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Lonely gourmet of the swamps fights for his life
Gilbert Cant
August 10, 1964
Now rarer than the whooping crane, the Everglades kite may come back—if the swamp-water level stays high and apple snails are plentiful
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August 10, 1964

Lonely Gourmet Of The Swamps Fights For His Life

Now rarer than the whooping crane, the Everglades kite may come back—if the swamp-water level stays high and apple snails are plentiful

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Breeding was unusually late. Eventually one nest in saw grass was discovered. It contained two eggs. One hatched, but the chick was found dead on June 24. That same day one egg hatched in a nest in a stubby willow. Julian managed to get a photograph of this rare chick when it was half grown, but the nest was not checked again, and it is not known whether the bird ever flew.

Last February I checked Loxahatchee by car from the levee and also by airboat. Again the kites were late, and I saw only two or three males. In May, Bill Julian and Edward L. Chalif, a prominent ornithologist from New Jersey, were certain of nine individuals—five males and four females or immatures.

Julian wisely decided at once to keep out photographers, who might stay too long near a nest if they found one. He was thinking of a total closure of the area where the birds had nested in 1963. It was in a part of the refuge that is regularly open to fishermen. It then seemed to some of us that the time had come to get top-level action to save the kites. Chalif, Richard Pough, the conservationist, and officers of the Audubon Society joined me in setting up, overnight, the Emergency Committee for the Everglades Kite. We went to Washington to ask the Secretary of the Interior to close three or four square miles of the Loxahatchee Refuge surrounding the "willow head," a soggy island where the birds seemed likeliest to nest.

The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife went us one better and authorized Julian to close almost nine square miles. Perhaps most important, the bureau promised to provide Julian with enough personnel to patrol the area to make the closure effective. Signs were posted all around, but there are still some Glades characters who do not believe in signs or in regulations of any kind. In the week when the area was closed a Glades veteran was picked up and charged with poaching alligators. (Their hides bring a black-market premium.) Julian and Westbrook found the old fellow's camp in the heart of the closed area. On the very island around which male kites were building nests (and over which they engaged in fancy zoom-and-tumble aerobatics to attract mates) the gator poacher had hidden his gear. So that was another close call for the kites.

At Okeechobee well-meaning bird watchers and photographers had disturbed the kites too much. It was officially decided to exclude not only photographers but even professional ornithologists from the closed area at Loxahatchee. Only one exception was made—Alexander Sprunt IV, a specialist on threatened species.

It was a sweltering, soggy, windless day in late June when Sandy Sprunt and Bill Julian made their most fruitful reconnaissance of the area. Near the willow head, Julian switched off the roar of their airboat engine. For an hour or two, few birds moved. One male kite sat near a "cock nest"—a messy jumble of sticks that no self-respecting female would accept as her nursery.

A light but merciful breeze made up, and kites began stirring. A male and a female flew into the willow head, and they were carrying snails in their bills. That was promising. Another male flew in and, as he settled in a willow, Sprunt saw through his spotting scope that he was joining a female at the edge of a nest—the first 1964 nest!

For a better view, Julian eased the airboat around to within 50 yards of the willow head. Sprunt and Julian saw, to their astonishment, no fewer than six kites in brown plumage (females and immatures), with two adult males, all in the willow head. There were almost certainly two active nests and possibly four. Perched at cypress or myrtle dining tables, or quartering the saw grass for more escargots, seven other kites could be counted, for a total of at least 15—more than anybody had seen for years. Two others had recently been seen over Lake Okeechobee. That made 17.

On July 1, Sprunt and Julian could see one chick in the nest. That made 18. A week later there were two, for a total of 19. And last week Julian told me he had just seen these fledglings on the wing. So the 1964 season has been at least partly successful, and there may still be more chicks in hidden nests.

Interior is doing its part, and the birds have done theirs. But whether the kite can survive indefinitely in Florida depends on highly fluid factors. The water level on that memorable count day in June was 15 feet 9 inches above sea level, enough to give the snails and kites an ideal two feet of water over most of the Glades floor.

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