BRUNSWICK — Despite a dip in nest totals, wood-stork nesting continued strong in Georgia this spring and summer, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Wildlife biologist Tim Keyes, wood-stork survey leader for DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, said nesting was down at some of the larger colonies these endangered birds form in South Georgia. But ample spring rains filled temporary wetlands across the region, spurring smaller wood stork colonies.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty good year,” said Keyes, who works with the division’s Nongame Conservation Section office in Brunswick.
Aerial and ground surveys by the NCS and conservation partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 1,873 wood-stork nests across 11 counties, from Long to Mitchell, in May. That’s down from 1,903 nests last year and 2,136 in 2011. The 2,696 nests counted in 2010 marked the most since surveys by air began in the 1990s.
Annual nest fluctuations are normal.
Keyes will use follow-up surveys, including flights last month, to estimate the number of young. The federal recovery plan for wood storks targets an average of 1.5 chicks per nest.
Wood storks, America’s only true stork, are tall, bald-headed wading birds that nest over water and depend on wetlands for food. The birds feed by running their opened beak through the water and snapping it shut when it touches prey, a technique known as tacto-location.
The species was listed as endangered when the number of breeding pairs in the Southeast slid to about 5,000 in the late 1970s. The decline was blamed on wetland habitat loss and alteration in Florida. Many wood storks now nest in Georgia, which has about 20 percent of the U.S. nesting population.
In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed down-listing the storks to threatened, citing population data and restoration efforts. The reclassification would not change protection or conservation measures.
Last year, drought in early spring followed by heavy rains late in the season undercut Georgia’s wood-stork nesting and productivity. This spring, cool weather spread out the start of nesting. Storms claimed some nests, and more rains filling wetlands can make it harder for wood storks to catch fish.
However, Keyes said, the upside is that fewer wood storks have abandoned chicks or entire colonies.
Wonder of wood storks
• Wood storks use freshwater and estuarine wetlands for breeding, feeding and roosting.
• They nest in colonies, and several nests are often in the same tree.
• The stick nests are built in trees over water, a setting in which alligators unwittingly help protect the eggs and chicks above from raccoons and other predators.
• The first record of wood storks nesting in Georgia was in 1965 on Blackbeard Island.
• This year, colonies in the state ranged in size from four nests at a Glynn County golf course to 334 at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in McIntosh County. Colonies were documented in Berrien, Brantley, Brooks, Camden, Glynn, Jenkins, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Mitchell and Thomas counties. Researchers also banded about 80 young storks.
• Colonies in Southwest Georgia depend more on rainfall and are less stable than those in coastal counties, where many wetlands used by storks are influenced by tides.
• Wood storks also may be spotted soaring on thermal updrafts or gliding to feeding sites. They sometimes range into North Georgia.
• More than 75 percent of the stork rookeries in Georgia are on private land. The success of conservation efforts for this species depends on landowners’ willingness to ensure the protection of viable freshwater wetland nesting sites.
• Regionally, populations must reach the recovery goal — three-year average of 6,000 pairs and 1.5 chicks per nest — to down-list the species to threatened.
• Learn more about wood storks in Georgia at www.georgiawildlife.com/node/2620