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The flamingos of Snake Bight

The heart of the Everglades is the best place in America to find our pinkest, most flamboyant bird
By Bob Showler | Published: 2/1/2008

Snake-BightwWhen I want to see birds in Everglades National Park — lots of birds — I go to Snake Bight.

It’s a curious name, Snake Bight. The term bight refers to a bend in a shoreline to form a bay. You’ll hear it used in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, but it becomes rare as you travel north. I think the West Indian connection is appropriate because every time I experience Snake Bight, I have to remind myself that I’m in the United States, and not the Caribbean.

Extremely shallow and fringed with mangroves and salt-encrusted, muddy stretches of shoreline, the place has “tropical” written all over it. In summer, the heat and humidity wrap around you like a heavy blanket, and towering black storm clouds rise up out of nowhere, threatening to ruin your day. Fortunately, the near-perfect subtropical winter is always around the corner.

As for snakes, you won’t find them in salty Snake Bight, even though all kinds live on the surrounding mainland.

The bight covers about 10 square miles along the northern shore of much larger Florida Bay, which is framed in by the southern tip of mainland Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Gulf of Mexico. You can reach it by hiking the two-mile Snake Bight Trail, which starts five miles up the road from the outpost of Flamingo. (Be prepared for mosquitoes; they take their work very seriously. And don’t even think about hiking in summer!) The trail ends at a short boardwalk overlooking the bight; bring a spotting scope for views of the distant flats.

Or you can get there by canoe or kayak. This is the route I prefer. I put in at Flamingo, where rentals, along with a marina store, campground, and visitor center, are available. I paddle about two miles east to the bight and then head northward, hugging its western shore. Low tide is best.

The floor of the bight is covered with seagrass beds that teem with marine life. Spider crabs lumber over the bottom, and tarpon, fish as big as logs, cruise in water so shallow their dorsal fins cut the surface. When tarpon charge across the flats after schools of baitfish, the water literally roars.

Then we have the birds. In winter, migrants from the north pile in to join the year-round residents. Gulls, terns, shorebirds, and waders are abundant. The bight is one of the best places in the U.S. to watch Roseate Spoonbills, which make my jaw drop every time I see them. I also enjoy the Reddish Egret and its erratic, clumsy feeding routine. I wonder if it’s an embarrassment to its stately relatives, the Great Egret and Little Blue Heron.

My wife likes American White Pelicans best. When several hundred of them simultaneously leave the shoreline for the water, she’s reminded of feathers pouring from a down pillow. A Peregrine Falcon hangs around, too, streaking from out of nowhere to scatter flocks of dowitchers, willets, and plovers.

Whenever I’m in Snake Bight, one bird above all dominates my thoughts: the flamingo. This is the best place in America to find it — though you might have to look long and hard before you see one. For despite its trademark flamboyance, it can be one tough bird to find.

Pink broomstick with wings

In 1987, birder Sandy Komito set a record for a North American Big Year by finding 724 species. His Florida nemesis was the flamingo. It lured him several times to Everglades National Park. Once, he followed a report of 16 birds into the remote mangrove backcountry. The trip required a full day of canoeing. No flamingos. Later, he chartered a plane for a two-hour flight over the park. Still no flamingos. Finally, on December 7, nearing the end of his Big Year, he scoped a distant flock of four from the end of the Snake Bight Trail.

I could relate to his frustration. In the early 1980s, after working as a naturalist in the Everglades for two years, I still hadn’t seen one. I was beginning to wonder if they actually existed. Eventually, I found the real thing: two flamingos, only 100 yards away, strutting on toothpick legs over the Snake Bight flats. I’ll never forget the image of those bright pink birds against solid blue sky.

Florida’s native flamingo is the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), one of six species in the world. Until recently, it was considered a subspecies of the Eastern Hemisphere’s Greater Flamingo (P. roseus). But in the last decade, the American and British Ornithologists’ Unions awarded full species status to the pinker Caribbean population. With its bold plumage and gangly neck and legs, the flamingo requires little description. In flight it looks like a pink broomstick with wings.

I’ve observed people mistake spoonbills for flamingos, which isn’t too surprising, especially when the birds are flying by. They’re both big and pink, and besides, most visitors from the north don’t routinely see either species. To be certain, look for black flight feathers: the flamingo has them; the spoonbill doesn’t.

Scattered colonies

Nowadays in Snake Bight and occasionally elsewhere in South Florida, only small flocks of flamingos are reported. If you want to see huge aggregations, numbering in the hundreds or thousands, you’ll have to visit the Bahamas or the Caribbean, home to around 300,000 birds. Large breeding populations exist at scattered locations: Great Inagua Island in the southern Bahamas; coastal areas of Cuba; the northern coast of Venezuela; Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles; and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Many of the nesting haunts are in remote backwaters that the average tourist or even intrepid birder cannot access easily. In the Yucatan, however, you can take a boat or drive to view the birds. In Bonaire, a drive and a short walk will get you to them.

Flamingos weren’t always scarce in Florida. In 1832, John James Audubon traveled to the Florida Keys, where he documented on canvas the unique West Indian birdlife he encountered. High on his wish list was the flamingo.

On May 7, while sailing near Indian Key, he saw his first flock. “Ah! Reader, could you but know the emotions that then agitated my breast!” he later gushed.  “I thought I had now reached the height of all my expectations, for my voyage to the Floridas was undertaken in a great measure for the purpose of studying these lovely birds in their own beautiful islands.” He went on to state that he saw “a great number” of flamingos during his time in the Keys.

One of the most remarkable yet disturbing reports of flamingos in Florida comes from Gustavus Wurdemann, a U.S. coast surveyor and avid naturalist. In August 1857, he and a flamingo hunter found a huge flock, probably in the vicinity of Snake and adjacent Garfield Bights. As their boat approached, most of the birds flew away, but many were molting and therefore flightless. The hunter jumped out and grabbed birds, capturing about 100 of them, their plumage smeared with their own blood. Wurdemann and his companion then sailed south to the Keys, where they sold the dead and still-living flamingos, not for their feathers but for their meat.

During the late 1800s, many observers reported flocks numbering from 500 to 2,500 birds in Snake Bight and the surrounding shallows. Most people believed the birds bred on Andros Island in the northern Bahamas and had wandered to Florida after nesting season.

The last record of a large flock in Florida comes from March 26, 1902, when an observer named Howe reported an aggregation in the Snake Bight area numbering between 500 and 1,000 birds. For the next several decades, wild flamingos had all but disappeared from Florida. It’s believed that hunting in both Florida Bay and on Andros spelled the end of the flamingo’s heyday.

Wild birds or escapees?

In 1931 Joseph Widener, owner of the fledgling Hialeah Park Race Track near Miami, imported 12 flamingos from Cuba to boost his attraction. They all promptly flew away. Another batch was brought in, this time with their wings clipped. They constituted the foundation of a breeding flock that made Hialeah famous for decades. By the 1970s, about 800 flamingos thrived at the track. Today, it’s closed, but around 350 flamingos remain.

Since 1949, when the practice of wing-clipping ended, Hialeah’s flamingos have been able to fly free. For that reason, the track is often thought to be the source of flamingos found in South Florida.

The question of whether Florida flamingos can be considered wild took an unexpected turn when a bird wearing a leg band was seen in Snake Bight in October 2002. Its origin: the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Yucatan, Mexico.

What’s more, bird painter and author Rafael Antonio Gálvez, who received permission to visit the closed race track and its flock in September 2007, reports that the birds there are much paler than the flamingos found recently in the Everglades and in Miami. The flock’s caretaker claims that the birds rarely fly away from the park.

The historic accounts of large groups of wild flamingos in South Florida, the appearance of the Mexican bird, and the recent observations of Hialeah’s flock suggest that flamingos sighted in places like Snake Bight are truly wild.

Whether wild flamingos ever nested in Florida is the subject of debate. But two pieces of compelling evidence suggest they did. The first is an April 1901 report of 40-50 flamingos sitting on “whitish stumps” (a good description of the bird’s crater-like mud nests) on Sugarloaf Key, in the Lower Florida Keys. The other is an egg at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Los Angeles. The egg’s label reads: “American Flamingo; Phoenicopterus ruber; Florida Keys, Fla; 18 April, 1886.” Is it possible that flamingos weren’t just visitors but year-round, breeding residents?

Today, the flamingo’s near disappearance from Florida receives scant attention as a conservation issue. But in the early 1900s, protecting the bird was a hot topic in ornithology. William Dutcher, the first chairman of the National Committee of Audubon Societies (now the National Audubon Society), pleaded in 1903 for the protection of Florida’s birds, including flamingos. He wrote: “There dwells in a state of constant terror the last surviving flock of Flamingo known to exist within the boundaries of our State.”

In 1938, Daniel Beard, the first superintendent of Everglades National Park, wrote at length about the pros and cons of reintroducing the birds to Florida Bay. And in 1956, noted researcher Robert Porter Allen stated: “By the turn of the century considerable apprehension was being expressed in various quarters over the destruction of flamingos in Florida.”

Fickle wanderings
Flamingos, even in large flocks, can be extremely hard to find. A good example is the Puna Flamingo of the high Andes. For decades, following a 1924 report, ornithologists couldn’t locate a single bird. The species was believed to be extinct. But in 1957, a breeding colony was rediscovered in Bolivia. Today, around 50,000 Punas are thought to live in the region.

The trouble with finding flamingos lies in their unpredictable movements. Unlike many migratory birds, which unfailingly occur in the same locations year after year, flamingos can more accurately be described as nomadic. Their fickle wanderings and tendency to suddenly abandon nesting sites en masse appear to be tied to local environmental conditions, such as droughts and floods.

In Snake Bight and nearby waters, sightings and numbers crept upward during the last several decades, possibly because the species had recovered from more than a century of overhunting. In the 1980s, about 25 birds were sighted regularly near Buoy Key, where Snake and Garfield Bights meet. In the early 1990s, around 35 birds wintered near Sandy Key, located on the boundary of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In July 2004, 57 flamingos were photographed in Mud Lake, just a few miles inland from Snake Bight, and in 2005, an aerial survey of the Everglades found a flock of about 100 birds — the highest count in the park’s history.

Since then, sightings have dwindled. In 2006, I received a few reports of birds within and just outside the park, including five at Snake Bight. Last summer, a single bird turned up at a wetland in Miami. Then in September, I found 12 flamingos in the northeastern part of the bight near Porpoise Point (a sighting that required a five-mile paddle).

If you visit the Everglades and see flamingos, consider yourself lucky. (And be sure to tell a park ranger.) But will a trip without flamingos be a bust? Not if you hike or paddle to Snake Bight, where the sun rises warm and bright on birds of many feathers and where everything has a Caribbean flavor. Who knows? You might be so pleasantly surprised that you’ll forget all about what you may not find.

Bob Showler is a naturalist for the Florida Bay District of Everglades National Park. He writes and lectures frequently about the region’s flora and fauna. Bob dedicates this article to Steve Robinson, who knew and loved Snake Bight as much as anyone.