Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About the Florida Everglades

Decades after they staged a major comeback from plume hunting, one of the world's most bizarre and beautiful birds is struggling in South Florida. Does this spell trouble for the entire Everglades ecosystem?

Imagine the job description: Twelve-hour days in the hot sun, drenching rain, biting mosquitoes, thigh-deep mud, and wading in waters patrolled by sharks and crocodiles. Not exactly a picture postcard for the Florida Keys. Yet plenty of young biologists have willingly signed up for such punishment.

“Check it out—there’s another spooner coming in,” says Mac Stone, 28, pointing to the two-foot-long pink arrow arching across a cerulean sky. Pastel and crimson, this long-legged wader was John James Audubon’s “rose-coloured curlew.” To some, it was the elusive “flame bird.” Early settlers confused it with the flamingo (tourists still do). Roger Tory Peterson pronounced it “one of the most breathtaking of the world’s weirdest birds.”

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Spoonbills remain mysterious. Which is why I am accompanying Stone and a small team of Audubon Florida scientists for several days in the life of a biologist studying a puzzling spoonbill decline. Based in Tavernier, south of Key Largo, these researchers are taking part in what has been nearly a hundred years of Audubon’s scientific bird surveys and conservation efforts in southern Florida, where birdlife was nearly wiped out during the plume era. Now spoonbills are in trouble again.

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, which has dramatically altered water depths and salinity levels in Florida Bay, creating a hard-knock life for a wading bird on a special diet. “I think the public says, ‘The Everglades are a national park, everything’s okay,’ ” says Stone. “But if you don’t protect the water—the life force—coming to it, you’ve got nothing. You can put up as many fences, signs, whatever. None of it matters if you don’t have the water.”

With Florida Bay and the greater Everglades contributing millions of dollars to the state’s economy through recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing, many say there’s a lot more at stake than a pocket of pretty pink birds. “Spoonbills have become the indicator for the overall health of the Everglades,” explains Stone. “They’re representative of the whole ecosystem. They require the fish, and the fish require the submerged aquatic vegetation, and the submerged aquatic vegetation requires the input of freshwater.”

Even as recent government reforms offer some promise for the birds and their ecosystem, the system is so far out of whack that some warn: “As goes the spoonbill, so goes the bay.”

“Biodiversity matters,” says Stone, anchoring off a tiny mangrove island called Sandy Key after a gripping hour-long boat ride navigating choppy waters and hidden channel markers in the early morning light. “You lose one link, and the dominoes start falling.”

Tugging on scuba booties, we dip our kayaks into the water, hand over camera gear and notepads, and paddle toward shore. Stone wears a torn field shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and khaki pants stained with bird poop. Squadrons of white ibis swoop past in fleeting currents of ivory feathers, crimson beaks, and flashing black wingtips. At the island’s edge we wedge our kayaks between mangrove buttresses and plunge into “the most evil smelling muck you can imagine,” as one early adventurer related—“like a mixture of sawdust and mud, heavily scented with sulfur. 

“The key is to go fast,” Stone tells me, half running, half falling—and all the while skillfully navigating the submerged prop roots that smack my shins and slow me down. Somewhere in the distance comes a low, rapid huh-huh-huh, huh, audible but out of view.

We high-step beneath the mangrove canopy, draped with clinging spider webs, finally arriving at a section where blue flags dangle, marking the location of several spoonbill nests perched above.

Each nest began as a single twig, presented by a courting male to a female and propped in a mangrove. Dressed in their very best matrimonial attire—rich pink with their upper tail feathers streaked in carmine—the pair mated. Roughly two weeks later she laid an egg—no bigger than a chicken’s—followed by up to two more in as many days. A clutch bigger than three would be rare, although Stone’s seen four on a few occasions, and one time a record five.

Once he even witnessed an egg hatching. “It was moving, and I saw this little bird poking through the shell with its blunt beak,” he says. “It’s so unfortunate they’re given a spoon to break through an egg. Even before they hatch, these birds have it tough. It’s the worst possible tool—a ‘sporkbill’ would have been way better.”

