The sprawling wetlands of Florida form North America’s premier habitat for egret, heron and ibis. Large bodies of shallow and often tidal water provide ideal feeding grounds for these long-legged birds. There is one member of the American wading bird community that stands out from the crowd – the Roseate Spoonbill.
The Roseate is a special addition to any bird watchers check-list, and accordingly attracts many visitors to Florida each year. Birders come to see and photograph the spoonbills as they feed, in large flocks, on lagoon mudflats. Standing at around 38 inches (96.5 cm) tall, with a wingspan of up to 52 inches (133 cm), this striking bird, with a colour range that runs from pale pink to rich magenta, is often confused with the flamingo. The sensitive, spoon shaped bill that give the family its name is used as a tool for sensing and capturing prey as it sweeps from side to side in shallow cloudy water.
Members of the ibis family, there are 6 species of spoonbill, globally. I have been fortunate enough to have seen three of these, including the two Australian species; the Royal and the Yellow-billed. The Roseate is the only American species, and the only member of the family that is not predominantly white. In common with the flamingo, the pink colouration is a result of pigments present in the aquatic crustaceans that the bird feeds on. As a general rule, the darker the pink colouration, the older the bird.
The Roseate in these images were photographed at the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, where they are year-round residents. I was aware that the spoonbills are resident on Sanibel and made them a priority bird to see during my week-long trip to the island. Two days of drives through the refuge had passed and I still had not seen a spoonbill, so I stopped to ask a park ranger’s advice. She revealed that the birds leave the refuge during the day, meaning early mornings and just before sunset were the best times to visit. On day three, I drove to Ding Darling just before sunset, camera and binoculars ready for action. As I turned the car into Wildlife Drive, the clouds burst open and a deluge of rain fell, while the sky was torn by shards of lightening.
Standing with their backs to the torrential rain, was a beautiful pink huddle of spoonbills.
Any attempt at capturing a distinguishable photograph through the curtain of rain was out of the question, so I passed the time enjoying the warm, crackling air and the hammer of rain on the car roof.
I returned to the wetland the following evening, and each evening while I remained on the island, just before sunset, in the hope of capturing a glimpse, and maybe a photograph of these fascinating birds. Often they were just a little too far away for my 300 mm lens to give the result I wanted. Occasionally a small group ventured a bit closer. I would have given a great deal to have a 400 mm lens in my bag that I could turn to.
In the early 1900’s the trade in plumes for use as ladies hat decoration was booming, feeding a Florida hunting and poaching industry that saw 5 million birds killed every year. The breeding plumage of the egret species were a prime target, but the Roseate spoonbill, with its stunning pink plumes was the most highly sought after. At one stage, an ounce of spoonbill feathers was valued at twice the price of an ounce of gold. This merciless hunting devastated the population, with numbers dropping to just 30 breeding pairs. Extermination in the United States seemed inevitable.
Thanks to a remarkable campaign and conservation efforts in the United States supporting a successful movement against the plume trade that was pioneered in the United Kingdom by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the spoonbills have bounced back. It is estimated that there are now 4000 breeding pairs in the USA, 1000 of which, reside on the Florida coast.
As with all wading birds, the modern day threat to the spoonbill is loss of habitat, as estuaries and wetlands are drained to make way for waterside developments. It would be inexcusable to allow our own hunt for beauty, this time ocean views instead of plumed hats, to push these beautiful, peculiar birds back to the brink. It is a uniquely human characteristic to destroy nature’s finest jewels in order to create an artificial beauty, absent of life and soul.
Standing on the road, by the water’s edge watching the spoonbills feed in the setting sun, I turned to see if there were any birds moving on the mudflats behind me. Hurtling towards me, was a low-flying spoonbill, about to pass directly over my head. Within a second, I leaned back, limbo stick style, and hit the camera’s rapid fire button. I think this moment of good fortune gave me the best photograph of the trip, and a unique view of the Roseate spoonbill.
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