic. But that’s a story for another day.

Today’s story ends here. With the announcement that Weecology has a brand new bag (and a fleet of airboats and drones). So stay tuned for more stories of our adventures as we learn about wading birds in the amazing and unique landscape of the Everglades.

A foraging flock of large wading birds circling over the Everglades at dawn, as the airboats approach

5 Comments on “Weecology, the Everglades, and Wading Birds, oh my!

  1. So exciting. Let me know when I can tag along as an extra field assistant!

  2. Y’all need to stop for a visit in Homestead on the way!

  3. This looks like a fascinating topic, and I will be curious to find out if your adventures with machine learning are successful. Do you think that the implementation of machine learning will allow for a better understanding of the wading birds?

  4. Thanks! The machine learning will work should help us make rapid accurate counts as soon as new drone imagery is collected. This will allow us to monitor the system in near real time and therefore develop a better understanding of the intra-annual dynamics of wading bird colonies.

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