by Paul Woodcock
We were on one of the numerous trips on Lake Charlotte when off in the trees entering Mac Bayou I saw what I thought was a flock of egrets in the trees. John Bartos informed me that they were wood storks, and as we got closer I could see that they were indeed not egrets. I don’t know why I have not noticed these birds in my former paddles.
When researching these birds I discovered they are common in this area. I even found this quote from the Chambers County wildlife page: “The most recent sighting was on June 19 at Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary in High Island. Another bird was seen on June 15 at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. And, 24 wood storks were documented on June 4 at Cedar Hill Park, which is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers north of I-10 on FM 563."
Wood Storks – the strangely beautiful birds with long legs, featherless heads and prominent bills – are arriving along the Texas coast to spend the summer and take advantage of the area’s abundant fish after spending the winter and breeding in Mexico. ”There are other bird species that share characteristics. Egrets have straight bills, white heads, and lack black in wings.The white ibis is much smaller, has a bright red face and bill, and has black only at the tips of the wings.White Pelican has similarly marked wings, but lacks dark head and long legs. I am sure to notice the wood storks in the future. They are 3 feet tall. A wood stork’s wings, which are white with black fringe, span 6 feet wide. The stork’s head is dark brown, its face is bald and black, and its thick, down-curved bill is dusky yellow. The bird’s body from the neck down is covered in a mat of thick white feathers, giving it a regal appearance. Their average life span is 11-18 years.
A resident breeder in lowland wetlands with trees, the wood stork builds a large stick nest in a forest tree. They nest in a colony with up to twenty-five nests in one tree. Breeding once a year, a female lays 3-5 eggs in the typical clutch. The eggs are incubated 27–32 days by both sexes. Wood storks' reproductive cycle is triggered when waterholes dry up sufficiently to concentrate fish in sufficient numbers for efficient feeding of the chicks. Each chick weighs approximately 2 ounces, is unable to fly and is helpless. Competition for food is fierce, and if food is scarce, only the older chicks will survive. Week-old chicks are fed about 15 times per day, and they grow rapidly. By 14 days, each will weigh 10 times its hatching weight. At 28 days, each is 25 times heavier. During the breeding season, wood storks need over 400 pounds of fish to feed themselves and their offspring. When the weather is very warm, parents also collect water and bring it to the nest to drool on and into the mouths of the chicks. By the time the young are 4 weeks old, both parents leave the nest to search for food, and this continues until the chicks “fledge” or leave the nest. Young may continue to return to the colony for another 10 to 15 days to roost or to try to get food from their parents. A colony is considered successful if its parents average at least 1.5 fledged young per nest Each adult will defend its nest against various predators. Corvids, vultures, grackels and skunks will attempt to pick off eggs. Racoons are the leading predator of nests, and can cause almost complete colony nesting failure when water dries under nests in drought years since they can easily access the nest using dry ground under the tree. Adults have few natural predators, but unwary ones have been picked off by alligators.
To feed, the wood stork typically wades in shallow water, stirring the muddy bottom with its flesh-colored feet and partially opened bill. Once a small fish contacts the interior of the beak, it is snapped shut in 1/40 second, one of the fastest reflex actions known. This is certianly faster reflexes than I ever have had. This is known as grope feeding and its success depends upon dense populations of small fish. Wood storks forage, or feed in drying wetlands, which concentrate prey. It is estimated that the average stork family requires 443 pounds of fish during the breeding season. Wood storks usually feed within 16 miles of their colony but often fly great distances in search of feeding grounds, sometimes as much as 60-80 miles. In flight, the wood stork flies with its neck outstretched and legs extended, its wing span can be up to 6 ft. wide, helping to distinguish it from American White Pelicans, which are uncommon in Texas this time of year.
Though U.S. populations are endangered—probably because of the loss of optimal feeding habitat—the South American stork populations are in better shape.
I am glad that I got to add this bird to my wildlife photo collection, and I will never mistake it for an egret again.