Here’s a nice surprise: While many species struggle with climate, the Roseate Spoonbill is thriving

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Jerry Lorenz, Florida’s leading expert on the Roseate Spoonbill, kept hearing about a new nesting ground in Central Florida named for the nearby town of Stick Marsh. So he decided to see for himself what was happening on the string of small inland islands where dozens of the state’s most elegant bird had set up living quarters.

Audubon research director Jerry Lorenz / photo by Mac Stone

“They told me, ‘We think there’s probably 25 or 30 nests.’ But I sat there on the shoreline and counted,” said Lorenz, state research director for the Audubon Society in Florida and professor at Florida International University. “There were at least 150 nests there.”

A Spoonbill in full breeding allure balances on a Stick Marsh branch

A surprising and encouraging trend is under way with the Spoonbills, a striking specimen with deep pink and red coloring and a frame that harkens back to its dinosaur origins. As changes in water levels and habitat play out in Florida, this is one bird whose numbers and range have steadily expanded.

The Spoonbill is thriving at least partly as a result of the climate trends that are working against many species. The rising water and temperatures have forced the Spoonbill to move north, expand its reach and find new sources of food.  Lorenz believes that the population of  one of Florida’s emblematic birds has never been higher in modern times. Across, Florida, he estimates their numbers at 3,500 to 4,000; though not a huge number, it’s many times what it was at the turn of the century when the Spoonbills feathers were so popular hunters almost wiped them out entirely.

As water levels have risen in coastal nesting places, the Spoonbills have looked elsewhere to find the unique environment they need. That in turn has helped them to spread their reach beyond heavily developed South Florida and the Everglades that had been their primary Florida breeding grounds for decades.

They’ve found inland nesting locations such as Stick Marsh and Merritt Island in Central Florida. They’ve moved into other southeastern states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and the Carolinas. As they’ve scouted new locations, Spoonbill have showed up as far away as Minnesota and New England, though they aren’t expected to put down roots that far afield.

A Roseate Spoonbill at Florida’s Stick Marsh rookery

“They are an ancient race of birds,” said Lorenz. “So they’ve been through this before. They’ve always had to adapt to sea levels. The things is, they’re smarter than human beings. They know know how to get out of the way of rising water.”

Two Spoonbills sporting breeding colors rest in the Merritt Island Preserve in Central Florida.

Craig Watson, a migratory bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston, S.C., has watched over three decades as Spoonbills spread all across the food-rich marshes along the coast. 

“I remember when I moved here 30 years ago, if a Spoonbill showed up the birders went crazy. They’d travel hundreds of miles just to see this bird,” he said. “They’ve just continued to show up in greater and greater numbers. Now they’re here year round.” 

With Spoonbills moving to new locations, more people are encountering this captivating bird. That in turn has made them a popular birding focus, which has helped to raise their stature. In Florida, where development collides with wildlife so frequently, the state has set up critical management areas to protect the nesting Spoonbills.

A Spoonbill flying near the Stick Marsh rookery.

There’s no better example of the battle to protect the Spoonbill than in the odd Stick Marsh location they somehow chose as one of the state’s most important rookeries for Spoonbills as well as Herons, Anhingas, Ibis and a smattering of other coastal birds.

A view of the Stick Marsh rookery and a passing boat from across the waterway

The rookery has taken root on the group of islands just across a waterway from a major boating put in. All day long, sportsmen of every variety motor by the signs that designate the region as protected territory. Meanwhile, the birds fly in and out, ignoring the commotion on their way to the feeding grounds on the massive T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area adjacent to their nesting place.

“There’s all kinds of disturbance issues that we need to keep a handle on,” said Alex Kropp, a conservation biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who watches over the 12 Central Florida counties that include the Spoonbill rookery. “Still, it’s an ideal place for Spoonbills.”

The water is shallow enough for Spoonbills to scoop for fish and other foods with their long spoon-like bills. They search out just the right depths to meander along, sweeping their bills back and forth in search of the tiny fish, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans — a diet that helps produce their bright pink coloring.

This Spoonbill was spotted scooping up lunch in Rio Lagartos, a preserve on the Northern coast of the Yucatan.

The three islands provide good nesting grounds, and the protection keeps people away from them as the birds go about their days. But it wasn’t always that way.

Warning signs surround the Stick Marsh rookery

The first few years after the spoonbills arrived, visitors discovered this birding attraction and started swarming the spot. Some of the onlookers ventured onto the islands, hoping for a close-up look and the beautiful photos that Spoonbills will make. Wildlife officials were concerned that the birds would pack up and leave, so they went to work on the critical area designations that went into effect in November 2016.

You can still visit the rookery, as well as the T.M. Goodwin Wildlife Management areas on Monday and Thursdays. The view from the banks near the rookery lets you see the outer edges of the rookery, which is often dotted with Spoonbills, Herons, Anhingas and other wading birds. Since they need to collect food in the fields nearby, they are constantly flying in and out, right by the banks as if serving the steady flow of photographers —- using telephoto lenses to keep their distance from the breeding ground — who come by.

A Spoonbill leaves the Stick Marsh rookery, headed for nearby Goodwin preserve to scout for food.

Here’s a gallery of the scenes of spoonbills around the Stick Marsh rookery as well as in the Goodwin Preserve and from farther north on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. All the photos from Stick Marsh were taken from the bank across the waterway from the island, using a 600mm lens to keep from disturbing the birds. 

 

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