Miles from shore, deeper in Everglades National Park than the public is allowed, I slowly sank to my ankles in mangrove muck under a low dome of twisted branches. Fish heads, feathers, and eggshells littered the ground. Pungent guano painted every leaf and branch; flakes of it sloughed off and hung in the air.
Shadows passed overhead, and when I peered up through the canopy, I could glimpse herons and egrets rafting above like white pterodactyls—and then, a flash of spoonbill pink. Other birds squatted among the branches, croaking and chattering.
Amid the disorienting avian conversation rang more familiar voices—those of the field biologists who let me tag along to this quarter-acre mangrove island called Diamond Key. Casey King hovered above me, braced between a branch and a tree trunk, peering into a stick-and-leaf nest. “Three eggs in 27!” she shouted to Emily Johnson, herself wrapped around a trunk with a notebook and pencil in hand. Then, “There are four eggs in 17. I’m going to crawl over to 20; it’s right over your head.”
King scrambled into the next tree. “I got a baby! I got two babies!” I followed, grasping branches like the rungs of a ladder. Maneuvering above the nest, I inhaled sharply, lest my breath disturb them: Two Roseate Spoonbill chicks twitched next to an unhatched egg, their fragile pink bodies visible through soft white fuzz, each with a dainty orange spoon on its face. “These ones had to have just been born,” King said.
New life is always a wonder, but especially here and now. Diamond Key is one of the last spoonbill nesting sites in Florida Bay, and it offers a glimpse of the raucous, bustling colonies that once flourished throughout the region. Before plume hunters slaughtered them for their feathers, nearly driving populations extinct, more than a million wading birds lived in the Everglades. By the late 1970s, when colonies were once again thriving, 1,200 spoonbill pairs nested on Florida Bay mangrove keys alongside thousands of Great and Snowy Egrets, Great White and Tricolored Herons, and White Ibis.
But over the past 20 years, spoonbills have been abandoning their longtime nesting grounds—a pattern diligently documented by Jerry Lorenz, director of Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center. When he began studying Roseate Spoonbills here in 1989, the population was fairly stable, ranging between 500 and 900 nests. Then, starting around 2005, he noticed the species disappearing from the places he and they knew so well. “I started seeing things I just couldn’t understand,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘What are my birds doing?’ ”
Over the past decade Florida Bay’s spoonbills have steadily declined from around 400 nests in 2012 to 157 this past season, of which 34 fledged young. The cause, Lorenz surmises, is climate change. Sea levels are rising along the bay, and it has become too deep for spoonbills to hunt and too salty to support their prey fish.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Roseate Spoonbills aren’t failing. Their numbers are better in Florida than they’ve been in decades. They’re just not nesting in Florida Bay, the Everglades’ southernmost point, anymore. The species is undergoing a range shift. The birds that used to nest in the brackish bay now raise their young to the north, where saltier soils and warmer winters have prompted mangroves to colonize what had been freshwater habitat miles inland. “Not only is climate change taking away habitat from these birds, it’s also adding habitat,” Lorenz says. “They’re taking advantage of it.”
Over the past 20 years, spoonbills have been abandoning their longtime nesting grounds.
The shift extends beyond Florida. In recent years birders have spotted spoonbills exploring as far north as Minnesota, Maine, and Quebec. And adults are successfully breeding in states they’ve never nested in before, like Georgia, Arkansas, and, in 2020, South Carolina. “They have the potential to do well here,” says South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Christy Hand, who observed the world’s northernmost Roseate Spoonbill nest.
Seeing pink birds where they don’t belong is exciting for birders. But for ecologists the flip side is alarming: In barely two decades the species has moved out of its historical U.S. territory. And climate change’s trials for spoonbills and other Everglades wildlife is only beginning. The birds’ northward shift portends a coming transformation of South Florida as the ocean invades inland, challenging all life in its path.
Everglades experts aren’t sitting back and watching this transformation unfold. They’re adapting, too, shifting their management approach to emphasize giving communities, both human and wildlife, a longer window to adjust. It’s a shift we’ll all have to make as the world gets hotter, reordering the ecological systems we depend on. Spoonbills are only the pinkest sign of changes underway across the world. That makes these scientists some of the best guides to prepare us for what’s coming.
The Everglades can be described as a 3-million-acre wetland, a sopping-wet prairie, or the widest, slowest-moving river in the world. The freshwater wetland, roughly 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, is nearly flat—but not quite. It trickles downhill at a barely perceptible slope, moving fresh water and nutrients toward the sea.
Its flow originally started near Lake Okeechobee, which receives some 52 inches of rain annually, most of it during the wet season from roughly June through November. When rainwater overflowed the lake’s banks, it seeped southward, inundating everything along the way. Although it now starts elsewhere, this freshwater “river of grass” still meets ocean saltwater at the tip of the peninsula, where they mix in Florida Bay. The brackish body hosts seagrass beds and mangrove forests that underpin a highly productive fish nursery, including for commercial seafood like crab, shrimp, and snapper.
This bounty supported people since the Everglades formed 5,000 years ago. But by the mid-1800s, white settlers removed the Everglades’ Indigenous populations. The Calusa, fishers and shell architects, were exterminated by disease introduced from Europe and raids by British-backed rival tribes. Then President Andrew Jackson pursued the Seminoles in a series of war campaigns. Though the tribe never surrendered, the U.S. military successfully seized their land. During the Seminole Wars, from about 1817 through 1858, soldiers built the wetland’s first roads and forts at sites that would become Miami, Fort Myers, and Fort Lauderdale.
