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Pretty in Pink

If you’re in Texas and something pink flies by, that’s no flamingo — it’s a roseate spoonbill.

By Betsy Simnacher

As a child, I knew the birds that were easy to identify: blue jays, cardinals and roseate spoonbills. In a crowd of egrets, herons and ibis, the roseate spoonbill, magnificently obvious in its pink plumage and spoon-shaped bill, stands out.

I was a lucky child in many ways, and I didn’t know it. I could dig in the sand that neighbors used to fill the wetlands before saving the wetlands became the right thing to do, and the roseate spoonbills soared overhead. Moving between Galveston Bay and the wetlands beyond the sand, they put on a daily matinee.

I got so used to the spoonbills that their presence was just another bay miracle, like the sand crabs and the corroded tin cans you could crush with a light touch of your foot. It was only as an adult that I learned to appreciate their singular beauty.

Not so long ago, I stood nearby as a group of some 50 birds fed in a wetlands pond. The air was sticky, and the birds were making seemingly random cawing noises as they hunted for food. I was swatting mosquitoes with gusto. Suddenly, the flapping of great pink wings announced the presence of a spoonbill. Touching down, the bird began searching for food, swishing its immersed bill from side to side in a semicircle. Its head appeared to be nodding an emphatic “no.” Every once in a while, it lifted its head to the sky and took an obvious gulp.

It's three years before they turn the dark pink that the adults possess, and then they have the rainbow colors in their tails and scarlet in their wings.

This scene happened within the Galveston city limits, not in a zoo or some tropical country. This exotic pink bird is part of the scenery on the Texas coast. In the springtime nesting season, they are easy to see. During other times of the year, you can spot spoonbills too — if you know where to look.

Technically, when you look at a spoonbill, you are viewing Platalea ajaja, according to official American Ornithologists’ Union nomenclature. Another scientific name for the spoonbill, which is also commonly used, is Ajaia ajaja. Ajaia is a South American natives’ word for the spoonbill, and it is translated into the Latin as ajaja. Platalea is the Latin word for spoonbill. When you see them feeding with ibis, this is no accident. Spoonbills and ibis are in the same family and have similar feeding habits.

These wading birds typically feed in groups. It’s thought that they do so because each stirs up food in the water for the other birds. The spoonbill uses its distinctive bill to sweep shallow water from side to side. Sensitive nerve endings inside its beak tell the bird when to clamp down on a mouthful. The menu includes small fish and crustaceans. “It’s a form of grazing, but they’re grazing mostly on animals,” says Susan Knock, senior lecturer in ornithology at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

It is this diet that gives spoonbills their characteristic pink color. They use an enzyme to incorporate the coloring into their body. In zoos, keepers have learned to approximate the spoonbill diet with a similar kibble, says Chris Brown, curator of birds at the Dallas Zoo. If they don’t, “they bleach out,” according to Knock.

Bird counters know that, in the wild, spoonbills are slowly declining in number.

The roseate spoonbill’s pink color can confuse amateurs. Gene Blacklock, who co-wrote Birds of Texas, used to answer the phones for Coastal Bend Audubon and frequently received reports of flamingoes in the Corpus Christi area. They meant spoonbills, of course, but Blacklock had trouble convincing them of that. “They didn’t look at the beaks very well,” he says. “Obviously, they think the only pink bird in the world is a flamingo.”

It’s hard to miss the pink when a spoonbill is in flight: Its typical wingspan is 50 inches. They fly with their necks straight out, and “they’ll capitalize on thermals,” or fly like a hang glider, says Blacklock. Often, they fly in formation, sometimes in a straight line. “They flap and sail, flap and sail,” he says. Spoonbills fly moderately long distances, and, as is typical with moderate fliers, they don’t weigh much. A typical spoonbill might weigh 3.3 pounds and measure 32 inches from the top of the beak to the tail.

Typically, spoonbills are at their most glorious shade of pink in the springtime. “A lot of [the coloring] depends on where they’re mating, what’s hatching, whether or not they’re getting access to food,” says Knock. In the winter, they can be relatively drab. “I’ve been with birders who originally mistake a spoonbill for an ibis or a heron because they look so white (from behind),” she says.

It’s in the spring, though, that spoonbills mate and lay their eggs. They have a mating ritual that includes trading sticks. “In courtship,” writes Kenn Kaufman in Lives of the American Birds, “male and female first interact aggressively, later perch close together, present sticks to each other, cross and clasp bills.” Knock adds, “They can be seen sitting next to each other on roosts, just touching.”

Spoonbills are monogamous for each mating season. The adults build a nest with sticks. A spoonbill nest is substantial; after all, it must hold up to four juvenile birds. Each of the young birds can be up to 2 to 3 feet across. Spoonbills can build their nests on the ground, but prefer to nest in higher places on the Texas coast. Even in wetlands where the tallest objects are shrubs 3 feet off the ground, spoonbills build their nests at the top of the shrubs, says Knock. They usually nest near water, and shallow water is best.

The ideal spoonbill nesting spot is a place they feel safe, because they are relatively defenseless. When a spoonbill is threatened, it simply flies away. “If you look at a spoonbill’s beak, you’ll see that there isn’t much there to defend himself,” says Mort Voller, chairman of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council.

A couple of ideal nesting spots exist on the upper Texas coast. One is the Audubon sanctuary at North Deer Island in Galveston’s West Bay, which is far enough from the mainland to protect the birds. The principal natural enemies of birds at Deer Island are fire ants and rattlesnakes.

Another roosting place is High Island, just off Highway 124, north of Texas Highway 87 and west of Galveston. High Island, a small community with a sanctuary named Smith Oaks that is owned and managed by the Houston Audubon Society, is open to the public daily, and offers an observation platform that overlooks its heronry. You can reach High Island from Galveston via the Port Bolivar ferry. Alternatively, from Houston, starting on Interstate 10, take the exit at Winnie, and go south on Highway 124. At the Smith Oaks heronry, the alligators keep raccoons and other predators at bay. “Adult birds standing next to the shore get taken, and young, too, fall off the nest and get taken, but I think that a family of raccoons would do a whole lot more damage than the few birds that are taken by the alligators,” says Knock.

Spoonbills lay whitish eggs with brown speckles. They usually lay two to three eggs. Incubation takes 22 to 23 days, and the young can fly in another 35 to 42 days. The adults fly off to feed themselves and bring food back to the babies. They regurgitate for the young, or the babies reach in and grab the food from the parents’ beaks.

Right after breeding, there’s usually something called post-breeding dispersal. The young wander inland, and adult birds can travel even farther. “They wander inland because they can feed in fresh water, and they don’t have the tight habitat requirements for breeding,” says Knock. After breeding, they move up and down the coast.

The first year after spoonbills leave the nest, they’re a pale pink, says Blacklock. In the second year, they’re pinker. “It’s three years before they turn the real dark pink that the adults possess, and then they have the rainbow colors in their tails [including a terra cotta-colored tail] and scarlet in their wings,” he says.

It’s unclear how long roseate spoonbills live in the wild. We do know that the most life-threatening time for them is from the time the baby bird leaves the nest until it is one year old. “Once they become adults, I suspect spoonbills could live anywhere from five to 12 years,” says Blacklock. In captivity, spoonbills can live much longer — up to 30 to 32 years, according to Laurie McGivern, who supervises the Dallas Zoo’s Zoo North bird area, and, as studbook keeper, is responsible for counting the spoonbills in area zoos.

In the wild, roseate spoonbills overcame a major threat at the turn of the 20th century, when they were hunted almost to extinction. Their feathers were much in demand for the ladies’ hats that were the fashion at the time. By the 1930s, their population was up again. In 1934, The New York Times published an account of the roseate spoonbill’s resurgence: “A recent report of the Audubon association, however, gives the encouraging news that these birds are returning in goodly numbers.” The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected the birds, and apparently was responsible for the recovery of the spoonbill population. In the 1950s and 1960s, they survived the use of DDT.

Bird counters know that, in the wild, roseate spoonbills are slowly declining in number, though not as much as some other birds. Since they feed in the wetlands, they are an indicator species that tell us the quality and quantity of wetland life. “Spoonbills are big, they’re obvious, they’re easy to count, and you can keep track of their populations fairly easily,” says Knock. Counting them is “a reasonably simple way to monitor habitat health without going out and collecting fish,” she says. If spoonbills can’t get enough to eat, then we aren’t producing enough shrimp and fish, she points out — so spoonbills tell us something about the health of the fishery business in Texas.

The spoonbill population naturally decreases in Texas during the winter because some of the birds migrate from the Texas coast toward Mexico. Roseate spoonbills can be found throughout much of eastern South America as well. “I think mostly they are following the food source,” says Knock. The water gets colder in Texas, some invertebrates die while insects and crustaceans either become more dormant or enter another life cycle unavailable as bird food, encouraging some spoonbills to move to warmer territory.

That’s not to say that spoonbills can’t be seen in Texas all over the coastline, at all times of the year. You have to know where to look, and you have to think like a spoonbill. “You don’t just find them everywhere [in the winter],” says Blacklock. “They need the right kind of tides, the right kind of water depths.” It’s unlikely that you’d see them in the middle of the bay, unless they were flying from one point to another, he says. Sometimes in the spring, on the barrier islands off the coast, you can catch them migrating, perhaps with herons, moving north to their nesting spots.

Watching them fly, or on their nests, or simply feeding in the wetlands is a memorable sight. They are unparalleled as “eye candy,” says Knock. In fact, she says, “Watching spoonbills is probably as effective — and cheaper — than a therapist.”

Where to See Roseate Spoonbills

Birders know there are choice spots to see spoonbills; otherwise a spoonbill may be a serendipitous find. And they can be found in surprising places. Last summer, they were spotted in San Antonio, at Bird Pond at the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center. Here are some of the best places along the coast.

Galveston Island

In Galveston Island State Park, spoonbills usually stay on the bay, or south, side. They may be on Como Lake, to the west of Oak Bayou, and in a pond to the north of Jenkins Bayou. Nature trails running parallel to Oak and Jenkins bayous are also prime places for spoonbill watching, park rangers say.

The Galveston Featherfest and other bird festivals are recommended as a way for birdwatchers to learn about and see all kinds of birds. This year’s Galveston Featherfest will be March 30 through April 2.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Observation decks and driving tours offer opportunities to view spoonbills, sometimes up close. But sightings are unpredictable, says Andy Loranger, who manages Anahuac. For the best views, try Shoveler Pond and the Oyster Bayou Moist Soil Unit. (Maps are available at the visitor information station at the entrance.) Anahuac is west of High Island. First-timers should look up directions on the Web at <southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/Anahuac> or call (409) 267-3337

Rockport

Spoonbills feed in the ditches on the sides of Texas Business Highway 35 South, says Carolyn Tinney at the Rockport Visitor Center. They have been spotted at Cove Harbor Marina near Rockport as well.

Corpus Christi

Try Nueces Bay Causeway, Indian Point, Hans Suter Park and Tuley Lake (off River Road). “There are some that nest on the little island right by the causeway,” Blacklock says. Indian Point is a good location for spoonbill-watching in winter, as is Hans Suter Park, where there is a boardwalk.

Port Aransas

Go to the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center (formerly the Port Aransas Birding Center), and climb the observation deck. “Look way out, beyond the cattails,” says Leonabelle Turnbull. “Sometimes, early morning, they’ll fly over up there.”

South Padre Island

Take Highway 100 to the South Padre Island Convention Center. There is a nature trail that leads to an excellent birding area.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Hike the trails, or a 15-mile auto tour will lead you to the bay, where you might spot some roseate spoonbills.

Bahia Grande

South of Port Isabel off Texas Highway 48, Bahia Grande is a major wetlands restoration site. You can see all kinds of shorebirds there, including roseate spoonbills, says Leo Gustafson, Laguna Atascosa wildlife biologist.

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