Spoonbills and the nearby Spoonbill Pond
Roseate spoonbills are getting to be a common sight here in Nassau County. These pink birds, which newcomers and tourists often confuse with flamingos, have long been residents of South Florida and the Caribbean and in Latin America, east of the Andes, but are becoming increasingly visible in our more northern area as the climate warms. Human conversion of marsh habitats, changes in natural water regimes, and climate change have reduced breeding populations in places like the Everglades and Florida Bay, where this species once proliferated.
Some of these populations have now moved north to our own area in greater numbers than before. In the 20 or more years that I have lived on Amelia Island, I have noticed more spoonbills, as have some of my contemporaries.
These birds are unmistakable due to their vibrant pink color, especially when they are in breeding condition. As with flamingos, these birds get their color from a primary diet of small crustaceans that contain carotenoids – pink-yellow pigment precursors that in turn make the spoonbills turn pink. Without carotenoid supplements in their diet, zoo flamingos and roseate spoonbills would gradually fade to white.
When Bucko and I lived in Africa, this little bit of knowledge came in handy. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where we spent a year, we were disturbed to find that chicken eggs did not have yellow yolks. Even in the most upscale hotel restaurant, an order of scrambled eggs or an omelet was an unappetizing white. We resorted to buying eggs with yellow yolks at a very high cost, imported from South Africa, to use for our own cooking.
Then, on one of my USAID-related visits to southern Africa, I encountered a large industrial agricultural enterprise growing acres and acres of marigolds, of all things. These orange flowers, it turned out, were grown primarily as a supplement to chicken feed, to keep the egg yolks yellow. I put two and two together, and back in Dar es Salaam, I passed this advice on to a friend who had her own white-yolk-producing hens. We had no ready source of marigold flowers, but we did have carrots, another rich source of carotene. I recommended that my friend feed her chickens carrot peels along with their regular feed, and guess what? Yellow egg yolks! A new moneymaking enterprise for my friend was hatched, so to speak.
There are plenty of shrimp and smaller shrimp-like crustaceans here that provide a source of carotene for our local spoonbills, and now spoonbill populations are expanding. Not so long ago, it was only possible to see these birds by taking a trip on Amelia River Cruises or by taking a private boat through the more secluded saltmarshes in our area. Now you can often see them roosting on trees in the Egans Creek Greenway or feeding in the marshes crossed by North 14th Street. There is usually a substantial population of these birds in the marshes along Heritage River Road off Heckscher Drive right now, as well.
And then there is Spoonbill Pond. For years, this pond has been called Spoonbill Pond even though the birds are not always present there. When you leave the south end of Amelia Island, just after crossing the bridge, most travelers will have noticed the large pond on the left side of the road, fronted by a long wooden boardwalk. The pond itself is somewhat of a mystery. Sometimes it is full of water, sometimes it is nearly dry, and sometimes it is in a state of stagnation. As explained to me by former Talbot Islands State Park manager Bob Joseph, the pond was artificially created when the highway was built, and it is unconnected to any consistent water source. During heavy rainfall periods, it fills with fresh water. During nor’easters, the dunes adjacent to it wash out and salt water flows in. At times, this creates a good habitat for fish and other prey items that draw birds. Then the water gets trapped, the pond gets fouled with bird droppings, the fish die leaving a stench, and the pond dries up until the next heavy rain or storm rejuvenates it.
You can’t count on seeing roseate spoonbills in this pond, but it is always fun to look at it on a trip down the road, or even closer by parking there, walking along the boardwalk, and using the observation platform. Lots of other birds use this pond depending on the current condition and food availability, and this is considered to be a birding hotspot. Go to http://bit.ly/2HbBIQ0 for more information. At last count, 216 different species of birds have been observed at Spoonbill Pond – something for everyone!