I felt that it was appropriate to write my FIRST Wildlife Education Blog about the roseate spoonbill. Why? Well... they are my favorite bird. Makes sense now right?
The roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a medium-sized wading bird that can be frequently found foraging in the shallow waters of wetlands, swamps, and coastal areas. It can be commonly found in these areas in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas in North America, and the coastal areas of Mexico and Central America.
The spoonbill is a bizarre-looking but beautiful bird. From a distance they are unmistakeable. Their vibrant pink and red plumage light up any wetland. But upon a closer look, you notice their spoon-like bill, hence their name. But that spoonbill serves a purpose... they use their bills to sift through mud and shallow waters by swinging their heads back and forth to gather small crustaceans, aquatic insects, fish, small mollusks, etc. When they feel something hit their bill, they clamp it shut and then... down the hatch! What a great tool to have!
The Roseate Spoonbill... nature's oddity, beauty, or both?
Photo taken at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Orlando, FL
Now that we've covered that bill, what about their awesome plumage? Much like the flamingo, the spoonbill's vibrant colors are the result of carotenoids (fat-soluble pigments of red, yellow, and orange) in the foods that they consume. During breeding season, the male spoonbill's colors become even more vibrant. Like many other colorful wading birds, the roseate spoonbill was once hunted for its plumage to the point of extinction. Conservation efforts brought the population back, but it's still a threatened species due to degradation of the wetlands where they live and breed.
Breeding season for the spoonbill in Florida takes place in the winter months, January through March. In South Florida, the spoonbills take to the Everglades to nest in the mangroves... and more specifically, the species of red mangrove which is prominent in The Glades. The mangrove trees grow thick in the Everglades, which provides protection for the birds' nests. For the past decade, breeding for the spoonbills in The Everglades has been sparse due to drought conditions. However, the past two seasons have seen significantly more rain and breeding has been abundant.
Mating spoonbill females typically lay 2 to 3 eggs. Both male and female share the duties of tending the nest and incubation. The spoonbill's incubation period is 22-24 days. Once hatched, the young will spend 5-6 weeks in the nest before venturing out... and within 7 to 8 weeks they will be strong enough to fly. Young, pre-adult spoonbills are easy to spot because their heads will still have some fluffy feathers. Once they are mature adults, they will lose those feathers, exposing the skin on the their heads and neck.
My first real experience in photographing spoonbills in the wild was at Myakka River State Park. We were driving through the park looking for wildlife and some good areas to shoot some landscapes when I caught some movement through the cypress trees along the road. I stopped to take a look and immediately recognized that vibrant pink plumage. There are spoonbills beyond those trees! I grabbed my camera and trekked joyfully through the muck to get a bit closer.
I spotted a nice group of young spoonbills, as noted by their fluffy-feathered heads, bouncing around a dead tree partially submerged in the shallow water and mud. I crept closer to the water's edge, sinking into the mud above my ankles. I hunkered down to capture some of my best spoonbill photos to date. But they weren't the only inhabitants hanging out in the muddy waters. An alligator was lurking around the dead tree, waiting for one of the young spoonbills to make a mistake. Thankfully, none of them did and they all took off in flight to a safer area where they would continue to frolic.
"Lovin' Spoonbills" - Photo taken at Myakka River State Park
A young spoonbill spreads its wings. Photo taken at Myakka River State Park
One of the best places that I have found to view and photograph these beauties is Merritt Island's Black Point Wildlife Drive in Titusville, Florida. This area is teaming with wildlife, specifically birds and our beloved roseate spoonbills. Upon entering the 7-mile loop drive, you'll be greeted by spoonbills and their friends... usually snowy egrets, ibis, and some great egrets. Spoonbills are social birds and like the company of other wading birds. As you continue the drive, you'll see more "pinkies" congregating in the shallow waters along the gravel road. The best time of the year to visit Merritt Island for spoonbills is December through April. Once breeding is in full bloom, these birds will head into the mangroves to nest and raise their young.
Spoonbills are fascinating birds. They are the spectacle that lights up the wetlands in Florida. They have character, charm, and beauty, and it's all wrapped in a pretty, pink package. So, grab your camera and take some time to pay them a visit during your next trip to Florida. And... I hope you find them as charming and fascinating as I do.
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"Showing Off" - Photo taken at Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island, FL
"Spoonie Landing" - Photo taken at Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island, FL
"Taking Off" - Photo taken at Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island, FL
"Calling All Pinkies" - Photo taken at Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island, FL