Audubon’s Everglades Science Center Uses New Technology To Track Roseate Spoonbills

A rear camera image shows a Roseate Spoonbill feeding young at its nest in Florida Bay. COURTESY AUDUBON FLORIDA

Roseate Spoonbills are the “canary in the coal mine” for the Everglades. Since this species has a clear relationship with the hydrological conditions in the flow of the grass, these brightly colored waders are indicators of the success of the restoration. Staff at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center in Tavernier recently launched a new data collection initiative using satellite transmitters and rear view cameras to better understand the habits of Roseate Spoonbill in Florida Bay.

The Everglades Science Center has been studying Roseate Spoonbills since 1939, beginning with the efforts of Audubon’s first director of research, Robert Porter Allen.

“Understanding the behavior of spoonbills gives us clues about changes in water quality and quantity in the Everglades,” said Jerry Lorenz, Ph.D., the current director of research at Audubon Florida. “Spoonbills can also provide warning signals of impending changes or shifts in an ecosystem, including rising seas,” he added. Mr. Lorenz’s ongoing research has already shown that Roseate Spoonbills are relocating their nesting sites in direct response to habitat destruction and climate change.

The new Roseate Spoonbill study contains three key elements: 1) tracking adult birds to learn more about their movements; 2) conduct surveys and monitor colonies in Florida Bay during the breeding season to collect breeding and general population data; 3) advocating major changes in public policy.

Rear-view cameras with motion sensors capture information that supplements other sources of collected data while minimizing disruption to the bird’s habitat and active breeding colonies. The cameras can collect data at times and locations that are difficult for humans to access, providing a fuller view of these amazing animals. ESC employees plan to install up to 50 cameras in Florida Bay by 2021. The data collected through this study will help decision-makers make restoration and water management decisions to improve this important habitat for spoonbills and other wildlife.

Recently, ESC employees tried a technique to track the movements of Roseate Spoonbills. In 2020, scientists captured 10 adult spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay and hooked up cellular tracking devices. Through these efforts, ESC staff is already learning that the birds use more ponds in Bay Keys than the mainland mangrove wetlands they have historically preferred. The data also reveals interesting flight patterns that provide clues as to where the spoonbills go when they are not nesting and when they are moving. The employees now begin to analyze these observations. This technology will enhance ongoing efforts to understand the effects of climate change, sea level rise, and the restoration of the Everglades on these charismatic birds in Florida.

The combination of cameras and satellite tracking not only provides scientists with vital clues about their survival, but also provides an opportunity to bring research to a wider audience and connect more people to work. The Clinton Family Fund and the Ocean Reef Conservation Association support Audubon’s spoonbill studies.

For more information on Audubon’s Everglades Science Center, please visit https://fl.audubon.org. ¦

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