Eight months of a hermit's life amid the Roseate Spoonbills

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Eight months of a hermit's life amid the Roseate Spoonbills

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Eight months of a hermit's life amid the Roseate Spoonbills
Series Title:
A55 - Roseate Spoonbill - articles
Robert Porter Allen
Place of Publication:
University of South Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
Roseate spoonbill


A paper presented at the "Annual Meeting 1940".

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University Of South Florida
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University Of South Florida
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A55-00091 ( USFLDC DOI )
a55.91 ( USFLDC Handle )
18 ( Box number )
9 ( Folder number )

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I er -0 EIGHT MONTHS OF A HERMIT'S LIFE AMID THE ROSEATE SPOONBILLS Some of you may wonder what a hermit has to do with Spoonbills, and vice versa. I confess that I was a little surprised myself to learn last November that I had become what is ordinarily called a "hermit". Apparently, there are several kinds of hermits and at the time I dismissed the whole thing by simply arguing (with myself as hermits \ that must do) that I was the kind of a hermit that reached/state involuntarily and without malice aforethought. Ever since my experiences of last winter and Jq>ring I have been hoping to run across a real d ed-in-the-wool hermit with whom I might compare notes. It would be interesting to know how and why other hermits got that way, but I haven't had any luck. It would be nice to know, for example, if these IH:Ei experienced and legimim.ate hermits are more conscious of their caste than I was. Do the) wake up every morning and say (to themselves, of course) I am a hermit. Or do they forget all about it, as I did until a visitor came along and exclaimed necause I didn't wear sandals and a long beard. Since returning to civilization, I have learned a bitter There is evidently an axiom roving about whispering something to the effect that once a hermit always a hermit, :sometlii g hat. been a member of the Klu Klux just can't live it down. At any rate, It's like having You just be8Un


I quite successfully forget my past when the title of this talk was handed to me. There was no hesitation on my part. No brief inner struggle. Instead, I accepted the title as a perfectly natural one and have been going around talking to myself ever since, just as I did when I was a hermit. There have been lapses, however, and at such times I have asked myself again just what is a hermit. Finally, I decided on a modest inquiry and consulted Webster's col-legiate dictionary. The result proved to be a trifee confusing. I found that according to the Collegiate Dictionary which is a small, abridged affair, a hermit may be one of several things. For example, "a person who retires from society and lives in solitude, especially from religious motives; recluse; anchorite" A recluse, I found, one who a particular aversion to society, and an anchorite seems to imply great austerity. of these definitions seem to fit. "beadsman" I" -I 7 -.. but it.. say j.us.t exao-t.ly wh&t might mean-. There was still hope, however, in a final definition which det!ined a hermit "a spiced mollasses cookie1witb chopped raisins" I rather thoughtfully decided that I must, by the process of elimination, be the cookie! For several days I went around thinking to myself in ,. rather unsatisfactory and finally after several


I -3-sleepless nights, I sneaked into the library and when n9one was looking, I opened the impressive pages of Weeser's new International Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, unabridged. The title restored my self-confidence. Surely,thought I, if I really am a hermit, or ever have been, this book will properly define my sub specific status. On the title page it read, "an entirely new book utilizing all the experience and resources of more than 100 years of genuine Webster dictionaries". I But I was doomed to disappointment, the only additional information did nothing but add to my confusion. I found that a hermit was also one who was a member of a "hermit order (which see)". I saw, to my dismay, that I couldn't possibly be classed as a member of a hermit order because I do not now lead or have never to my conscious knowledge led a "semi erimetical life". In fact, I don't even know what that means! Another type of hermit was defined as a "tropical hummingbird plainly colored and inhabiting dark forests". I impatiently brushed that one aside. The next contained nothing better in the way of comfort. I found that a hermit might be "a shale formation in the walls of the Grand Canyon". But the last distinctio n of all put me right back where I started. In very small type, Mr. Webster laboriously explains that strictly speaking, a hermit has a desert habitat but an anchorite lives in a cell. I guess the only thing for me to do now is to break a store window or hit somebody over the head and be sent up the river.


