Wood Stork (Mycteria americana)
By Joe Taylor, SC Master Naturalist
Photos by Jeff Kidd & Reg Daves
My wife and I had never heard of the American Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) until we moved to South Carolina from Maryland seven years ago. I remember our first sighting of these unusual creatures. They soared high above us in a thermal as we drove south on Rt. 21 several miles from Hunting Island. Near the entrance of the State Park, we stopped to get a better look.
At first, we were struck by the slow beats of the long, black flight feathers and tail that contrasted with the brilliant white coloration of their bodies. A beautiful sight . . . at least until we got our first glimpse of its black, vulture-like, featherless head and prominent, heavy, down-curved bill. Our first reaction was that we had witnessed some result of a cloning experiment that had gone terribly wrong. Since then we have come to love this beautiful beast-of-a-bird that can often be observed making its entrances into and exits from crowded rookeries throughout the lowcountry.
On June 26, 2014, fans of the wood stork received great news from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After being added to the list of Endangered Species in 1984, the status of the wood stork has now been updated to Threatened. In 1984, the wood stork was only known to inhabit the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. With focus on wetland restoration through partnerships with state governments and conservation groups, the range of the wood stock has currently expanded into parts of North & South Carolina as well as Mississippi.
The thirty-year conservation effort of the USFWS has also resulted in significant gains in the numbers of wood storks throughout the southeastern United States. Although worries still remain about environmental pollution and the threats to its habitat, environmentalists are somewhat optimistic about its continued reemergence.
For the past ten years, the number of nesting pairs has remained above the 6,000 average needed to remove the wood stork from endangered species status. There is some disagreement, however, between experts with regard to the actual number of nesting pairs. According to USFWS, the next critical juncture for wood stock conservation is to achieve and then maintain at least 10,000 nesting pairs. At that time, they would be removed from the Threatened List.
Wood storks tend to inhabit freshwater or brackish wetlands and swamps from the southeastern United States to coastal Mexico and throughout most of South America where its population has remained relatively healthy.
They are clever carnivores that put an open bill into the water as they patiently wait for an unsuspecting small fish. The rapidity with which they latch upon their prey is best measured in milliseconds. In fact, their reaction time is matched by few other vertebrates on the planet. Considering that a nesting pair of wood storks with two fledglings consumes over 400 pounds of small fish in a single breeding season, they have perfected the experience of fast food dining.
Because wood storks are social animals, they tend to feed in fairly large flocks and nest in large rookeries. It would not be uncommon to find several nesting pairs living in the same tree. With regard to domestic duties, both male and female wood storks incubate two to five eggs for a month before they are hatched. The young fledge about two months after hatching.
Although wood storks can be spotted year round in the ACE basin of South Carolina, birders are more likely to observe them from spring to late fall. Both Donnelley and Bear Island Wildlife Management Areas are particularly good spots to observe the memorable Mycteria americana.
Joe Taylor is a Master Naturalist who teaches English at Beaufort High School. Jeff Kidd is the editor of The Island Packet/The Beaufort Gazette. Birders are encouraged to take a look at Jeff’s Untamed Lowcountry blog (http://www.islandpacket.com/untamed-lowcountry/) which contains a list of the Top 10 birding sites in the lowcountry.