Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About the Florida Everglades

Photograph by John Huba

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

Imagine the job description: Twelve-hour days in the hot sun, drenching rain, biting mosquitoes, thigh-deep mud, and wading in waters patrolled by sharks and crocodiles. Not exactly a picture postcard for the Florida Keys. Yet plenty of young biologists have willingly signed up for such punishment.

"Check it out--there's another spooner coming in," says Mac Stone, 28, pointing to the two-foot-long pink arrow arching across a cerulean sky. Pastel and crimson, this long-legged wader was John James Audubon's "rose-coloured curlew." To some, it was the elusive "flame bird." Early settlers confused it with the flamingo (tourists still do). Roger Tory Peterson pronounced it "one of the most breathtaking of the world's weirdest birds."

By any name, the roseate spoonbill winging overhead is at once beautiful and bizarre. It has red beady eyes, a bald green head, a sturdy white neck, and feathers that range from soft saffron to deep carmine. But its masterpiece is that beak--a "spoon" that does not scoop. It's more like a paddle that swings to and fro with such broad strokes the bird looks drunk. Investigations into how the bill functions have filled books. One aerospace engineer and biologist went so far as to attach a spoonbill skull to a bicycle wheel to figure out how it works.

Spoonbills remain mysterious. Which is why I am accompanying Stone and a small team of Audubon Florida scientists for several days in the life of a biologist studying a puzzling spoonbill decline. Based in Tavernier, south of Key Largo, these researchers are taking part in what has been nearly a hundred years of Audubon's scientific bird surveys and conservation efforts in southern Florida, where birdlife was nearly wiped out during the plume era. Now spoonbills are in trouble again.

While populations farther north in Florida along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere are stable, even growing in some places, spoonbill numbers are sinking here in the broad estuary sandwiched between the Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Keys. A likely culprit: poor water management in the Everglades, which has dramatically altered water depths and salinity levels in Florida Bay, creating a hard-knock life for a wading bird on a special diet. "I think the public says, 'The Everglades are a national park, everything's okay,' " says Stone. "But if you don't protect the water--the life force--coming to it, you've got nothing. You can put up as many fences, signs, whatever. None of it matters if you don't have the water."

With Florida Bay and the greater Everglades contributing millions of dollars to the state's economy through recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing, many say there's a lot more at stake than a pocket of pretty pink birds. "Spoonbills have become the indicator for the overall health of the Everglades," explains Stone. "They're representative of the whole ecosystem. They require the fish, and the fish require the submerged aquatic vegetation, and the submerged aquatic vegetation requires the input of freshwater."

Even as recent government reforms offer some promise for the birds and their ecosystem, the system is so far out of whack that some warn: "As goes the spoonbill, so goes the bay."

"Biodiversity matters," says Stone, anchoring off a tiny mangrove island called Sandy Key after a gripping hour-long boat ride navigating choppy waters and hidden channel markers in the early morning light. "You lose one link, and the dominoes start falling."

 

Tugging on scuba booties, we dip our kayaks into the water, hand over camera gear and notepads, and paddle toward shore. Stone wears a torn field shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and khaki pants stained with bird poop. Squadrons of white ibis swoop past in fleeting currents of ivory feathers, crimson beaks, and flashing black wingtips. At the island's edge we wedge our kayaks between mangrove buttresses and plunge into "the most evil smelling muck you can imagine," as one early adventurer related--"like a mixture of sawdust and mud, heavily scented with sulfur."

"The key is to go fast," Stone tells me, half running, half falling--and all the while skillfully navigating the submerged prop roots that smack my shins and slow me down. Somewhere in the distance comes a low, rapid huh-huh-huh, huh, audible but out of view.

We high-step beneath the mangrove canopy, draped with clinging spider webs, finally arriving at a section where blue flags dangle, marking the location of several spoonbill nests perched above.

Each nest began as a single twig, presented by a courting male to a female and propped in a mangrove. Dressed in their very best matrimonial attire--rich pink with their upper tail feathers streaked in carmine--the pair mated. Roughly two weeks later she laid an egg--no bigger than a chicken's--followed by up to two more in as many days. A clutch bigger than three would be rare, although Stone's seen four on a few occasions, and one time a record five.

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