When Craig Watson moved to South Carolina 30 years ago, the appearance of a roseate spoonbill would draw people from hundreds of miles away hoping to get a glimpse of the exotic bird.
Today, spoonbills are a daily sight among the herons and egrets in the coastal marshes where Watson works as a state migratory bird biologist. “They’re here every month of the year,’’ he said. “It’s been pretty remarkable to watch.’’
Changes in habitat and climate are threatening birds all across the country. But in a twist that surprises and impresses researchers, the very forces working against many species have helped push the number of spoonbills in the Southeast to their highest levels in modern times.
Their expansion into central and north Florida, Georgia and South Carolina has come at South Florida’s expense. As the roseate spoonbills move north and inland, they are abandoning their historic breeding grounds in Florida Bay and the coastal Everglades.
Unlike species struggling to adapt, the spoonbills are finding new homes, safe places to breed and fresh sources of food.
“They are an ancient race of birds, so they’ve been through this before,” said Dr. Jerry Lorenz, state research director for the Florida Audubon Society and Florida’s preeminent expert on spoonbills. “They’ve always had to adapt to sea levels. The thing is, they’re smarter than human beings. They know how to get out of the way of rising water.”
The health of the spoonbill population is one encouraging chapter in an otherwise troubling story as birds face changes in everything from their environments to food to climate. It’s as if the pressures to evolve that once took place over thousands of years now arrive by the decade.
Birdlife International, which tracks the status of all birds, says 40 percent of the Earth’s 10,000 species are in decline. Beneath that statistic, a complex and mysterious natural triage is unfolding. Some species, such as blackbirds, cardinals, eagles and ospreys, are thriving. Many others are not, including some hummingbirds, many warblers, seabirds, some ducks and birds that migrate the length of the hemisphere through a gamut of altering habitats.
Researchers at the leading avian organizations, the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy chief among them, are trying to figure out why only certain birds, like the spoonbill, are able to adjust.
“There are some that are adapting, but I think a lot of species are going to have a really hard time with climate change,’’ said Brooke Bateman, the senior climate scientist for the Audubon Society. Added Cornell Lab research associate Frank La Sorte: “Exactly what species will persist through these various events is very difficult to predict.’’
Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy that has created preserves all over the United States and Latin America, said there are too many forces at work to predict how species will respond.
“Nature is not a laboratory,’’ he said, adding that you can’t say, “ ‘Let’s see what happens when you take out the threat from cats. Let’s see what happens when you take out climate change.’ It’s very difficult to calculate.’’
The roseate spoonbill’s success shows the importance of flexibility. One of Florida’s most photogenic birds with its pink and reddish plumage and spatula-like bill, the spoonbill has weathered environmental shifts, even ice ages, dating back to its dinosaur origins.
Those challenges have continued into modern times: The spoonbill was nearly wiped out in the U.S. by the feathered hat craze of the late 1800s. In Florida, the birds have slowly worked their way back from about a dozen nests to an estimated 4,000 spoonbill pairs today — making adjustment as they went.
As the deterioration of the Everglades cut off the flow of clean water to Florida Bay decades ago, the first spoonbills started moving north to new territory. Then when the rising ocean levels altered the depths they need for foraging, many of the birds moved from the coastal nesting areas on Merritt Island and Tampa Bay and set up rookeries inland.
One of the largest breeding sites for spoonbills and hundreds of other wading birds is now situated on two inland islands west of Melbourne called Stick Marsh, which sits near a busy boat launch and next to two wildlife management areas full of fish and crustaceans.
“It’s amazing to me that they’re able to move inland and become more of a freshwater species,’’ said Mark Cook, who tracks wading birds for the South Florida Water Management District. “It has obviously got some inherent flexibility in its genetic makeup to be able to switch from nesting in coastal areas to interior wetlands.’’
Among the factors that determine if birds can adapt are how limited their diets are, how mobile they are and the conditions they require to build nests. Researchers are particularly focused on what birds need during mating and nesting seasons that shape future population health.
When the Audubon’s Lorenz started hearing about the growth of the Stick Marsh breeding grounds several years ago, he went up to see the rookery. Local researchers told him there might be as many as 25 nests hidden in the thick foliage. As he studied the birds, he realized something more impressive was going on.
“I sat there on the shoreline and counted,’’ he said. “There were at least 150 nests there.”
As word circulated that spoonbills had taken up residence in Central Florida, birders, photographers and tourists started showing up. Some ventured onto the islands themselves, which prompted the state to declare the rookery a protected zone three years ago. Still, boats pass within yards of the site and waves lap constantly at the islands.
“There’re all kinds of disturbance issues that we need to keep a handle on,” said Alex Kropp, a conservation biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, whose territory includes the spoonbill rookery. “Still, it’s an ideal place for spoonbills.”
Despite the progress spoonbills have made, their long-term outlook is not certain, biologists say. Their numbers in the U.S. are still relatively small compared to such species as herons and egrets. Spoonbills are still considered threatened by the state of Florida, and the Audubon Society lists them as “climate threatened’‘ throughout the U.S.
Researchers predict that tougher times are coming for all kinds of birds with the accumulated impacts of habitat loss, pollution and the spread of threats such as glass buildings and windmills.
A recent United Nations report on the environment warned that climate change could lead to a new wave of mass extinctions merely decades from now. Conservationists hope these mounting troubles will lead to stronger policies to set up preserves, push education and toughen laws protecting threatened species.
“We already know many of the things we can do,’’ said Parr of the American Bird Conservancy. “We should be acting on it, slowing and mitigating these forces.’’
Lorenz has similar thoughts when it comes to the future of the spoonbill. He still holds out hope that the restoration of the Everglades could supply enough clean water to restore the Florida Bay as a primary breeding ground.
“I think that it’s a shame. We haven’t given them any choice but to move,’’ he said. “We can fix a lot of these problems. My thinking is, let’s get to work.’’
Anders Gyllenhaal, a former executive editor of The Miami Herald and vice president of news for McClatchy, is an avid birder and nature photographer and co-operates the birding website FlyingLessons.US .
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.