The world’s six species of Spoonbills are all large, long-legged wading birds in the family Threskiornithidae, which also includes the Ibises. All have large, flat, spatulate bills as adults (young birds are born without the ‘spoon’ and more closely resemble ibises until their bill grows) and feed by wading through shallow water, sweeping the partly-opened bill from side to side. The moment any small aquatic creature such as a frog, small fish, or mollusc etc touches the inside of the bill – which has a sensitive inner surface – it is snapped shut and the prey trapped inside. The prey item is then usually tossed into the back of the throat with a distinctive flick of the neck and head.
African Spoonbill, Marievale, Gauteng, South Africa
Like most Spoonbills, the African Spoonbill Platalea alba is predominantly white, except for its diagnostic red legs, face, and bill (the Roseate Spoonbill Platelea/Ajaja ajaja of the Americas is – as the name suggests – a rosy colour overall but has a greenish face and grey bill).
Like its relatives it usually found close to water, and its typical habitat includes sewage-works, river banks, lake shores, marshes, and water-meadows. It’s widespread throughout Africa south of 17° North, though is mostly absent from the SW and from the arid regions of Somalia. The species is classified as Least Concern by Birdlife International, which does however point out that it is “seriously threatened by the destruction of Madagascan breeding colonies at Lake Kinkony, Lake Bemamba, Lake Ihotry and Lake Alaotra”, and numbers are affected by wetland reclamation throughout its range.
African Spoonbill, Marievale, Gauteng, South Africa. May 2008
The African Spoonbill begins to breed in the southern winter, usually from late March through September. The depth of the red on the soft parts intensifies around this time, and the birds photographed near Cape Town in mid-March are particularly bright. As the last photo shows (which was taken on the same day as the adults) young birds lack the red soft part colouring and have black wingtips.
African Spoonbills, Rondevlei, Cape Town, South Africa. March 2009.
Juvenile African Spoonbill, Rondevlei, Cape Town, South Africa. March 2009. Note lack of red colouring, black wingtips, and shorter less spatulate bill.
All photos copyright Charlie Moores