Even the most casual observer of nature can see that something is amiss. Birds that are typically found much farther south are moving northward and, in some cases, staying there. Take for example the roseate spoonbill, one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating birds. Spoonbills traditionally lived only in southern Florida, below the Everglades, but today can be found nesting as far north as Arkansas and Georgia. Though not nesting, birds have even been spotted as far north as Canada. Indeed, one of the true delights on the South Carolina coast has been the relatively recent arrival of spoonbills in our marshes and ponds.
The roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a medium-sized pink water bird that, to the inexperienced, is often mistaken for a flamingo. The famous birder, Roger Tory Peterson, once called the roseate spoonbill “one of the most breathtaking of the world’s weirdest birds.”
Roseate spoonbills were nearly extinct by about 1900 due to overhunting for their striking pink plumes, used to adorn women’s hats. Through preservation efforts, the roseate spoonbill has made a remarkable comeback, with a population that is steadily spreading across the coastal Southeast. Historically, roseate spoonbills have bred along stretches of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and around the Caribbean. So why has the spoonbill moved north? In the early 1980s, water management practices in Florida, combined with the rise in sea level, negatively impacted the food source of the spoonbill. This resulted in what might best be described as a northward invasion.
Roseate spoonbills, one of six spoonbill species, are relatively large — nearly 3 feet long with a wingspan of 50 inches. They weigh between 3 and 4 pounds and live 10 to 15 years. The head of the adult lacks feathers and is greenish in color. The neck is white, but the rest of the bird is a deep pink. As many times as I’ve seen them fly across the marsh, I am always amazed at their size, especially when compared to other shorebirds. This is primarily due to the fact that spoonbills fly with their necks extended. Many publications describe spoonbills as “bizarre,” a term certainly used by those who do not appreciate these wonders of nature.
Spoonbills are carnivores, feeding mainly at low tide on crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates. Their pink color is derived from canthaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment that is found in crustaceans. Besides its striking color, the large spoon-shaped bill makes the bird easily identifiable. The bill is swept back and forth in shallow water, and when a prey item contacts the upper and lower mandibles’ sensitive nerve endings, the bill snaps shut. Interestingly, chicks hatch without the iconic spoon-shaped bill, but at about 9 days old their beaks start to flatten and within a month resemble those of adults.
The state of South Carolina has seen an increase in roseate populations over the past 20 years. They began showing up in coastal areas in the spring and leaving at the end of the summer. But over the past few years their stay has extended. I have personally observed spoonbills on Kiawah as recently as Nov. 10, 2021, and the first modern-era nesting records in South Carolina are reported to have occurred in 2019.
The roseate spoonbill cannot be found outside the lower coastal counties, at least not yet, but they are only a two-hour drive away. So, later this spring and summer, I encourage you to visit our southern coastal marshes. Try to time your visit at low tide and scan the pluff mud with your binoculars. You just may be rewarded with one of nature’s most fascinating creatures.