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“An Orchid Taken To Wing”

A handful of concerned birders, Vero Beach residents and experts are helping to preserve one of Florida’s most iconic birds

The roseate spoonbill, called Florida’s most popular bird, is making a dramatic comeback along the Treasure Coast.

The roseate spoonbill, called Florida’s most popular bird, is making a dramatic comeback along the Treasure Coast.

Noted wildlife biologist Dr. Jerry Lorenz has this “thing” about roseate spoonbills, the colorful, charismatic wading birds that he has often likened to “an orchid taken to wing” and others have described as everything from “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close” to “a colorful oddity of nature,” to “Florida’s most popular bird.” Famed naturalist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called the spoonbill “one of the most breathtaking of the world’s weirdest birds.” Says Lorenz, Audubon Florida’s State Director of Research, “They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, they’re iconic and ...” he pauses for a moment before continuing, “... and they’re in trouble.”

Lorenz should know. Over the last 26 years from his base in the Everglades Science Center in Tavernier, south of Key Largo, he has monitored an alarming decline in the numbers of roseate spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay, which was once home to more of the birds than anywhere else in the state. From a high of 1,260 nesting pairs in 1979 the birds have dwindled to maybe 200 today. 

Lorenz and others believe the decline is due to a combination of largely man-made factors. Wetlands drained for new housing wiped out much of the birds’ foraging grounds. Poor water management in the Everglades has led to rising waters in the region, which in turn affects spoonbill survival. If the water is too high, spoonbills have a hard time locating prey fish because lower water levels in wetlands help concentrate the fish. “Warming temperatures and rising ocean levels are another problem,” explains Lorenz. “When the salinity levels rise, the birds’ prey fish numbers dwindle. The spoonbills suffer.”