I -4-I have been quite truthful in stating that my so-called hermit's existence on Bottlepoint Key in Florida Bay and on Rattlesnake Point along the Texas coast, were involutltary. Had I been studying mocking birds or some other equally species instead of Roseate Spoonbills, all this discussion about hermits would be unnecessary. But Roseate Spoonbills seldom stray far from wildnerness solitudes and as we planned our work in Florida Bay, it was evident that too much valuable time would be lost if I commuted each day from the settlement on Key Largo to the area inhabited by the pinks. This decision, however, presented further diffi cul ties, for a mangrove key, especially the type of a mangrove key inhabited by Spoonbills is no place for human habitation. There is no shelter from storms, practically no dry land and no fresh water. ... Even the roving tribes of indians that lived /\ on the Florida keys seem to ha:ve avoided anything beyond a very temporary contact with places such as Bottlepoint Key. At the beginning of the season we didn't have a cabin boat on which I might have lived, and even that had proved unwise in the case of one of our wardens who tried that type of base camp only to be surprised by a sudden sou'wester which piled his boat ashore and stove in several planks before he could and escape. We finally selected a narrow strip of shell, a wider than a man would need to lie down oJ and there we built a camp. The first version of this camp was simply


I : 1 1 -5-an umbrella tent raised on the low shell bank and tied down to mangrove roots. But large burrowing lend crabs were there ahead of me and the very first night they began a rather tlmoough and very noisy examination of my larder. On the second night I was awakened by low moaning and grumbling sounds. As I sat up on my bunk I suddenly realized that Bottlepoint Key might also be inhabited by crocodiles. No doubt these rather alarming sounds were a pair of crocodiles rehearsing their of "parlor, edroom and ink". The next day I conferred with Warden Moore, who kept my hermitage supplied with food and water, and we decieed that we must build a wooden platform on which the tent and the larder, not to mention myself, would be a great deal more comfortable. Thus was the Bottlepoint Camp established. I lived on Bottlepoint Key from the first week of November until nearly the end of March and then shifted the base of the shores of San Antonio Bay. Here at the second chain of islands, the Sp oonbill colony W&:$even more isolated and again without previous planning, I found that after the smoke had cleared away, I was a hermit. My family)which had lived in our house trailer on Key Largo throughout the winter, had originally intended to occupy an unused house only a few miles across the coastal prairie from the Second 6hain colony, nroute from Florida to Texas I can think of no good reason why this house shouldn't also serve as my base of operations. Confidently we pulled our equipage through the gate of the Aransas Wildlife Refuge and parked it temporarily near the headquarters house. ,-


, -6-We sought out Jim SteP.i'enson, the Refug e manager, and he said "yes'; the dagger point house i s stilJ e mpty". R e ad d ed that w e could go right then and there and look it over. Enthusiastically, we did so. I n the front yard a wolf trappel was camping and just inside the front door w his entire collection of wolf stomachs.1 As we walked about in front of the house, dropp ed from the trees and red bugs deployed in battle formation and sent out hurried calJs for reintorcements. We asked the trapper about the ticJ and he said that"they can get pretty '9 bad sometimes". "They bite me so much that" t}lways seem to have a kind of a fever". I looked at my son, aged 6, and my daughter, aged 2 And began to wonder. Further investigation revealed that there was no drinking water, that the rooms were popular recreational areas for black widow spiders, that a wild turkey was incubating a full clutch of egg s A _, ; l' .r _,., under the side porch and that rattlesnakes all around the property. We decided to change our plans. The upshot of it was that the family was placed, after much scrubbing and white-washing, in a tiny three-room house that had just been vacat4d by a Mexican vaquero and his family of six. Here, the surroundings were more or less trimmed by the grazing of numerous steers, half-tame deer and a few odd s and ends of horses. Mexican cow-hands lived in similar houses in the same community and A these Mexicans had cleared out all the tidS or there were so many of them that there weren't enough tick to go around. At any rate, the tics bothered us very little. Rattlesnakes also were at a minimum and I suspect that the Braimla steers


