Gray studies and advocates for Florida's precision water resources

Sitting barefoot in his office in Lorida, Dr. Paul Gray listens in on a conference call. In the corner squats a trio of filing cabinets bearing cheeky bumper stickers about birds, water policy and academia. A rustic cabinet on the far wall is packed with delicate old birding books. Bird artwork covers the walls, including a 200-year-old lithograph drawing from famous ornithologist Alexander Wilson's original bird identification book.

Gray is the Audubon Society's science coordinator for the Lake Okeechobee watershed program, which means he essentially manages the wildlife sanctuaries on the lake and works to protect them. Originally from Missouri, he has worked with the bird conservation nonprofit for 19 years and has a degree in wildlife biology, a master's in wetland ecology and a Ph.D in conservation biology. And while Audubon is and always has been concerned with birds and their habitat, Gray's responsibilities spill over into water policy in Florida's heartland as well.

It's mostly about water quality and water availability, and that affects people as well as birds. After two busy hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005, the state began dumping water from flooded inland areas. "In the spring of 2006 we were dumping [Hurricane] Wilma's water. By the spring of 2007, we are in a drought, cutting farmers back 50 percent" on water usage, Gray said. Basically six years' supply of water was dumped out of our area. Why?

"In 1947, a big hurricane flooded everything," explained Gray. That's when the powers that be decided to drain Florida. The present water management infrastructure is full of canals and gates meant to create drainage from the Everglades and inland areas out to the coasts.

"That design is 60 years outdated to what our modern needs and modern values are. We value wetlands," Gray went on.

It's going to take a long time, maybe another generation to reach the goal of rehydrating the Everglades and other drained areas of Florida. The 57-year-old widower lamented that he may not see it in his lifetime. But projects involving buying development rights from landowners to store water and filling in old canals (like the Kissimmee River Restoration project, just being completed now) are working towards that goal.

In the meantime, Gray is all smiles while out bird watching. On a short drive from his office to some ranchland wet by recent rains, Gray pulled out his scope and spotted 16 different types of birds. On the ground was a gathering of migratory sandhill cranes, greater and lesser yellowlegs wading in a pond, a mottled duck, long-billed dowager, least sandpiper, killdeer and American pipet.

In the sky, two bald eagles had a playful tussle. Also visible were a red-shouldered hawk, tree swallow, turkey vultures and black vultures. Just hanging out near the road were a snowy egret, cattle egret, white ibis and eastern meadowlark.

Not sighted were two birds that Gray is currently working with - the Everglade snail kite and the Florida grasshopper sparrow. The Everglade snail kite is a species that has been historically affected by water issues in our area. "When the water got deep (in Lake Okeechobee), for 10 years (the birds) didn't nest in the lake," Gray explained. The crow-sized hawks dine solely on Florida apple snails, which were dying out.

"They went from about 3,400 birds in the late 1990s to 700. That's an 80 percent drop in 12 years," said Gray. After several bad droughts, when the Everglades grew dry, the birds moved up to Lake Okeechobee. "When Okeechobee went dry, they didn't have anywhere to go," he stated.

Paradoxically, it is an invasive species that has helped the kites recover. The larger channel apple snail is a pest, but is hardier than the Florida apple snail, and was able to survive in the mud longer. While the birds couldn't eat the largest specimens, Gray said scientists noticed they were learning to cherry pick the smaller ones, thereby ensuring their own survival as well as helping to control what is still a problematic non-native species.

A sadder story is that of the Florida grasshopper sparrows, which live in short prairie grasslands in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State park, the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area near Lake Kissimmee and the Avon Park Air Force Range. They can only be seen in the spring, and researchers track their numbers by counting the singing males. Three years ago, 150 males were counted in Avon Park. Now, that number is down to 10. The Preserve went from 130 to 20 singing males in the last few years, and Three Lakes has 65 right now, half of what they had six years ago.

While agriculture and urbanization has taken away 90 percent of their habitat, Gray said even with conservation managers watching these birds, experts still have no idea why they are dying out. The birds may even join the list of extinction. "They don't have a snail yet," Gray quipped wryly.

Despite an uphill battle, this bird lover enjoys being a catalyst for change and said he reminds himself that he's "in a marathon, not a sprint." He said it can also be hard to get folks to care about birds, but most do care about other people. He reminds them, "This is our drinking water that is lying on the ground. What we are doing now is wasting it." When the water problems are solved, "the birds will get help, and people will, too."