Roseate spoonbill in flight

This photo highlights the black edges of this immature roseate spoonbill’s flight feathers. Juveniles also have a white head with a blue-gray patch about the eyes. 

Apparently, it all started on June 17 when Mikey Lutmerding spotted the unlikely pink visitor flying off into some nearby trees. It was pretty far away and only in view briefly, but Mikey knew he had just seen an extremely rare Chesapeake visitor: a roseate spoonbill.

Lutmerding entered his sighting into the popular eBird mobile birding app, making it the first record of a spoonbill in Calvert County, MD, and just the fourth record of the bird in the state. Mikey’s not just any birder, he’s a pro: a wildlife biologist for the incomparable U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Breeding Bird Survey, which is headquartered at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. Besides, he had the pictures to prove it, posting them on the popular Maryland birders Facebook page.

Roseate spoonbill standing

The roseate spoonbill’s most notable characteristic is its eponymous bill, a long, spatula-like affair. The roseate is the only spoonbill found in this hemisphere. 

The young spoonbill was an immediate sensation. Birders from near and far, equipped with cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes, descended on the tiny hamlet of North Beach to see for themselves. Evidently, the spoonbill liked the attention, hanging around for the next three weeks, giving birders hundreds of opportunities to snap its picture.

Matt Felperin, a naturalist at Patuxent River Park, was one of the many who made the trip. His photos of the striking spoonbill accompany this column. Ironically, when the spoonbill finally departed North Beach on July 6, it flew a few miles to the north where its was spotted at Jug Bay/Patuxent River Park on July 8. A spoonbill was spotted on the C&O Canal on Aug. 15 After that, there were no additional sightings in Maryland.

Roseate spoonbills (Patalea ajaja) are tropical birds. In the United States, they are usually confined to south Florida, Louisiana marshes and parts of the Texas coast. Typically, they are found even farther south in the Caribbean, Mexico and down the coasts of Central and South America.

A medium-size wading bird (it stands about 30 inches tall), the spoonbill is pink and white, quite unlike anything else in the Americas except perhaps a flamingo. But the striking color is not even its most notable characteristic. That distinction goes to the bird’s eponymous bill, a long, spatula-like affair. The roseate is the only spoonbill found in this hemisphere.

As Felperin’s photos show, immature spoonbills have black edges to their flight feathers. They have a white head with a blue-gray patch about the eyes. Unmistakable even as young birds, spoonbills are even more distinctive as adults.

Many men are familiar with the phenomenon of premature baldness. Spoonbills take that to the extreme. In a little more than a year, the bird will lose its head feathers, leaving a bald, greenish pate. And that’s just the start.

By the time spoonbills reach full maturity at age 3, they will have lost the black wing tips, become pinker, and the bluish eye patch will transform into a large black splotch surrounding a red eye. Mature birds will also show a bright carmine streak on the fold of the wings. The tail will become tawny, almost orange. Even the black legs will take on a reddish tinge.

The oddly shaped bill is quite functional. Spoonbills feed by walking through shallow water, swinging their bills back and forth, searching for food. The outside of the bill is leathery, but inside it is lined with sensitive nerve endings. When the spoonbill feels prey touch the inside of its slightly agape mouth, it clamps down, capturing crustaceans, tiny fish and the like. Its diet is rich in carotinoids — organic yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments found in plants, algae, bacteria and fungi — which give the bird its colors.

As their diets suggest, spoonbills seek habitats abundant in shallow water and tiny creatures. Typically, that means marshes, estuaries and mangrove islands.

Like most wading birds, spoonbills nest in colonies, often in mixed flocks of ibises, egrets, herons and storks. They build stick nests and produce a single brood annually, typically laying three to four eggs. For a variety of reasons ranging from weather to predators, an average of just one bird from each brood survives into adulthood.

So what was this spoonbill doing so far from home?

After nesting season is complete and young birds are independent, it’s time to roam. Parents may range beyond their typical territory in mid to late summer, but it is the younger birds that often wander the farthest from home. Even so, the case of the North Beach bird was extreme, as its record-breaking appearance made clear.

Had the youngster come to the Chesapeake because of the Bay’s improving health? After all, clearer, well-oxygenated water will host the abundant tiny aquatic life essential to the spoonbill’s diet. More ominously, perhaps it is an early signal of the disruptions caused by a warming planet. Or is it simply a one-off, a serendipitous occurrence that carries no greater significance?

I’ll resist my usual urge to find deeper meaning here. Instead, I’ll simply take delight that a strange and wonderful creature came to share a few days of its fascinating life with us. And after all, isn’t that enough?

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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