Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Rose is a Rose, is a Roseate Spoonbill

A Rose is a Rose, is a Roseate Spoonbill

If you've ever seen a flamingo in North Florida, you are mistaken. What you saw was a roseate spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja). Flamingos don't venture north of the Florida Keys. You might say the roseate spoonbill is North Florida's version of the flamingo. The flamingo and the roseate spoonbill look very much alike at first blush. Their rouge plumage is colored by the tiny pink crustaceans they both eat. It seems scarcely possible, however, that any other bird could look as comical as the long-legged, hook-billed flamingo. But the roseate spoonbill does. In fact it looks downright wacky. Imagine a pint-sized bald flamingo with an olive and tan pate and a black streak at the base of its skull, just above the feather line. And picture this three-foot avian looking like it ended up the worse for wear in a boxing match - that a first round knockout punch to its hooked bill had flattened it into a spatula. Now you're visualizing the roseate spoonbill.

But don't expect to laugh when you see one. Its amazingly beautiful plumage makes its silly face seem unimportant. A bill that would make a duck blush is more than compensated by its ruby-tipped wings, shoulders sporting a circle of orange feathers, and its pink and white plumed chassis. Seeing a spoonbill in flight, its 4-foot wingspan floating like a pink cloud against an azure sky, you could overlook the strange red eyes and a forehead not unlike Mr. Magoo's. Mrs. Magoo looks no different. Perhaps a tad more diminutive and a shade less rosy.

Its beauty and its whimsy aside, seeing one is so special because this bird has made an astounding comeback from the 30-40 breeding pairs that constituted its population in the 1930's. Fashionistas at the turn of the 20th century had been captivated by the bird's feathers and coveted them for ladies' fans. The fact that this appropriation shortened the bird's lifespan was of little regard. The demand for spoonbill feathers was assured because once the feather was removed from the bird, it was removed from the source of its coloration. Older spoonbill feathers faded, and new ones were sought to replace them. Luckily the bird was placed off limits to hunters when it was listed as an endangered species. And fashion being a fickle maiden, moved on to another craze.

Today there are thousands of nesting pairs of spoonbill in Florida and an abundance in Texas and Louisiana. Northern Florida is the extreme edge of its range. If you head over to the St. Augustine Alligator farm towards the end of March, you can see them swoop in droves to court, nest and raise their young. The photographers are already there, anticipating the spoonbills' arrival while snapping happily at wood storks, egrets, and herons. Amid this ruckus, the gregarious spoonbills pair up and share parental responsibilities for two months, until the fledglings are ready to leave the nest and the sanctuary of the Alligator Farm. (The alligators at the
Farm deter the typical spoonbill egg predators such as snakes and raccoons). After a steady diet of crustaceans and other delicacies, the young birds take on the trademark pink, orange, and red hues of adult spoonbills. And their bills flatten out to resemble those of their elders.

Keep an eye out for roseate spoonbills when visiting the GTM Research Reserve in warmer months. Its estuaries harbor the wide variety of small animals these birds consume. In addition to small crustaceans, spoonbills eat slugs, snails, small fish, and insects. They dine communally, and catch their meals by immersing their bills vertically while swishing them through the water. It's quite a sight to glimpse a group walking in unison back and forth in the water, heads swaying to and fro, snacking on what crosses their path. Their nostrils sit high up on their bills so they can breathe while foraging. If a small animal is within striking distance their pressure-sensitive bills alert them to the potential meal and snap it up. The water they wade through is often murky because the spoonbills intentionally agitate it to rouse their prey. They rely more on bill sensitivity than eyesight to score the next mouthful.

Colorful, sociable, and resilient, these wading birds are as striking as flamingos, and even droller. But they have retained one scrap of dignity that the flamingo lost. They haven't been made into lawn ornaments - yet.

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail - Roseate Spoonbill

FWC - Roseate Spoonbill

St. Louis Zoo - Roseate Spoonbill

10 Fun Roseate Spoonbill Facts

Smithsonian National Zoological Park - Roseate Spoonbill

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