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Pink flamingos: Hurricane Idalia’s surprise gift to Tampa Bay

Florida’s iconic pink birds are rarely, if ever, spotted here. Until now.
 
Residents of the Clearwater Point condo complex on Clearwater Beach spotted a group of flamingos Thursday. They are rare in Tampa Bay. Researchers believe the birds were swept in on the winds of Hurricane Idalia.
Residents of the Clearwater Point condo complex on Clearwater Beach spotted a group of flamingos Thursday. They are rare in Tampa Bay. Researchers believe the birds were swept in on the winds of Hurricane Idalia. [ Courtesy of Leslie Mitrik ]
Published Aug. 31, 2023|Updated Sept. 1, 2023

CLEARWATER BEACH — We bounded through the Clearwater Point condo complex, hurrying past sunbathers at pools, sun beating down from a cloudless sky. You’d never know that just days ago the edges of a major hurricane touched everything in sight.

And yet, new evidence of the storm had graced this waterfront complex hours earlier. We’re talking evidence far more rosy than soggy grass and yard debris, evidence I was hoping to see for myself:

Wild flamingos, virtually unheard of in Tampa Bay.

Condo resident Kathy Griffin — not the comedian — led me to the condo’s private beach. She pointed to a sandbar where birds routinely gather. Seagulls, spoonbills, terns, the usual suspects. But that morning, a flock of eight flamingos had waded past for everyone to see.

“I thought we might get lucky and they’d be back,” Griffin said, teetering along a sea wall.

Over the past week, folks around Florida have photographed groups of flamingos — a “flamboyance,” for your next trivia night — and posted photos online. The theory is that Hurricane Idalia swept up the pink birds, a literal wind beneath their wings, and pushed them farther north than they intended to go. They were spotted on the Sanibel Causeway, then at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, later on Treasure Island Beach.

I wondered if I could find these birds and bask in their majesty. Flamingos are so ubiquitously associated with Florida kitsch and culture and yet remain largely a mystery outside of zoos and theme parks. Can you imagine rolling by one on a bike?

I headed to Fred Howard Park, where cyclists saw them Wednesday, but the park was closed post-storm. I considered hopping the fence but decided that was not the way to get in the newspaper. I drove to Anclote River Park, in case they had decided to find new scenery. Closed.

During a coffee break in which I contemplated failure, Times editor Justine Griffin messaged. Her mom — yes, Kathy — had photos of the flamingos in her possession. I flew to Griffin with the speed of storm-force winds.

Are flamingos even a native Florida bird?

Florida is soaked with images of flamingos; you cannot shake a pink stick without seeing them all over gift shop ephemera. On this afternoon alone, I drove past flamingo mailboxes, plastic yard flamingos, a flamingo mural and the Flamingo Motel, all within a 15-mile span. Tampa International Airport has a floor-to-ceiling art installation of a flamingo inside the main terminal. Her name is Phoebe, and no one gets through the airport without a fla-selfie.

“They’re big, tall and gorgeous,” said Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon Florida. “They just have this aura about them.”

He went on: “What I don’t understand is why they’re so prominent on the lotto. Why do people have the mailboxes? Because they are so rare.”

Flamingos were plentiful in Florida around the late 1800s, Lorenz said, but were hunted to obsolescence. People ate them, but the bigger culprit was the plume trade, primarily for ladies’ hats.

“It got to be outrageous,” Lorenz said, “The feathers were worth more than their weight in gold, seriously, at the time. All of these birds with their beautiful plumage were being hunted to put on hats.”

Flash-forward to the 1920s, when enterprising types started buying chicks from Cuba and the Bahamas, breeding colonies to show off at attractions like the Hialeah Park Race Track north of Miami. When flamingos were spotted in the wild, they were presumed escapees. For many years, researchers considered them non-native.

But sightings eventually became so plentiful that the data showed a different story: Flamingos were indeed native to Florida, and they were finding their way back. The state now recognizes flamingos as a native species. They’re based mostly in places like South Florida, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.

You’ll notice Tampa Bay is not on that list. But Lorenz said with climate change, more and more tropical birds are moving north; for instance, one solitary flamingo has lived in the Panhandle for years. Lorenz had never heard of flamingos in Tampa Bay until now, though. He speculates the ones spotted this week could have been flying from the Yucatán to Cuba.

“That storm blew up so fast,” he said. “It just kept forcing them further and further north.”

It’s hard to tell if it’s one flock or multiples moving around Tampa Bay, he said; each sighting is counted separately. I asked him where these icons might go next, as if the answer could be my house for daiquiris.

“I try to think like a bird as often as I can, but I’m never successful,” he said. “I really don’t know.”

Seeing wild flamingos in Tampa Bay, or anywhere in Florida, is a good thing. Go on, be excited! Flamingos are strong ambassadors for conservation, with sweet and friendly dispositions (though please keep your distance). They have the magic sauce to spread the bigger mission, Lorenz said: protecting habitats.

“What can we do for these birds?” he said. “If we can make Florida Bay and the estuaries healthy, where these birds want to be, they’re going to feel much more comfortable being here.”

Flamingos take on Clearwater Beach

Our mission a bust, Griffin and I headed back to the condo lobby. Griffin said she’d get intel from the bird-watchers themselves. As I walked out, a car pulled up.

“There she is!” Griffin said.

It was Leslie Mitrik, unloading groceries with her neighbor Donna O’Brien. Score. We had spotted the flamingo-spotters, which felt like a good second-place finish.

A big game of telephone had transpired Thursday morning: Mitrik heard of the flamingos from O’Brien, who heard about them from another friend. She thought O’Brien was “crazy,” that she had probably just spotted some spoonbills. Then she got down to the beach and saw those necks.

“Oh, my God,” she said.

Residents of the Clearwater Point condo complex on Clearwater Beach spotted a group of flamingos Thursday. They are rare in Tampa Bay. Researchers believe the birds were swept in on the winds of Hurricane Idalia.
Residents of the Clearwater Point condo complex on Clearwater Beach spotted a group of flamingos Thursday. They are rare in Tampa Bay. Researchers believe the birds were swept in on the winds of Hurricane Idalia. [ Courtesy of Leslie Mitrik ]

There were eight flamingos, six pink and two gray. Gray flamingos are either young or missing an element in their diet that turns them pink, Lorenz told me. It’s common.

Mitrik shot video quietly until a crab scuttled by and distracted her. When she turned the camera back on the birds, they spread their wings and flapped south.

Mitrik sent me her footage. I lingered on the images in my car, stunned by the shadows of the birds’ curved bodies, charmed by their fine trots as they marched in unison. Why did this feel … emotional?

It’s the turbulence of the whole thing, maybe, the lingering confusion and incongruity of this storm. In a single swipe, nature holds the power to issue untold destruction and reply with a gift of such staggering beauty. It’s a tightrope between love and hate, living in this state, twin emotions always housed in the same complex.

It’s just so Florida. And flamingos suddenly make so much sense.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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