You don't have to be an ornithologist or an avid bird watcher to notice the sudden explosion of pink-feathered flamingo-like birds flapping overhead or wading in Tampa Bay. These fabulously pink birds, called roseate spoonbills, are flocking to the bay area in greater numbers than ever before, snagging everyone's attention, including area scientists.
Spoonbills, which share the same pink plumage and long twiggy legs as flamingos, are actually members of the ibis family. Generally smaller than flamingos, roseate spoonbills grow to a height of 32 inches with a wingspan of 50 inches, have shorter necks, and longer, spoon-shaped bills. They are found along the south Florida coast from the Florida Keys north to Tampa, with some populations in northeastern Florida and along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
During the breeding season, the spoonbill's dazzling pink plumage shimmers like a Florida sunset, reflecting hues of crimson and orange. The courtship ceremony involves a display flight in which the birds extend their tongue and expose their orange "gular sac" or throat skin.
Research shows that the spoonbill's breeding season is somewhat influenced by local rainfall patterns. The birds nest during months when rainfall begins to decline and prey fish are more available. The abundance of concentrated prey stimulates spoonbills to begin breeding and low water levels allow spoonbills to quickly gather enough food to feed their babies.
Roseate spoonbills produce one brood per year and breeding pairs work together to build the nest, which is often perched in mangrove trees on small islands dotting the coast. The male retrieves sturdy sticks as the female busily assembles the nest for a clutch size of two or three offspring.
Spoonbill eggs are large and creamy white, flecked with spots of brown. Incubation lasts about 22-23 days with both parents sharing the incubation duties. The skin and legs of newly hatched chicks are a pale pink color, but within 12 hours of hatching, they are covered with fluffy down. Feather growth takes about 3 weeks, with full development complete 42 days after hatching.
Spoonbills require dense concentrations of prey to feed effectively. They feed in water no higher than their knees by sweeping their bill from side to side. When the highly sensitive bill bumps into minnows, crustaceans or aquatic insects, a series of nerves along the tip trigger the bill to snap shut and engulf the prey.
Roseate spoonbills are currently listed by the state of Florida as a species of special concern. Thousands of breeding pairs used to nest in Florida Bay and the Everglades each winter, but plume hinting in the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated their populations. Spoonbill wings were often made into fans and sold to tourists, and feathers were used to adorn ladies' hats. By 1935, researchers counted fewer than 20 pairs in the entire state. Around 1950, their numbers began to increase with protection provided by the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and with the establishment of Everglades National Park.
Although the plume hunting era has passed, spoonbills face yet another serious threat - habitat degradation and alteration. Water management practices in the Everglades, such as freshwater diversion, have caused fewer fish to occupy the mangrove ecosystem because of higher salinities. This means less available prey for spoonbills to feed their young during nesting season. If the adult birds can't find food, they abandon their nests and leave the baby birds to die.
As the environment in the Everglades has deteriorated, the birds may be fleeing north to nest in areas like Tampa Bay. In fact, about 15% of Florida's spoonbill population now nests in the bay area. A record 370 pairs nested here in 2004, mostly on two islands at the mouth of the Alafia River that are part of Audubon's Florida Coastal Island Sanctuaries.
Because roseate spoonbills are extremely sensitive to environmental change, scientists believe the birds can provide insight into the overall health of the Everglades environment. By studying roseate spoonbills, researchers hope to discover how long the bird lives, migration patterns, where they nest and feed, and if and when they travel between Tampa Bay and the Everglades.
Biologists with Audubon of Florida are banding as many spoonbill chicks as possible, and they're asking birders and others to report sightings of banded spoonbills.
Look for the colored bands on the bird's upper leg. Red bands indicate a bird born in Tampa Bay; black bands denote an Everglades/ Florida Bay chick. Photos of the bird or the habitat will help researchers as well. Report your sightings, along with your background (biologist, birder, etc.) and contact information, to the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries office at (813) 623-6826; or use the online report form at http://www.audubonofflorida.org ∞.