ST. PETERSBURG — Peaches towered from the shimmering slate water on one leg, a blushing vision against the bustling Sunshine Skyway. Next to tiny sandpipers and stock photo seagulls, the flamingo was a gossamer masterpiece, a proverbial statue of David in a pool of lesser works.
Peaches is new around here. Peaches is breathtaking. And like all unwitting animal celebrities, the flamingo has stoked the passions of the people, becoming a receptacle for our most human projections.
Is Peaches pestered by clunky tracking devices? Is Peaches happy? Will Peaches find a new flock? Will Peaches wander forever as Tampa Bay’s melancholy mascot?
Is Peaches lonely?
That one. That’s the question that populates photo captions and comments, a deflating follow-up that’s only natural after glimpsing a beautiful bird in solitude. This question is hard to answer, but we can try.
First, how did we get here, driving to the northern tip of Fort De Soto Park’s east beach, past the sign that says “Do Not Disturb Flamingo,” rolling to a park, gently closing the door and stepping out to witness Peaches’ majesty?
Time moves in blinks and flashes, but you remember Hurricane Idalia. Her August winds pushed untold pink flocks northward, possibly from the Yucatán or Cuba. Flamingos appeared all over Tampa Bay, and they’re still appearing in disorienting locations. Indiana. Wisconsin. The whole thing feels literary, a little apocalyptic, but past research shows flamingos making it all the way to Siberia.
Before Peaches was a star, the flamingo was spotted off St. Pete Beach, exhausted and confused, swimming 800 yards out. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Tampa Bay helped rescue Peaches, who went to rest at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. Researchers still don’t know if Peaches is male or female, a curious process that involves lab analysis of feathers.
Peaches became Peaches then, but also “US02.” Yes, just like it sounds: Peaches is only the second flamingo in the nation to be tracked.
The first was Conchy, found at the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica Key in 2015. Researchers aren’t allowed to capture healthy flamingos, but Conchy was in danger of getting killed on the runway. The bird was tagged and released in Florida Bay, flew into Everglades National Park and hung around mangrove islands and mud flats, countering the prevailing notion that the flamingo would ditch Florida. Conchy’s tracker stopped working in 2017 after Hurricane Irma.
Peaches presented a rare opportunity to pick up where Conchy’s data left off, said Jerry Lorenz, state research director for Audubon Florida. The United States Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory rushed federal approval for Lorenz and Frank Ridgley of ZooMiami to attach several bands to Peaches, whom Lorenz called “calm and wonderful.”
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Peaches was released at Fort De Soto on Sept. 9 wearing new accessories, the most conspicuous being a fiberglass satellite tracking device with a solar panel. It looks undeniably bulky; Lorenz says it weighs “almost nothing.” It has to be big, he said, in order to get sun.
This tracker has caused consternation online, with some onlookers claiming Peaches is distressed and pecking at the bands. Two people have created petitions calling for the bands to be removed. Organizer Dara Crystal shut the first down “due to threats and harassment from the public.” The second, hosted by Bill Valliere, had 329 signatures Thursday. Valliere didn’t respond to an invitation to talk about it.
Peaches is healthy, Lorenz said, eating, flying, preening and taking baths. Tracking animals “is backed up by literally thousands of years of research,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with that bird, but we do appreciate people being concerned. It’s good that people are out there keeping an eye on Peaches.”
The bigger picture, he said, is to find out where the birds go. And the bigger-bigger picture of tracking a flamingo or a sea turtle or a manatee or a spoonbill or any creature is protection.
“We want these birds to be residents in Florida like they were historically,” he said. “We’ve damaged our environment a lot since 1899.” Things are improving, he said, but “we need to understand where these birds need to go so we can either augment or protect the habitats they need.”
So far, data shows Peaches flying all around Fort DeSoto and up to MacDill Air Force Base. Lorenz thinks Peaches will eventually move south to meet up with the large groups in Florida Bay, where numbers are growing and flocks can run 60 deep.
Picturing 60 birds together brings us back to the heart-wrenching question about Peaches. If flamingos hang out in groups, and if Peaches is alone, does that mean Peaches is sad? And what can be done?
Here’s what experts know: Flamingos are social birds. They form huge nesting colonies and split into factors of three — three birds, six birds, nine birds, possibly switching up friend groups on a regular basis. Scientists speculate that they mate for life but don’t even know if their mate is a part of their squad.
It’s not unusual, though, to find solitary flamingos hanging out by themselves for a long time. A fugitive flamingo made its way to San Diego in 2018. Another flamingo, Pinky, has wintered alone in Tallahassee’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge for years.
“These birds can be solitary, and they can be solitary for a long time,” Lorenz said. “I’m not going to say that that bird is or is not lonely. But it’s comfortably finding food, and its needs are being well-met.”
There’s no telling how long Peaches will tolerate creeping cars lowering passenger-side windows for the perfect social media shot. If flamingos don’t want to be seen, they are experts at hiding among brush and trees.
The best thing we can do is remember that we are humans and Peaches is not. That, though it may be hard to understand, Peaches does not think exactly like us. That Peaches needs space. That we should turn off the engine, stay quiet and look on with the respect and awe Peaches deserves.
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