In Favor of Florida’s Wood Storks
For reasons beyond my limited understanding, a wood stork blocked my path one day in Bonita Springs, Florida. Late one afternoon, I turned the corner on one of our local nature trails and saw him standing there, staring at me. He wasn’t moving. And, worse yet, I was not sure exactly what type of bird it was. I was new to Bonita and its birds.
A little research confirmed that I was lucky to encounter the wood stork. The population of these prehistoric-looking birds shrunk to the point of near-extinction in the last century. Humans disrupted their habitat. They were placed on the endangered species list in 1984. They have since rebounded and are no longer in danger of immediate extinction, but nationwide there are fewer than 300,000 of them in existence:
A very large, heavy-billed bird that wades in the shallows of southern swamps. Flies with slow wingbeats, and flocks often soar very high on warm days.
— Audubon Field Guide
Although the bird was not frightening, I was intimidated. He was more than three feet high and had a long, sharp-looking beak. He kept staring at me. He was clearly a mature bird. Some wood storks have been known to live for 20 years. Standing his ground, this bird was not going anywhere. As I inched closer to him, iPhone in hand to snap a few pictures, he didn’t budge. He wasn’t posing for pictures; he was letting me know that he had more business on the path than I did.
After about 10 minutes, the stork got bored, crouched down, and launched himself into the air. I scrambled to get a picture but was too slow. Ten seconds or so later, my feathered friend had landed on the opposite shore of the pond adjacent to the path. I thanked the bird silently for the encounter and continued my walk.
I had seen something special. And how big, I wondered, were these huge birds?
The Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) is a large, bald-headed wading bird that stands more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) tall, has a 5 foot (1.5 meters) wingspread, and weighs 4 to 6 pounds (1.8 to 2.7 kg).
Several months passed before I saw another wood stork. In the interim, neighbors had informed me sightings were rare. The issue was how much it rained. In our community, we had hundreds of acres of wetland habitat, most of it inaccessible to humans, but it hadn’t been raining. I was told that several years ago, wood storks were common. I assumed, incorrectly, that the rapidly growing general population of Bonita Springs had encouraged the birds to exit.
I still don’t know for sure why the birds were scarce that year, but their near absence led me to treasure seeing them, even from a distance. Occasionally this would happen, usually early in the morning. Sometimes, through light fog, three or four of them would be together, foraging for food. Often they were with their fellow marsh birds, great egrets, various herons, and, on one occasion, a roseate spoonbill.
The image of this gathering remained in my mind for several years despite my not having the right camera equipment to snap a picture at the time. My interest in birding increased as a result — I thought I’d seen a light-duty motherlode of birds.
In subsequent years, one or two wood storks made an appearnence annually. Then this year, to my delight, a medium-sized one, a juvenile, took up residence on the shore of the pond near my home. The bird was surprisingly reliable — for two straight weeks, I found her in the same place, usually just staring out at the water. It crossed my mind that she might be ill, but that wasn’t the case.
One day she exchanged her old spot near the walking path for a new one a hundred yards away. I could still visit my friend each day, but no more good photo ops.
I respected the wood stork’s desire for privacy. I never considered sneaking up on the shore to get a closer look at her in her new abode. She seemed to appreciate my respect. She remained in her new spot for another two weeks — then she left. I looked for her daily for another two weeks, then gave up. My bird had flown.
It turns out she hadn’t flown far. Maybe because my local pond is small, she needed to relocate to water with more fish. Maybe she was pursuing a mate or something else. In any case, I despaired of seeing her again. Then one day, I did. I was walking on yet another nature trail in our community, one closer to a large but shallow bay. And there she was (I think). She again was close to the path and willing to pose for pictures. I had my camera and snapped away.
Then, while I still had my camera in hand with a workable lens attached, she took flight. As these magnificent birds are slow fliers, my camera caught up with her, and I captured the beauty of a wood stork in the air—a wonderful experience.
Since that most recent encounter, I remain on the outlook for wood storks. Because we’ve had a bit of rain, there are more of them around this year. Are their populations increasing? I don’t really know, but that would be nice.
I’m in favor of wood storks.
Other articles by John Dean:
Close Encounter with a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
A magnificent bird poses for a special photo
The Vaccine Distribution Mess Was Avoidable
Federal leadership could have avoided today’s delays and confusion; fortunately, help is on the way.