After being declared an endangered species in the 1980's, wood stork populations are increasing and spreading across the southeast. How human intervention, natural instinct and our coastal environment play into the recovery of the wood stork.
That’s the barking call of the usually silent - and endangered wood stork. Fortunately, their numbers are growing in our state. The wood stork stands 4 feet tall, has a large white body that balances on two spindly legs. They are easy to tell apart from other wading bird species because they don’t have feathers on their head. They also have a long, curved bill for foraging for tasty morsels.
“They are feeding primarily almost exclusively on fish, they will take other aquatic organisms like frogs or snakes.”
Coastal Waterbird Biologist with the State Wildlife Resources Commission Sara Schweitzer says wood storks are easy to spot when they’re in the air.
“you can see it over head with the wings out, and the black wing tips. It holds its neck out straight and its legs trail behind, they’re held out straight also. You can distinguish them from Egrets because egrets and the great blue heron will tuck their head in.”
This unique flight characteristic earned the wood stork its nickname, the preacher bird. Schweitzer says its because their wings, head and neck are stretched out, like a preacher giving a sermon.
Wood storks were put on the endangered species list since 1984 because parts of their native habitat, the Florida everglades, were ditched and drained for agricultural and development purposes. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the breeding population of the wood stork declined from an estimated 20,000 nesting pairs in the 1930's to a low of approximately 5,000 pairs in the late 1970s. Prior to 2005, the wood stork did not inhabit North Carolina.
“The storks had evolved to nest in that area and then as the summer dried the Everglades and formed pools, the fish would become more dense and then they could feed on those high density areas. But as the hydrology was altered significantly, that pattern was no longer present and without food resources, adequate protection from predators, their success and survival declined significantly.”
Schweitzer says there have been significant efforts to protect this endangered species as well as restore the hydrology of the Everglades. As a result, the number of nesting storks has been steadily increasing. Today, there are approximately 7 to 9 thousand pairs in the south. The recovery has been successful enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed downlisting wood storks to a threatened species.
It’s not just human intervention that can be attributed for the wood stork population increase.
“That adaptable behavior allowed the storks to move farther north in Georgia and become successful. They also have colonized many places in South Carolina. And in 2005, one colony was found in North Carolina.”
About 30 wood storks were found nesting in Brunswick County. In the last eight years, Schweitzer says more wood storks have been coming to North Carolina.
“The greatest number that was in that colony was over 220 nesting pairs. It fluctuated a little more recently but this last year when we counted the numbers, there was about 160 nesting pairs at that site.”
The wood stork breeds once a year. The female lays 3-5 eggs in the typical clutch. They are incubated for nearly a month by both sexes. Last year, researchers with the Savannah River Ecology Lab were doing flights over the Brunswick county colony to determine where the wood storks would be most likely to forage. During their research, they discovered a second colony of about 20 nesting pairs just northwest of the original site. It makes sense that the swamps of southeastern North Carolina are attractive to the wood stork because they offer the same protection and food source as their native habitat.
“the birds will construct their large nests in the trees. They’re usually above some type of water source like a pond or lake. It provides safety from predators having that water underneath their nest.”
The State Wildlife Resources Commission works alongside the Coastal Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy to place easements on areas the wood stork may want to nest or feed. In addition, Schweitzer says they are making sure the existing colonies, which are on private property, remain protected.
“It may be even more protected than public land where more people have access. And especially when the private land owners are protecting the birds and happy to have them there. So in this case, we are working closely with the private land owners.”
Coastal Waterbird Biologist Sara Schweitzer and her team say they’re tracking a possible third colony with about 20 pairs. If the colony is successful this nesting season, it would bring the total number of wood storks in North Carolina to about 300 nesting pairs.
“The third location that we’re going to check in May for nesting birds is property of the nature conservancy in North Carolina so it’s already a protected site, we know if the birds are nesting there it will continue to be protected.”
If you want to catch a glimpse of a wood stork in the wild, your best chance to see one is from April thru June, as the storks are flying out from their nesting colonies. They can be seen hunting around Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County, Brunswick County, and New Hanover County. People have reported seeing wood storks feeding in small ponds, and even in reservoirs in southeastern North Carolina.
“It’s a great large visible bird to show us how well people are doing to protect wetlands. We hope that their continued success will continue for many years in North Carolina.”
Schweitzer says a new emergence of bird species in our state bodes well for North Carolina’s citizens. If you’d like to see pictures of the wood stork colony in Columbus County, visit our website publicradioest.org. I’m Jared Brumbaugh.