Audubon's Everglades Science Center Uses New Technology to Track Roseate Spoonbills

Novel approach entails the use of cameras and cellular tracking to learn more about their habits.

TAVERNIER -- Roseate Spoonbills are the “canary in the coal mine” for the Everglades. Because this species has a clear relationship with hydrologic conditions in the River of Grass, these colorful wading birds are indicators of restoration success. Staff at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center (ESC) in Tavernier recently piloted a new initiative to collect data with satellite transmitters and trail cameras to better understand Roseate Spoonbill habits in Florida Bay.

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

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

The new Roseate Spoonbill study has three key elements:  1) tracking adult birds to learn more about their movements; 2) conducting surveys and monitoring efforts of colonies in Florida Bay during nesting season to capture nesting and general population data; 3) advocating for significant public policy changes.

Trail cameras with motion sensors will capture information that complements other sources of collected data while minimizing disturbance to the birds’ habitat and active nesting colonies. The cameras can collect data at times when, and in locations where, it is difficult for humans to access, enabling a more comprehensive look at these amazing animals. ESC staff plans to install as many as 50 cameras across Florida Bay in 2021. Data collected by this study will help guide decision-makers in restoration and water management decisions to improve this important habitat for spoonbills and other wildlife.

Recently, ESC staff piloted a technique to trace the movements of Roseate Spoonbills. In 2020, scientists captured ten adult spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay and attached cellular tracking devices. Through this effort, ESC staff are already learning that the birds are using more ponds inside bay keys than the mangrove wetlands on the mainland that they historically preferred. Data also show interesting flight patterns, providing clues to where spoonbills are going when not nesting, and when they are moving. Staff is now beginning to analyze these observations. This technology will enhance ongoing efforts to understand the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and Everglades restoration efforts on these charismatic Florida birds.

The combination of cameras and satellite tracking not only provides scientists with important clues to their survival but also offers an opportunity to share our research with a broader audience and connect more people with the work. Our sincere thanks to Clinton Family Fund and Ocean Reef Conservation Association for supporting Audubon’s spoonbill studies!

Learn more about Audubon’s Everglades Science Center.  Audubon protects birds and the places they need, today and in the future.

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