Almost tiptoeing, we step carefully to avoid disturbing the nestlings. “We just try to get in, get the data, and get out as fast as we can,” says Stone. Three blush-colored juveniles teeter awkwardly on a limb. Their wispy light-pink down and wavering arched wings tell us they are “branchlings,” about 21 days old and nearly ready to fledge. Stone rapidly sweeps the rest of the area, searching for others, and scribbling in his tiny yellow book. All told, we tally 23 nests on Sandy Key.

“This is one of the quintessential islands for Florida Bay,” he tells me back at the boat. “It has such great habitat. You find nesting herons, reddish egrets, and cormorants; sharks and sawfish; tons of pelicans. It’s just a beautiful spot. The fact that we can give a thumbs-up to Sandy and say it was successful is a great thing.”

But it’s not that great, he continues. “If you put those numbers in context, 23 isn’t all that good. This is a big island with lots of nesting habitat.”

No one is more aware of how things have changed on Sandy and the surrounding keys than Jerry Lorenz. It is the second day of my visit, and Lorenz and I have been foot-slogging through a mangrove labyrinth for more than an hour, looking for the boats we parked earlier. We’re now in a clearing on the far north end of Tern Key, where a flock of more than 50 white pelicans is herding fish. But no spoonbills. And no sign of our boats.

“This island just looks nothing like it did before,” Lorenz says. Once a keen young field guy like Stone, the bandana-wearing 49-year-old has trashed legions of quick-dry pants and T-shirts traipsing through such swampy island interiors. He was first hired in 1989 for a two-year graduate assistantship at the Tavernier Center. “I had hair back then,” he jokes. Today he runs the center and doubles as Audubon Florida’s state director of research, thus spending more time than ever behind a computer. Still, I have faith.

We slog on. Picking up the pace, Lorenz heads for shore and peeks through the trees out onto the bay. “Okay,” he says, “we just follow this shoreline and we’ll find our boats.”

Another half-hour goes by and we are still up to our thighs in mud and water. Then we see the blue strips marking a cluster of vacant spoonbill nests that we passed earlier on. Two more left turns and we find our kayaks. We’re tired but quick to paddle out of the muck. 

The scene on Tern Key is bleak. We found not a single spoonbill nest. “This is just so sad,” Lorenz tells me. “There used to be almost 600 spoonbill nests here. It was deafening; the woof woof of their wing beats sounded like a stadium full of fans. Now it’s totally silent. It breaks my heart.”

The situation on the next key is no better. Nothing. Not a single nest. “Well,” says Lorenz, “no data is still data. We have to check because you don’t want to miss anything.”

The last time these keys fell so quiet was at the end of the millinery trade, in the late 1800s. Birds were dying by the millions to supply feathers for ladies’ hats and dresses. The feather-studded pelt of a heron or snowy egret sold for about 25 cents—making it more valuable than gold. But spoonbill plumes were the diamonds in southern Florida’s crown. By some accounts, a single spoonbill skin commanded up to five dollars.

As in the days of the California gold rush, hardened men—Civil War veterans, hunters, railroad builders—set out to pry a fortune from an unrelenting landscape. Tensions ran high. One Audubon warden trying to protect a bird rookery near Flamingo was shot dead and set adrift in his boat. “It was an era when everyone carried a gun, an ax, and a determination to wrest a living from the wilderness,” wrote spoonbill biologist Robert Porter Allen. By 1890 nearly all of Florida’s spoonbill colonies were destroyed.

Allen was dispatched in 1935, more than 20 years after millinery poaching was legally banned, by then Audubon president John Baker to study five newly discovered birds and figure out why spoonbills weren’t recovering like other wading species.

Among Allen’s findings was the answer to how spoonbills feed—by using what’s called “tactile location,” keeping their bills slightly open as they wave them back and forth through the water. When they hit a fish, the bill snaps shut. “They can collect a fish every three seconds,” says Lorenz. “They are fish vacuum cleaners.”

