Ever since I saw my first Roseate Spoonbills along the side of the highway many years ago, I’ve been completely mesmerized by the striking colors and prehistoric appearance of this large pink wading bird. Not knowing of the bird when I first saw it, my first impression was one of disbelief. That was over 35 years ago, but every time I see one, I’m completely amazed but what I see.
General Facts and Appearance
The Spoonbill is the most striking wading bird in North America. It has a pink body, with red on its wings, and an orangish patch on its tail. The bill is spatula shaped and is used to scoop up its food from the water. It's about 30 inches tall with about a 36" wing span. The reddish wing feathers are more prominent during mating in the spring.
Here in Louisiana, they mate in early spring, March or April, and have the chicks in May or June. They nest with other wading birds in Cypress Trees growing in the water. Each mating pair has 3 to 5 chicks. The chicks are much lighter in color, a pale pink.
During the 1900's the population was decimated with "plum-hunters". The feathers were used for such things as fans. Since they nest among other wading birds such as egrets, which were also hunted for their feathers, the population was also impacted due to the disturbance of their nesting area. Currently nesting populations are found along the coast in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. In Louisiana the largest nesting populations are in the Southwestern part of the state, within about 100 miles of the Gulf coast.
The birds are often seen walking in the water foraging for food with their spatula shaped bill. Unlike the herons, they walk in a crouched position and move their tail back and forth as they walk. When in flight, the hold their head straight out, flapping their wings relatively slowly.
The birds are very territorial, during nesting season male act aggressively to other males holding territorial fights and chasing other males from their nesting site.
Roseates are often found in flocks during and outside of the nesting period. When nesting they are observed leaving and returning in larege "Upflights" involving many birds.
In Louisiana, Roseate Spoonbill's don't appear to migrate outside of the area. They do disperse from the nesting site, probably due to food supply issues, but are found in the general area throughout the year.
The best online reference I've found is at:
Places to photographe Roseate Spoonbills in Louisiana
Prior to 2006 Lake Martin, near Lafayette Louisiana, was without a doubt the premier location to photograph Roseate Spoonbils. Every spring, hundreds of pairs of Spoonbills nested in the Bald Cypress trees growing from with the waters of the Lake. Many of the nests were clearly visible from the gravel road on the East side of the Lake. The nesting area extended almost a mile from the south side of the Lake. This made mornings in the Spring at Lake Martin an exceptional place.
I returned to Louisiana in late 2001 and visited Lake Martin for the first time in March of 2002. It was an unforgettable experience seeing the hundreds of these beautiful birds sparring for their place to nest. During 2002 and 2003, I made the 2 hour trip to Lake Martin 2 or 3 times per week in the Spring. Many of my best photographs of the Spoonbills were made during this period.
Unfortunately early in the nesting season of 2006 a series of unfortunate events led to the near collapse of nesting at Lake Martin. The few remaining birds were nesting within the interior of the Lake far from human view and camera range. My take on this unfortunate event is found elsewhere on this site. While there has been a steady increase in the nesting population each year, as of the writing of this article in the winter of 2011, the birds have not returned to the area near the road that led to such wonderful photo opportunities. Hopefully over time Lake Martin will be restored to its' former status. Until then photographing Roseate Spoonbills there is only a pleasant memory.
(Update Late 2015, 2015 saw the fewest Roseates at Lake Martin since the 2006 event. Unfortunately I believe hope for a return of the previous glory of the Rookery is not to be expected.)
Rip Van Winkle Gardens - Jefferson Island
In 2007 I found a very nice Roseate Spoonbill Rookery near New Iberia, Louisiana. On the grounds of a Commercial Nursery many pairs of Roseate Spoonbills can be found nesting on artificial islands in Cypress trees. The islands were created for the express purpose of attracting a Rookery during the 1980's and it took until 2005 or 2006 for this to occur. Being on private property it requires permission to photograph there, but upon obtaining the permission it is a very nice and accessible place to photograph the birds. On advantage over Lake Martin is that there shooting opportunities both morning and afternoon. This location currently provides the best opportunity to photograph the birds. The way the location is laid out, it is a very natural setting with nice foliage and opportunities to create pleasing out of focus natural backgrounds. Not only are their opportunities to photograph nesting birds, it is well laid out for photographing the birds in flight.
Talons Landing Road – Klondyke, Louisiana
In Southwestern Louisiana, there is a small Rookery with Roseate Spoonbills. While there aren't as many birds as the Rookery at Jefferson Island, There are a there have been a dozen or so nesting Roseate Spoonbills for the past 4 years. While the site is on private property, shooting is from a gravel road to the West of the Rookery. The birds are about 70 feet from the road allowing excellent afternoon photo opportunities. During 2005, the site was badly effected by hurricane rita and there were no birds at the site in 2006. The birds returned in 2007 and have been there every year since.
