The maker of spoons – a bird delighting people worldwide

1 roseate spoonbill P8040500 © Maria de Bruyn card (2)

In different countries, the bird genus Platalea has given rise to similar common names for birds in this group, all based on their unique bills. In Dutch, lepelaar used to mean “maker of spoons” but now the first dictionary definition refers to this type of bird. Spanish speakers gave these avians the moniker “spatula bird” (pájaro espátula), while in many other languages they are called the “spoon birds” (Romanian, Icelandic, Bahasa Indonesia, Shona, etc.). In English, we call this unique animal the spoonbill.

6 roseate spoonbill P8040996© Maria de Bruyn res

Many people find spoonbills fascinating, including me, so it was with happy anticipation that I traveled to see an immature roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that had decided to forage in our county. When I arrived, I scanned the cow pond where the bird had been seen, but the only animals there were several large cows! I decided not to wait around since the cattle were enjoying the water and it was unlikely any birds were going to join them.

A couple days later, I returned, parked along the road and walked up to the fence to peer down at the pond again. A great egret (Ardea alba, below) was foraging, some barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) were occasionally swooping over the water, and some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were wandering around but no spoonbill was in sight.

2 great egret P8040974© Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

3 roseate spoonbill P8040309 © Maria de Bruyn resIn contrast to other birds, spoonbills do not vocalize much except for some low grunts made while they are feeding. I didn’t hear any bird sound and after some 20 minutes or so, I thought perhaps the young spoonbill had decided to move on. Then suddenly s/he emerged from grasses bordering the pond and I was able to observe the bird for quite some time.

4 roseate spoonbill P8040325© Maria de Bruyn res

5 roseate spoonbill P8040961© Maria de Bruyn resThere are six spoonbill species worldwide; the roseate spoonbill lives in North, Central and South America. The other five species have white plumage, while the roseate spoonbill adults have a white neck, bare head, bright pink back and rump feathers and a greyish bill. The immature birds have feathered heads their first three years and pale pink feathers. The color on our county’s visitor showed up more brightly when the sky was overcast rather than sunny.

The spoonbills’ coloration comes from their food. Their diet consists of crustaceans, snails, fish and aquatic insects found in both fresh and salt water. Aquatic invertebrates have pigments called carotenoids and when the spoonbills eat them, their feathers turn pink.

7 roseate spoonbill P8041138 © Maria de Bruyn res

Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.

8 roseate spoonbill P8040580 © Maria de Bruyn card (2) 9 roseate spoonbill P8040517© Maria de Bruyn res

10 roseate spoonbill P8040340 © Maria de Bruyn resWhen chicks are born, they do not yet have a spoon-shaped bill; it only begins to flatten out when they are 9 days old; the final shape is achieved by 39 days. The bill can be 5.7 to 7.1 inches long (14.5-18 cm). It is about an inch wide just beneath the birds’ eyes and then widens to about 2 inches at the end.

It might seem that these very large bills could make life difficult for the spoonbills but they use these spatula-like appendages efficiently when feeding. Their nostrils are located at the base of the bill so that they can breathe while foraging.

11 roseate spoonbill P8040346 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their technique is to stalk slowly, leaning forward with their bills submerged as they swing their heads from side to side. Israeli scientists discovered that when the bill sways back and forth, it creates tiny whirlpools that suck up prey submerged in the water. When the prey touches the bird’s bill, it snaps shut as nerves at the bill tip are stimulated; the prey is then usually swallowed whole.

12 roseate spoonbill P8040425 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 roseate spoonbill P8040365 © Maria de Bruyn res

Spoonbills prefer to feed in shallow water that is usually less than 5 inches deep. This would account for the fact that the spoonbill I watched was making circuits around the edge of the pond, never going into the center.

14 roseate spoonbill P8040395© Maria de Bruyn res

15 roseate spoonbill P8040566© Maria de Bruyn res

16 roseate spoonbill P8040703 © Maria de Bruyn res

One thing in particular struck me as the cow pond bird walked and stalked. When s/he raised his/her head and opened the bill, it looked to me as if the spoonbill was laughing or at least looking very friendly and smiling!

17 roseate spoonbill P8040521© Maria de Bruyn res

18 roseate spoonbill P8040427© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

19 roseate spoonbill P8040524© Maria de Bruyn

20 roseate spoonbill P8040825 © Maria de Bruyn resIn the USA, spoonbills have traditionally bred in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. After breeding, they disperse. It is especially year-old birds who are increasingly being seen along the Eastern coast. To find them further inland had been more unusual but in recent years they seem to be moving away from the coast as well. This year several spoonbills have been spotted in the Piedmont region in addition to our Orange County visitor.

21 roseate spoonbill P8040483 © Maria de Bruyn res

23 roseate spoonbill P8040502 © Maria de BruynBy the late 1800s, the roseate spoonbill was endangered in North America because the birds were either killed for their feathers (to make decorative screens, fans and hats) or they abandoned their nests because they were near great egrets who were being killed for the millinery trade. When that trade ended, their numbers rebounded but rising sea levels, degradation of water quality and loss of wetlands has now decreased their breeding sites. The spoonbills are still listed as a species of concern in Florida and Louisiana.

22 roseate spoonbill P8040377© Maria de Bruyn res

As climate change progresses, increasing numbers of roseate spoonbills are starting to move north. Protection of wetlands in our and other Eastern states would therefore benefit this species, as well as other animals that depend on this type of habitat. And more of us outside the southernmost states may get the chance to observe these unique birds in the future!

Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow colors, part 1

People who journey to the Tadoussac Dunes area in Quebec during spring bird migration often are focused mainly on one type of bird. They are members of the group of passerine birds, i.e., birds that perch using four toes – three that face forward and one that faces backwards. The “new world warblers” (also called wood warblers) are a subgroup of passerines that are only found in the Western hemisphere. They are featured in this blog and include some of my favorite photos from our trip. The next blog, passerines part 2, will feature other bird species that perch.

The warblers really are quite beautiful in their breeding plumage and many birders spend long periods of time searching them out and admiring them. This often involves looking up at treetops since many species forage for insects in mid- and high forest canopies. This may lead to a condition in humans called “warbler neck”, the result of staying for a prolonged time in the posture indicated to the left. (The statue was in the lobby of our Quebec hotel and was called “Force intérieure” (inner force) by Julie Lajoie.)

One warbler that we didn’t need to strain to see was the Cape May (Setophaga tigrina), which was named for Cape May, New Jersey, where it was first observed by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. After that, these birds weren’t seen again in that area for more than a century!

The males really do call attention to themselves with their bright breeding colors – a distinctive rusty cheek patch, yellow throat and collar, dark crown and lots of vertical black stripes going down its sides and chest.

In spring, this warbler migrates almost 3,000 miles from the West Indies to the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern US to breed. As the fist-sized songbird flies north, its diet adapts to the environment. During winter among the palm trees, the Cape May drinks berry juice and the nectar from flowers thanks to its unusual semi-tubular and curled tongue. (It will also drink from nectar feeders!) But in summer in the boreal forests, it eats insects—especially the spruce budworm—with a special gusto.

The male and female build a nest together near the top of a tree (35-60 feet high!) and the female tries to prevent others from seeing the nest. She namely will not enter the nest directly but goes up and down the trunk of the tree, entering from below.

A second seemingly ubiquitous bird at our migration destination was the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia). Like the Cape May, the male in breeding attire has vertical black stripes on a yellow chest but his face is marked by a black mask topped by a white stripe.

 

Most of my sightings of this species involved individuals looking for insects on the ground. At one point, it was interesting to see a “Maggie” fluttering his wings over sandy spots in the dunes, obviously to scare up insects that he then quickly grabbed. My attempts to get a photo of the fluttering were unsuccessful but it was very cool to watch.

 

 

 

Another warbler that sports a black “necklace” against a yellow breast is the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis). Males and females look similar except that the male has a bit longer tail and somewhat darker breast stripes.

 

Some of these birds spend the summer in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina (NC), but I had not seen one before. Towards the end of our trip, a Canada warbler decided to forage in the yard of the house where we were staying – finally, I was able to get some good looks at him!

The male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) also has black breast stripes but against a white background. His face is quite striking with a flame-orange throat against a yellow and black head.  The female is somewhat more muted in coloration but also quite lovely.

 

These birds do not appear to be shy around people. One was grabbing insects in a grassy patch near a parking lot and not at all perturbed when five of us stopped nearby to take portrait shots.

Another was intent on getting insects among the rocks alongside a pier.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) was a lifer for me, fairly easy to distinguish by its rufous cap.

 

 

An interesting bit of information about them is that they sometimes use porcupine quills in constructing their nests, which they locate on the ground under shrubs!

The Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) also has a distinctive cap, but when I got to see one around dusk one day, it didn’t feel like turning around to face me. It was nevertheless another lifer.

They spend a lot of time in the understory and nest on the ground, but that apparently doesn’t make them easier to spot!

One warbler that I have seen several times in NC is the tiny yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). They tend to like being near wetlands and streams and this has proved to be the case for my spottings. I have seen them near a water ditch in one reserve as well as near the Haw River. In Quebec, I also saw one searching for insects in the rocks bordering a pier.

 

You can see that this warbler has reddish striping on its chest and that is what I’ve noted in the birds seen in my area. However, below you can see a male bird without striping; our local guide said that a number of birds that breed in Quebec do not develop any striping but remain entirely yellow.

 

A behavior that distinguishes them from many other birds is that they are capable of recognizing when a brown-headed cowbird has laid one of its eggs in their nest. The yellow warblers try to avoid raising the nest parasite by smothering the cowbird egg with a new layer of nest materials. If they had already laid eggs of their own, they then produce a new clutch; sometimes, they just build a new nest elsewhere.

Another warbler that is quite familiar to me is the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata). A group spends the winter at my yard feeders and begin changing into their breeding plumage shortly before migrating north. In Quebec, I got to see them in their full coloration, and they were handsome indeed!

My final bird for this blog is also one I’ve seen before, but I found it simply stunning when watching it in the Canadian trees. The black-throated green warbler (Setophagahy virens) as the striped warblers but the brightness of the yellow and black coloring on the breeding male is wonderful to see.

They seemed to “color-match” some of the trees in which I watched them foraging.

 

In other cases, they complemented the deep green of the deciduous evergreen trees in which they were perching.

 

 

 

These birds particularly like caterpillars but eat a wide variety of insects. An interesting behavior observed by researchers concerns its singing – the males really like to belt it out, with one male having been recorded singing 466 songs in one hour!

 

Having observed these wood warblers in their breeding habitat, I now have an increased understanding of why birders are willing to endure warbler necks. 😊