And their lives depend on that efficiency. “A spoonbill egg is about the size of a chicken egg, and so is the chick. In eight to ten weeks the chick reaches the size of an adult [weighing roughly three pounds and standing more than two feet tall]. To grow that rapidly, they need a huge amount of food.”

Once the spoonbills regained a toehold in Florida Bay, their numbers climbed steadily until 1979, when they peaked at roughly 1,260 nests. They then began a precipitous decline. Wetlands throughout the Keys were ditched and drained to create new housing developments offering residents both direct waterfront and road access, wiping out roughly 80 percent of the birds’ foraging grounds. “The Keys were covered in so much dust, it looked like a fog bank,” Lorenz recalls being told by an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scientist who was working in the area at the time.

The spoonbills responded to such unprecedented development by shifting to more northern nesting areas in Florida Bay. They might have hung on there, if not for the drastic changes in water management that followed, including upgrading the canal system to three times its former size and increasing the number of pump stations to support booming agriculture in southern Dade County. 

Lorenz’s research helped reveal the extent to which the spoonbills’ needs were quickly becoming at odds with development and water management. For one, water depth plays an important role in spoonbill survival. When water levels drop very quickly, as they are supposed to do naturally in November and December, it signals to the spoonbills that it is time to start nesting. If all is well, 22 days after the birds lay their first egg the conditions will be ripe for foraging—fish will be concentrated in shallow waters, where spoonbill parents can quickly suck them up and return to the nest to feed their chicks. 

If something happens to significantly affect water levels during that time, it can be catastrophic. Say, for instance, it is an unusually wet year when water managers need to mitigate flooding. The standard course has been to pump large amounts of water into the bay, which floods the grassy flats where spoonbills would be feeding.

“All the spoonbill chicks hatched that year will likely die,” says Lorenz. “Parents go out looking for food. If they don’t find it, they don’t come back. The chicks get cold and eventually become weak. They nest mostly over water. If the chicks fall out of the nest, they will be dead within the hour.”

He’s seen it happen. During the 2000–2001 nesting season, one island’s entire colony—130 nests holding nearly 400 chicks—went under when water levels rose rapidly. “There was a wrack line of hundreds of dead spoonbill chicks just lining the island,” Lorenz says. “I have some pretty gruesome pictures.” Most recent surveys count only about 350 spoonbill nests remaining in all of Florida Bay.

As Lorenz approaches another island, he stops mid-paddle. “If you were to sit here 20 years ago, you would see a steady stream of spoonbills coming and going. There was hardly ever a time when there wasn’t a spoonbill overhead.”

Lorenz hasn’t completely lost hope, however. Lately there have been some promising developments. In response to his research, the governing board of the water management district directed one of its engineers to communicate with Lorenz and his staff on a weekly basis during nesting season. “They would call anytime there is a proposed change in management,” he says, brightening. “They would say, ‘Hey, Jerry, how are the birds doing? What’s going to happen to those birds if we open the S18C gate?’ And I’d say, ‘Well you’d kill my birds.’ Then they’d ask, ‘What happens if we only open it partially?’ ‘Well, then, that would be okay.’ Those were the conversations we were starting to have, and as a result, we’ve had successful spoonbill nesting for five of the last six years [giving the population a boost, though the overall numbers remain drastically low]. These birds can be resilient.”

In the morning, the moon is still high when Michelle Robinson and I arrive at the dock off Monroe Drive and begin loading her boat. Robinson, a 31-year-old from Ohio, is the fish biologist charged with keeping tabs on the spoonbills’ pantry. She comes prepared for a cool, wet morning, with a black fleece, gray field pants, and her blonde hair pulled back through a yellow visor.

We forge our way through pounding waves and stinging salt spray for more than an hour until we reach Little Madeira Bay, where we board a small johnboat and begin an hour-long slalom up the Taylor River. Robinson ties a bandana around her mouth and nose to avoid eating spider webs as we zigzag through a long tunnel created by a tight mangrove canopy.

