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New nests feathered

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Jim Rodgers had hoped for picturesque skies and easy tides out on the water a few weeks ago at Cedar Key, but the reality of what had blown in set him ill at ease and ready to call it a day.

"I've got to go back," Rodgers told himself, discouraged at the thought of a wasted trip on account of foul weather.

But then he noticed something: a flash of pink amid the gray that lifted his spirits.

"I saw spoonbills headed out to Seahorse Key," Rodgers said excitedly on the phone Friday.

Although spotting the roseate spoonbill "is a rare treat," according to Rodgers, a bird researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the tropical birds are known to travel all along Florida's west coast, Louisiana and parts of the east coast of Texas.

But, until this summer when several nests were confirmed at Sea Horse Key, they've never been seen nesting farther than a few islands near Dunedin.

Seahorse Key is now the "northern-most record on the west coast of Florida," Rodgers said.

"This really is historic," said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida. "The Cedar Key nesting is of real note."

The roseate spoonbill, listed by the state as a species of "special concern," started declining in the 1880s, she said.

"They were very much impacted by the trade for their wings as fans and for their feathers as decorations."

The birds are estimated at about 1,200 mating pairs today, but scientists aren't sure why roseate spoonbills are nesting farther north.

"It's hard to know what goes on in those primitive reptilian brains," Rodgers said.

Studies by the Audubon Society show that climate change is having a drastic effect on some bird populations. About 60 percent of the 305 species of birds in North America in winter have shifted their ranges northward.

Rodgers said climate change might be a factor, but he said his suspicion is that recovery through the banning of such detrimental, egg-weakening chemicals as DDT or protection from trendy Parisians who once prized the South American bird's feathers as decorations is having a bigger effect, though It might be a combination of all these factors.

"We just don't know. We have no idea. The birds may have just decided that conditions are right."

Seahorse Key, being a state-protected island with good sources of food and a lack of predators that might prey on eggs or young spoonbills, is a good place to nest, Rodgers said, adding that FWC is in the process of determining if the bird's status as a species of "special concern" should be upgraded to "threatened."

"I would like to see their numbers increase out at Cedar Key and then go north."

Paul agreed.

"They're important because they're a part of the natural communities of the state, and they should be a part of that natural legacy."

People come from all over the world to see Florida birds, especially roseate spoonbills, she said.

"There's nothing like looking up into a blue sky and seeing a pink bird fly by. It's important to allow our children and grand-children to have the same experiences."