Spoonbills flee South Florida’s troubles. But what about the others?

One of the biggest questions hanging over the birding world is what will the rapid changes in the environment mean for various species. In a piece in The Miami Herald running this weekend, we return to a topic from a few months ago and try to go much deeper into what’s known — and what so far is unknowable — about the affects of climate and habitat change.

Here’s a link to the Miami Herald package: It’s built around the story of the Roseate Spoonbill, which is showing surprising flexibility in adapting to Florida’s shifting environment. For reasons that date to its origins in the dinosaur era, the Spoonbill has found a solution to rising levels and dropping quality of water in its breeding grounds in southernmost Florida.

A Roseate Spoonbill stands atop one of the islands in Central Florida’s Stick Marsh rookery.

It has moved inland, even though it prefers coastal areas for breeding, and has ranged as far north as the Carolinas, even though it tends to be a homebody. As Mark Cook, a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District, put it, “It’s amazing to me that they’re able to move inland and become more of a freshwater species.”

But this isn’t altogether a good news story. The Spoonbill’s success stands out at a time when so many species are showing signs of decline around the world. That’s driven by a host of human factors, including the loss of habitat, the deterioration in quality of the environment they rely on, the loss of food sources, the rise in the outdoor cat populations and hazards such as the spread of windmills and tall glass buildings that millions of birds crash into every year.

My piece in The Herald brings home the fact that these troubles are collecting before the impacts of climate change fully register. It’s clear they are on their way, which is why scientists at all the major avian organizations are working together to assess what’s likely to happen and what can be done.

The story looks at what enables some birds to adapt to changes, while others cannot. Birds that have wider diets, that can move more easily to new locations and that have greater range for finding food are better positioned to stay healthy.

Those that have to migrate long distances — and thus rely on a series of habitats for their journeys — are likely to be thrown off by changing climates. Also threatened are those that rely on insects or live on the ocean, where pollution and altering water conditions are creating hazards.

A Spoonbill forages for food in the T.M. Goodwin Wildlife Management Area near Melbourne, Florida. The Spoonbill's awkward frame dates back to its dinosaur origins.
A Spoonbill forages for food in the T.M. Goodwin Wildlife Management Area near Melbourne, Florida. The Spoonbill’s awkward frame dates back to its dinosaur origins.

Much of this is mere supposition, according to scientists and researchers I interviewed for The Herald article. One of the most troubling ideas they shared is how little is known about what climate change will mean for birds. They stressed there are lots of things that can done to blunt its impact, but too much of our energy is spent arguing over the threats, what to do about it and who will do what.

“Climate change is a big scary thing,” ’ said Mike Parr, head of the American Bird Conservancy that has created bird preserves all over the hemisphere. “People feel disempowered by it. They feel like you can’t fix it. There’a a fatalistic feeling about it. I don’t agree with that. We already know many of the things we can do. We should be acting on them, slowing it and mitigating it.”

We hope you’ll send time with The Herald article, which is posted online here  and is scheduled to run in the print edition on Sunday. Meanwhile, here’s a gallery of photos drawn from our time researching the Spoonbills package:

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