The roseate spoonbill stood on a Brazilian pepper tree, surrounded by salt water, too young to fly. The chick was alone, its parents likely foraging off the coast. Pale pink with a full head of feathers, it was too small to fend for itself. Audubon of Florida biologists Ann Paul and Mark Rachal spotted it as they boated recently between the spoil islands of St. Joseph Sound off North Pinellas. In the bird colonies on these small islands, they had expected egrets, herons, pelicans and cormorants, but nothing like what they saw now. They stared in shock. Quietly, they high-fived.
More than a century ago, a discovery like the spoonbill chick wouldn't have merited much celebration. Thousands of roseate spoonbills with their 4-foot wingspans lined the Florida coasts then, their signature pink plumes often mistaken for flamingos.
But over decades of hunting, the spoonbills became one of the state's rarest birds. The last time biologists saw the birds nesting this far north on the Gulf of Mexico was more than 120 years ago.
Their expanded nesting grounds bring hope that the roseate spoonbill is recovering. "It's an indication," Rachal said, "that the habitat is there."
During the 1800s, as tourists descended on Florida in droves, any local with a small-bore rifle could earn easy money shooting spoonbills down. Their pink feathers were popular in women's hats, and their wings were sold as souvenir fans for $5 each.
Decimated by the millinery and plume trade, the birds retreated into the untouched thickets of the Everglades. There they dined by wagging their spatula-shaped bills underwater, snapping them shut when they sensed an unlucky fish or shrimp.
With the passing of laws against plume hunting, the birds began to rebound.
They returned to the Tampa Bay area in the 1970s, nesting at the Alafia Bank sanctuary in Hillsborough Bay. Since then, they've spread to islands in Boca Ciega Bay and Coffee Pot Bayou in south Pinellas and Clearwater Harbor.
Now they've moved farther north into St. Joseph Sound, which extends from Old Clearwater Bay past the coasts of Dunedin and Palm Harbor.
Spoonbills nest on islands, avoiding egg-hungry raccoons and opossums.
A colonial species, they live among flocks of other birds to improve their chances if a predator invades.
As they age, the birds' pink darkens and their heads go bald. They sport splashes of color, like orange tails and green-tinged heads, but rarely more so than in breeding season, when their shoulders turn bright red as a way to attract mates.
The spoonbills are far from songbirds. Hatchlings produce a shrill whistle, and the adults' call sounds like a guttural grunt.
Audubon estimates that Florida hosts 1,100 spoonbill pairs.
On two spoil islands in St. Joseph Sound, Rachal and Paul found seven nesting spoonbills, including the chick they saw on the Brazilian pepper tree. The biologists waited that morning until the chick's parents returned, flying through the mangroves with the day's feast.
Rachal expects the spoonbills could continue northward, onto islands like Three Rooker Bar. The next years will show how the birds' nesting patterns expand.
In the meantime, the chick might learn to forage on its own.
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.