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The routine flight of the scarlet ibis

March 31, 2009

There has been a nightly sighting of a rare tropical bird in the Fort Myers Beach area - an observation that can be pinpointed to a specific time of day.

The scarlet ibis, an exotic bird commonly found in Central America and northern South America, has been seen going to roost just after the sun sets. Many islanders have seen it flying on its regular northeast course from the south end of the island.

Customers of Bayfront Bistro at Snook Bight Marina have seen the bright red ibis breeze by with a flock of white ibis between 7:40 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. every night during the past week, according to Bayfront Bistro bartender Steve Eddy .

"Everybody in the restaurant starts cheering and clapping," he said. "People know about it now so they stop by to see it. We even have photos of it in the restaurant."

Bartender Kendra Varney of Bonita Bills restaurant notices the bird when she's working and occasionally spots the colorful Ibis from her friend's dock.

"She's absolutely gorgeous," said Varney. "The whole neighborhood goes out to their docks to watch her go by. She seems to be flying to Bird Island."

Since there has been no record of South American birds migrating to North America, the fact that the exotic bird has been seen in the Florida wilderness is a very uncommon sight, according to Keith Laakkonen, Environmental Sciences coordinator for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

"That is highly unusual," said Laakkonen. "The scarlet ibis is not common at all in Florida. Typically, if you see one, it has probably escaped from an area zoo or theme park."

Jeff Combs, a park ranger from the Education Center at JN-Ding-Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, agreed with Laakkonen that the bird possibly freed itself at some point.

"They are not native here," said Combs. "The scarlet ibis is from South America, usually the Trinidad and Tobago area. During hurricanes, all sorts of birds tend to get loose. It could very well be an escapee."

Combs says that birds tend to roost at the same time every evening and believes the red ibis has been around the area for some time. It is known to fly, feed and nest in large groups of its own species while generally staying in the same area throughout its life.

"There's been a scarlet ibis in this area for many years," he said. "It used to be in Lakes Park quite a bit and it's probably the same one. It stays with a flock of white ibis. It has probably just moved its roost spot to Fort Myers Beach."

Sources say the scarlet ibis has a body length of roughly 22 to 24 inches and has a long neck, long curved probing bill, black tipped feathers, and perching feet that are only slightly webbed. It is known to feed on insects, fish, meat, seeds, and fruits.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission regional biologist Nancy Douglas agrees that for a bird to have such a regular flight schedule at roost time is not unheard of, but she is quick to point out that having the scarlet ibis in the area is a novelty and shouldn't be confused with our native life.

"From my standpoint, the biggest message about the scarlet ibis is that is an exotic," said Douglas. "It's like looking out the window and seeing a macaw or a monkey or any of the other notable escapees we tend to find here in Florida."

Douglas agreed the ibis could be the same one Combs has seen in years past.

"Most of the wading birds are fairly long-lived birds," she said. "That would not surprise me. I'm also confident that there is more than one scarlet ibis out there, especially since it's most likely from a released flock whether from Hurricane Andrew or someone's personal collection.

Douglas re-emphasized that birds do have patterns in their lives.

"Birds typically go to roost at night, generally have a pattern, so it's not unusual to see them regularly," she said. "The scarlet ibis is certainly eye-catching. They're definitely remarkable."



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