“It’s a freak of nature,” said Peter Marra, director of Georgetown University’s Environment Initiative and an expert on migratory birds. “You do a double take when you see that bird. It’s a special thing.”
To see the birds in the Mid-Atlantic and even farther north is “unusual but not unprecedented” according to Marra, but it isn’t clear what’s driving them here this year. They may be traveling to find richer food sources after breeding or could have been swept north by storms.
Spoonbills are known wanderers. For example, during the summer of 2018, they were spotted as far north as Minnesota. A map on the website AllAboutBirds.org shows sightings of the bird since 2016 compared to where it is normally found; it reveals the birds have made scattered appearances over much of the eastern third of the Lower 48.
But a sighting within the confines of the District is rare and possibly a first. Photographer Jim Havard photographed one on Sunday at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Growing up to 2.5 feet tall with a wingspan up to four feet, the birds are not hard to spot.
“I waited in the rain for over an hour on the boardwalk hoping the spoonbill would take off and come closer,” Havard wrote in an email. “Eventually it took off and circled gracefully, coming fairly close to the boardwalk. It was fun heading out on a wild spoonbill chase and actually finding it.”
Marra said the spoonbill Havard photographed probably arrived in the area post-breeding. “That’s often when you have dispersals like this,” he said. “It could have bred in North Carolina, it could’ve bred even closer than that. It could be an adult that didn’t breed and is just moving around.”
Marlene Koenig photographed spoonbills as early as June 26 in Huntley Meadows Park, located near Alexandria. Her photo below shows that the bird, which catches crustaceans and fish with its spoon-shaped bill, has no problem integrating well with local birds, a hybrid mallard, and her three nearly adult offspring.
Spoonbills release a low, guttural sound while feeding, which typically occurs in the early morning and evening.
Nature photographer Jerry Am Ende found spoonbills at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware this summer, after Tropical Storm Elsa passed through the region on July 8.
“My shot [from] 7/12/2021 was the first sighting of the spoonbill at Bombay Hook as far as I know,” wrote Ende. “I put 2&2 together and guessed that Elsa had something to do with the sighting.”
Marra said it’s impossible to know for sure whether the storm was involved in the spoonbills’ location. “The amount of evidence one needs to drive home a conclusion on that is not insignificant,” he said.
Birds swept to certain locations by storms are more often pelagic birds, which spend most of their time over the ocean. Spoonbills are wading birds, often found in marshy habitats near the coast. Marra said the birds might have been in Delaware before the storm before anyone saw them.
Because spoonbills are also migratory birds, they are most likely to return south for the winter. But there is a chance some of these vagrant birds may establish new colonies, according to an article from the National Audubon Society.
Even so, is too early to say if these new sightings will be commonplace.
“Unless this repeats itself next year, these anomalies are one-off events,” said Dennis Govoni, who has photographed nature for 57 years and often travels to Florida to observe wildlife, including the spoonbill.
Climate change could increase the chances of seeing spoonbills in locations north of their current habitat, however, according to a 2014 report from Audubon.
“Audubon’s climate model predicts an unstable future for this species in North America, with significant loss of suitable climate space in both summer and winter, though with potential new areas opening up to the north,” the report said. “Populations are declining in some core areas of this species’ summer range, and it remains to be seen how a shifting climate will affect this charismatic bird.”
Marra said it’s not unreasonable to ask the question as to whether this year’s sightings are related to a northward range expansion driven by climate change, but that more data is required for an answer.
“You need to have multiple years of data, 20 or 30 years, to understand what’s happening with the leading edge of the range,” he said.
Kasha Patel contributed to this report.