The Roseate Spoonbill is one of the most distinct and charming wading birds found in South Florida. Its rounded beak and rosy pink feathers make it distinguishable for even novice bird watchers. Unfortunately, these same features resulted in the Spoonbill's near decimation at the turn of the last century, a result of feather hunting.
Scientists now recognize this wading bird's critical role in Florida Bay ecology. Research conducted as part of the Florida Bay Interagency Science Program has traced the changes in Spoonbill populations and connected the life of the Spoonbill to Everglades restoration.
Jerry Lorenz, biologist with the National Audubon Society Tavernier Science Center, is the most recent in a string of scientists who followed the life of the Roseate Spoonbill in Florida Bay and investigated the impacts of human influence on its survival.
"Our research clearly connects the impacts of water management practices in South Florida to the nesting success of the Spoonbill," stated Lorenz. The Roseate Spoonbill is a wading bird that feeds on small organisms living in shallow areas of Florida Bay. Changes in its food supply in turn affect its ability to feed young.
"Chicks should be flying around this time of year," Lorenz noted recently. "Due to water levels in the northeast part of the bay, we are seeing Spoonbills nest twice a season in order to produce chicks which survive. In the northwestern part of the bay, nesting is successful the first time around. Just a few miles to the east it is a remarkably different story," Mr. Lorenz pointed out.
Nesting patterns of Spoonbills revealed the importance of feeding grounds to their survival. Two shifts were discovered beginning in the early 1960's. The first change observed was an abandonment of nests in the southeastern and southwestern part of Florida Bay and an associated increase in nests in the northeastern part of the bay. This relocation coincides with dredge and fill operations underway at that time along the main Florida Keys which altered many of the shallow feeding areas along the islands.
Nests in the northeast region began declining in the mid 1980's. "In 1979, 700 nests were counted in northeastern Florida Bay," said Lorenz. "By 1985 that number had dropped to about 250 nests in the same region." Nests in the northwestern part of Florida Bay, however, were increasing at the same time indicating that the birds were choosing that area as more favorable. The shift from the northeast to the northwest coincides with a major change in water management in South Florida. With the completion of the South Florida Conveyance System, the drainage system that extends from the Tamiami Trial to Florida Bay, fresh water flows to the northeastern bay dropped.
The Spoonbill's nesting success is so closely tied with its ability to locate adequate feeding grounds that this evidence tells a story of wetland degradation. Lorenz' research has focused primarily on the fish that make up most of the Spoonbill's diet. Results suggest that the loss and relocation of successful nests is due to changes in the wetlands of the northeastern bay that have altered the bird's food supply. As a result, the Spoonbill had to move further west to find adequate feeding grounds.
"The Roseate Spoonbill's response to habitat alterations occurred very fast on an ecological time frame," pointed out Lorenz. "That sensitivity makes this animal a potentially important tool in Everglades restoration."
Nesting changes for the Spoonbill may be one of the first indicators scientists have that changes in water management practices are in fact changing the ecosystem. Jerry Lorenz plans to continue his observations of the Spoonbill's nesting patterns.
For more information on this project and other Florida Bay Interagency Science Program research, contact the Florida Bay Education Project at 305-852-3592. Additional information on a variety of topics is available from the University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, 5100 College Road, Stock Island or call at 292-4501; fax = 292-4415; email email@example.com or visit our web site http://monroe.ifas.ufl.edu. Our services are free and available to all without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.