Friday, March 13, 2015

Roseate Spoonbills in Florida

Roseate Spoonbills

One thing I love about kayaking in Florida is occasionally spotting roseate spoonbills, feeding at the water’s edge, resting in the mangroves, or flying overhead. One of the most outrageously colored birds of Florida, the roseate spoonbill's rich pink coral color intensifies in winter as mating season approaches. But what appears as a flash of brilliant pink at first glance is in fact a gradation of color which includes white plumage, pink, bars of dark cerise, almost red-pink, and a patch of yellow.
A roseate spoonbill in the mangroves on Weedon Island FL

Roseate spoonbills, along with many other exotic Florida birds, were hunted for their spectacular plumage. The feathers were used to decorate ladies hats, boas and ornamental fans. The species became so rare in North America that by the early 1900s there were less than 50 pairs surviving. Thankfully laws to protect the birds, outlawing collection of the feathers, led to re-population, mostly by birds moving in from South America. Now there is an estimated population of more than a thousand pairs. 

Spoonbills feed by dipping their bill vertically into the water and swinging their head from side to side so the long bill can scan a wide arc for food. Crustaceans such as shrimp, small fish, insects and small mollusks are the main diet.

The spoon-shaped bill that gives the bird its name

Their bill is strangely shaped like a spoon, leading to its name. Shrimp, rich in carotenoids, gives the feathers their distinctive pink color. Without this component of its diet the feathers stay white, as they are in young birds

The strange head of a spoonbill

Florida Bay is the sea kayaking area where you will most likely see colonies of roseate spoonbills, but individuals and small groups may be spotted almost anywhere in Florida. The images here are from Weedon IslandPreserve in Tampa Bay, where you can rent kayaks from Sweetwater Kayaks.

Flamingos at Seattle Zoo

Flamingos are often associated with Florida, but mostly they are only seen as the smaller garden ornament species. Flamingos are related to spoonbills, and have a similar color plumage resulting from a similar diet. Flamingos have a very different shaped bill, and they feed with the bill upside down in the water. Real flamingos are rarely spotted in Florida, and when they are they are most likely to be individuals escaped from parks. If you see a bright flash of pink in the mangroves it will almost certainly be a roseate spoonbill.

For kayaking trips in Southern Florida, check out my book "Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southern Florida", (Globe Pequot Press).