Dispatches from the Swamp: Two Updates on Wood Stork Season

Dispatches from the Swamp: Two Updates on Wood Stork Season

Young wood storks perched in a cypress tree (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

Young wood storks perched in a cypress tree (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

Editor's note: The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' (SCDNR) wading bird team counts and keeps tabs on the wood storks that nest and raise their young along the coast. Below are some updates provided by the team about what they've seen and done so far this summer.

Fledging Update

During mid-May, SCDNR staff monitoring nesting wood storks started noting young storks stretching and strengthening their wings from the safety of the nest in preparation for their first flight. The first fledgling stork of the year was seen soaring with young egrets and anhingas by Zena Casteel, seasonal SCDNR technician.

“Wood storks initiated nesting during February this year, which is unusually early,” said Christy Hand, SCDNR wildlife biologist. “Starting too early can be risky since wood storks are not very tolerant of cold weather and often abandon their eggs when temperatures drop. This spring, however, many of the early nesters successfully hatched and raised chicks.”

A juvenile wood stork stretches its wings. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

A juvenile wood stork stretches its wings. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

While these young birds can now leave the nest, they frequently return to receive food from their parents. The parents eventually stop returning to the rookery to feed their fledglings. In addition to learning to fly, the young wood storks must also learn to forage! Unlike the other wading birds in the rookery, wood storks are largely tactile feeders, and the young birds will be dependent on low water levels concentrating fish and other prey as their skills develop.

Please be very cautious to avoid disturbing young storks during this critical time. Learning to forage is difficult, and they need as much undisturbed time as possible to catch prey and avoid starvation. Wood storks can be observed at the nest at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, and on foraging grounds at Donnelley and Bear Island Wildlife Management Areas.

Bands like the orange one seen above can help researchers track the movement of wood storks. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

Bands like the orange one seen above can help researchers track the movement of wood storks. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

Banding Update

This year, SCDNR banded 49 wood stork chicks between the beginning of April and the end of May. The hot weather this spring proved to be a challenge, as our team can only enter the rookery on cool, overcast mornings since wood storks chicks are vulnerable to overheating when their parents are not at the nest.

“On many mornings, we were only able to work in the rookery for long enough to band chicks from one or two nests due to the rapidly rising temperatures,” said Christy Hand. “However, the final day of our banding efforts was cool and overcast, allowing us to band 14 chicks from 5 nests.”

Seasonal technician Zena Casteel carefully captured the stork chicks for banding and returned them to their nests after they were banded.

“One of the highlights of this season was finding a wood stork SCDNR banded a couple of years ago as a nestling,” said Casteel. “The banded stork had returned to the rookery where it hatched and was raising chicks of its own!” As banding efforts continue for many years in a row, we hope to see many banded storks return as breeding adults.  

SCDNR biologist Christy Hand gently returns a wood stork chick to its nest after measuring and banding it. (Photo: Alix Pedraza/SCDNR)

SCDNR biologist Christy Hand gently returns a wood stork chick to its nest after measuring and banding it. (Photo: Alix Pedraza/SCDNR)

You can help us learn about the travels and survival of immature and adult wood storks. If you see storks, look at their upper legs to see if any of them have bands. Wood storks may have one or more bands per leg. Look for colorful bands with a three-digit combination of letters and numbers. If the wood stork was banded by SCDNR, the field-readable band will be orange with black codes. Several other color combinations are used by our research partners in other states. Please report any banded wood storks you observe to the Bird Banding Lab. More information about reporting banded wading birds can also be found on the SCDNR Wading Bird Project webpage.

Please avoid disturbing wood storks or other wading birds to read bands. Young storks are especially vulnerable to starvation after fledging as they are still learning to feed independently, and flying away from humans and other disturbances wastes valuable time and energy. Binoculars, a spotting scope, or a camera with a long lens are very helpful for reading bands at a safe distance.

A young wood stork in flight. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

A young wood stork in flight. (Photo: Christy Hand/SCDNR)

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