Courtship Roseate Spoonbill Style

Courtship Roseate Spoonbill Style

March 10, 2017 ~ What's not to love about the big, pink goofy bird? We see Roseate Spoonbills all the time here on the Texas coast, but I forget how exotic they are to the rest of the state, not to mention parts to the north. They are beginning to court and mate at the Smith Oaks Rookery at High Island and we made a quick trip March 7 to check on their progress.

Due to our on-again off-again winter, everything is happening early this year at High Island. The Great Egrets have nests and eggs; there should be chicks in maybe a week. We noticed a lot of Snowy Egrets in full breeding plumage; sporting bright red lores and orange feet, noisily flying around and getting all agro with the other males. I read the male Snowys show up first and stake out their nesting sites ahead of the females. It is getting rather crowded but the Snowys should be able to build nests on smaller limbs than the larger and heavier Spoonbills.  One of the volunteers told us the Spoonbills may move on if they can't find space. But, it is a big place; we forget there is the other side of the island in front of the platforms, plus more island to the north.

Tension runs high in a place with so many birds
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 640; tripod

The rookery is a magical, noisy place full of action and reaction. Here a bird in full breeding colors chases off one not as far along in the process. The aggressor has a bright orange face with black around the back on his neck. The fleeing bird has a ways to go.

Spoonbill bill action
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

Spoonbills are monogamous during the breeding season but do not mate for life. So, the getting-to-know-you phase starts over each year. Spoonbills have a ritualized courtship for choosing mates. There isn't much in the literature but I did find this on the Audubon page:

In courtship, male and female first interact aggressively, later perch close together, present sticks to each other, cross and clasp bills.

I observed all that behavior, so let's take that as the proper sequence.

More and more bill action
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

Males and females are about the same size; the males may be slightly larger. They can be aggressive towards each other in the beginning with bill clattering and mock fights.

And more interaction
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

You can hear the sounds of the bill clattering and it can go on for quite a while. Looking at the literature on Spoonbills I found the following facts rather easily:

  • 2-3 eggs, white with brown splotches
  • nests built mostly by females with sticks supplied by males
  • both male and female incubate eggs (22-24 days)
  • both parents feed young
  • chicks leave the nest at 5-6 weeks; full flight capabilities at 7-8 weeks

Spoonbills crossing bills
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

The clattering interactions seem more playful than serious, although we did see a few obvious male-on-male battles that were full of chases and airborne lunges. It was more than difficult to follow the actions of a specific pair and keep everything in focus. Way too many limbs obscuring the action, but you just keep trying.

Singular Spoonbills starting to bob and dip to attract a mate
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

We did find pairs perched next to each other and bobbing back and forth, but most couples were facing the other direction or blocked by limbs. I don't think the upwards wings are necessary to the ritual, but part of the balancing act. In the case of the birds above, the one on the right didn't seem impressed enough to join in and soon flew away.

Spoonbills sharing a stick
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

Sticks play an important part in the ritual. Here a pair is clutching the same stick and seem to have overcome anxieties about getting close to a new mate. Doesn't it look like he has is arm around her? I know, it is a wing but still.

The only way to describe this is a bird cuddle.

And then... after all the bill clattering, crossed bills and stick sharing...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

It is still very early, we only saw three pair actually mating. Only one nest was spotted (but remember, we can only see a portion of the rookery) and it was fairly obscured. She does most of the work of building the nest; his job is to bring the sticks.

Look at me! I am Queen of the World!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

There are plenty of juveniles among the soon-to-be nesting adults. We saw a lot of them carrying sticks, bobbing and rocking and generally imitating the breeding birds. This young one seems to be saying to the world "I will be big some day soon, watch out!"

It was a hard day, physically. I shot over 1500 images and almost 700 were Roseate Spoonbills. Bill Maroldo was shooting his Nikon AND Sony, alternately. Cheryl Vance-Kiser joined us and we had a great time on the lower level of the new rental platform since no paying guests showed up.

The brilliant pink looks best against green foliage, but once the trees leaf out a lot of the action is obscured. We had overcast conditions to start, then a middle period of bright light, and then nice clouds again so there were constant adjustments of ISOs and shutter speeds. No rain although showers were forecast. We left about 5:30 pm and had to cross a strong line of storms just before getting to Winnie. After that it was clear skies and traffic all the way home.

I want to take a minute to thank all my new subscribers and especially those who comment about my blog here and on Facebook. All the kind words are so appreciated!  Now, tell me. Have you been to High Island yet? Did you try out the new platform? And do you check the weather forecasts before you go out, or just deal with what every happens?

Beyond the Bird on a Stick

Beyond the Bird on a Stick

Early Trip to High Island

Early Trip to High Island