In the early 1800s, people who visited coastal areas in southern Florida in winter were met with an astounding sight: hundreds of thousands of American Flamingos. The majestic pink bird, endemic to Central and South America and the Caribbean, wintered in Florida’s tropical climes. By the end of the century, however, European settlers seemed to have eradicated the leggy waders through feather and egg harvesting, and ever since the birds have been scarce in the Sunshine State—until recently.
A few years ago, ornithologists and biologists spotted a number of these long-necked birds in a portion of the Everglades ecosystem in Central Florida. The flamingos were hanging out in a water treatment facility—Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA2), to be precise. This 9,000-acre constructed wetland may have been built to remove excess nutrients from the water supply, but it seemed to also provide a safe haven for these long-lost, and long-legged, Floridians. The birds’ appearance was a shock to many, since flamingos are often considered to be non-migratory (although flocks will travel considerable distances in response to changing conditions in their shallow-water habitats).
Last year, ornithologists counted a record 147 flamingos in STA2 early in the breeding season, which lasts from March to July. This year they tallied only eight, but it seems the birds are back for good.
“They keep coming back every year,” says Mark Cook, lead scientist of Everglades Systems Assessment at South Florida Water Management District. He said it “amazes” him that the birds found the freshwater wetlands in the center of the state, 80 miles northwest of where they historically occurred.
STA2 attracts a high diversity of birds including teals, wigeons, and sandpipers. Flamingos don't always return to the same nesting sites year after year, so there must be something about the area that draws them to this specific location. “I think it’s food-related,” says Cook, who surveys the area by helicopter to understand how birds use the system. “STAs are huge and there is something about this unit.”
More mysteries abound. “The big question is, are these escapees or are they wild birds?” says Cook. It’s possible that they broke free from the captive population that’s spent the past 73 years at Hialea Racetrack in northern Miami-Dade County. Or it’s possible they migrated up here from the Bahamas or Mexico.
To find out, scientists and biologists from the National Park Service and Miami Zoo, with support from the Tropical Audubon Society and others, are attaching satellite transmitters on flamingos to track their journeys.
Frank Ridgley, a wildlife veterinarian who serves as head of conservation and research at Zoo Miami, is leading the effort to tag the birds. Typically, flamingos are banded before they fledge, when they’re easy to catch. But the flamingos in Florida are grown, so they’re stuck using netting and loose traps designed to ensure the four-foot-birds aren’t harmed when caught. So far they haven’t been able to snare any. “There’s a reason why no one’s studied adult flamingos before,” he says. “They just fly off.”
While they continue trying to tag flamingos, Ridgley says researchers are still watching the birds, trying to learn how they’re using the area. “We noticed a lot of courtship behavior,” Ridgley says. “All seemed to be pair bonded and stayed close together.” Flamingos are believed to mate for life.
When word got out that flamingos were in STA2, a number of birders began sneaking into the restricted area to see them. Realizing that the draw of flamingos was likely irresistible, the water district reached out to Audubon Society of the Everglades about leading weekly car tours to the area, which began in March of this year. It’s a win-win solution: People get to see flamingos, and the birds can go about their business undisturbed.
Audubon Everglades received more than 1,200 requests for spaces on these trips, says Susan McKemy, the group’s vice president. Birders from across the United States and the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, and Canada signed up, and more than 620 participants took part in the 13 trips conducted between March 7 and May 2.
“It’s incredible,” says McKemy. “My life has become consumed with flamingos.”
While each trip offered incredible views of the magnificent birds, one day—April 18—stands out for McKemy. “There was a pair of flamingos foraging at the north end of the impoundment. The pair then flew closer to the berm where the trip participants were located,” she says. “They foraged and then we heard them calling to each other. A few minutes later the two mated.”
It’s possible those lucky birders were the first ever to document flamingos mating in the wild in Florida.
There’s plenty more to learn from these birds, including solving the mystery of where they came from. “We may have to rewrite everything we know about flamingos,” Ridgley says.