Wood stork still mysterious even as nest numbers climb in SC

An adult wood stork lands on a branch near its nest with young in Townsend, Ga. Even though the federal government has upgraded the wood stork to a "threatened" species, a step up from endangered, there's much that wildlife biologists still want to learn about these birds.

The majestic wood stork used to be one of those what-was-that birds, rarely seen as recently as a decade or two ago. Today it's nothing to find a black-and-white winged pair gracefully gliding over Interstate 26.

More than 100 pairs now nest year-to-year in Dungannon Plantation Heritage Preserve near Hollywood. So many now haunt the Dill Tract on James Island that the rookery trees can seem to be covered in snow. Nesting storks can be viewed from a dike at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area near Green Pond.

This year is on track to be a record year in the state with some 2,500 nests.

The wading bird apparently has recovered to the point that the federal government in June moved it from the endangered species list to the threatened species list, no longer in danger of becoming extinct. But the reality isn't quite so certain.

That's why a 20-plus-year-old wood stork now soaring near Donnelley wears a band, and why bands have been attached to 100 chicks fledged this summer along the Lowcountry coast. We don't know a lot more about this creature than we do know.

"We really don't know how long they live," said Christy Hand, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who works with the storks. Or how many fledged chicks survive to become adults. Or how mobile the roaming birds actually are. The stork at Donnelley, for example, was banded on Saint Simons Island, Ga.

That information is critical to managing the species to a full recovery, she said. The banding is part of an ongoing regional project to find out more. The oddity is that only recently has South Carolina joined in the work; the stork used to be that uncommon here.

And that's part of the problem. Invasive snakes, habitat loss and warming waters are decimating the birds in the southern Florida marshes that were once their stronghold. Surviving birds are fleeing the region, moving into coastal Georgia and the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Nobody knows for sure how much of the apparent recovery here has been refugees from Florida, much less how well they will fare.

"The down-listing was foolish and premature, given the emerging threats," said Nathan Dias, of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory. "By no means are they out of the woods. The snakes and warming waters could wipe out the Florida wood storks in my lifetime."

The wood stork is the only stork species native to the Southeast. It can grow taller than 3 feet high, with 5-foot-long wings that sound a breathy "whoop-whoop" when they're flapping. Soaring, wood storks have that still grace of an eagle. They like to circle in kettles high in the air.

The bird behaves and looks enough like the ibis that one of its early names was wood ibis. Incongruously, up close on the ground, the stork's wrinkly head might be uglier than the macabre vulture it's related to.

"It's a fascinating species. They're really different from most other birds we have," Hand said.

The work is important because wood storks are a keystone species, near the top of the food chain, so whether the wading bird thrives here is an early indicator of how well the marshes are doing as the Lowcountry develops, Dias said. "It's a big canary, but it could be a canary in the coal mine."

And it's one of those niche eco-attractions that contribute to the coast's $18 billion tourism economy. Birders have come from as far as North Dakota just to spot a wood stork, he said.

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