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Large, Long-legged, Wading Birds… Spoonbills

By Keith Hutton on November 14, 2014 in Other

Photo: David Webb

Photo: David Webb

Spoonbills are large, long-legged wading birds that are frequently seen walking deliberately through shallow water, sweeping their long flat bills from side to side. Six species are distributed throughout the tropical, sub-tropical and temperate wetlands of the world. Two of them can be seen in Australia and both occur in the Eastern Suburbs, where they are easy to identify, and to differentiate from each other. Royal Spoonbills breed in both Australia and New Zealand, while Yellow-billed Spoonbills breed only in Australia.

Both Australian spoonbills are large white birds, about the same size as the biggest white egrets, but more robust and stocky. They fly strongly with neck and legs extended, and habitually soar high up in the sky. Adult Royal Spoonbills are brilliant white with black legs and large, black, spatula-shaped bills; they develop spectacular flowing white head plumes and a buff-coloured breast when breeding. Adult Yellow-billed Spoonbills are not as bright, and appear drab and more cream in colour; their legs and bills are pale and they develop long breast plumes when breeding. Sexes are similar but juvenile Royal Spoonbills have black wing tips that distinguish them from adults in flight.

Royal Spoonbills are seen in east and north Australia, except in waterless, treeless and densely vegetated regions; they are scarce in south WA, and rare nomads in Tasmania. Yellow-billed Spoonbills are widespread in east, southeast and southwest Australia. They are not so common in the north and are scarce in Tasmania. Both generally frequent shallow waters and margins of fresh, brackish or saline lagoons and swamps. However, Royal Spoonbills prefer more extensive wetlands than Yellow-billed Spoonbills, which are seen more often in isolated clay pans, stock dams, roadside pools and smaller water bodies inland, and prefer fresh water. Royal Spoonbills are moderately common in the Sydney region, particularly in autumn, and they sometimes exhibit breeding plumage even though they do not nest in the area. Yellow-billed Spoonbills are much scarcer nomads in Sydney that turn up mainly during inland droughts.

Royal Spoonbills forage alone or in parties, and occasionally in large flocks, in shallow water or on mudflats. In fresh water they eat mainly fish, and on tidal flats shrimps. Yellow-bills forage in shallow water too, but seldom in large flocks; they eat mainly aquatic insects and their larvae, in addition to yabbies, freshwater shrimps and fish. Both feed by methodically sweeping their partly open bills from side to side through an arc while walking slowly forward in the water, with the actions of Yellow-billed Spoonbills noticeably slower than those of busier Royal Spoonbills.

Atlas surveys suggest that there are considerable variations in regional reporting rates from year to year for both spoonbill species, but national reporting rates for Royal Spoonbills have indicated no apparent population changes. On the contrary, a significant national decline of about a third was apparent for Yellow-billed Spoonbills towards the end of the last century. Nevertheless, both species are considered secure nationally, but Royal Spoonbills are classified as vulnerable in Victoria.