My Favorite Florida Birds, The Roseate Spoonbill
Article and Images by Don Chamberlain
As a resident of Illinois, when I travel to Florida I often seek to photograph birds that are not common in my state. One of my Florida favorites is also one of its most beautiful: the Roseate Spoonbill.
Taxonomically Roseate Spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja) are part of the avian Order Ciconiiformes along with herons, bitterns, storks, ibises, and flamingoes. As members of the family Threskiornithidae, they share family traits with the ibises. Roseates are one of six genera of spoonbills found worldwide and the only one native to the Western Hemisphere.
In the United States they are typically found along the coastal areas of the Southeast (primarily along the coasts of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas). They can be found in mangrove swamps, tidal ponds, and saltwater lagoons or other sources of brackish water.
This bird is a large wading bird, which is 30–36 inches tall with a wingspread approaching 3-4 feet. It is normally easily recognizable by its characteristic pink / red color and its unusual spoon-shaped beak. Despite these traits so obvious to me, I am always amazed when I commonly hear other less-informed Florida visitors shout, “Look at the flamingoes.”
More specifically the spoonbill typically has a white neck with pink or rose feathers covering much of its body. The feathers on its wings are typically bright red to magenta depending on the age of the bird and whether breeding season is near. Its legs are pink-red and irises of the eyes of adult birds are bright red. Its most distinctive feature is its green-gray spoon-shaped beak. On this beak the nostrils located near the head allow the bird to breathe even with much of its beak underwater. In the adult, the head is naked. Close examination of the head of the bird exposes a less glamorous side of this beautiful bird. Its naked, green bald head is sometimes more reminiscent of a tortoise than a bird.
The flat, spatulate beak requires that water be present for feeding. Unlike their cousins, the ibises, spoonbills cannot feed on land or in mud flats where their long beaks can probe the mud or soil. Spoonbills are primarily tactile feeders. They open their beaks slightly and begin to swing their heads back-and-forth in the water. This action creates small whirlpools of water that stirs the mud beneath the surface. Vibrations produced by escaping prey are detected by sensitive touch receptors located inside the horny bill and the beak snaps shut. Because the bird depends more on touch than sight, the spoonbill can feed in very cloudy water. Common prey includes small fish, crustaceans (shrimp and crayfish), insects, and other aquatic animals. The intense red color of the spoonbill is derived from red algae ingested along with the crustaceans. As a result the red color is fleeting in the absence of those crustaceans.
Males are often slightly larger than females, but color patterns are identical for both genders. Spoonbills are very social birds and are often seen nesting in the company of other spoonbills and other water birds.
Spoonbills form nesting pairs for that season though not for life. During the mating season (from March through June), females attempt to attract a mate separating from the group and shaking twigs or branches with her beak as other spoonbills approach. Males nod their heads up and down and attempt to perch next to her. Once the female accepts the male, nest building can begin. As is the case with many Ciconiiformes, the male collects twigs, brings them to the nesting site, presents the twig to the female and she places the twig into the next. Once the nest is complete, copulation occurs, and about six days after mating, two to four eggs are deposited in the nest. Both males and females help to incubate the eggs over the 23-24 incubation period. During the eight-week development period both parents provide food for the young. They gather food, return to the nest, and regurgitate it into the mouth. There the young spoonbill attempts to reach into the base of the parent’s bill for feeding. After about eight weeks the young spoonbill may begin to leave the nest and feed in nearby tidal pools. Immature spoonbills reach adulthood in about three years.
Because of their beautiful plumage, spoonbills likely many wading birds were hunter nearly to extinction in the late 1800’s. Their feathers were in great demand for feather boas and fans and hats. They have also suffered with the draining and pollution of their wetland habitat. In the early 1900’s there were only a few dozen nesting pairs left on the continent.
Fortunately, laws were passed outlawing the collection of the feathers, the demand for the feathers diminished and preserves were set aside to assure the survival of the birds. The numbers increased so much that today no special conservation status exists for the roseate spoonbill.
My Favorite Places to Find Spoonbills:
Spoonbills are found in a number of places throughout Florida, but when you next visit Florida for birding or bird watching, there are two places where I almost always find spoonbills: Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island near Fort Meyers and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville, Florida.
In Ding Darling they are often seen in early morning or late afternoon as I begin driving the Wildlife drive. At Merritt Island I often see them while driving along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, while driving along BioLab Road or while driving along Peacock Pocket Road near the Visitor Center.
Of course, as always when birding, their numbers seen depends on time of day, time of year, and tidal flow.
I have also often photographed spoonbills in the Everglades, at Blue Heron Water Reclamation Facility near Titusville, at Myakka State Park in western central Florida and at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida.
Seek them out. They are well worth the search. One of the best quotations I’ve encountered concerning spoonbills, was cited on a website on Roseate Spoonbills by an author named Terry Tempest Williams who wrote,: “How can hope by denied when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?”