The roseate spoonbill -- often mistaken by confused tourists for the non-native flamingo -- is one of Florida's great iconic species. Dubbed "one of the most breathtaking of the world's weirdest birds" by naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, the gangly creatures are an increasingly rare sight in South Florida.
According to a feature in the May-June issue of Audubon Magazine, spoonbills have been vacating South Florida in droves, heading north to more hospitable (read: often less developed) lands.
The birds, which are dependent on well-managed freshwater supplies that are rich in small fish, are considered a key indicator of the Everglades' and Florida Bay's health. A struggling spoonbill population signals an imbalance somewhere in the ecosystem, according to several sources cited in the article, "Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About The Florida Everglades":
While populations farther north in Florida along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere are stable, even growing in some places, spoonbill numbers are sinking here in the broad estuary sandwiched between the Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Keys. A likely culprit: poor water management in the Everglades...
The shrinking South Florida population isn't just a bummer for birders and conservationalists, says writer Rene Ebersole. Less birds also can indicate diminishing fish populations in Florida Bay and the greater Everglades region, which could have a significant and negative economic impact on South Florida residents and businesses. According to the story, recreational fishing in the Everglades contributes $1.2 billion to the state's economy each year. Poor water management in the 'glades could whittle that figure.
It's not all doom and gloom, however. State and federal agencies are teaming with conservationalists and other scientists to develop more effective ways of managing Florida's beleaguered wetlands and monitoring the impact on vulnerable species like the spoonbill. One of the projects mentioned in passing is the buzzed-about Tamiami Trail bridging project, the first phase of which kicked off this spring. The initiative is intended to help water pass unencumbered through Shark River Slough to rehydrate Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, both of which are important historic nesting regions for spoonbills.
Also on the positive side is a recent story from Florida Keys News, which reports that roseate spoonbill nest counts were "up slightly" this spring in Florida Bay. This year's count showed about 200 nests, versus last year's of 179. Two years ago, scientists found only 69 nests in the area. There were 547 nests in the Bay in 2006, showing a rapid decline in less than a decade.