Last week, biologist Jerry Lorenz glanced at his computer screen. As he examined a picture of a tarnished band of metal wrapped around a fuzzy bird’s leg, he thought he knew what he was looking for—but he almost couldn’t believe it. He called one of his biologists and pointed to a series of blurry numbers and letters. “What do you see here?” he asked. “I’m not going to give any pointers.”
The band belonged to the Roseate Spoonbill, a brilliant pink tropical bird that lives in the Everglades, Florida. The band was also older, part of a batch of about 2,500 that Lorenz and his scientific team had associated with spoonbill chicks between 2003 and 2005. The employee looked at it for a few seconds and said: “I see a seven and an eight.”
Lorenz, the science director for Audubon Florida located at the Everglades Science Center in the Keys, needed another test of his vision. So, he called another member of the team and asked the same question. Another biologist gave him the same answer: a seven and an eight. As they sat down together at the screen, Lorenz talked about the possibilities: Are you sure it’s eight? Maybe it’s a three, or a b, or maybe a six? but The scientist insisted.
Lorenz was justified. They opened a spreadsheet that listed where each of those 2,500 chicks were bred. “I knew right away that this was one of the first bands we put on,” he says, based on scores alone. They scanned through the data for bird number 78: it was banded in December 2003 in Frank Key, a small mangrove island in the Everglades National Park. This made the spoonbill 18 years old – the oldest ever recorded rosette spoonbill in its entire range from Argentina to Florida. The previous record was 17, which was also recorded by Lorenz.
Very little is known about this bird. Lorenz cannot confirm his sex, or how many chicks he has raised during his 18-year life. What impressed him most, he told me over the phone, amid immediate excitement about the discovery, that the bird was still nesting in the Gulf of Florida and Everglades National Park. The band was photographed by conservation photographer Mac Stone on Black Betsy Keys, which is just five miles from the bird’s Natal Island.
“It tells us that these birds really want to nest there,” Lorenz says. Spoonbills have been declining in the region for decades. “We’re losing our birds here in Florida Bay for a variety of reasons,” he says. During its lifetime, this spoonbill has seen a five-inch rise in sea level in the Everglades. Lorenz says saltwater has infiltrated their pastures, making the freshwater shallows unsuitable for small fish to eat. As a result, many spoonbills are leaving the Everglades – or trying and failing to nest there.
The changes the bird has seen aren’t all bad. “It is also seeing some improvements in health and productivity in the Everglades,” says Lorenz, as major projects to restore the highly transformed swampland progress. Those projects aim to draw freshwater into the system from the north, even as saltwater is infiltrating from the south.
The photographic evidence was taken as part of a scientific project, proceeding with Lorenz Stone, who had worked for Lorenz 10 years earlier as a spoonbiologist. The pair, with the help of other field staff, are testing whether remote-capture cameras installed to observe nests can yield new information about spoonbill biology, while relieving researchers of the hard-earned- Boating and hiking to the remote mangrove keys are required. Spoonbill nesting success.
The cameras will also ensure that biologists disturb nesting birds as little as possible. Human presence on islands, even for a few hours a month to inspect nests, can potentially attract parents and their young or predators. “You want to make the least amount of mess—that’s the goal. At the same time you want to have this data,” Stone says. “What’s the best way to try and eat our cake? We think cameras are the key. “
The team is experimenting with different camera setups, all of which automatically take pictures throughout the day to record whether the eggs or chicks are alive. Most of the 40 cameras currently in the field are palm-sized plastic boxes affixed to a mangrove branch, with the lens mounted on a nest; At the end of the season, Lorenz can download images to glimpse the full story of the nest.
However, on April 2, Stone wanted to capture high-quality images of birds living in their intimate moments., So he brought out the big guns: his personal camera, the Canon 5D Mark III DSLR with a 24-105mm f/4L lens. At 9:30 a.m. he set the camera to take three pictures every minute – each at a different exposure. By the time the camera’s battery ran out at 4 pm, it had taken 1,176 pictures of birds.
Stone downloaded the images to his computer and took note of them. One parent stayed with the chicks for most of the day. But at around 2.30 pm, the second parent returned to the nest. When Stone took a closer look at the picture, she saw a metal bar wrapped around her leg—a pleasant surprise. When they chose this nest to be photographed, they had no idea the bird was tied on. “It was pure luck,” Stone says.
He combed through the images. At most, the band numbers were unreadable—a problem with the bands that has plagued Spoonbill scientists for years. Within five years of banding out those roughly 2,500 chicks in the early 2000s, the band began to deteriorate. Paint off first. Then the aluminum began to oxidize into nothing. Today most of the remaining bands are practically unreadable. Out of about 20 reports per year, Lorenz can probably interpret one or two alphanumeric codes, he says.
Familiar with the band’s issues from his years working for Lorenz, Stone was persistent. He looked at hundreds of photographs until he found a spot where the bird was exactly, and the light was angled exactly the right way, so that he could read the band. He called Lorenz. “I’m pretty sure it’s seven out of eight,” he relayed.
That’s when Lorenz invited a parade of biologists to his office to confirm the interpretation. Soon, Stone received a call from Lorenz. “This is the oldest known spoon ever found in the wild,” Stone remembers Lorenz telling him.
“I said: ‘Not at all, are you serious?'” Stone says. “The chance of getting it is so slim. And then seeing it like a Christmas gift when it comes to photos on the computer – that is one of the great pleasures of doing this job.”
The discovery of the oldest spoonbill is exciting, but that’s not the only information Lorenz drew from his banding project. Even when the bands malfunctioned, leaving him unable to observe individual birds, he was generally able to track the movements of banded birds in Florida Bay (wearing black bands). who were tied in Tampa Bay (wearing red band). At the time, he hypothesized that the birds move freely between the two nesting sites. But data from the band showed that Florida bay birds prefer to live in Florida Bay, and Tampa Bay birds prefer to nest in Tampa Bay.
As such, spoonbills are homebodies who like to be in the familiar places where they grew up. “You come up with the hypothesis and the birds tell you you’re wrong,” Lorenz says. “That’s when scientists get most excited. The knowledge armed me with new ideas about why Florida Bay birds are doing so poorly while Tampa Bay birds are doing so well.” Specifically, Florida Bay birds rely on Everglades health, which has been worsened by a century of human development and more recently by sea level rise.
The new photo and record of 18-year-old Spoonbill follows the same trend. This bird could have risen and left for more productive pastures north in Florida years ago. But instead, it keeps trying to nest within miles of the place it was born in Everglades National Park.
“Despite all these challenges the Everglades are throwing at them, they are doing their best to make it work here,” Stone says. “They keep coming back. They want to be here. They want to raise their youth here. I think it’s a great story.”