Their coloring and unusual behaviors make roseate spoonbills a must-see for birders
If you ever think you’ve seen a flamingo flying overhead in the Galveston area, you probably haven’t.
The bright pink bird you spotted more likely is a roseate spoonbill.
Both wading birds are bright pink, but the difference largely is in their bills. The roseate spoonbill is known for a long bill, flattened into a spoon that protrudes from its small head.
Roseate spoonbills are much sought-after sights by birders who visit Galveston. Birders are intrigued by its unique appearance and its distinct feeding style.
The spoonbills capture the attention of veteran birders and amateur observers alike, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director at Houston Audubon, an organization that promotes conservation and appreciation of birds and wildlife habitat.
“It demands your attention,” Gibbons said. “It demands being noticed. It’s just such a different bird from what people are used to seeing.”
The roseate spoonbill’s bright pink coloring makes it easy for inexperienced birders to spot, Gibbons said.
“They’re just stinking cute,” Gibbons said. “The general public is going to eat roseate spoonbills up.”
As with flamingos, the roseate spoonbill’s diet is the source of the pink coloring, said Jim Stevenson, executive director of the Galveston Ornithological Society.
The birds eat shrimp laden with carotenoids, which produces the pink plumage, and during the breeding season, when the birds are experiencing a surge of hormones, that pink can become even more vibrant, Stevenson said.
The breeding season typically is early spring to mid-April, though Stevenson expects an earlier start this year because of the mild winter, he said.
Roseate spoonbills also have a pretty unusual style of feeding that involves their spoon-shaped bill, Stevenson said.
“They move their beak side to side so it’s whizzing through the water really fast,” Stevenson said.
Adding to their distinctive appearance is the fact that roseate spoonbills lose the feathers on the crown of their heads as they become adults.
“They stick their heads down in muddy water, like storks, and feathers would only soak up all the crud in the murky mire,” Stevenson said.
The birds’ way of flying isn’t typical, either.
Because the birds are a little more muscular than other area species, they fly with their heads pointed out straight like a broom handle to help them balance, Stevenson said.
“This is a cool, unique creature,” Stevenson said.
All of this makes them easy to spot and on the list of any birder, whether amateur or experienced, said Kristen Vale, Texas coastal program coordinator with the American Bird Conservancy.
“A lot of times you don’t even need to have binoculars on,” Vale said.
Though it’s unique to the Gulf Coast, the spoonbill is a pretty common bird, so it isn’t the only bird people will travel to the area to see, Vale said.
“Galveston has so many birds available,” Vale said. “The roseate spoonbill is one of many.”
And they’re somewhat of a success story, Vale said.
The now plentiful bird was facing critical numbers 100 years ago, when the birds were hunted for their bright plumage to make women’s hats and other accessories, Vale said.
Today, there’s about 120,000 roseate spoonbills worldwide, according to Partners in Flight estimates. That’s a 6.5 percent increase in the population size between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Places like the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary on High Island are critical to maintaining nesting sites for these birds that nest in large groups, Vale said.
“They have been able to recolonize and repopulate,” Vale said. “Their population is still vulnerable to habitat degradation.”
Conservationists must remain aware about their habitat, said Greg Whittaker, chairman of the Galveston County Audubon Group.
There is more and more development on the Gulf Coast and habitat degradation is one of the biggest challenges facing roseate spoonbills, he said.
But Whittaker is hopeful, he said.
“The shining spots that we have down here on the Gulf Coast in our region is we have a really well-developed network of conservationists and organizations that overlap in their focus on conservation,” Whittaker said.
Besides, birding is becoming more important to the area’s tourism economy and is bringing more people and money to the region, Whittaker said
And when people visit the Galveston area, the roseate spoonbill is definitely part of the draw, Whittaker said.
“They’re just so different in what they do in the way that they use the habitat,” Whittaker said.