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Oldest roseate spoonbill alive discovered in Florida Bay

Roseate Spoonbill - Florida Audubon Mac Stone.jpg
Mac Stone/Florida Audubon
Florida Audubon discovered a roseate spoonbill in Florida Bay that the environmental group banded more than 18 years ago. A photographer was able to get a picture of the leg band, which tells the bird's age among other information

A roseate spoonbill Audubon Florida tagged as a chick in the early 2000s was rediscovered this spring alive and feeding youngsters of her own. The tag, a leg band, shows the spoonbill is more than 18 years old, which set a record for the oldest known bird of that species in the wild.

The bird has made Florida Bay at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula its home the whole time.

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

Photographer Mac Stone, on assignment with Audubon, captured the image showing the leg band, which tells the bird’s age among other information. Capturing an image showing the data on an often faded and beat-up leg band is no easy feat. Stone shot 1,500 images and found only two where light and shadow hit the band just right to make it legible.

"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 said. “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.”

That a spoonbill has grown so old is a milestone of sorts. The bright pink birds with long legs and an unusually-shaped bill were in jeopardy in the early 1900s. Back then they were heavily hunted for their striking plumes, which were highly prized when women’s fashion included hats adorned with feathers -- and even entire birds.

Audubon was a leading environmental group in stopping the plume trade and spoonbills have recovered in the decades since.

Nearly 20 years ago, 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, the group also began banding birds hatching from nests at St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Audubon has banded about 3,000 chicks, which typically live for about ten years in the wild. The previous record age for a spoonbill in the wild was 16 years old.

Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center has been tracking roseate spoonbill colonies in Florida Bay during nesting season for 30 years to gather nesting and population numbers.

The environmental group believes that banding spoonbills – an indicator species for Everglades ecosystem health - has led to a greater understanding of how and where the birds scatter to after nesting season, and how they interact with each other and the environment.

“Spoonbills are our pink canary in the coal mine. We rely on them as an indicator species to tell us when and how ecological conditions are changing throughout the Everglades,” Jerry Lorenz, Audubon Florida’s director of research, said. “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.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. Sign up for WGCU's monthly environmental newsletter, the Green Flash, today.