A Majestic Wader

Wood storks become a more common sight


By Susan Campbell

Believe it or not, although fall is still a way off, the summer solstice has passed, and for some of our birds, the breeding season is over. Many have begun wandering ahead of their southward migration. At this time of year, we have a few species that actually move in a northerly direction during mid-summer. The wood stork, one of North Carolina’s newer breeders, is one of these.

Wood storks are large, white wading birds, a bit smaller than great blue herons. They have heavy bills that curve at the tip. In flight, they are very distinctive. Not only do they fly with their head and neck outstretched, but their tails and flight feathers flash black. They are frequently spotted soaring high in the sky on thermals, not unlike hawks and vultures.

These birds forage not only for small fish, crustaceans and a variety of invertebrates, but also reptiles and amphibians, as well as occasional nestlings of other species. Wood storks are visual hunters that search for movement in the shallows. They also may sweep and probe with their bills in murky areas until they feel prey, and then they will snap their mandibles shut and swallow the food item whole. It is not unusual for them to shuffle with their feet and flick their wings to disturb potential meals in muddy water.

Unlike their European kin, storks here nest in trees — not on chimneys. Also, as opposed to legend, these birds do not mate for life but pair up on the breeding grounds each season. They can live a long time, however: The oldest known (banded) bird from Georgia was over 20 years old when it was re-sighted in South Carolina.

Stork nests are bulky stick-built affairs located over water, often in cypress trees. However, any sturdy wetland tree species may be utilized. Both parents are involved in construction. Grassy material will line the nest that is, quite uniquely, adhered together with guano. It will take almost two months for the one to five young to reach fledging. Not only will wood storks nest alongside others of their kind but they tend to be found in colonies with heron, ibis and egret neighbors.

The wood stork is becoming a more common site in the Carolinas, breeding locally in freshwater or brackish, forested habitat. They prefer locations with an open canopy, since they require a good bit of space in order to negotiate a landing. There are now two large nesting colonies of storks on private property: one at Lays Lake (Columbus County) and Warwick Mill Bay (Robeson County). These lakes have been home to nesting storks for less than a decade. I would not be surprised if pairs are using a few other remote sites in the southeastern corner of the state. Stork numbers have been growing rapidly as the bay lake habitat seems excellent for raising chicks. Following fledging, however, family groups may move away from the nesting area to wet habitat where food is plentiful. In dry summers, that movement may be significant — and in any direction.

In our state, the largest concentrations of individuals show up annually at Twin Lakes in Sunset Beach (Brunswick County) by mid-summer. They can reliably be found in and around the eastern pond. The birds seem to like probing the flats on the back side of the pond, away from the golfers on Oyster Bay Golf Links. Also look for them loitering in the stout trees along the shoreline into early fall. But do not be surprised if you happen on one, or perhaps a small group, in any wet area from marshes to farm ponds or golf course water hazards in the Piedmont or Sandhills. Wood storks are unique and majestic waders that deserve a special look!  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com.

Favorite children’s book: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl.

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