Adapting to a World in Transition: Everglades wood storks in mining country

A guest post by Zachary Caple

During my fieldwork in Central Florida, I would regularly visit a small neighborhood park in a subdivision in Lakeland, FL. Sandwiched between khaki-colored condos, the park is furnished with a tidy lawn, a few trees, and a park bench that looks out on Lake Somerset. Twenty meters from the shore is a series of linear islands teeming with birds. Nestled in the vegetation are egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, and — most abundant of all — wood storks. Lake Somerset is a man-made lake created by phosphate mining in the last century. The islands are mounds of mining spoil that run in long parallel strips that inscribe the route of the mechanical excavator. Growing on the islands is Brazilian pepper, an exotic invasive tree introduced through the ornamental plant trade: it gives the islands a blobby, bristly character. Wood storks are a federally threatened species endemic to the coastal Everglades. In the 1970s, storks fled the Everglades in droves as drainage and flood control projects fractured the hydrology of this iconic ecosystem. Some of these storks set up shop in the Central Florida phosphate mining district where they can be seen squawking, preening, and building nests in the branches of Brazilian pepper. 

Federally threatened wood storks make nests in Brazilian pepper, an exotic invasive tree in Central Florida. Photo credit: Zac Caple.

Federally threatened wood storks make nests in Brazilian pepper, an exotic invasive tree in Central Florida. Photo credit: Zac Caple.

Lake Somerset’s wood storks are the mascot of my dissertation, Holocene in Fragments: A critical landscape ecology of phosphorus in Florida. In my research, I explore how the phosphate fertilizer industry has transformed the ecological landscapes of Florida and generated what earth scientists call the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch marked by human disturbance to planetary systems. As an environmental anthropologist, I am interested Florida as a ground zero of the Anthropocene but also as a space in which Holocene life can still be found, often in tattered fragments. Wood storks are one such fragment. Chipped off the Everglades, forced into diaspora, and made to live in novel anthropogenic environments, wood storks are finding a foothold in the Anthropocene, however precarious. While geologists debate the official starting point of the Anthropocene, I am interested in landscapes that allow us to detect emergent patterns of life in this time of planetary transition, i.e. the Holocene/Anthropocene boundary. Just as in the K/Pg transition that ended the rule of the dinosaurs, Earth is undergoing sweeping changes. Only this time humans are the asteroid. 

If you were to visit Lake Somerset in the early 1920s, you would have encountered a very different scene: where there is today islands and condos there was once an extensive upland ecosystem of pine and saw palmetto interlaced with cypress domes. From the1920s through the1960s, this area was strip mined for phosphate rock by the Southern Phosphate Company as part of the Pauway Mine. Phosphate is a critical ingredient in chemical fertilizers— an industrial material, like fossil fuels, that has helped make a human-dominated Earth. The mining process is destructive in many regards, but in the hands of real estate developers, mining is also creative. As mining pits fill with water and bulldozers regrade the land, an industrial black eye becomes lakefront property. If you were to take a stork’s-eye-view of Lakeland, you would see numerous subdivisions snaking around the shores of former phosphate pits. The Lake Somerset subdivision is largely occupied by white, retired east coasters and midwesterners who flocked to Florida for its relentless sunshine and affordability.

 A Southern Phosphate Corporation dragline creates a spoil mound, circa 1923. Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

 A Southern Phosphate Corporation dragline creates a spoil mound, circa 1923. Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Almost a hundred years later, a spoil-pile island, generated in the phosphate-mining process, serves as a rookery for wading birds. Photo credit: Zac Caple

Almost a hundred years later, a spoil-pile island, generated in the phosphate-mining process, serves as a rookery for wading birds. Photo credit: Zac Caple

Given the histories of mining, suburbanization, and exotic plant invasions, it is surprising to find a federally threatened bird here, especially one indigenous to the tropical tip of the peninsula. In the mid nineteenth century, the mangrove-fringe of the coastal Everglades supported the largest wood stork rookery. Hunters stalked storks to the brink of extinction supplying feathers to hat makers in northern cities. As political pressure against the plume trade mounted and fashions changed, the rookeries recovered. But it wasn’t too long before humans struck again, this time through a series of schemes designed to “improve” the Everglades through drainage and agricultural development. The Everglades is a complex wetland environment that, in its pre-European condition, overflowed Lake Okeechobee to form the distinctive “River of Grass.” Backed by the intellectual and financial muscle of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Okeechobee was diked, its water diverted to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, and its floodplain converted to a massive sugarcane production zone — a zone, incidentally, that required Florida phosphates to flourish. These changes fundamentally altered the hydrology of the Everglades and diminished the fish base that, in the Holocene, supported majestic communities of wading birds. 

During the 1960s and 70s, wood storks fled the Everglades. Some of these wood storks settled in the anthropogenic island environments of the Central Florida phosphate mining district. The spoil-pile islands make good nesting grounds: alligators guard against egg-hungry predators and the flexible branches of Brazilian pepper hold nests together in the tumult of summer storms. Despite these advantages, the pit affords little in the way of food. Surrounded by subdivisions and strip malls, the birds must fly several miles, across a busy toll road to forage in a recently restored marsh. To suggest that wood storks are thriving in this environment would be misleading. Storks are fledging offspring, but the possibilities for colony expansion are eclipsed by sprawl. At best, these wood storks may be said to be “living in ruins.” To live in ruins is to live in tolerable, potentially damaging but nonetheless good enough conditions for survival and reproduction. Living in ruins is the story for many creatures of the Holocene who find themselves immersed in a sea of anthropogenic landscape change. It is the job of anthropologists, shape-shifting to become better naturalists and environmental historians, to help tell their stories and to imagine a path to a more livable world. 

Zachary Caple is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz