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The Flight of the Spoonbills Holds Classes for a Altering Everglades—and World


Miles from shore, deeper in Everglades National Park than the public is allowed, I slowly sank to my ankles in mangrove muck under a low dome of twisted branches. Fish heads, feathers, and eggshells littered the ground. Pungent guano painted every leaf and branch; flakes of it sloughed off and hung in the air.

Shadows passed overhead, and when I peered up through the canopy, I could glimpse herons and egrets rafting above like white pterodactyls—and then, a flash of spoonbill pink. Other birds squatted among the branches, croaking and chattering.

Amid the disorienting avian conversation rang more familiar voices—those of the field biologists who let me tag along to this quarter-acre mangrove island called Diamond Key. Casey King hovered above me, braced between a branch and a tree trunk, peering into a stick-and-leaf nest. “Three eggs in 27!” she shouted to Emily Johnson, herself wrapped around a trunk with a notebook and pencil in hand. Then, “There are four eggs in 17. I’m going to crawl over to 20; it’s right over your head.”

King scrambled into the next tree. “I got a baby! I got two babies!” I followed, grasping branches like the rungs of a ladder. Maneuvering above the nest, I inhaled sharply, lest my breath disturb them: Two Roseate Spoonbill chicks twitched next to an unhatched egg, their fragile pink bodies visible through soft white fuzz, each with a dainty orange spoon on its face. “These ones had to have just been born,” King said.

New life is always a wonder, but especially here and now. Diamond Key is one of the last spoonbill nesting sites in Florida Bay, and it offers a glimpse of the raucous, bustling colonies that once flourished throughout the region. Before plume hunters slaughtered them for their feathers, nearly driving populations extinct, more than a million wading birds lived in the Everglades. By the late 1970s, when colonies were once again thriving, 1,200 spoonbill pairs nested on Florida Bay mangrove keys alongside thousands of Great and Snowy Egrets, Great White and Tricolored Herons, and White Ibis.

But over the past 20 years, spoonbills have been abandoning their longtime nesting grounds—a pattern diligently documented by Jerry Lorenz, director of Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center. When he began studying Roseate Spoonbills here in 1989, the population was fairly stable, ranging between 500 and 900 nests. Then, starting around 2005, he noticed the species disappearing from the places he and they knew so well. “I started seeing things I just couldn’t understand,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘What are my birds doing?’ ”

Over the past decade Florida Bay’s spoonbills have steadily declined from around 400 nests in 2012 to 157 this past season, of which 34 fledged young. The cause, Lorenz surmises, is climate change. Sea levels are rising along the bay, and it has become too deep for spoonbills to hunt and too salty to support their prey fish.

Don’t get the wrong idea: Roseate Spoonbills aren’t failing. Their numbers are better in Florida than they’ve been in decades. They’re just not nesting in Florida Bay, the Everglades’ southernmost point, anymore. The species is undergoing a range shift. The birds that used to nest in the brackish bay now raise their young to the north, where saltier soils and warmer winters have prompted mangroves to colonize what had been freshwater habitat miles inland. “Not only is climate change taking away habitat from these birds, it’s also adding habitat,” Lorenz says. “They’re taking advantage of it.”

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Over the past 20 years, spoonbills have been abandoning their longtime nesting grounds.

__________

The shift extends beyond Florida. In recent years birders have spotted spoonbills exploring as far north as Minnesota, Maine, and Quebec. And adults are successfully breeding in states they’ve never nested in before, like Georgia, Arkansas, and, in 2020, South Carolina. “They have the potential to do well here,” says South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Christy Hand, who observed the world’s northernmost Roseate Spoonbill nest.

Seeing pink birds where they don’t belong is exciting for birders. But for ecologists the flip side is alarming: In barely two decades the species has moved out of its historical U.S. territory. And climate change’s trials for spoonbills and other Everglades wildlife is only beginning. The birds’ northward shift portends a coming transformation of South Florida as the ocean invades inland, challenging all life in its path.

Jerry Lorenz, top in Florida Bay in 2021 and bottom some 10 years prior, tracks spoonbill nesting and feeding on foot, by boat, and with technologies like ankle bands, satellite tags, and, more recently, remote cameras. Photos: Mac Stone

Everglades experts aren’t sitting back and watching this transformation unfold. They’re adapting, too, shifting their management approach to emphasize giving communities, both human and wildlife, a longer window to adjust. It’s a shift we’ll all have to make as the world gets hotter, reordering the ecological systems we depend on. Spoonbills are only the pinkest sign of changes underway across the world. That makes these scientists some of the best guides to prepare us for what’s coming.

 

The Everglades can be described as a 3-­million-acre wetland, a sopping-wet prairie, or the widest, slowest-moving river in the world. The freshwater wetland, roughly 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, is nearly flat—but not quite. It trickles downhill at a barely perceptible slope, moving fresh water and nutrients toward the sea.

Its flow originally started near Lake Okeechobee, which receives some 52 inches of rain annually, most of it during the wet season from roughly June through November. When rainwater overflowed the lake’s banks, it seeped southward, inundating everything along the way. Although it now starts elsewhere, this freshwater “river of grass” still meets ocean saltwater at the tip of the peninsula, where they mix in Florida Bay. The brackish body hosts seagrass beds and mangrove forests that underpin a highly productive fish nursery, including for commercial seafood like crab, shrimp, and snapper.

This bounty supported people since the Everglades formed 5,000 years ago. But by the mid-1800s, white settlers removed the Everglades’ Indigenous populations. The Calusa, fishers and shell architects, were exterminated by disease introduced from Europe and raids by British-backed rival tribes. Then President Andrew Jackson pursued the Seminoles in a series of war campaigns. Though the tribe never surrendered, the U.S. military successfully seized their land. During the Seminole Wars, from about 1817 through 1858, soldiers built the wetland’s first roads and forts at sites that would become Miami, Fort Myers, and Fort Lauderdale.

Thus began a process of reengineering the Everglades that would result a century later in ecological catastrophe for Florida Bay. The ground was too wet to build cities and farms, so developers drained the swamp. They dug channels to connect Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, carrying water west to the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1930s a second drain sent Okeechobee’s water down the St. Lucie Canal and into the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, much of South Florida’s fresh water was diverted directly into the sea.

Even so, there was still too much water on the landscape. In 1948, after a series of disastrous floods, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build vast water-control infrastructure. From the 1960s to the 1980s authorities constructed 1,000 miles of canals, straightened 103 miles of the Kissimmee River, and stored excess water behind levees.

Not only did this water-drainage system deliver less water to Florida Bay—four times less in the late 20th century compared to 1900—it also delivered the water differently. Instead of a gradual sheet flow of fresh water, engineers now release water through single points at canal outages. That means human decision-making determines the ecosystem’s hydrology and health.

Human decision-making is often flawed. In 1984 a canal and pump system cut off fresh water from Florida Bay. The effects were felt several years later, between 1987 and 1990, when high salinity killed more than 10,000 acres of seagrass beds. Without seagrasses to filter nutrients from the water, algae blooms and fish die-offs followed, which tanked South Florida’s fishing and tourism economy. It also doomed the birds. Wading birds need fish that need fresh water. When the water gets too salty, the fish that survive don’t successfully reproduce, and neither do spoonbills.

 

This is the scene Lorenz entered when he arrived at the Everglades Science Center as a graduate student in 1989. He started what was supposed to be an 18-month study and never stopped. Each discovery exposed gaps in his knowledge. To gain insight into spoonbill nesting habits, in 1994 he started spending the dry season monitoring the two largest colonies, each with hundreds of nests, tabulating how many eggs were laid, hatched, and survived to fledge. “Nobody was paying me to do this,” Lorenz recalls. “I just decided somebody better be collecting that data.”

By 1995 he had secured a paycheck and set out to establish standard methods for studying the ecosystem that supports spoonbills—the same methods his field staff use today. Lorenz began monitoring five spoonbill foraging sites throughout the bay and installed hydrological stations to automatically collect data on water salinity and temperature. The number of sites has since grown to 12. Every month or two, depending on the season, biologists measure seagrass beds and take fish samples to track what food is available for spoonbills (and everything else) at each site. Additionally, avian biologists disperse across mangrove keys during nesting time, searching for pink birds and tracking their young.

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Spoonbills are only the pinkest sign of changes underway across the world.

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The fieldwork is grueling. Lorenz’s field staff are blasted by the sun and sea during long days on the water. They hike and kayak through treacherous mangrove keys and endure sudden storms, heat, mosquitoes, and mechanical issues out of cellular range. Still, they’re committed to their work. “The worst day out here is better than the best day as a barista,” fish biologist Jaime Gilrein told me as she stood balanced on a kayak while stringing up the most complicated net I have ever seen.

Using those data, Lorenz constructed a mathematical model that links spoonbill chick production to the health of Florida Bay. Spoonbills are sensitive ecological indicators, he found. To catch fish, the wader stands in shallow water and waves its improbable beak back and forth like a metal detector; when the open bill touches a fish, it snaps shut. This mechanism means spoonbills eat only small fish at the base of the food web. And they need to catch a lot of them: Spoonbill parents feed their young for about 100 days before juveniles can fend for themselves.

To catch fish, Roseate Spoonbills stand in shallow water and wave their improbable beak back and forth like a metal detector; when the open bill touches a fish, it snaps shut. Video: Mac Stone

Many years are a wash, producing few successful nests. If the water is too salty, stressed-out fish die or don’t reproduce. If the water is too deep, fish aren’t concentrated enough for spoonbills to catch efficiently with their short legs and salad-tong beaks. But when conditions are just right, nesting booms.

Lorenz thought he’d never see a boom year. In his first decade on the job, the region was so degraded that only 5,000 to 10,000 wading birds would nest across the entire Everglades. Then, in 2000, Congress decided to address the ecosystem’s ruinous decline, approving an $8 billion plan (now estimated at $16 billion) to remove canals and levees, raise roadways, and build reservoirs to re-create the Everglades’ natural water flow.

It took a decade for the first projects to start moving earth, as stakeholders bickered over priorities, budgets, and politics. But they implemented one crucial change immediately. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan legally requires South Florida’s water managers to consult with ecologists when deciding where and when to release fresh water into the Everglades. Lorenz meets weekly with representatives from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps, and other agencies to offer advice on how to improve conditions for Florida Bay’s wildlife.

“Instead of us sitting on the sidelines, we scientists are now talking to the people that flip switches,” he says. “They come to us and say, ‘If I turn this pump on or open this gate, what’s going to happen environmentally?’ ”

Centering science in decision-making ensured that when fresh water was plentiful during an extra-wet wet season, it could end up in the right place to support avian life. As a result, in the 2000s, biologists started seeing occasional seasons with 30,000 to 60,000 nests across all wading species in the Everglades—levels closer to the 80,000-nest boom years documented in the 1940s, when birds had largely recovered from plume hunting but before hydrological changes caused them to crash anew.

Then in 2018, following record-breaking rainfall from Hurricane Irma and two tropical storms, something extraordinary happened. While conducting an aerial survey over the Everglades, SFWMD wading bird biologist Mark Cook counted 122,000 nests. “It was really exciting to witness,” he says. “It basically showed us that if we get the water right, if we can restore the hydrologic conditions, nature is incredibly resilient and these birds will come back.”

The boom year also confirmed the necessity of science-based conservation. It’s only because Lorenz invested decades into understanding how spoonbills reflect Florida Bay’s health that he could help engineers direct water flow to support wildlife across the region.

Lorenz’s keen insights, scientific mind, and collegial nature have made him a revered and trusted advisor. “Lorenz is one of the best, a world-class scientist,” says Erik Stabenau, an oceanographer with Everglades National Park. Cook says, “He’s showed so many different types of people just how important these spoonbills are, as well as doing fantastic science along the way.”

When Florida-based journalist and best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen decided to set his crime romp Skinny Dip in the Everglades, he sought Lorenz’s guidance. “I can’t think of anybody who works as relentlessly—and ­effectively—for the Everglades as Jerry does,” he says. “He knows every mangrove creek, mudflat, and spoonbill nest in Florida Bay because he’s out there so much. Even the mosquitoes have given up trying to stop the guy.”

 

Lorenz may be unstoppable, but he remains confoundable. In 2005, not long after he thought he had them figured out, his birds started behaving inexplicably. They deserted longtime colonies and began breeding where they never had before, shifting from southern islands to freshwater areas in the north.

At this point Florida Bay was recovering. According to his model, Lorenz should have been seeing more spoonbills, not fewer. “I was going, ‘What is wrong with my system? Why isn’t it working anymore?’  ” he recalls. “It took me till about 2012 to really look at my data and see, oh, waters are getting higher.” In Key West, on the bay’s southern fringe, sea levels have risen by more than four inches since 2000, faster than the global average.

Lorenz theorizes that because of the rising sea level, Florida Bay is no longer fresh or shallow enough to support spoonbills. Saltwater is intruding into South Florida in part because the destruction of the Everglades’ historical freshwater flow has left a vacuum for the ocean to fill. “The more fresh water we put into the system, the more pressure we put on the saltwater on the coast and the longer we hold it back,” Stabenau says.

For now, in the bay, the ocean is still winning. As a result, the species is rare on the 12 sites Lorenz monitors. A recent analysis showed that if modern spoonbills tried to fish their 1990s foraging grounds, the sites would be too deep. Likewise, if spoonbills then tried to forage where birds do today, the mudflats would be too dry.

Top: A biologist sits on a boat holding a spotlight; another biologist pilots the boat. Bottom: A single mangrove tree grows above water reflecting the colorful dawn sky.
Peter Aronson and Emily Johnson, top, navigate Florida Bay at dawn to survey spoonbill nests. Florida Bay is a difficult waterway to navigate for its shallow banks and subtly-marked passes. Aronson helps guide Johnson with a spotlight to mark the small cuts. A red mangrove, bottom, grows in a mud flat outside little Calusa Key in the central part of Florida Bay. Photos: Mac Stone

Johnson, the field biologist, showed me in March what happens when the water gets too deep for too long. She motored us to Palm Key, which has in recent years hosted Florida Bay’s biggest spoonbill colony. We high-stepped over vegetation and listened for birdlife. Clapper Rails took a roll call. Ospreys keered overhead. Insects hummed and Prairie Warblers tuned up.

If there were spoonbills, we would have heard them, too. They aren’t exactly discreet: Weeks earlier, when Johnson approached a colony, parents started honking to warn her off when she got within 600 feet. But when she returned to check on the 13-day-old hatchlings, the key was silent. “It was an ominous feeling,” she recalled.

__________

Lorenz theorizes that Florida Bay is no longer fresh or shallow enough to support spoonbills.

__________

We hiked to the former colony. I hoisted myself into the branches above a perfect spoonbill nest, sticks artfully framing a bed of mangrove leaves. It was empty. Eggshells littered the ground. “We would have loved to know what happened here,” Johnson said.

Lorenz has a hypothesis. Water levels were extra high this year. If spoonbills can’t find food nearby, they fly farther to reach shallow foraging grounds. If conditions are bad enough, sometimes both parents must go, leaving chicks exposed to predators like crows or raccoons. “Once that nest is unprotected, especially at night, it’s not a good situation,” he says. “If they had adequate food resources, they would adequately protect those chicks.”

A Roseate Spoonbill and chick is monitored under the supervision of trained Audubon biologists. Video: Mac Stone

Apparently conditions have gotten bad enough that Roseate Spoonbills are willing to experiment. When Cook started leading aerial wading bird surveys of the interior Everglades in 2004, he would see an occasional pink bird. Around 2010, he started counting 50 to 60 spoonbills north of Florida Bay. By 2015, that number grew to 200 birds. Then the population exploded. In 2020 there were 986 spoonbill nests across the Everglades beyond the bay and 809 in 2021. Unlike along the coast, inland areas had abnormally low water this year, resulting in only 438 nests—fewer than in a boom year but still many more than Florida Bay’s 157. “Spoonbills are doing very well,” Cook says. “It’s just that they’re not doing very well from a Florida Bay perspective.”

Lorenz developed the Roseate Spoonbills as a scientific indicator of Everglades health, and their drastic behavior change tells him something is wrong in South Florida. To his dismay, his birds are no longer telling him about freshwater flows and restoration, but rather sending an urgent message about global climate change.

 

In the past Florida Bay’s Roseate Spoonbills were homebodies, raising their young within miles of where they themselves hatched. Recently young birds are venturing farther afield. Over the past 20 years, spoonbills, which are widespread in Latin America south to Argentina, have been seen in more than 35 states and three Canadian provinces. In 2021 Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Hampshire recorded first-ever sightings.

