Roseate spoonbills, Platalea ajaja, are an ill-assorted mixture of delicate beauty and clumsy absurdity. Their elegant feathers shade from white through shell-pink to coral, but their comically oversized bills are spatula-shaped with rounded ends. They are a New World species, and I have seen them once before, in the Pantanal in Brazil. In the USA, they are limited to coastal areas in Florida and Texas
To my delight, there is one tiny (non-breeding) colony of them here in South Carolina, at the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, and the conservationist Dana Beach explained how to find it, so off we went. We drove around in a circle for a while, failing to see anything, and just as we were on the verge of deciding to abort, there they were.
They are waders, nearly three feet tall, and mainly feed on crustaceans and fish.
The crustaceans are responsible for the pink coloration of their feathers (just as they are for flamingoes), which get pinker with age.
They feed by scything their bills from side to side as they slowly move forward:
The bills are translucent:
We admired them for a while, then decided to picnic a little further down the pond. They moved too, and as we continued to watch we realized that they were behaving rather oddly. They were clustered together, poking at something in the water.
It was an alligator, and they poked and pecked at it for more than five minutes, and the alligator was astonishingly not goaded into retaliation.
Occasionally it did spook them a little:
But not enough to scare them off:
We have since asked around, and failed to find any reports of this behavior, except for one story in the Daily Mail!
Alligators are in fact useful to spoonbills, because they eat predators like raccoons who might otherwise threaten the spoonbills’ land-based nests, so I don’t know why the spoonbills harassed it (nor why it didn’t fight back). One possibility is that its skin was encrusted with tiny edible creatures that spoonbills enjoy, and that the alligator is happy to be rid of, just as tiny fish groom bigger fish.
After all that activity, the show ended with a grooming session:
PS All of these are juveniles, since they have a completely feathered head. After about 15 months it becomes pale yellowish green and nearly bald.