Friday, December 7, 2007

The Winter of the Wood Stork

Fort Myers, Florida

As usual I was running late for a mundane appointment, when I glanced out on the lake. There on the point just around the bend, a vision appeared, the likes of which I never expected to see: wood storks. A pair of them had just touched down in our sedate suburban neighborhood, a cluster of low-rise villas with Hawaiian-style notched roofs the better to repel high winds, since we happen to inhabit a flood plain embarrassingly close to the Caloosahatchee River.
Yes, we’re squeezed between a mini-lake and a river, and yes, we are a small scale bird sanctuary, what with the cattle egrets cackling like a flock of exotic chickens as they march around the lake, grubbing for goodies out of the lawn. Anhingas arrive and depart daily from designated pine tree limbs with the regularity of an airport shuttle; coots, mallards and moorhens glide past the door, and red-headed woodpeckers drum on the tree trunks. Our back yard is occasionally patrolled by a very patrician great blue heron, but wood storks? An endangered species? What were they doing here?

I grabbed for one of the several pairs of binoculars we keep out for just such chance occasions as this, and consulted the Birds of Florida Field Guide. Through field glasses I watched these birds fluff their white plumage like a pair of tall feather dusters. When flashes of black appeared on their under carriage I knew they were wood storks.

About forty inches tall with the long, curved bill of a wading species, and the bald, leathery black head of a turkey, the wood storks teetering along on stilt-like legs were an ungainly pair, a comedy in feathers, so to speak.

Appointment forgotten, I crept toward the birds, hoping the sun might disappear behind a cloud. The bigger stork stretched out one enormous wing, revealing a wide black racing stripe along the trailing edge. I was enthralled. This was a gull-wing sort of move, if you’ve ever seen one of those fancy cars where the doors open from the top—only now, thanks to this sighting, I’ll think of such a movement as stork-winged.

At any rate, the demonstration of wing-power that I witnessed made me acutely aware that these storks’ wingspread seemed twice as wide as the birds were tall. This no doubt accounts for the fact that these frequent fliers don’t bother with baggage checks and airport security.
Lax photographer that I am, I had no camera in the house, so I tried for a shot off my cell phone, but I was facing into the sun and the cell phone informed me in a curt message beamed from some satellite that it could see nothing to photograph. If I managed to creep through the neighborhood and photograph the wood storks from the other side, I’d miss the action completely. Instead, I sought a witness, our friend Domingo, who had just arrived to clean out the gutters, so that he could enjoy such a rare sighting.

I also called Flora, who lives across the street in a sprawling garden compound full of native and exotic species. I asked Flora if she had ever seen a wood stork in the neighborhood. Never, she said. Not once in the twenty-five years she’d been on her beloved property. Flora couldn’t come over; she was headed out on some appointment of her own.

“They’ll be back,” she assured me, but I haven’t seen the wood storks again, and this sighting happened a week ago.

Meanwhile, I began to fear that if wood storks were showing up in my neighborhood, this was probably an ominous sign. It meant that the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where the storks nest must not be in good shape, and in checking up on the internet, I found my fears confirmed. The nesting season in ’07 was a disaster due to a hundred-year drought here in Florida.
During the `80s, birders and government officials discovered that the U.S. wood stork population had dwindled to some five thousand pairs. The main haven for wood storks and other species is the Corkscrew Sanctuary, the nation’s last remaining stand of native bald cypress trees, a fifty by seventy-five mile swath of old timber purchased from lumber companies by the National Audubon Society in 1954. The Corkscrew Sanctuary is open to the public, located just north of Immokalee Road in the rugged and beautiful Central Florida interior. This is primeval country, a world of flatlands, prairie marshes, and bald cypress forest about fifteen miles west of I-75 at Immokalee Road between Fort Myers and Naples (

Wood storks wade in swampy areas catching prey by feel. Since the ‘60s their habitat has been shrinking due to pressure from farming and urban development, and well before that, of course various bird species were hunted to extinction in the late eighteen hundreds.

As for the wood stork, efforts to preserve habitat and monitor the birds has paid off. The wood stork population has doubled, according to a five-year assessment recently concluded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency has recommended that the status of the species be upgraded from endangered to threatened.

Snowbirds such as us have nothing on wood storks, which may range from the Carolinas to Latin America. Troll around on the internet, and you’ll find studies of individual wood storks that were banded and tracked via global positioning devices. These fascinating accounts show that in a group of ten or so wood storks, one individual might have started out from a home base in South Carolina and hardly moved from its home county; another might have trekked from the Carolinas down to Key West, maybe headed down in time for the Fantasy Fest, while an even hardier or adventurous bird headed for the Yucatan peninsula and was perhaps learning to tango in Cancun.

Due to rapid development, the Florida habitat is the wood stork’s least stable nesting ground. In January, thanks to a $200,000 grant from the National Park Service, the resource manager from the Corkscrew Sanctuary is monitoring the wood stork in five southern Florida counties, looking for more places where the birds might have secured nesting grounds. Meanwhile the biologists tracking the wood storks have learned that these resourceful birds have helped themselves. Colonies of them have moved on to Mississippi and North Carolina in search of better nesting.

Meanwhile, I do hope our own neighborhood passed muster with the wood stork pair. If only they would build one of their platform nests hereabouts, wouldn’t that be a thrill? After all, a wood stork wouldn’t have to pass muster with some condo board. But I wonder? If a pair of wood storks move in, would they have to be approved by the anhinga brood? And what about the snooty great heron? Would he let them in?

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