Beautiful Aerial Photos of Wood Storks

Beautiful Aerial Photos of Wood Storks

Pretty as a picture: wood stork chicks sit on their nests in a bald cypress tree at Washo Reserve, a property owned by the Nature Conservancy and jointly managed by SCDNR. (Photo: Christy Hand)

This is part two of a series on SCDNR biologist Christy Hand's aerial photographs of seabirds and wading birds. See the first set of seabird sanctuary photos here.

They clock in at nearly four feet tall on skinny legs and sport naked black heads. But don't ever call a wood stork ugly -- at least not in front of an SCDNR biologist. Seeing these impressive birds freewheeling in the sky, where their distinct size and black-and-white patterning make them easy to identify, is a joy for many coastal residents and visitors. Thanks to conservation efforts across the Southeast, it's a treat that's becoming more common in South Carolina.

 After steep mid-century declines due to loss of habitat and food sources, the federally protected wood stork (Mycteria americana) appears on the upswing. In 2016, the birds had a record nesting year in South Carolina, which has become an increasingly significant nesting ground outside the species' historic population range in southern Florida.

To understand how the wood stork is faring in South Carolina, and whether the species is meeting its recovery goals under the Endangered Species Act, SCDNR wading bird biologist Christy Hand flies three different types of aerial surveys each year with pilots Owen Barker and Don Garbade. Each is flown at a high-enough altitude to minimize the disturbance to these special birds, which nest in trees typically found over swamps and other wetlands. Read more about SCDNR's use of planes to study wildlife in SC Wildlife magazine.

Below, enjoy the photos Hand has taken over the years of wood stork nesting colonies along the South Carolina coast.

NOTE: All of these photos were taken by an experienced biologist for research purposes, with every attention paid to the welfare of the birds. Wildlife watchers and photographers should always avoid disturbing the animals they're watching (check out Audubon's Guide to Ethical Bird Photography for tips). 

This is what wood storks look like up close, taken from a distance during a weekly visit to one of the plots where SCDNR staff monitor nesting success. Here you can see both juveniles, with the peach-colored bills and fuzzy heads, as well as a bald, black-headed adult at right. (Photo: Christy Hand)

This is what wood storks look like up close, taken from a distance during a weekly visit to one of the plots where SCDNR staff monitor nesting success. Here you can see both juveniles, with the peach-colored bills and fuzzy heads, as well as a bald, black-headed adult at right. (Photo: Christy Hand)

Aerial survey photos are taken through the window of one of SCDNR's small planes, which allow biologists to survey over 20 different colonies a day without stressing the birds. (Photo: Lisa Smith)

Wood storks nest on SCDNR-managed lands including Dungannon Heritage Preserve (pictured here) and Donnelley Wildlife Management Area. (Photo: Christy Hand)

Only in recent decades have wood storks expanded their range and begun nesting in South Carolina. The first nests were documented in 1981 (11 nests); in 2016 that number had grown to 2,512 nests. (Photo: Christy Hand)

By the time wood stork chicks leave their nests, or fledge, at the end of each summer, nests with multiple chicks can get pretty crowded. Wood storks often nest asynchronously (at different times throughout the season), resulting in a very long nesting season.  Here, the nestling at far left is approximately 5 weeks old, while the one at far right is 7-8 weeks old and almost ready to start flying. (Photo: Christy Hand)

“These flights are generally flown lower than some of our other missions. There’s a lot of circling around a point... we’re trying to get the best information that we can for the biologists.”
— SCDNR pilot Donald Garbade on aerial surveys
This image shows the arcing flight track of an SCDNR wood stork survey at Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve in Charleston County. The team can survey over 20 different colonies per day by air.

This image shows the arcing flight track of an SCDNR wood stork survey at Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve in Charleston County. The team can survey over 20 different colonies per day by air.

The wetlands at Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve are home to far more than just wood storks. The presence of alligators, such as the one seen here, in the waters around wood stork nests actually deters raccoons and other predators from eating wood stork eggs. (Photo: Christy Hand)

Wood stork chicks share their branches with anhingas in this 2016 shot at Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve. (Photo: Christy Hand)

SCDNR pilots and biologists fly at a distance that does not disturb the wood storks they're studying, using long-range lenses to capture closer-up images. (Photo: Christy Hand)

Wood storks and a variety of other wading birds pick through the waters at Donnelley WMA for small fish and crustaceans. Wood storks feed by feeling rather than by sight, and once they encounter a prey item in the water their bills can snap shut in less than 1/40th of a second. (Photo: Christy Hand)

Curious about wood storks and other wading birds in South Carolina? Check out SCDNR's wading bird program. 

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