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Spoonbill mystery

Researchers want to know why more spoonbills are nesting in Tampa Bay and fewer are in the Everglades.

By JANET ZINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2003


GIBSONTON -- Peter Frezza crept up a ladder through a maze of Brazilian pepper and mangrove branches and peered into the nest.

There they were -- three roseate spoonbills, not more than 3 weeks old. Too young to fly, but old enough for banding.

While their parents took flight and squawked in protest, Frezza apologetically lifted the baby spoonbills from the nest, put them into a cooler and carried them to Jerry Lorenz, director of research for the Audubon Society of Florida.

Lorenz snapped a numbered silver band on their right legs and a red one on their left.

From 8 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, Lorenz and a six-member team from the Audubon Society and the U.S. Geological Survey banded 63 wild baby spoonbills hatched at the Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary.

It was the first time a spoonbill population has been banded in the Tampa Bay area, said Rich Paul, who manages the sanctuary for the Audubon Society.

The project is part of a study here and in the Everglades to better understand the spoonbills, which in turn will shed light on the impact of Everglades restoration efforts, Lorenz said.

The study comes as some Florida legislators, with Gov. Jeb Bush's blessing, have proposed pushing back the deadline for cleaning up the Everglades by another two decades.

The birds, said Lorenz, who is headquartered in the Florida Keys, are a good indication of the overall health of the Everglades environment. "By looking at that species we can pretty much tell if other species are having a rough time as well," he said.

As the environment there has deteriorated, it appears the birds are moving north.

"We want to find out not only where they go, but under what conditions," said co-investigator Rob Bennetts of the USGS.

Spoonbills need specific conditions to feed. When a wetlands habitat is altered, the pink fish-eating birds are one of the first species to leave. If adult birds can't find food, they abandon their nests and leave the baby birds to die.

The number of spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay, where water drains from the Everglades, has been dropping dramatically. At the same time, they've been increasing in Tampa Bay.

The researchers want to know why.

Lorenz hypothesizes that the water management activities in the Everglades mainland, where the spoonbills go for food, are forcing the birds out of the area.

"To figure out what's going on in the Everglades we've got to understand the bird," Lorenz said.

Many spoonbill habits remain a mystery. With the study, researchers hope to discover how long the birds live, what their migration patterns are, where they nest and feed, and if and when they travel between the Tampa Bay area and the Everglades.

Spoonbills were nearly wiped out by feather hunters in the early part of the last century. In 1935, there were fewer than 20 pairs in the state, all in Florida Bay in the Everglades.

The numbers began rising about 1950 when protection was provided by the Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the establishment of Everglades National Park.

They also began to show up in other parts of the state.

In 1975, researchers counted eight pairs on the Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary, which has one of the most diverse bird populations in the continental United States.

The count in the Everglades rose to 1,250 pairs in 1978, Lorenz said.

"Then all of a sudden that stopped," Lorenz said.

By 2002 the numbers had dropped to 500 pairs.

"Most significantly, where the water comes out of the Everglades in northeastern Florida Bay, the numbers dropped from about 700 to less than 100," Lorenz said.

Meanwhile, nearly 303 pairs were counted in the Tampa Bay area in 2002, up from 183 in 2001, Paul said.

The researchers want to know if there is a link between the decreases in the Everglades and the increases in Tampa Bay.

The U.S. Geological Survey contributes $120,000 per year to the study, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said they will contribute $70,000 to the project, Lorenz said.

"It's all part of the restoration effort. The roseate spoonbill is a species of special concern in the state," said biologist John Moulding of the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville. "It's considered an indicator species to some degree for restoration. We'd like to develop some baseline information on how they're doing and use that as a gauge against which to measure success in the future."

Lorenz plans to follow the birds for at least five years. He has banded 40 birds in Florida Bay and hoped to mark 200 at the Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary on Wednesday. He fell short of that goal, but made tentative plans to return to the island Friday.

"One of the things we learned today was how long it takes (to band)," Paul said.

On Wednesday, Lorenz took a scientific approach to the birds. He and his teammates endured steady streams of excrement as they banded the struggling chicks and returned them to their nests.

But the sheer beauty of the animals is not lost on Lorenz.

"Seeing a pink bird against the Florida blue sky is just tremendous," Lorenz said. "It's a bird with personality. The way they feed is endearing. They're gentle like a manatee but stunningly beautiful like a big cat. This bird will stop you in its tracks."

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