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The Roseate Spoonbill:  A welcome presence, set to stay

A beautiful and gregarious beast, the roseate spoonbill has transitioned from exotic newcomer to coastal counterpart within the South Carolina Lowcountry. Vibrant pink feathers speckle our marshlands with extra color at low tide as small flocks of the bird wade in the shallows searching for food.

While once very common in parts of the Southeast, spoonbills virtually disappeared from the United States by the 1860s as a result of the fashion-driven scourge of wader colonies, plume hunters. With the help of preservation efforts, the species was able to successfully recolonize the Florida and Texas coasts surrounding the Gulf. Since the early 20th century, their population has rebounded, especially in the subtropical climate of Florida and they have gradually spread back across the coastal Southeast. Only within the last two decades have they demonstrated a presence in S.C.

S.C. Audubon Society bird expert Jennifer Tyrrell says, “One of the main reasons the Audubon Society was founded was to stop the killing of birds for fashion. Roseate spoonbills were a target, so it’s neat to see they’ve come a long way and are venturing into the Lowcountry.”

Described by the National Audubon Society as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close,” the roseate spoonbill gets its fantastic pink coloration from foods like crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates that contain pigments called carotenoids. Spoonbills feed in the shallow muddy waters abundant in our wetland habitats. They walk forward slowly while swinging their heads from side to side, sifting the muck with their wide flat spoon-shaped bills.

They have a white head and neck, which extends back to their light pink wings with bright pink boarders. They can grow up to two and half feet tall with a wingspan of up to five feet. It is one of six different species of spoonbills, but the only one found in the Americas and the only one colored pink.

Locally common in Texas, southwest Louisiana and coastal Florida, they tend to reside in small flocks, often associating with other waders like egrets, ibises, wood storks and so forth. It is thought that the spoonbill might share a symbiotic relationship with these birds and by sweeping its bill back and forth, feeling for food, it might stir up other prey items for the nearby birds.

These days, they have become a common sight in the coastal areas of the Palmetto State; they even venture into North Carolina. Particularly during the spring and summer months, one may find them at low tide on Bear Island, Donnelley WMA, Dewees Island, or sometimes around Sullivan’s Island, along with other similar habitats.

Back in 1976, a maximum of four spoonbills were spotted near Charleston. However, in one recent instance, a flock of 75 spoonbills gathered on Dewees Island. Their northward range expansion up from Florida follows the suitable climate. As warmer weather lasts longer in the S.C. wetlands and extends their prey season, they will retreat south more slowly.

They have not started breeding here yet, but for many bird watchers, including Audubon bird expert Jennifer Tyrrell, it is only a matter of time.

Tyrrell says, “Every year we’re waiting for it to happen. It’s a benchmark of serious range expansion when a bird starts breeding in the state.”

This seems all the more promising given that, in the past couple of years, some have remained here through winter. Tyrrell accredits this knowledge to Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, a community science project, where people get outside and count birds during Christmastime. Started in 1901, it has proved a useful method for recording which birds are sticking around.

The spoonbill’s breeding season occurs mainly during winter in Florida and during spring in Texas. They will nest together in large colonies, with other spoonbills as well as various other wading birds. Courtship begins between a pair when they are at least three years old and the preliminary wooing appears a somewhat aggressive interaction. Once a connection is made, they begin to perch close to each other. Finally, they present nesting sticks to one another and cross and clasp bills. The male will gather nest materials, while the female builds the nest.

Their nests generally hover over water in trees like willows, mangroves, low scrub or cedars. These large platforms have a deep hollow in the center for the eggs. Females tend to lay two to three eggs and both male and female will alternate incubating the nest for up to 24 days. They then take turns bringing food to the new hatchlings, which are born white and get pinker over time. After clambering about near their nest, young spoonbills may be capable of strong flight at roughly eight weeks old.

Although this phenomenon has yet to grace our estuaries, the first recorded breeding of a roseate spoonbill in Georgia took place in Camden County in 2011. Thus, we can hope — and keep our eyes open.

Nemours Wildlife Foundation president Dr. Ernie Wiggers remarks on the increasing presence of the spoonbill in the Palmetto State. “We began noticing them in significant numbers starting in 2008 and, since then, they’ve been pretty common to see. They’re usually in flocks of three to four, or up to ten birds.”

“We see spoonbills a lot in our old rice fields that we manage for waterfowl,” says Dr. Wiggers. “It’s a great habitat for them with plenty of food and similar to other wading birds like wood storks, they’ve started to move in and build their populations here.”

These impoundments like well-managed rice fields are wonderful bird sanctuaries. They’ve even seen whooping cranes in years past stop by and enjoy these wetlands on their migratory route along the eastern seaboard.

Roseate spoonbills continue to excite local adventurers and bird watchers. Thankfully, these days, they draw attention for their splendid color and feeding habits rather than their rarity. They are one bird among others, like the black-bellied whistling duck and the limpkin, whose populations are increasing in the Lowcountry.

We have the efforts of conservationists at the national and local level to thank for these birds’ resurgence. Their range has expanded not only out of necessity, but also because they enjoy the habitats they find here. Our wetlands offer abundant natural and managed areas perfect for incoming waders like the roseate spoonbill.

In the remaining warm months, plan a trip to one of the spoonbill’s well-known marshland habitats and search for those pink feathers and long spoon-shaped bill. Time it with low tide and bring a pair of available binoculars — you will want to study the details of this fascinating creature.

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