FLAMINGO -- In South Florida, flamingos are most often associated with lawn art and Hialeah Race Track, where they famously occupy the infield.
But frequenters of the coastal regions of Everglades National Park occasionally happen upon the beautiful pink birds as well. Since flamingos aren't known to nest in the Florida wild, nature lovers and scientists alike have been left to wonder where the Everglades birds come from.
The discovery of a banded flamingo from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the flats of Florida Bay's Snake Bite earlier this month has shed light on that question.
"This is the biggest news story of the year by far!" said excited National Audubon Society ecologist Pete Frezza, who helped trace the bird this month through the banding program run by a Mexican nonprofit called Niños y Crias. "This could only be topped if a Key West Quail Dove were to land in my yard."
The banded bird was first noticed by Key Largo guide Garl Harrold, who photographed it while kayaking the Snake Bite flats, just east of the park's aptly named Flamingo Visitor Center, with customers of his Garl's Coastal Kayaking Everglades tours.
Harrold didn't see the band, which is coded for the purposes of identification, while taking the photo. But when he saw it while reviewing his pictures the next day, he felt a rush of excitement, he said. Over the course of nine years as an Everglades guide, Harrold has seen flamingos visit Snake Bite from time to time, only to leave days or weeks later, without a trace.
"I knew it's been a mystery, where are they coming from," he said.
When Harrold took the photo to Audubon's Tavernier Science Center, the search began. Frezza too has long wondered where the visiting Everglades flamingos call home. Candidates have included Cuba and the Bahamas, as well as the Yucatan, each of which has significant colonies. Hialeah Park was also considered a possibility.
At least in this case, the Yucatan, specifically the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve on the northern edge of the peninsula, was the answer.
Yucatan-based Niños y Crias -- "Children and Critters" in English -- has been banding and then tracking Ria Lagartos flamingos since 1999. Through partnerships, the organization also tracks the iconic birds in Cuba, the Bahamas and Venezuela. In total, said Executive Director Rodrigo Migoya, Niños y Crias has banded 3,500 Yucatan birds over the past 13 years. Of those, more than half have been sighted at a later date.
But Niños y Crias has received only seven reports of Ria Lagartos birds from outside the Yucatan, including three this year from Cuba. There was also one other Everglades sighting in 2002. That bird, said Migoya, returned to the Yucatan in 2003.
This latest flamingo, which Harrold said was still inhabiting the flats of Florida Bay last week, was banded as a fledgling two years ago. Like the one from a decade ago, and like another Yucatan flamingo that Migoya said has spent the past seven years in Texas, it arrived around the time of a hurricane -- in this case Isaac, which was a tropical storm as it passed Key West.
Flamingos likely venture far afield, to places like the Everglades, for food, Migoya said. Tracking programs like the one developed by Niños y Crias can help scientists learn more about such behavior, and about the makeup of the flamingo population.
"This is wonderful that these researchers, using these bands, can help explain a little bit of the mystery of these flamingos," Frezza said.