A South Florida beach better known for its nude sunbathers got a rare visit this week from another oddity: a pale pink flamingo.
The lone flamingo showed up on Haulover Beach Saturday and despite a stormy Mother's Day, has continued to linger, drawing onlookers and delighting the internet. Biologists, who this year began lobbying the state to reclassify flamingos as native birds, visited Wednesday to assess its condition, since the birds usually don't travel alone.
"It’s probably really wanting to find other flamingos," said Zoo Miami vet Frank Ridgely. "Maybe it got blown off course and doesn’t know where it is right now."
Lifeguards said they first spotted the bird on Saturday. On Sunday, as weather worsened, they called the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station and said they were worried that the bird might be sick, said executive director Christopher Boykin. His staff tried to catch the bird using a net gun, but failed and decided to leave it alone since they couldn't see any obvious signs of distress.
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When he visited Wednesday, Boykin said he found the flamingo in good shape, wandering among sunbathers and turtle nests.
"The fact that the bird walks away from people when people get too close is a good sign," he said. "The fact that the bird flies is a good sign. And the fact that the bird defecated is a great sign."
Wild flamingo sightings in Florida are rare, but not unheard of. Last week, visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park spotted a lone flamingo. But the bird turned out to be sick and died within a few days, Ridgely said. A flock regularly visits a stormwater treatment area in West Palm Beach, where Boykin said he spotted 18 last week.
The bird's arrival could also provide fodder for the ongoing debate over the status of flamingos in Florida. State wildlife officials have long classified them as nonnative because so few, outside the domestic flock at Hialeah Park's racetrack, were sighted over the years. But this year Ridgely, zoo biologist Steven Whitfield, and biologists at Florida Audubon and the Big Cypress National Preserve published a paper arguing that the birds are not in fact tourists, but natives nearly wiped out by plume traders.
Over the last two years, the team has been tracking a flamingo rescued from the Boca Chica Naval Air Station that provided a trove of information about nesting habits in Florida Bay, where plume traders and early naturalists reported seeing flocks with hundreds of birds.
Reclassifiying the birds will allow the state to better protect and manage them, Ridgely said.
"It has implications for episodes just like this," he said. "If it’s a nonnative species, then it has no protections in the state. If it’s a native species then it does."
Where the Haulover bird came from remains a mystery. Whitfield tried to collect feathers Wednesday, which can be tested for diet, but couldn't find any. The bird's pale coloring suggests that it could be from the Bahamas, Ridgely said, where flamingos tend to be pale pink and not the deeper orange and scarlet found in Florida. It could also have escaped from Hialeah, where birds are fed a commercial food that lacks the carotenoid found in their shrimp diet. Or it could have recently molted and lost some of its coloring. A pair of more brightly colored birds are routinely spotted on the Turnberry Isle golf course.
If the bird remains on the beach, which lacks the shallow water habitat where the birds usually forage for food, Boykin said his staff would keep an eye on it for signs of distress.
"It is a little more approachable than what you would expect, so its health could be deteriorating," he said. "It’s been five days, so hopefully it will move on in the next day or two."
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich