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Oldest known Roseate Spoonbill found nesting in Florida

Roseate Spoonbill
A Roseate Spoonbill tends to its chicks on Little Betsy Key in Florida Bay. The adult was banded on Frank Key in December 2003, with band numbers 7 over 8. This recent sighting makes the bird the oldest known spoonbill in the wild. Photo by Mac Stone

The oldest Roseate Spoonbill ever recorded was found within Everglades National Park in Florida Bay this spring.

Jerry Lorenz, director of research for Audubon Florida, banded the bird in December 2003, meaning that it is now more than 18 years old. The previous record for longevity in the wild for the species was 16 years. Conservation photographer Mac Stone, on assignment with Audubon, photographed the banded bird in early April 2022 while it tended to its offspring in a nest.

“Spoonbills are our pink canary in the coal mine,” Lorenz says. “We rely on them as an indicator species to tell us when and how ecological conditions are changing throughout the Everglades. This bird is an incredible example of just that – moving around Florida Bay for the better part of two decades and helping us tell the story of where the Everglades is hurting and healing.”

Here’s a closeup of the spoonbill and its leg bands. Photo by Mac Stone

Kelly Cox, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, adds: “This spoonbill has seen a lot in its almost two decades on Florida Bay — algae blooms, hypersalinity, and sea grass die-offs. But, it has also seen positive outcomes from Everglades restoration, including increased freshwater to Florida Bay. This spoonbill tells us that despite the hardships, nature is resilient and when we give her a chance, she can bounce back.”

Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center conducts weekly surveys of Roseate Spoonbill colonies in Florida Bay during nesting season to get nesting and general population data. Two of the colonies have been monitored for 30 years.

In 2003, Audubon scientists began applying leg bands to chicks in nests in Florida Bay and Tampa Bay at the Richard T. Paul Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary. In 2013, staff also began banding birds hatching from nests at St. Augustine Alligator Farm. In total, Audubon has banded about 3,000 chicks. Banding spoonbills — an indicator species for Everglades ecosystem health — has led to a greater understanding of dispersal rates and behavioral structures after nesting season in Florida Bay is over. 

The organization continues to band young spoonbills, mostly at St. Augustine. “We still band spoonbills opportunistically in Florida Bay, but not many,” says Erika Zambello, Audubon Florida’s communications director. “We now use a combination of camera traps and trackers on individual spoonbills.”

Spoonbill data from Audubon Florida is part of the 2020 South Florida Wading Report (pages 17-19).

Combing through 1,500 photos

“I have photographed banded spoonbills in Florida Bay for over a decade trying to trace the origins of corroded letters and numbers for Audubon,” Stone says. “When I downloaded the card from my camera and noticed that a banded bird came to the nest to feed its chicks, I knew I had something special. I carefully combed over 1,500 images and found only two moments where light and shadow hit the band just right. It was a reminder how powerful science and art can be when pursued together.”

The decline and resurgence of Roseate Spoonbills parallels the conservation movement in Florida. These bright pink birds with long legs and an unusually shaped bill have long mesmerized those who encounter them, and their beautiful plumes were especially sought-after during a time when women’s fashion included hats adorned with feathers and even entire birds. Audubon Florida led the charge to protect wading birds from hunting, and today the organization continues to be a premier scientific resource for Roseate Spoonbills and the Everglades as a whole.

Read Mac Stone’s February 2013 article about Roseate Spoonbills

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