Roseate spoonbills are showing gains and charming bird watchers at the same time on the Treasure Coast.
The pink wading birds, considered “a priority bird” and “climate threatened” by the National Audubon Society, are being seen in encouraging numbers in the skies and along the shores of the Indian River Lagoon and inland waters.
Steps are being taken at a rookery near the border of Indian River and Brevard counties to further protect and study the roseate spoonbill, which is listed by the state as a “species of special concern.”
The Stick Marsh rookery was designated a Critical Wildlife Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in November 2016. The designation means a protective buffer is enforced around two crucial islands.
A state application has been submitted to band, study and count again the roseate spoonbills whose nests have grown there in two years from 140 to “way more,” possibly as many as 250 total, said David Cox, a board member of both the Florida and Pelican Island Audubon societies.
“What’s really terrific is the birds are being protected and the public can see these pink birds and understand what they’re all about,” said Cox, who estimates there are 5,500 breeding pairs of roseate spoonbills in the U.S. in coastal Florida, Texas and southwest Louisiana.
If novice birders are in awe of this curious bird, so still are the established bird groups. The National Audubon Society describes the gregarious spoonbill as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says, “The flamboyant roseate spoonbill looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book with its bright pink feathers, red eye staring out from a partly bald head, and giant spoon-shaped bill.”
Other less populated roseate spoonbill colonies have been sighted in the Indian River Lagoon in the Vero Beach area and in St. Lucie and Martin counties. The birds also can be seen at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Indian River County. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County is experiencing growth in roseate spoonbill nests. Tampa Bay has become a major refuge for the bird on the Gulf Coast, Cox said.
Water releases and rising sea levels are forcing the wading bird out of its longtime home in Florida Bay and the Everglades. Researchers believe the Treasure Coast rookeries have increased in number because the birds can find the necessary diet and shallow waters to wade for their survival.
It’s quite a comeback for a bird that nearly went extinct in the United States eight decades ago. The decline began with plume hunters in the mid-to-late 1800s when the roseate spoonbill’s pink feathers were fashionable in ladies' hats and fans. The population also has been threatened by loss of habitat due to drainage, pollution and harmful pesticides.
By the early 20th century, the population had shrunk to only a few dozen nesting pairs in the United States. Special protected areas were set aside for them and in the 1940s they were made a protected species.
Roseate spoonbills become pale pink to more brilliant pink as they grow older and reach maturity at three years with a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. The birds get their coloration from the foods they eat in salt and fresh waters. Crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates contain pigments called carotenoids that help turn their feathers pink.
Their signature, spoon-shaped bills are used to forage for food as they shift their bills back and forth in shallow waters. The specialized bill has sensitive nerve endings which help the birds search for their diet of crayfish, shrimp, crabs, small fish and insects. They stand 30 to 40 inches tall and have a wingspan of 50 to 53 inches, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Outside the United States, roseate spoonbills are found in the tropics and in Central and South America.
Stick Marsh Critical Wildlife Area
Total Area: .92 acres uplands, 1.55 acres water
Closure Dates: Islands closed year-round, in-water buffer and area between islands closed from Jan. 1 – July 31
Focal Species: Roseate spoonbills, great egret, snowy egret, tricolored herons and anhinga
Description: The Stick Marsh is a popular site for bird watchers because of easy viewing from shore. These two small islands are important sites for nesting of roseate spoonbills and tricolored herons. Birds use the site throughout the winter for roosting. The islands are closed year-round, and the in-water buffer is posted closed seasonally to protect nesting birds.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission
Interesting Spoonbill Facts
• The Roseate spoonbill is one of six species of spoonbills in the world and the only one that is pink and found in the Americas. The other five spoonbills (Eurasian, royal, African, black-faced and yellow-billed) occur in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.
• Roseate spoonbills are familiar with balding, but instead of losing hair they lose feathers from the top of their head as they get older.
• The clutch size can be from one to five eggs and their nests are in the shadiest part of the tree or shrub, up to 16 feet high.
• Males collect sticks for females to build a bulky platform lined with finer plant material such as moss and strips of bark. The completed nest is about 22 inches wide and 4.5 inches deep.
• Roseate spoonbill chicks don't have a spoon-shaped bill immediately after hatching. When they are 9 days old the bill starts to flatten, by 16 days it starts to look a bit more spoon-like, and by 39 days it is nearly full size.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Photos by Inside Track Almanac