Meet the island’s resident pop of color
By Candice Dyer
That flash of bismuth pink you see hovering over the marsh may look, at first glance, like a flamingo, but zoom in with your binoculars. It is actually a roseate spoonbill.
The spoonbill is smaller than a flamingo, with a short neck and a bill shaped like a salad server— perfect for sifting shrimp and plankton for food. It’s a relative newcomer to Jekyll Island, the product of a shrinking habitat. “They’re normally farther south,” says Tim Keyes, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, “but as Florida wetlands dwindled, they started showing up on the Georgia coast in the 1980s. Some that were banded [for research] in Tampa have turned up here.”
Their coloration comes from an abundance of carotenoids, or algae pigments, in their diet. The older the bird, the pinker the feathers. Pastel juveniles and their more vibrant elders can be spotted on Jekyll on the golf course, at the amphitheater pond, and along the causeway at low tide. Some birders have even reported a spectacle of around 100 spoonbills feeding together, swinging their spatulate beaks from side to side.
The roseate spoonbill differs from other birds in the sound it makes—a guttural grunt reminiscent of a pig. “It lacks a song,” says Lydia Thompson, a local bird conservationist and avian artist, “so it relies on its visual appeal to attract attention.” The feathers darken at the edges to crimson red when the birds are breeding, and the adults have startling red eyes, giving them the look of a dowager’s old-timey brooch come to life.
In fact, the bird’s unusual beauty was almost its undoing. In the 1860s, it was hunted for its plumes, which decorated women’s hats and fans—a practice since outlawed. “They’re a delight to observe and easy to spot for those who are new to birding,” Thompson says.