St. Marks, Florida — Hurricane Michael careened through the Gulf of Mexico last fall sucking up all manner of flotsam and jetsam before scattering the unwelcome mess across the Panhandle. Yet there was one airborne interloper that was embraced heartily by the storm-tossed masses below.
Pinky The Flamingo.
She (or he) was discovered last Halloween fishing for breakfast in a freshwater marsh on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which lies south of Tallahassee near the Florida coast. The hurricane, a Category 5 monster, roared ashore three weeks earlier, yet nobody had documented the rare, beautiful bird because storm debris and levee damage closed the refuge.
There the American flamingo sits, day in and day out, fishing among the sedges and rushes of Stoney Bayou Pool No. 2, seemingly oblivious to the many nearby alligators, and attracting legions of bird-lovers and curiosity-seekers tickled pink by the iconic wading bird believed extinct in the wild in the United States.
Flamingo comes to the right place
St. Marks is renowned as a birder's paradise — the estimable Don Morrow, formerly of The Trust for Public Land and the refuge's unofficial bird expert, once said that birding on the refuge was so good "they should bottle it and sell it by the drink" — with bald eagles, snowy egrets, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and Cape May warblers all sighted before breakfast one recent April morning.
"Today was the 178th day of the flamingo invasion," Morrow said with binoculars, camera and spotting scope at the ready while scanning a saltwater marsh near the lighthouse. "There's no rhyme or reason for how long it will stay. It doesn't appear intent on leaving."
American, or Caribbean, flamingos once roamed the Everglades — 400 miles from St. Marks — yet were all but decimated by the turn of the last century by hunters and plume gatherers feeding the millinery market. Flamingos migrated from the Bahamas and Cuba to South Florida until the early 1900s. Occasionally, a pink beauty will cross the Straits of Florida to alight in the Everglades. Most wild flamingos, though, have likely escaped from aviaries or zoos. Busch Gardens in Tampa, tallies more than 300 flamingos. Hialeah Park racetrack, near Miami, has 500.
Pinky, though, wears no tag, all but ruling out the likelihood that the leggy wader high-tailed it from Busch or Hialeah. It's likely Hurricane Michael picked up Pinky from the Yucatan Peninsula and deposited her (him?) at St. Marks. Morrow and other birder-historians say it's happened before. Hurricanes in 1927, 1965, 1972 and 1995 that crossed the Yucatan were soon followed by flamingo sightings in the Panhandle.
'A bright spot' in dark times
Pinky The Flamingo takes flight. (Photo: © Karen Willes/Friends of St. Marks Wildlife Refuge)
"Visitors to the refuge right after the hurricane, who'd witnessed the devastation across the Panhandle, called Pinky 'a bright spot, literally, during a dark time,'" said Robin Will, the refuge's supervisory ranger.
Visitation to the refuge has soared thanks to Pinky. While the hurricane and the month-long government shutdown last winter interfered with accurate visitor counts, Will nonetheless says the flamingo attracted thousands of newcomers from Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana and beyond.
"She (he?) has been a tremendous ambassador for St. Marks NWR and continues to recruit new wildlife watchers from all over the country," she said.
And why not? Upon spotting a line of flamingos in 1832 advancing toward his boat, John James Audubon could barely conceal "the emotions that then agitated my breast." (He then tried to shoot one.) Plastic pink flamingos sprouting on suburban lawns and college fraternities have achieved iconically tongue-in-cheek status. Nothing says Florida like a pink flamingo.
"Pinky is a rock star," Will said.
This story was originally written for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is republished with permission here.