The behavior is not unusual; in many species first-year birds will undertake long, exploratory flights, especially during boom years when competition for resources is high. But the spoonbills’ recent travels go beyond teenage curiosity. In 2011 a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources reported what was, at that time, the northern­most Roseate Spoonbill nest. Three chicks grew up in a red maple in Camden County, adjacent to North Florida. In 2020 spoonbills broke that record again, this time raising chicks in a red maple in Charleston County, South Carolina. Two spoonies fledged.

It’s not known whether the birds’ shift north will turn out to be a successful adaptation to climate change or an ecological dead end, failing to support the population long-term. “It’s like this wild experiment we’re doing on our planet,” says avian ecologist Kara Lefevre of Florida Gulf Coast University, who helped document the first spoonbills nesting in Estero Bay, near Fort Myers, in 2017. “The idea that we don’t know until we watch it unfold is pretty intimidating.”

The spoonbills aren’t moving alone; many species are responding to a warming climate by shifting their ranges. Glossy Ibis and Wood Storks—other wading birds that dine on small fish—have expanded out of longtime South Florida haunts, in the ibis’s case nesting as far north as Maine. Sea turtles, manatees, coastal fish, alligators, crocodiles, and more species are already shifting north or are expected to before long. And, arriving from the south, Lorenz’s staff have in recent years seen Neotropic Cormorants nesting in Florida Bay.

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Faced with the reality of climate change, managers are adjusting their goals for Everglades restoration.

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Ecologists expect wildlife to make similar shifts across the globe—that is, if species can relocate fast enough and have suitable habitat to move into. Lorenz suspects that South Florida’s wildlife may have it lucky. “It just so happens that because Everglades National Park is here, these organisms have the ability to move upslope,” he says. Elsewhere species might not find refuge nearby. That makes effectively managing the safe havens that do exist even more critical for preventing extinctions, Lorenz says. “It’s these huge, preserved habitats that we have across the country that are the only places that are going to be refuges for our wildlife.”

At the same time those refuges are themselves changing. The saltwater transformation of Florida Bay is only the beginning of a dramatic reorganization of the Everglades. Temperatures will continue to warm. Another foot of sea-level rise is expected by 2040, with more beyond. And hurricanes are growing stronger, powered by warmer, water-rich air. As the sea encroaches inland, so does storms’ reach, resulting in more violent and deeper storm surges that can flatten communities, such as when Hurricane Ian made landfall in South Florida in September. If exceptionally powerful storms hit too often, they can rip protective mangroves from the peat and convert wetland into open ocean, risking not only the ecosystem but also millions of people.

Faced with that reality, managers are adjusting their goals for Everglades restoration. When the region’s ecologists set off with congressional backing in 2000, they aimed to return conditions to a prior state, before settlers drained South Florida’s water. The goal was always a moonshot, Stabenau says. With sea-level rise, it’s unachievable. “We’ve come to recognize that we can’t really go back and capture and create that system.”

Now stakeholders are looking to the climate-­changed future. They aim instead for a resilient Everglades, one that can survive stressors, such as extreme droughts or storms, and bounce back on its own. “We’re buying time for the park to have a resilient, natural succession with a changing climate,” he says. “That’s a paradigm shift in the way that people think about restoration.”

The benefits go beyond protecting habitat. Healthy wetlands store carbon and absorb floodwaters. Mangrove forests buffer against hurricanes. Fresh water slows saltwater intrusion into aquifers tapped for drinking.

Just in time, long-planned restoration projects are bearing fruit. In July 2021, the Army Corps completed a project to restore the Kissimmee River by rehydrating 20,000 acres of wetlands and replacing 40 miles of drainage canals with river and floodplain. It now supports more than 150 bird species. By 2025 the state plans to finish elevating six miles of the Tamiami Trail, a highway running west from Miami that effectively dammed part of the Everglades. The project is expected to increase the flow of clean, fresh water into Florida Bay by more than 220 billion gallons every year. More, bigger projects will be completed in the coming decades.

They’ve never been more vital. The more slowly the sea infiltrates South Florida, the more time people and wildlife will have to adapt. We owe it to one another to buy them, and ourselves, as much time as possible.

This story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “Flight of the Spoonbills.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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