The wood stork, a gangly wading bird that once appeared headed for extinction, has expanded its population and extended its range into North Carolina and other Southeastern states to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending it be reclassified from an endangered species to a threatened one.
The recovery of the wood stork population is a story of successful wetlands management by humans – with a little help from beavers – and of the stork’s adaptability. The bird once known to nest only in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina has become sort of the anti-snowbird, nesting as far west as Mississippi and north to North Carolina. Outside the nesting season, wood storks have even been spotted foraging Falls and Jordan lakes.
“The proposed reclassification of the wood stork demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act works,” Dan Ashe, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said. “This is a good day for the wood stork and a good day for conservation.”
The wood stork is the only true species of stork that nests in the United States. The wood stork uses freshwater and estuarine wetlands for nesting, feeding and roosting, and it can be found in marshes, ponds, hardwood and cypress swamps, narrow tidal creeks or shallow tidal pools, even seasonally flooded roadside ditches, impoundments and large reservoirs.
Decades of logging, filling and altering the flow of water through wetlands – especially in Florida’s Everglades – took a toll on wood stork colonies; by the 1970s, researchers say, fewer than 5,000 nesting pairs remained, down from an estimated 20,000 pairs in the 1930s.
The wood stork was put on the endangered species list in 1984 and has benefited from efforts to conserve existing wetlands and restore ones that have been lost.
Leave it to beavers
Meanwhile, some wood storks began to take matters under their own wings, and they traveled outside their traditional nesting territories. As they traveled, they found suitable habitat in other states, such as North Carolina, which has more than 3 million acres of wetlands, some of them created in recent years by industrious dam-building beavers.
Researchers say that for the past three years, they have estimated a population of 7,000 to 9,000 nesting pairs across the Southeastern United States, the most since the 1960s.
The first nesting pair in North Carolina was spotted in Brunswick County in 2005, said John Hammond, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist in the state.
Brunswick still is the most likely place for birders to see wood storks in the state, and word has spread about the gathering of birds around Twin Lakes, near Sunset Beach, from July to October, after the nesting season has ended. Harry LeGrand, a zoologist with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, said birders know where to pull off N.C. 179, park the car, pull out the binoculars and stare north across a golf course toward two ponds. The birds will either be standing in the water or resting in the trees nearby.
“Pretty? Well, they’re black and white and large,” LeGrand said. “They’re huskier than a Great Blue heron, and they have a bare-naked head like a pelican. I guess they’re attractive enough.”
Changes in ranges
LeGrand said researchers have been surprised that the birds haven’t established more nesting areas in the state, such as around Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County or along the northeast Cape Fear River, both of which have cypress trees where wood storks like to nest.
Changing the birds’ classification from endangered to threatened would likely take about a year, wildlife officials say. It would not remove protections for wood storks, but would give Fish and Wildlife and other agencies more flexibility in working with landowners whose property includes wood stork habitat. Once the proposal is published in the next week or so, the public will have 60 days to comment.
Other birds, including the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle, went from endangered to threatened and eventually rebounded enough to be taken off the list completely.
For the wood stork to come off the list, researchers would need to count an average of 10,000 nesting pairs over a five-year period.
“While there is more work to be done, if the trends continue, we could reach our recovery targets soon,” Ashe said.