Two hours after leaving the dock by moonlight, we arrive at her study site, where she works well into the afternoon dropping large tentlike nets to survey the types and densities of tiny fish swimming these shallow waters. “Usually the mudflats would be dry by now and fish would be concentrated in the creek,” she tells me. “The spoonbills would be feeding in there.”

But the water is much higher than it should be, partly because of the recent wet weather. A spoonbill streams over, flying fairly low. “Probably looking for a place to eat,” she says, leaning way out of the boat with the ease of a sailor.

Over and over, Robinson methodically sets the nets and gondoliers the boat to the next one, eventually returning to collect the fish. She is halfway through her morning rounds when Peter Frezza arrives to pick me up for one last bay cruise, and a lesson on fish economics. That is, how much a fish, or a spoonbill for that matter, is worth to the state of Florida.

Frezza is Audubon Florida’s research manager for the Everglades region, and a weekend fishing guide. He recently did a formal survey of the local fishing community to see if they have perceived a change in bonefish populations. Are those populations going up or down? The consensus: Nearly all of the more than 70 fishermen surveyed reported that they had seen a drastic decline.

“Something major has happened in Florida Bay,” says Frezza, explaining that many shallow-water game fish, including bonefish and juvenile tarpon, need the same things as spoonbills: good water quality and lots of seafood. “If the food were there in the bay, fish should be there, too. But they’re not.”

The implications are huge, not only for the region’s recreational fishing and the Florida Bay ecosystem but for the whole state. Florida Bay supports an annual $22 million stone crab fishery, a $59 million shrimp industry, and a spiny lobster fishery worth $40 million. Add to that the value of recreational fishing in the Everglades—an additional $1.2 billion a year.

Still, flood control and agriculture take priority over a balanced ecosystem, says Frezza. “We’re last. At least that’s the way it seems. But the mindset is slowly starting to shift.”

In January a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the first phase of what’s called the C-111 spreader canal, which when it’s completed will redistribute the amount of freshwater the bay receives. If the rest of the C-111 project is operated as planned, raising water levels of certain structures should create a hydraulic ridge that will push water back toward Taylor Slough, the intended freshwater entry point to Florida Bay. Increasing freshwater flow through the slough will rehydrate parched wetlands and revitalize the populations of the small fish spoonbills eat.

Other recent developments include an initiative called the Central Everglades Planning Project, which bundles several restoration efforts instead of implementing them piecemeal. And last June Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed on an $880 million plan to filter larger quantities of phosphorous from water flowing through the Everglades.

“The science in Florida Bay is helping to inform the policy work,” Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper told me before I departed for the Keys. “C-111 is a direct example. We’ve used information from the spoonbill research to help government better operate how that canal works. Our major objective is getting the right amount of freshwater into the Everglades, at the right time. If we do that, we’ll have a greater number of spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay. If we don’t ...”

Conservationists continue to lobby for additional bridging over the Tamiami Trail, the road that forms the northern border of the park, acting as a dam and blocking the natural water flow through the Glades. They also lobby for continued research funding that helps gauge how restoration work is performing. Just as the restoration projects are coming online, both state and federal funds for ecosystem monitoring have experienced major cutbacks.

“I hope to see real policy changes that will help restore the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Frezza tells me as we approach the last stop of the day, a tiny island called Jimmy Key, where he suspects we’ll find spoonbills near shore. We climb aboard a skiff and begin poling the island’s edge, beautifully buttressed and iridescent. Working our way through the shallows, we find more than a dozen downy spoonbill chicks cautiously peeking through the braided trees. With their fluffy feathers ruffling in a light breeze, they gaze out on the bay’s pale-blue waters, waiting for their parents to return with a crop full of fish. 

The scene is peaceful and serene, as if all is fine in Florida Bay. With the clouds clearing and the waves lapping our boat, it's easy to believe so. But decades of work show it won't become a reality without strong political will and better efforts towards long-term water management in the Everglades. With that, these isles may glow bright with fire once more.