(Update Late 2015, While the birds were nesting there in 2015, the grass along side the road has now almost completely obscured the trees, good photography at that site was not possible in 2014 or 2015)
There is a very large wading bird Rookery at Millers Lake near Ville Platte, Louisiana. While the site has largely Ibis, Egrets, and Herons, there is also a small population of Roseate Spoonbills. While I love photographing at the Lake, access is by boat only and during dry years, only with a "mud boat". Unfortunately the Spoonbills nest in trees that are inaccessible by boat. While I've made some nice flight photographs of Roseate's there, it is not one of my preferred locations.
As you move further west in the state there are other Roseate Spoonbill Rockeries I am aware of by have rarely photographed at. Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, badly damaged by several hurricanes, is a well known place for the bird. In 2006 when the Rookeries at Lake Martin and Klondyke had failed there was a small Rookery at Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge accessible by boat, the only place I could locate for that year. Interestingly, that was the only year the birds were there.
Photographic Challenges and Techniques
Wading bird Rookeries are challenging places to photograph.
The closest you're going to get to nesting birds is 75 to 150 feet. In order to photograph birds of this size at that range you're going to need at least a 500 mm lens to get nearly full frame photographs.
In many cases you're going to need a teleconverter to increase your range, with its' limitation on both sharpness and aperture.
Rookeries are cluttered places, it's difficult to isolate one pair of birds from others and getting a clean shot without sticks or branches is a challenge.
Roseate Spoonbills are light colored birds and frequently you're dealing with darker color backgrounds, exposure is tricky.
The following techniques will help
Learn and practice good tripod technique with your telephoto lens. A proper tripod, tripod head, and properly holding the lens will help get sharp shots at slower shutter speeds. Work on holding your eye to the viewfinder, keeping your hand over the focus ring of your lens and squeezing, not jabbing the shutter button.
With a long lens with its very narrow angle of view, moving only a small amount will make a major difference with what appears in the background. Don't limit your movement to left and right, check higher and lower and backwards and forwards as well. Look for holes in the vegetation and angles to avoid the out of focus bird in the background.
Personally I like to manually meter using the spot meter function on my camera. For my shooting this works best for me. I meter something bright white near the birds I'm photographing, typically an egret at a rookery and set the exposure to something like 1 1/3 to 1 2/3 above mid-tone, take a couple of test shots and check I'm not clipping the highlights with the camera's histogram and go from there. Other people prefer to use the camera's evaluative or matrix metering system with Aperture Priority and you can get good results with that as well. However using this method often you will need to add some negative compensation, particularly if the background is dark.
Roseate Spoonbills typically look best in softer light Therefore it' best to photographer either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light is softer and directly pointing at the bird to minimize distracting shadows. On overcast days, you can often shoot most of the day, but try to compose your shots without the sky in the background.
Photographing the Roseate Spoonbill in Flight carries it's own set of challenges. One advantage is that they will often fly directly overhead and you can get full frame shots with a 300 mm or shorter telephone lens. However like any moving object you need to master panning with the subject. Given the slower action of the wings, it is less difficult to get a pleasing composition than with many other birds, but photographing in continuous shooting mode is frequently helpful. Exposure against a bright blue sky is typically pretty close with no compensation.
Time of year
The four years I photographed at Lake Martin, the timing was consistent and as follows:
- Roseate Spoonbill's arrive and begin Mating Behavior – 2nd or 3d week in March
- Nest Building – Early Apri
- Eggs on Nest – Mid to late April
- Chicks on Nest – Mid May – Early June
Since 2006 working at different sites and with a different weather pattern, I'm finding that many years are later. In fact 2010, with a very cold winter, nesting activity and chicks on the nest at Jefferson Island was a good month later than what I had experienced at Lake Martin. Nesting at the Rookery in Klondyke was a good 2 weeks earlier than at Jefferson Island, although still several weeks later than what I had experienced at Lake Martin. It's difficult for me to tell if the difference was due to the location, the weather pattern, both, or some other factors unknown to me.
The Roseate Spoonbill is one of the most striking birds in North America. There are great places to photograph the bird in Southern Louisiana. The best time to photograph the bird is during its mating and nesting season as the bird is at a predictable location and less startled by a human presence. The best time in Southern Louisiana is usually from Mid March through June. Photography at a Rookery can be challenging due difficult exposure metering considerations and the jumbled nature of the Rookery. But the efforts required will yield wonderful photographs.