Speaking of Nature

Sounds of Nature: The Wood Stork

Back at the beginning of February, while listening to NPR on my way to work, my interest was suddenly captured by a story on the wood stork. Listed as endangered in 1984, the wood stork is among many of the avian residents of Florida that has felt the heavy weight of humanity pressing it down toward oblivion. So, I turned up the volume and gave the story my full attention.

What unfolded was a story similar to so many that I have heard. Former abundance is reduced to a mere vestige as humans move in and take over. Some humans take notice and then take action. The species recovers. Then other humans say, “So there’s no problem, right? Why do we have to continue to protect this species?” And can you guess who wants the wood stork’s status changed? It’s the builders; the very people who helped to cause the trouble in the first place.

It was with particular interest that I contemplated what was then my not-too-distant future. Susan’s mother lives in Florida and when we realized how many years had passed since we last visited her, we scheduled a trip to coincide with last week’s winter break at school. I was about to go and see what things were really like in the field.

Florida is a place that is filled with contradictions for a naturalist. It has immense natural beauty and is worthy of attention, yet it is far away (one of the reasons we don’t go too often) and travel has an impact on the world. When you arrive, you are stunned by the virtual carpet of construction that covers the landscape, but then, at the micro level, you find the construction to be delightful. Who wouldn’t like a screened lanai looking past palm trees to a lake? It’s wonderful. There’s just so much of it.

I drove to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands my first morning in Florida and found the place to be swarming with big beautiful birds. This area is a man-made wetland supplied with water by the Palm Beach Water Utility Department after the water has been treated. In essence, the sewer system generates a lot of mostly clean water and they need to do something with it. So a “natural” area was designed, built, sewn with wetland plants and then filled with water (about 2 million gallons per day).

It doesn’t sound nice, but it’s remarkably beautiful and extremely valuable to the birds of the region because, well, there just aren’t too many other options. Housing development after housing development, malls, and pharmacies beyond counting stretch in every direction. Many of the developments have water features, but none have marshes. The effect is like dotting the landscape with golf course water hazards; technically wetlands, but not particularly useful to the birds.

Wakodahatchee is teeming with birds because it is one of their few choices. Over the course of four days, I visited Wakodahatchee twice and its bigger brother, the Green Cay Wetlands, twice. In that time, I saw 41 different species of birds. In contrast, I saw 23 species of birds in my back yard in the entire month of January. But wood storks were still rare.

I spoke with many regulars at the two natural areas; birders who had retired to Florida and now have the opportunity to visit on a daily basis. To them, the wood stork is still a bird that causes a stir. None of them seemed to be talking about their abundance or recovery. On the ground it seemed as though the wood stork was still rare.

The largest wading bird in North America, the wood stork (Mycteria americana) stands 3 to 4 feet tall and large males can weigh up to 10 pounds with wingspans of 6 feet. In addition to being impressively large, they are also remarkably homely. Their heads and necks are bare and the skin is thick and deeply wrinkled.

On the last day of our trip, which also happened to be my birthday, Susan decided that she would accompany me on my daily photography outing. When I showed her a wood stork for the first time, she absolutely fell in love with the species. Susan has a wonderfully tender spot in her heart for any “ugly” animal and the wood stork definitely fits the bill. If wood storks were for sale, I have no doubt there would have been an energetic debate about bringing one home.

The most remarkable feature of the wood stork is its immense beak, which is specially designed for the wood stork’s very special way of feeding. Healthy wetlands are teeming with all sorts of small creatures and birds that live in wetlands specialize in the way they try to extract those creatures for food.

Ospreys dive feet first to grab fish with sharp talons. Kingfishers and pelicans dive head first to grasp or scoop up fish with their beaks. Herons and egrets sit and wait for fish to swim by before grasping them with fast jabs. Grebes and anhinga chase fish underwater; the grebes grabbing their prey and the anhinga literally spearing them. Ibises and storks are probers, which means they need long, curved beaks for plunging into the muck.

However, the probers differ in their techniques, too. Ibises are extremely active with movements of the head, but wood storks have an amazing foraging technique that I was able to watch firsthand. They plunge their open beaks into areas thick with vegetation and then use their long legs to kick up the muck around their beaks. Any small creature hiding in the plants that is unfortunate enough to make contact with the beak is instantly seized and swallowed whole.

And this is why wood storks are having a tough time. All of those golf-course ponds in the housing areas are filled with water, but the water is too deep and the plants are missing. If not for intentionally engineered areas like Wakodahatchee and Green Cay, the storks would have much less to work with.

It’s impossible to discuss every aspect of an endangered species’ life in a column of this length. I encourage you to find a field guide, or browse online for information about this wonderful bird. Also, if you find yourself headed south in the next few weeks, I would encourage you to seek out an area where you can see wood storks for yourself.

On the last day of our trip, after four days of birding and 14 hours of photography, I was rewarded with a flyby. The camera settings were randomly perfect, I had been practicing, and I saw the bird coming from a ways off. The photo gods must have decided to reward me for my patience because this bird passed just overhead and close enough to get all sorts of details in the feathers. It was a great birthday present.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com

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