Strange, but beautiful
The Roseate Spoonbill is one of the most awkward-looking birds you'll see in Florida. You might even call it homely, with its strange bill and bald head. But Nature has made up for this by giving it beautifully colored plumage. This tropical wading bird stands about three feet tall. Its plumage is various shades of pink and red. When you see a Roseate Spoonbill, you will first notice its colorful feathers. Then you will be struck by the contrast of its wrinkly, bald greenish head that, unfortunately, resembles a vulture's. When you get to its strangely-shaped grayish-green bill, you'll understand where the bird got its name. To picture this awkward feature, imagine a duck's bill, stretched to be about ten inches long. It looks odd, but the spoon-shaped bill is very useful for obtaining food.
Adult Roseate Spoonbill
The adult Roseate Spoonbill is pink with red patches on the shoulders. It has a white neck with pale pink markings. The tail is deep orange, but this is difficult to see unless the bird turns its back to you and raises its wings. The wings are dark pink underneath, usually visible when the bird is in flight. The adult's light green head is bald in front and has a black band of color that makes the bird look like it is wearing headphones. The long, flat bill is usually pale grayish green but can be darker. The eyes are bright red, and the lores are yellow-orange. That is the area between the bird's eyes and the bill. The legs are dark red. The feet are not webbed.
The Spoonbill's method of eating is unique. This is where that strange bill comes in handy. The Roseate Spoonbill eats small fish, shrimp, aquatic insects and worms. It wades in shallow water and dips its long bill in, keeping the bill slightly opened. It swishes its head from side to side, filtering what it needs from the silty water, collecting food in the flat bill. Sometimes a Spoonie will raise its bill out of the water and shake it side to side vigorously, like a dog playing with a rag toy. Spoonbills rarely let you get close, but even from a distance you can tell this bird from the others by this unusual eating method.
Young Roseate Spoonbill - paler than the adult
The young Roseate Spoonbill is a pale version of the adult. Its body is a light shade of cotton candy pink. It doesn't have red or orange markings. The young bird's head has white feathers, making it look less vulture-like than the adult. Young Spoonies have pale legs and bills. Seen from a distance, a young Roseate Spoonbill can easily be mistaken for a Great Egret, especially in bright sunlight. But when it bends forward and swishes its bill from side to side, you can tell it's a Spoonie.
Mistaken for the Flamingo
People sometimes think they have seen a Flamingo when they have actually seen a Roseate Spoonbill. This is understandable because they are both pink. If you see a long-legged pink bird with a long flat bill, it is the Roseate Spoonbill. If you see a dark pink bird with a short bill that hooks down and back like a right-angled scoop, it is a Flamingo. Of the two, the Spoonbill is actually a Florida bird. The Flamingo isn't. The Flamingo is native to the Caribbean and South America. It can be seen in the Miami area, but that isn't its natural habitat, and it is rarely seen in other parts of Florida.
Do not disturb
The Spoonbill has had a difficult time surviving in Florida because its wetland habitats have been affected by development. But this bird has recently started to make a comeback, especially in the Tampa Bay area and near Sarasota and Fort Myers. Once you have seen a Roseate Spoonbill, you might become addicted to searching for more of these birds because they are so unusual. They tend to be loners, preferring out of the way locations. Their reclusiveness might, in part, be a reaction to the excited outbursts of people who spot them. So if you see Spoonbills, try to avoid alarming them or they might choose to relocate to a quieter area.
These photos were taken in Palm Harbor, Florida.