American Flamingos wade in Marco Island in September 2023 after Hurricane Idalia. | Col Lazau, special To WGCUAmerican Flamingos wade in Marco Island in September 2023 after Hurricane Idalia. | Col Lazau, special To WGCU
American Flamingos wade in Marco Island in September 2023 after Hurricane Idalia. | Col Lazau, special To WGCU

Hurricane Idalia gifted Florida with a flock of flamingos

Published on May 7, 2024 at 11:50 am

In Latin they are known as Phoenicopterus ruber. To the average viewer, however, their pink feathers and long legs sing out one word — flamingos!

Courtesy of 2023’s Hurricane Idalia, Florida again has a flock of 101 wild American flamingos in several places — 18 of which have made a home on Pine Island, off Cape Coral on the Gulf Coast.

Jacksonville Today thanks our sponsors. Become one.

In February, Audubon Florida organized an American Flamingo survey across the Sunshine State. The effort was coordinated through the Florida Flamingo Working Group as part of a larger effort by the Caribbean Flamingo Conservation Group to census all American Flamingos throughout their range from February 18 to 25.

More than 40 people filled out the survey to record 101 wild American Flamingos across Florida. The largest group — more than 50 — was spotted in Florida Bay; 18 were counted in the Pine Island area, with 14 at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

“We are thrilled that there are flamingos that have remained in Florida after being blown here in 2023 by Hurricane Idalia. I actually suspect that 100 flamingos is the floor of this new population, and there could be more that were not counted during the one-week survey. We are continually monitoring for breeding flamingos,” said Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida.

Article continues below
Jacksonville Today thanks our sponsors. Become one.

Right after Idalia scoured the west coast of Florida, Floridians began seeing a lot of flamingos. Blown in by the hurricane, American Flamingos landed as far north as St. Marks Wildlife Refuge all the way south to Collier County, including a record sighting in Alachua County.

Sightings soon after Idalia were also reported on beaches and in other natural areas including at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island, the Sanibel Causeway, Bunche Beach, Punta Gorda, Charlotte Harbor, Clearwater, Treasure Island, Siesta Key, Tarpon Springs, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Pithlachoco, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and more, Audubon Florida reported.

While the American Flamingo is more numerous in Mexico and Cuba, Audubon Florida said that it was likely Hurricane Idalia “captured” single flamingos and small flocks from these regions, blowing them to Florida on strong storm winds.

The organization said that some flamingos that arrive in this way remain in Florida, like the famous Pinky at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a bird that arrived after Hurricane Michael in 2018 and has appeared for part of every year since.

Before the arrival of Europeans and European-descended settlers, Florida was a haven for wading birds. Massive colonies of roseate spoonbills, great egrets, white ibises, wood storks and so many more lived side by side with indigenous communities, including the Seminole, Calusa, Tequesta and Miccosukee nations.

“We know flamingoes were there too,” said Lorenz. He and his colleagues dove into the historic literature, flagging mentions of flamingo sightings in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes thousands of birds at a time.

Unfortunately, the 19th century plume trade — when an ounce of feathers was worth more than gold — decimated wading birds in South Florida.

Even after legislation and Audubon wardens protected these birds, extensive draining and ditching of the Everglades destroyed their habitat.

According to Audubon Florida, flamingo sightings in the historical record eventually petered out. A search through the literature revealed sporadic flamingo sightings up to the 1930s, but instead of thousands — or even dozens — of pink birds, people reported less than a handful at a time.

After decades of organizing and public pressure to heal the Everglades President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan into law in 2000.

The legislation marked one of the most ambitious restoration initiatives in the world, to reverse the human interference that had starved the Everglades of the water it needs to function as a healthy ecosystem. Momentum proved slow in the beginning, but in recent years, important projects have finally come online to bring millions of gallons back into the Everglades, including the removal and bridging of the Tamiami Trail road, a roadway that has bisected the Everglades and accidentally functioned as a dam for decades, the groundbreaking of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir to clean and store water before it flows south to Florida Bay, and much more.

A historic investment of federal and state funds means these projects and ones like them will continue to improve ecosystem health into the future. Audubon continues to work with local, state and federal officials to keep the restoration momentum flowing into the Everglades.

Avian experts at Florida Audubon said that with the restoration efforts being made in the Everglades, they are hopeful that protected wetlands and improved water flow will create enough habitat resources for the Hurricane Idalia flamingos to survive and thrive here.

The organization said that wading birds such as the flamingo show that if the water is right, they are capable of breeding successfully. Both 2018 and 2021 proved to be strong nesting years for most of the Everglades’ wading birds, with hopes that continuing restoration projects will make the region more resilient as Florida deals with the ongoing and future effects of a changing climate.

Those experts also urged people looking to view the pink icons to give flamingos their space. “If you are affecting their movement or behavior, you are too close,” a birding notice from Florida Audubon said. “Use binoculars or a zoom lens to see the birds from a safe distance.”

Copyright 2024 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.