Thus began a process of reengineering the Everglades that would result a century later in ecological catastrophe for Florida Bay. The ground was too wet to build cities and farms, so developers drained the swamp. They dug channels to connect Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, carrying water west to the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1930s a second drain sent Okeechobee’s water down the St. Lucie Canal and into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, much of South Florida’s fresh water was diverted directly into the sea.
Even so, there was still too much water on the landscape. In 1948, after a series of disastrous floods, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build vast water-control infrastructure. From the 1960s to the 1980s authorities constructed 1,000 miles of canals, straightened 103 miles of the Kissimmee River, and stored excess water behind levees.
Not only did this water-drainage system deliver less water to Florida Bay—four times less in the late 20th century compared to 1900—it also delivered the water differently. Instead of a gradual sheet flow of fresh water, engineers now release water through single points at canal outages. That means human decision-making determines the ecosystem’s hydrology and health.
Human decision-making is often flawed. In 1984 a canal and pump system cut off fresh water from Florida Bay. The effects were felt several years later, between 1987 and 1990, when high salinity killed more than 10,000 acres of seagrass beds. Without seagrasses to filter nutrients from the water, algae blooms and fish die-offs followed, which tanked South Florida’s fishing and tourism economy. It also doomed the birds. Wading birds need fish that need fresh water. When the water gets too salty, the fish that survive don’t successfully reproduce, and neither do spoonbills.
This is the scene Lorenz entered when he arrived at the Everglades Science Center as a graduate student in 1989. He started what was supposed to be an 18-month study and never stopped. Each discovery exposed gaps in his knowledge. To gain insight into spoonbill nesting habits, in 1994 he started spending the dry season monitoring the two largest colonies, each with hundreds of nests, tabulating how many eggs were laid, hatched, and survived to fledge. “Nobody was paying me to do this,” Lorenz recalls. “I just decided somebody better be collecting that data.”
By 1995 he had secured a paycheck and set out to establish standard methods for studying the ecosystem that supports spoonbills—the same methods his field staff use today. Lorenz began monitoring five spoonbill foraging sites throughout the bay and installed hydrological stations to automatically collect data on water salinity and temperature. The number of sites has since grown to 12. Every month or two, depending on the season, biologists measure seagrass beds and take fish samples to track what food is available for spoonbills (and everything else) at each site. Additionally, avian biologists disperse across mangrove keys during nesting time, searching for pink birds and tracking their young.
Spoonbills are only the pinkest sign of changes underway across the world.
The fieldwork is grueling. Lorenz’s field staff are blasted by the sun and sea during long days on the water. They hike and kayak through treacherous mangrove keys and endure sudden storms, heat, mosquitoes, and mechanical issues out of cellular range. Still, they’re committed to their work. “The worst day out here is better than the best day as a barista,” fish biologist Jaime Gilrein told me as she stood balanced on a kayak while stringing up the most complicated net I have ever seen.
Using those data, Lorenz constructed a mathematical model that links spoonbill chick production to the health of Florida Bay. Spoonbills are sensitive ecological indicators, he found. To catch fish, the wader stands in shallow water and waves its improbable beak back and forth like a metal detector; when the open bill touches a fish, it snaps shut. This mechanism means spoonbills eat only small fish at the base of the food web. And they need to catch a lot of them: Spoonbill parents feed their young for about 100 days before juveniles can fend for themselves.
Many years are a wash, producing few successful nests. If the water is too salty, stressed-out fish die or don’t reproduce. If the water is too deep, fish aren’t concentrated enough for spoonbills to catch efficiently with their short legs and salad-tong beaks. But when conditions are just right, nesting booms.
Lorenz thought he’d never see a boom year. In his first decade on the job, the region was so degraded that only 5,000 to 10,000 wading birds would nest across the entire Everglades. Then, in 2000, Congress decided to address the ecosystem’s ruinous decline, approving an $8 billion plan (now estimated at $16 billion) to remove canals and levees, raise roadways, and build reservoirs to re-create the Everglades’ natural water flow.
It took a decade for the first projects to start moving earth, as stakeholders bickered over priorities, budgets, and politics. But they implemented one crucial change immediately. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan legally requires South Florida’s water managers to consult with ecologists when deciding where and when to release fresh water into the Everglades. Lorenz meets weekly with representatives from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps, and other agencies to offer advice on how to improve conditions for Florida Bay’s wildlife.
“Instead of us sitting on the sidelines, we scientists are now talking to the people that flip switches,” he says. “They come to us and say, ‘If I turn this pump on or open this gate, what’s going to happen environmentally?’ ”
Centering science in decision-making ensured that when fresh water was plentiful during an extra-wet wet season, it could end up in the right place to support avian life. As a result, in the 2000s, biologists started seeing occasional seasons with 30,000 to 60,000 nests across all wading species in the Everglades—levels closer to the 80,000-nest boom years documented in the 1940s, when birds had largely recovered from plume hunting but before hydrological changes caused them to crash anew.
Then in 2018, following record-breaking rainfall from Hurricane Irma and two tropical storms, something extraordinary happened. While conducting an aerial survey over the Everglades, SFWMD wading bird biologist Mark Cook counted 122,000 nests. “It was really exciting to witness,” he says. “It basically showed us that if we get the water right, if we can restore the hydrologic conditions, nature is incredibly resilient and these birds will come back.”
The boom year also confirmed the necessity of science-based conservation. It’s only because Lorenz invested decades into understanding how spoonbills reflect Florida Bay’s health that he could help engineers direct water flow to support wildlife across the region.
Lorenz’s keen insights, scientific mind, and collegial nature have made him a revered and trusted advisor. “Lorenz is one of the best, a world-class scientist,” says Erik Stabenau, an oceanographer with Everglades National Park. Cook says, “He’s showed so many different types of people just how important these spoonbills are, as well as doing fantastic science along the way.”