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Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? Birders are spotting them

For years, the only flamingos in Florida were at zoos, Hialeah Race Track or decorating people’s lawns.

Now, however, flamingos have popped up all over after Hurricane Idalia in late September 2023. Scientists estimate there were about 75 in Florida after the storm, presumable swept here from the Yucatan by the weather system.

flamingos in florida 2023 23 flamingo pelicans Thomas Lynch Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? Birders are spotting them
Four flamingos have been spotted by Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge during December 2023. Photographer Thomas Lynch captured this image, which allows you to compare the size of the flamingos with the white pelicans and brown pelicans. (Photo: Thomas Lynch)

Even before this windfall, a group of scientists in 2018 published a paper that contended that the occasional flamingo in Florida is evidence of a recovering species that disappeared from Florida in the early 1900s. They argue flamingos are native to Florida and disappeared because of “plume hunters.”

Calling all flamingo enthusiasts! If you see a flamingo during the February 18-25 census window, let the Audubon Society know using the form below.

In February, a research team wants to see how many of the flamingos from Hurricane Idalias have remained in the Sunshine State and are calling all interested Floridians to report the flamingos they see from Feb. 18 – 25. This effort is being coordinated through the Florida Flamingo Working Group and is part of larger effort being coordinated by the Caribbean Flamingo Conservation Group to census all American Flamingos throughout their range during this week.

Note: Please give flamingos their space. If you are affecting their movement or behavior, you are too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens to record their presence from a safe distance. Make your report here.

How to see wild flamingos in Florida now — if you’re lucky

Recently, several dozen flamingos have been seen around Florida and so the question is: Will any stay or return? And can you see them?

You will be very lucky to spot these elusive birds, but they have been sighted regularly in several locations in November and December.

I’ll start for obvious reasons in Flamingo, that end-of-the-road spot in Everglades National Park where, despite the name, no one has seen more than a rare visiting flamingo in more than a hundred years.

And I saw one there!

I went to Flamingo with my husband and our kayak with a plan to paddle into Snake Bight a shallow wilderness cove east of Flamingo, on Dec. 12, 2023. I confirmed via phone with a ranger in Flamingo that, indeed, as many as 30 flamingos had been hanging out there since Hurricane Idalia.

Snake Bight attracts thousands of wading birds and we’ve paddled there twice in recent years to admire the roseate spoonbills and white pelicans massed there. (A bight is an indentation in the coast, so somebody got a good chuckle, I bet, naming it Snake Bight.)

On arrival at the national park, however, we learned that a strong north wind was coming the next day and it would be a difficult and maybe even dangerous paddle trip. We scrapped the Snake Bight plan and instead kayaked the protected waters of Buttonwood Canal.

But I am a very lucky person. After our paddle, we returned to the Flamingo Visitor Center, where there are big second-story picture windows overlooking Florida Bay.

At the center of those windows was a scope focused on — a flamingo!

A single flamingo had been spotted about a quarter mile out into the bay, just hanging out for several hours. Photographers with strong telephoto lenses managed to capture photos. A ranger was taking a photo with his Iphone through a set of binoculars.

flamingos in florida flamingo in florida bay Flamingos in Florida: Back for good? Birders are spotting them
Yes, you must look very closely. But that’s a single flamingo visible via a zoom lens from the Flamingo Visitor Center on July 12, 2023. (Photo: David Blasco)

The rangers, volunteers and visitors were giddy with excitement. A ranger explained that flamingos are born white and only turn pink from eating shrimp, so this not-so-pink bird was probably a juvenile. Through the scope, though, the curve of the beak and neck and long legs were an unmistakable profile.

If flamingos become regulars in Florida again, there’s a good chance it will be in Flamingo.

From the photos I’m seeing online, flamingo fans are seeing the pinks birds in the Haulover Canal area in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (See the photo at the top of this story.)

Several birders have been reporting on the rare-bird reporting web pages of seeing flamingos from the Haulover Canal kayak launch at Merritt Island NWR. (These sightings occurred throughout December and as recently as today, Jan. 8.)

Photographer TJ Waller was nice enough to post this information, which includes a map: “Currently they are located near the small island at the end of the Haulover Canal Kayak launch. If you row out there, be responsible and don’t get too close.”

(Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz says if the flamingo is aware of you — moving or shuffling its feet — then you’re too close. He suggests you give them at least 200 feet of space.)

Flamingos have also been seen regularly around the Tampa Bay area, specifically Terra Ceia Preserve State Park on the Hightower Trail in Manatee. On Dec. 23, a flamingo was reported along the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the South Rest Area.

Earlier, flamingos were photographed in several other areas of Tampa Bay, including  Fort De Soto beach in St. Petersburg and along the Sanibel Causeway, Clearwater Beach, Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs and Treasure Island Beach. In early February, four flamingos were photographed on Pine Island. They are not necessarily staying in those locations, however, and they seem to be spotted in various locations around Tampa Bay.

Similarly, flamingos were seen off Ramrod Key in the Florida Keys in a wetland area west of Indies Road. (The Keys had a single resident flamingo for a few years, Conchy, who was banded and whose location was last reported just before Hurricane Irma in 2017.)

American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)
American Flamingo at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Andy Wraithmell)

Wild flamingos in Florida that have stuck around

One place where a flamingo has been seen over several years is St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in the Big Bend/Panhandle.

Pinky the flamingo has been spotted regularly since Hurricane Michael in 2018. The bird was joined by six more flamingos after Hurricane Idalia, though there’s no guarantee they’ll remain here.

In Palm Beach County, a flock of flamingos often comes in spring

Over several years, flamingos have returned to a remote wetland in Palm Beach County.

Flamingos seen in a remote site in Palm Beach County
Even before Idalia, flamingos have been returning to a remote site in Palm Beach County for a decade. (Photo courtesy South Florida Water Management District.)

Mark Cook, lead scientist of Everglades Systems Assessment at South Florida Water Management District, said: “They keep coming back every year.”

The number varies: In 2014, 147 were counted. In 2015, there were eight. But then, for several years, the flamingos didn’t return.

In 2022, a few flamingos appeared in their chosen spot and the Audubon chapter in Palm Beach County organized field trips to see them. (On one trip, four flamingos were seen and on a second, two.)

The flamingos have picked a remote location, a water treatment facility in western Palm Beach County, Stormwater Treatment Area 2 (STA2). It’s a 9,000-acre man-made wetland designed to remove excess nutrients from the water supply.

The flamingos only visit the Palm Beach County site in spring, and scientists don’t know where they come from or where they go.

Everything you want to know about flamingos in Florida from Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz, PhD.

Will flamingos stay and thrive in Florida?

The research group analyzed historical evidence of American Flamingos in Florida from narrative accounts and museum records and contrasted that information to sightings of the pink bird. They concluded that American Flamingos once occurred naturally in large flocks in Florida before disappearing by about 1905. Collected data since 1950 add up to 500 observations of American Flamingos in Florida with an increase in frequency and flock size over time.

Audubon Florida’s Director of Research Jerry Lorenz, PhD, in a talk to the Audubon Society, said he believes that flamingos can stay and thrive in Florida. He says perhaps the efforts to restore water flow in the Everglades and into Florida Bay has created an environment where flamingos may nest and maintain a population.

Flamingo Gardens, Davie: Flamingos eat out of your hand. (Photo: David Blasco)
Flamingo Gardens, Davie: Flamingos eat out of your hand. (Photo: David Blasco)

Want to see flamingos up close and easy?

The easy way to see flamingos is at two beautiful and historic Florida gardens:

Flamingo Gardens: Has the biggest tree and the largest collection of native wildlife in Florida. It combines history, beauty, flora and fauna for a fun outing. You can hand-feed the flamingos, located in a beautiful lagoon here.

St. Petersburg Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg: Starting in 1911, George Turner Sr., an avid gardener, drained a lake in a sinkhole and used the rich soil to plant fruit trees, flowering bushes and Royal Palm trees. This historic garden in downtown St. Petersburg has a flock of flamingos in a lovely setting.

Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs: Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs has survived since 1936. Now it’s a small but serene spot to enjoy glorious flora, colorful birds, gators and more. It’s located on Old 41 Road, a pocket of Old Florida that is having a renaissance. It is home to two flamingos from an original flock from the 1960s.

Flamingos at Historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Flamingos at Historic Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Birding resources:

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