A large, Neotropical bird with a swath of flamingo-pink feathers on its wings and a distinctive, spoon-shaped bill made a rare appearance in Fredericksburg early this week, setting local birders’ hearts aflutter.
The roseate spoonbill, whose normal stomping grounds in the United States are coastal Florida, Texas and southwestern Louisiana, was spotted Monday and Tuesday wading in silty brown water that the swollen Rappahannock River had sent flowing into Old Mill Park’s playground.
“It’s pretty exciting for us birding people,” said University of Mary Washington biology professor Andrew Dolby on Monday afternoon. “A couple of my friends contacted me about an hour ago.”
He said that as far as he knew, the bird’s appearance downtown was the only sighting in Fredericksburg within the last few decades. He said that a handful have been seen in the Norfolk area, Waynesboro and in a couple spots along the James River in Richmond.
“They’ve even shown up in stranger places than Fredericksburg,” Dolby said. “In 1992, one was found in New York, on Staten Island.”
Roseate spoonbills are widespread in Central and South America, with a range that extends to Argentina. They were common in parts of the southeastern United States until the 1860s, when they were nearly wiped out by hunters killing them for their flamboyant plumage, according to audubon.org.
The species began recolonizing in Texas and Florida in the early 20th century. Today, they’re most often found wading in shallow, muddy water along the coasts of those two states, as well as Louisiana. Some migrate south from Texas to Mexico or from Florida to Cuba during the winter. A few, mostly immature birds, have been known to stray north after breeding season.
The one that showed up at Old Mill Park appears to be a juvenile. It’s paler pink than an adult would be, and still has feathers on its head. Adults have a bare, yellowish-green head, one reason audubon.org describes them as, “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”
Roseate spoonbills’ other distinguishing feature is their wide, flat bill, which they swing from side to side as they feed in shallow waters. They use it to sift muck in their search for small fish, crabs, aquatic insects and other prey.
Birders began posting sightings of a roseate spoonbill at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach to ebird.org’s Virginia Rare Bird Alert on May 31. There were no other sightings until Monday, when four people posted that they’d seen the bird at Old Mill Park, which is where Pete Cihelka, a photographer for The Free Lance–Star, took the photo appearing with this article. There were three more postings of sightings in the same area Tuesday morning.
Dolby said the roseate spoonbill spotted here would be classified as an accidental, or vagrant, species for this area, and added that strong weather systems can sometimes move birds out of their normal range. He added that the one at Old Mill Park could hang around for a day or two, as long as there’s standing water.
Sightings of the species could become a little more common in the decades ahead. Audubon.org’s climate model predicts that some of its summer range could decline in the south, while new areas open in the north. Its interactive map, available at climate.audubon.org/birds/rosspo1/roseate-spoonbill, shows it reaching Tidewater Virginia by 2080.