Practically in my backyard, Lake Somerset graces the end of my street and is one of the best-kept secrets in Lakeland (not just because it only appears to be an oversized pond that isn't...just an oversized pond, that is). A very narrow passage leads to a wonderful collection of old phosphate strips, now home to a wide variety of birds.
Summer is the best time to bird-watch here, as the strips of lush green trees and vegetation are spotted with mostly white feathered friends, intermittently sprinkled with hot pink and deep blues, greens, and grays (from Roseate Spoonbills and several different Heron species).
The stars of this paddle were the Wood Storks and my beloved Roseate Spoonbills.
Formerly called the Wood Ibis, though it is not really an Ibis, the Wood Stork is a broad-winged soaring bird that flies with its neck outstretched and legs extended. Adult is a large bird, 33-45" tall, with a wingspan of 58-71". Males typically weigh 5.5-7.3 pounds but have been documented as heavy as 10 pounds, while females range between 4.4-6.2 pounds. It forages usually where lowering water levels concentrate fish in open wetlands; they also frequent rice paddies.
Wood Storks appear all white on the ground, with blackish-gray legs and pink feet. In flight, the trailing edge of the wings is black. The head is dark brown with a bald, black face, and the thick downcurved bill is dusky yellow. Juvenile birds are a duller version of the adult, generally browner on the neck, and with a paler bill.
Wood Storks walk slowly and steadily in shallow waer up to the belly seeking prey, which, like most of their relatives, consists of fish, frogs, and large insects. They catch fish by holding their bill open in the water until a fish is detected. In the United States, it favors cyperss trees in marshes, swamps, or (less often) among mangroves and nearby habitat. An average nesting pair of Wood Storks with two fledglings may eat over 400 pounds of fish during a single breeding season.
A resident breeder, this bird breeds in lowland wetlands with trees. The large stick nest is built in a forest tree, with up to twenty-five nests in one tree. They breed once a year, and 3-5 eggs are laid in the typical clutch. The eggs are incubated 27-32 days by both sexes. Their reproductive cycle is triggered with the waterholds dry up sufficiently to concentrate fish in sufficient numbers for efficient feeding of the chicks. Young fledge about two months after hatching.
The Wood Stork is the only stork that presently breeds in North America. In the United States, there is a small and endangered breeding population in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, along with a recently discovered rookery (a colony of breeding animals, referring to their nesting place) in southeastern North Carolina.
Average lifespan of a Wood Stork is 11-18 years.
The most distinctive characteristic of the roseate spoonbill is its long spoon-shaped bill. It has a white head and chest and light pink wings with a darker pink fringe and very long pink legs. The Roseate Spoonbill is about two and a half feet in length with a wingspan of about four and a half feet. Both males and females have the same plumage and coloring. The male is slightly larger than the female and its bill is a little longer.
Other characteristics of the adult Roseate Spoonbill include red eyes, grayish bill with dark mottling, greenish unfeathered head with black nape band, white neck, back of white and pink, pink wings, red legs, and dark feet.
The Roseate Spoonbill lives in mangrove swamps, tidal ponds, saltwater lagoons and other areas with brackish water. Their method of catching fish is through sense of touch as they rhythmically sweep their spoon-shaped bills from side to side. While feeding, Spoonbills utter a low, gutteral sound. No other bird in North America has a similar bill.
The Roseate Spoonbill spends a lot of its time in shallow water feeding. It sweeps its open bill from side to side in the water to sift up food like small fish, shrimp, mollusks, snails and insects. It has touch receptors in its bill that help it feel its prey. Like the flamingo, the Roseate Spoonbill's pink color comes from the food it eats. Some of the crustaceans it eats feed on algae that give the spoonbill's feathers their rosy pink color.
The Roseate Spoonbill nests in colonies. Males and females pair off for the breeding season and build a nest together. They build large nests of sticks lined with grass and leaves. The nests are built in trees. The female Spoonbill lays two to four eggs. Both the female and the male incubate the eggs. The chicks hatch in about three weeks and fledge in around 35 to 42 days. Both the male and female feed the chicks until they are about eight weeks old. Young Roseate Spoonbills have white feathers with a slight pink tinge on the wings. They don't reach maturity until they are three years old.
Roseate spoonbills are very social yet serially monogamous as mates (they keep the same mate for an entire breeding season, but not for life). They live in large colonies with other spoonbills, ibises, storks, herons, egrets and cormorants. Roseate Spoonbills fly in flocks in long diagonal lines with their legs and neck stretched out.
The Roseate Spoonbill population was once threatened by hunting. In the mid-to-late 1800s its feathers were used in ladies' hats and fans. The population was also threatened by loss of habitat due to drainage and pollution in its habitat. By the early 20th century, the population had shrunk to only a few dozen nesting pairs in the United States. Special protected areas were set aside for them and in the 1940s they were made a protected species. Over time the population recovered and today the Roseate Spoonbill is no longer a protected species. However, Despite eventual population increases throughout its U.S. range, this Spoonbill remains vulnerable, especially in Florida, and it is designated a Species of Special Concern in both Florida and Louisiana.
© April L. Gustetter