The Roseate Spoonbill, once a bird that stuck pretty close to home, is becoming a roaming vagabond.
Forced from South Florida by rising sea levels, deteriorating water quality and poor nesting conditions, hundreds of Spoonbills moved first up both coasts of Florida. Now they’re testing out fresh territories in almost every mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast state.
They’re turning up in bays and wetlands along the coasts as well as near inland cities and suburbs where they can be a startling sight for unsuspecting birders. Researchers say these forays often lead to nesting colonies in new locations that solidifies their arrival.
“Once they’ve found a new place, it’s only a matter of time before they’re nesting there,’’ said Dr. Jerry Lorenz, director of research at Audubon Florida and the nation’s leading Spoonbill expert.
With pinkish red plumage and gawky form reminiscent of their dinosaur lineage, the spoonbills have great popular appeal, which is expanding as their reach spreads out. Our package last year on the spoonbill’s move north into Georgia and South Carolina was among the best-read Flying Lesson’s posts ever.
Here’s a video of a Roseate Spoonbill using his namesake bill to forage for food in Central Florid.
This year, birders are spotting more spoonbills in North Carolina as well as occasionally in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Susan Campbell, a long-time North Carolina bird researcher, said spoonbills have been reported from the state’s mountains to the far eastern wading mecca of Lake Mattamuskeet near the coast.
“This is the time of year when they’re turning up,’’ Campbell said.
Sightings recorded on eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracking system that has enlisted tens of thousands of birders to report the birds they see, documents the spread of spoonbills in detail. Over the past 10 years, a dozen states have seen spoonbills sightings turn into hundreds and, in some cases, thousands.
The states with the greatest spoonbill populations are Florida, with 96,363 spoonbill sightings since eBird began tracking them two decades ago, and Texas, with 92,025 sightings. Fifteen other states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts range from 12,826 in Louisiana down to 49 in Maine and 20 in New Mexico.
The spread of spoonbills is a reflection of the bird’s impressive adaptability and the changing conditions that are coaxing them to explore new places to live.
Traditionally, spoonbill bred in coastal wetlands with just depth of water that lets they could walk about swinging their long spoon-like bills back and forth to collect crustaceans, fish, snails and insects. Now, they’ve altered their routine to forage in fresh water ponds and swamplands farther inland.
Audubon’s Jerry Lorenz says Roseate Spoonbills have a very long history of adjusting to changes in climate, food sources and their environments.
“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 how to get out of the way of rising water.”
The spoonbills had a poor breeding season in South Florida this year. A combination of high seawater levels and a lack of freshwater created high salinity and dry conditions that provided spoonbills with only a handful of productive foraging days needed for nesting, said Erika Zambello, communications director for Audubon Florida.
But Lorenz said he’s confident in the ability of spoonbills to overcome low breeding, deteriorating conditions and changing weather. Their movement north shows just how capable they are of surviving.
“I’m not in the least bit concerned about the spoonbill,’’ said Lorenz, who has spent his career studying this unusual bird. “There was a time when I was, but I’m not concerned at this point.’’
The Roseate Spoonbill, blessed with one of the most striking color combinations, is a sight to see. Here are photos from several weeks of following them around Central Florida, from the Stick Marsh rookery where they’re setting up house to the marshes of South Florida.