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Meet the oldest bird of its kind, caught on camera in Florida

The roseate spoonbill, at the geriatric age of 18, was spotted by a trail camera in Florida Bay.
An Audubon Florida trail camera aimed at a nest in Florida Bay caught a glimpse of an 18-year-old roseate spoonbill, believed to be the oldest spoonbill ever documented.
An Audubon Florida trail camera aimed at a nest in Florida Bay caught a glimpse of an 18-year-old roseate spoonbill, believed to be the oldest spoonbill ever documented. [ MAC STONE | Audubon Florida ]
Published Apr. 20|Updated Apr. 20

Senior citizens have always flocked to Florida’s sandy shores, but the one that showed up last week really stood out. It’s — quite literally — a tough old bird.

The pink feathered creature with a distinctive beak, called a roseate spoonbill, was spotted by a trail camera in Florida Bay. And this particular one happens to be the oldest of the species ever documented in the wild.

Researchers at Audubon Florida were delighted by the find, which was brought to light by trail cameras set up by conservation photographer Mac Stone as part of an Audubon project tracking the nesting habits of the photogenic birds.

The discovery of the 18-year-old bird offers new insights into spoonbill breeding habits, and also an ominous warning about the future impact of rising seas on their home in Florida Bay.

“We’re not just out there because they’re pretty pink birds. They’re the pink canary in the coal mine,” said Jerry Lorenz, Audubon Florida’s director of research.

With a lifespan of around 15 years in captivity and 10 years in the wild, this bird is geriatric. But don’t expect the pink feathers to go gray anytime soon.

Lorenz said unlike their rosy relatives, the Flamingo, roseate spoonbills don’t rely on their diet to maintain their color.

“They come out of the egg they’re pink, when they die they’re pink. They’re pink every step of the way,” he said.

Three decades of bird banding

Lorenz, who’s been studying spoonbills for more than 30 years, was likely the one who banded the bird originally. Eighteen years ago, Audubon got a grant to band thousands of spoonbills to help researchers track where they forage, nest and travel. This was one of the first hundred banded in Florida Bay.

That day in 2003, Lorenz and his teammates worked in pairs on Frank Key, not far from Flamingo in Everglades National Park. One rushed up to the nest to remove a two-week-old chick, another slipped an identifying, numbered band up over the joint in their ankle. The one on this bird was No. 78.

Nearly two decades later, the black and white paint originally on that aluminum band is gone. But researchers have found a less disruptive way to observe nesting birds — high-tech trail cameras. This one took about 1,500 pictures that day, and the badly faded band was only visible in two frames.

An Audubon Florida trail camera aimed at a nest in Florida Bay caught a glimpse of an 18-year-old roseate spoonbill, believed to be the oldest spoonbill ever documented. The aluminum band identified it as ’78.’
An Audubon Florida trail camera aimed at a nest in Florida Bay caught a glimpse of an 18-year-old roseate spoonbill, believed to be the oldest spoonbill ever documented. The aluminum band identified it as ’78.’ [ MAC STONE | Audubon Florida ]

Also in frame were two pink chicks, which suggests the parent may also be the oldest breeding spoonbill scientists have ever found. It’s not clear whether the bird is male or female. It’s hard to tell with spoonbills from a distance, and both birds share chick-rearing duties, Lorenz said.

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Finding this bird nesting a mere six miles from where it hatched 18 years ago also backs up what Lorenz’ research is starting to show: most roseate spoonbills like to nest where they hatched, with only a small number traveling to new spots to breed.

“It’s like people. Some people are homebodies and some have wanderlust,” he said.

Climate change threatens spoonbills in Florida Bay

But as sea level rise eats away at the low-lying coastal spots spoonbills prefer to nest in, No. 78′s most recent chick might not get the same opportunity to stay close to home as its parent did.

Sea level rise, along with Everglades Restoration, is why Audubon is out in Florida Bay doing this research. Roseate spoonbills are known as an indicator species for the Everglades. If they’re healthy and numerous, then the Everglades are in good shape too.

While spoonbills are listed as threatened in Florida, their population is growing. But as climate change warms the planet and pushes sea levels higher, the photogenic pink birds are increasingly moving north and out of Florida.

Historically, Lorenz said, spoonbills nested south of Tampa on the west coast and Cape Canaveral on the east coast. Now they’re nesting in Georgia, South Carolina — even Arkansas.

In Florida Bay, the major threat to continued spoonbill nesting is sea level rise.

Spoonbills are known for their distinctive paddle-shaped beak. Unlike herons or egrets, which rely on sight and fast reflexes to spear a fish with their pointed beaks, spoonbills rely on touch. They need a lot of fish concentrated in one area to be able to effectively hunt and feed their chicks, which is exactly what happens when water levels dip in dry season.

“It’s almost like a little vacuum cleaner. They don’t look for a particular fish or a particular shrimp, it’s just that when they find something they swallow it,” Lorenz said.

Those fish-stocked ponds are the perfect spot for spoonbills to raise their young, but sea levels are inching higher in coastal areas of Florida Bay, making the water too deep in many favored spoonbill nesting sites.

Research by Heather Rafferty, who worked with Lorenz, released last year suggests that 90 percent of the historic foraging area for spoonbills in Florida Bay may already be too deep to support the birds.

Despite the potentially dark future for spoonbills in Florida Bay, Lorenz said he’s confident the species will survive.

“This is a very ancient group of birds. They have been around for a million years. They have seen the oceans come up and come down several times as a species,” he said. “They’re smarter than us. They will flee the coast while we’re flocking to it.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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