-7-were ferocious enough and the innumerable mexican children noisy enough to discourage any self-respecting rattlesnake. So with great peace of mind I retreated 16 miles 4 across the prairie to a known locally as Rattle snake Point. Intimidated somewhat by this name and because of the numbers of skunks, racoons,armddillos and wolves that dwelt in the vicinity, I used our house trailer as a camp. I could look out one of the windows and see the Spoonbills lined up an the shore of the Second Chain, a mile away. And Spoonbills flew directly over my camp on their way to feeding grounds that were only a stone's throw away. spite of the initial difficulties, it was a better camp than the one in Florida Bay. Audubon wrote that he had never seen the Spoonbills feed in fresh water and this may hold good for the Florida Bay Spoonbills. But in Texas, they fed in brackish water and also in water containing only a slight trace of sodium chloride. I mention this because the subject of water assumes great importance to the close student of the private life of the Roseate Spoonbill. I have said that Bottlepoint Key was without fresh water. So is is the settlement on Key Largo, 6 miles away, where we purchased our supplies. The people there give more attention to the roof of a house than to any other feature of its architacture. Each house is supplied with a cistern which gathers rain water from the roof. The dry season begins in October, which happens to be the month in Florida Bay when the Spoonbills gather for their annual nesting. As the Spoonbill cycle unfolds, the water supply in cisterns on Key Largo, diminishes. One by


-8-one the cisterns go dry. Finally Ed Moore brought me a keg of water that was dark brown in appearance. When I first looked at it I thought that the Key had finally given out and Ed in desparation had raided a local still. "I am surprised at you", I said. "l had thought that you adhered to the concepts of t life so dear to the heart of everyA member of the w.m. T. U. "Smell it," said Ed. I did so and it smelled like tar. "That", said Ed, "is perfectly good drinking water, but it cwnee ort the roof of Slim's house which has recently had ,. a coat of tar". The coffee that night was blacker than usual. I rather hesitate to mention another situation engendred by the lack of fresh water. But on second thought, having told this much, I might as well tell all. When dirficulties in connection with the water supply first became apparent, I began to check up and after an investi8gtion found that bathtupsx in that region are about as useful as grandmother' a antimacassars. Of course there was always the bay but even that had its difficulties. Finally, at the end of February, I drove north to attend the annual meeting of the Florida Audubon Society and at the excellent Southland Hotel in Okeechobee, where I stopped enroute, I found that they had shower baths flowing with fresh water, hot and cold, which under one could turn on full blast and stand lliJl:sx for two or three hours if one so desired. r -f' _.... "'V I It is really amazing what a person interested in birds will do. During May and June, in Texas, it not only got pretty hot, but the air was heavy and sultry for long days


, -9and nights at During this period, most or my time was spent in an observation blind. In order to avoid disturbing the Spoonbills, I made a practice of entering this blind at aaylight and not leaving it until the sun dropped very low in the late afternoon. As Spoonbill activities progressed, the heat and the humidity increased. One day, early in the incubation period, I was in my blind as usual and on this particular occasion I was intent on getting clear demonstration a the nest relief ceremony and the various inter-vals that each bird of the pair stayed on the eggs. One nest was more in the open than any of the rest and I decided to make detailed observations of what happened there. Finally, at ?:39 A.M. one of the pair flew in to relieve the brooding bird. With great satisfaction I recorded the details of the sound nest relief ceremony. I noted the low clucking/that accompanied it and saw the manner in which the two birds met, the necks extended, wings slightly hunched, a posture similar to the begging of the female during nest building and to the intimidation attitude of the male when defending territory. Excitedly, I watched for the fine points of distinction between these three postures, and the minutes slipped by unheeded. that After the bird/had been relieved had flown, the brooding Spoonbill settled down to business. The sun climbed higher. The temperature in the blind reached 900. Then 100. The brooding bird rose and stretched a wing, then a leg. He turned so as to race away from the sun. He blinked his eyes, and showed signs of lassitude. So did I. Four hours passed. Then five. Then six. I drank the last of my tomato juice and sat there staring at him. The heat haze seE1I1ed to rise


. -10-almost like a curtain between us. By this time the brooding bird was nodding without shame. Now and then he shook himself and stood up. As the seventh hour unwound, he ro.se and gave the nest relief call, then sat down again. lie did this every few minutes and as the eighth hour approached, I found myself looking around almost as often as he did. I think if x it had been Allen Cruickshank in the blind instead of me he would have helped out by giving a good imitation of the same call. At the end of eight hours and 21 minutes, I could stand it no longer. He had been on his nest for a full working day and his complaint/if any/ would probably be upheld by the H.L.R.B. ut I had been perched on a very small stool in an extremely hot canvas blind for 10 hours and five minutes. I decided to leave. This was excuse enough for him and he did likewise. This proved to be an unusual case as most of the pairs had a nest relief between ? to ?:30 in the morning and again before noon. In the heat of the afternoon it was usual for both birds of the pair to be present. But the one on the eggs sl'n1ys seEmed less inclined to leave ; during the heat of the day if it had assumed the incubation duties as recently as the late morning hours. It is possible that the increased heat made for an increased broodiness. I But, as I learned, there can certainly be exceptions to I It is too early for any final conclusions with regard to the life cycle of the Roseate Spoonbills. We have spent 8 months in the field and I have just completed over two months of recapituaation and study. We have learned a


-11-great deal that is new and formed many new concepts. he roper concepts are essential to progress. But preliminary field work may be equally essential. For one thing, we have been a little too provincial in our approach to the Spoonbill problem. We have failed to appreciate that it ranges as a breeding species over a vast area more than three thousand miles in length. Here in the U.S. along our gulf coast, our breeding colonies are at the periphery of the range. The permanent nucleus or the species, the center or abundance, is probably in Brazil. Our counts from year to year of the number of nests in Texas or Florida handi-capped by blinders, so that we fail to see1these factw. Once the center of abundance is definitely established, our population curves become significant and we can begin to understand them. A great deal of our time has been occupied with the determination of limiting factors which individually or in combination restrict the Spoonbill's distribution and abundance. Here again we must work at concepts as well as acquaint ourselves with many subjects that have until now seemed rather far removed from bird study. The breeding IYCle behavior has been observed and studied religiously and two months is far from being time enough to adequately interpret the results of more than 100 hours of actual breeding cycle observations.


. #' -12type of observation will not only prove to be interesting as a study in animal psychologv, but it will also bring to light both welfare factors and decimating factors. Food habits studies have been fascinating, it took us some time to realize that the pinks subsist on such small items. Apparently, the specialized structure of the bill and the manner in which they sweep it from side to side in feeding, requires them to seek food in very shallow water. The side to side sweep seems to be the instinctive "7/' or innate feeding reaction. The only variationAis seen when the bird swallows or when in the midst of a sweep, he pauses to grasp something more securely. He is incapable, it would seem, of wading belly deep as the Herons and Egrets do, and catching larger fish by a quick forward motion of the head and bill. Obviously in water of any depth, the side to side motion, with head submerge/would be extremely difficult and awkward. As a result, the Spoonbill feeds in shallows where only very small animal life is present. small fishes, crustaceans, mollusks, insects and insect larvay must be obtained in great quantities. One Spoonbill stomach examined by Clarence Cottam and Phoebe Knappen, contained no less than 246 small killifish in addition to other itlBl'.IlsJ and these fish were evidently taken at a single feeding. In order to learn all we need to know about the Spoonbill, we are making an intensive study of the ecology


' .. : ....... .... .. .. \ \ -13-of its various habitats. This has required us to call on many n A g animals and plants with which we are unfamiliar. Cooperation has been whole-hearted and highly encouraging. In much of our wokk in Florida Bay, we have been held up because of the physical difficulty of traversing the wide areas of soft, oozy marl that tiul the keys. After due consideration, Ed Moore and I decided that this coming winter we would experiment with skis and sktlpoles, a method already initiated on wet marshes by Dr. Pettingill. Because of its experimental nature, however, we decided to buy the cheapest kind of skis from Sears Roebuck and Company. I now wish I could set up my observation blind in the Sears Roebuck office and watch the expression on the face of the clerk who re-ceives our notes the request that one pair of and two ski poles be shipped at once to Tavernier,____ Fiorida.' --


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