Perched atop mangrove branches, fuchsia colored birds with gray-green spatulate bills softly quack. These roseate spoonbills, the only pink wading bird on North America’s southern coasts, were nearly wiped out in the 1800s, victims of plume hunters. They’re still listed as species of special concern in Florida and Louisiana, where the oil spill now threatens to wash into their habitat.
“One can never forget the first observance of these birds, or indeed any subsequent sight of them for they are always something of a red-letter experience in field study. Glowing with unbelievable color against the cobalt background of a Gulf sky, or framed amid the intense greenery of mangroves, huisache or ebony, the spoonbill etches itself upon one’s memory in an unforgettable picture of almost fantastic beauty,” wrote Alexander Sprunt, Jr. in the September-October 1943 issue of Audubon.
The species has a similar effect on Jerry Lorenz, the director of research for Audubon of Florida. “I see them all the time and I still say, ‘Oh my God that’s a gorgeous bird,’” he says.
Their nesting habitat, mangroves, is particularly vulnerable to oil. The plants have a specialized root system that extends above the water’s surface and allows them to thrive in salt water. If oil coats the surface, it can kill the trees and ruin the spoonbills’ breeding grounds.
Fatal effects of oil might also become apparent in the carmine-tinted birds’ food—mostly small fish less than two inches long—leaving the spoonbills with little to eat. The birds feed in shallow water, sweeping their bills from one side to another and snapping their bills shut when they feel a fish or aquatic invertebrate. If oil laps into the areas where they search for food, the waders could ingest the crude or become coated in its toxic sheen.
Oil pouring out of the sea floor is just beginning to show up in parts of Florida, home to approximately 30 percent of the spoonbill population. “At this point the concern is the same for every facet of the wildlife in Florida. We don’t know where the oil spill is going to go. It terrifies me. It could go anywhere, whether it hits a beach or a mangrove or a marsh,” says Lorenz. The spoonbills are a good indicator of overall ecosystem health, so Lorenz, fellow researchers, and citizen scientists are conducting pre-spill surveys in order to better determine the oil’s effects if it laps into spoonbill territory.
“Doing the surveys themselves is terribly important to monitoring the various ecosystems around the country. Even if the oil doesn’t strike, there’s merit in doing these surveys,” he says.