Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About the Florida Everglades

Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About the Florida Everglades

Decades after they staged a major comeback from plume hunting, one of the world's most bizarre and beautiful birds is struggling in South Florida. Does this spell trouble for the entire Everglades ecosystem?

By Rene Ebersole/Photography by John Huba
Published: May-June 2013

Once he even witnessed an egg hatching. "It was moving, and I saw this little bird poking through the shell with its blunt beak," he says. "It's so unfortunate they're given a spoon to break through an egg. Even before they hatch, these birds have it tough. It's the worst possible tool--a 'sporkbill' would have been way better."

Almost tiptoeing, we step carefully to avoid disturbing the nestlings. "We just try to get in, get the data, and get out as fast as we can," says Stone. Three blush-colored juveniles teeter awkwardly on a limb. Their wispy light-pink down and wavering arched wings tell us they are "branchlings," about 21 days old and nearly ready to fledge. Stone rapidly sweeps the rest of the area, searching for others, and scribbling in his tiny yellow book. All told, we tally 23 nests on Sandy Key.

"This is one of the quintessential islands for Florida Bay," he tells me back at the boat. "It has such great habitat. You find nesting herons, reddish egrets, and cormorants; sharks and sawfish; tons of pelicans. It's just a beautiful spot. The fact that we can give a thumbs-up to Sandy and say it was successful is a great thing."

But it's not that great, he continues. "If you put those numbers in context, 23 isn't all that good. This is a big island with lots of nesting habitat."

 

No one is more aware of how things have changed on Sandy and the surrounding keys than Jerry Lorenz. It is the second day of my visit, and Lorenz and I have been foot-slogging through a mangrove labyrinth for more than an hour, looking for the boats we parked earlier. We're now in a clearing on the far north end of Tern Key, where a flock of more than 50 white pelicans is herding fish. But no spoonbills. And no sign of our boats.

"This island just looks nothing like it did before," Lorenz says. Once a keen young field guy like Stone, the bandana-wearing 49-year-old has trashed legions of quick-dry pants and T-shirts traipsing through such swampy island interiors. He was first hired in 1989 for a two-year graduate assistantship at the Tavernier Center. "I had hair back then," he jokes. Today he runs the center and doubles as Audubon Florida's state director of research, thus spending more time than ever behind a computer. Still, I have faith.

We slog on. Picking up the pace, Lorenz heads for shore and peeks through the trees out onto the bay. "Okay," he says, "we just follow this shoreline and we'll find our boats."

Another half-hour goes by and we are still up to our thighs in mud and water. Then we see the blue strips marking a cluster of vacant spoonbill nests that we passed earlier on. Two more left turns and we find our kayaks. We're tired but quick to paddle out of the muck. 

The scene on Tern Key is bleak. We found not a single spoonbill nest. "This is just so sad," Lorenz tells me. "There used to be almost 600 spoonbill nests here. It was deafening; the woof woof of their wing beats sounded like a stadium full of fans. Now it's totally silent. It breaks my heart."

The situation on the next key is no better. Nothing. Not a single nest. "Well," says Lorenz, "no data is still data. We have to check because you don't want to miss anything."

The last time these keys fell so quiet was at the end of the millinery trade, in the late 1800s. Birds were dying by the millions to supply feathers for ladies' hats and dresses. The feather-studded pelt of a heron or snowy egret sold for about 25 cents--making it more valuable than gold. But spoonbill plumes were the diamonds in southern Florida's crown. By some accounts, a single spoonbill skin commanded up to five dollars.

As in the days of the California gold rush, hardened men--Civil War veterans, hunters, railroad builders--set out to pry a fortune from an unrelenting landscape. Tensions ran high. One Audubon warden trying to protect a bird rookery near Flamingo was shot dead and set adrift in his boat. "It was an era when everyone carried a gun, an ax, and a determination to wrest a living from the wilderness," wrote spoonbill biologist Robert Porter Allen. By 1890 nearly all of Florida's spoonbill colonies were destroyed.

Allen was dispatched in 1935, more than 20 years after millinery poaching was legally banned, by then Audubon president John Baker to study five newly discovered birds and figure out why spoonbills weren't recovering like other wading species.

Among Allen's findings was the answer to how spoonbills feed--by using what's called "tactile location," keeping their bills slightly open as they wave them back and forth through the water. When they hit a fish, the bill snaps shut. "They can collect a fish every three seconds," says Lorenz. "They are fish vacuum cleaners."

And their lives depend on that efficiency. "A spoonbill egg is about the size of a chicken egg, and so is the chick. In eight to ten weeks the chick reaches the size of an adult [weighing roughly three pounds and standing more than two feet tall]. To grow that rapidly, they need a huge amount of food."

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