With the varying water conditions in the Everglade constantly putting the survival of wading birds’ chicks at risk, the race to understand events leading to a successful nesting season has become the mission of Michelle Petersen, Ph.D., a new research assistant professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.
Once listed as endangered species, wading birds like wood storks, are now considered threatened, possibly due to the lack of food available to them during the nesting season, Petersen said. During the Florida winter, or the dry season, these breeding long-legged, wading birds usually find their prey in the shallow waters.
When the tropical wetlands of South Florida, known as the Everglades, experience heavy rainfall during the nesting season, wading birds risk leaving their home and abandoning their nest to find food. Unpredictable events, like dry season rain events, lowers food supplies even more for wading birds, forcing them to travel long distances outside of their habitat to find fish.
“Believe it or not, even with their long legs, wading birds are unable to forage for food when the water is too high. They can only be submerged so deep until they stop searching,” Petersen said. “We know there is a natural variation in rainfall during the dry season. What we are trying to learn is how this natural variation affects these birds’ prey and ultimately their ability to produce offspring during the breeding season.”
For nearly two decades, researchers from the Avian Ecology lab in the department of biological sciences at FAU have sampled fish density in the Everglades during the dry season. Using a helicopter and airboats to enter the Everglades, Petersen and her team use throw-traps to randomly sample fish and macroinvertebrates throughout the nesting season to gain an understanding of the amount of prey potentially available to birds and their chicks.
“Collecting this long-term data helps answer questions on how prey availability affects wading bird nesting success,” Petersen said. “Not every year will bring the same success for wading birds. If we have a year with a lot of successful breeding by wading birds, we know that something was done right in managing the water of the Everglades because food was available for breeding birds throughout the nesting season.”
While the project has been ongoing, and Petersen is new in her role as a professor, her research knowledge on wetlands and analyzing environmental conditions began during her days as an undergraduate.
Petersen earned a bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and geography from Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2006, where she was also an intern with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources using geographic information systems to survey plants from Antarctica and assist biologist with collecting data on deer population.
This work piqued her curiosity in wetland areas due to the water quality it provides, along with the food and shelter it can offer for endangered animals.
In May 2009, she earned a master’s degree in environmental and conservation science from North Dakota State University, where she modeled land use and climate effects on three different species of wetland birds, including red winged blackbirds, yellow headed blackbirds and common grackles.
Continuing her work with birds, Petersen began work as a doctoral student at FAU in 2010. She analyzed the conditions ideal for wading bird foraging and increased nesting events in the Everglades. She stayed with the university as a research coordinator for FAU’s Avian Ecology Lab, after graduating with her doctorate in 2017.
“I went from one wetland to another, to one of the largest conservation projects in the world, and it’s been the best experience I’ve had so far,” Petersen said.
As for the future Petersen said she has plans to introduce drones and other new technology that will aid in their improvement of sampling wading bird.
“I am very excited to be in this position and to be able to expand on the projects we have now but also come up with our next research questions on how to protect the wading birds in the everglades,” she said.