by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Size and Shape – Hefty wading birds with football-shaped bodies atop long legs. They have a long neck and a long, thick bill that is curved at the tip. They fly with both neck and legs outstretched and look quite large in the air thanks to a 5’ wing span.
Color Pattern – White with black flight feathers and a black tail
Behavior – Feed in groups, often in lines after one another. They fly high, soaring thermals like a raptor
Habitat – Breed in fresh and brackish forested wetlands. Forage in wetlands, swamps, ponds and marshes.
The Wood Stork, Mycteria americana, is the only native stork in North America. This very large, heavy billed bird can be found in cypress swamps, marshes, ponds, lagoons and often times in the summer, flooded fields. They favor falling waters so that the prey can become more concentrated in remaining water pools as the waters recede.
Their foraging behavior has been well documented consists of them placing nearly their entire bill in the water and slowly walking or standing still. If they are walking, they stir up the bottom but if standing still, they move a leg up and down striking the water body floor to stir it up. If they stir the prey and sense by touch or sight, they snap down the bill at incredible speeds to catch their prey.
Their diet consists mostly of fish but also includes crayfish, crabs, aquatic insects, small turtles, frogs and the occasional seeds and plant material.
Wood storks nest in trees above standing water in cypress swamps, flooded oak tree impoundments and in mangroves, which all correspond to habitats found in the Florida everglades. In the 1930’s , a nesting population of 5,000 – 15,000 pairs of Wood storks inhabited the Everglades, but as water control programs were put into effect in the 1960’s, nesting decreased in the Everglades. By 1995, fewer than 500 pairs could be found nesting and as of today, nesting populations in the Everglades have not risen. The Wood Stork isn’t becoming more threatened, rather they finding other suitable habitats to nest in that are in north Florida, Georgia and recently South Carolina.
There remains a significant amount of suitable habitat all around Southwest Florida for the Wood stork and they can certainly be seen on the islands. The stork in the photograph was wading along the edge of one of our golf course lakes recently and was accompanied by several others that afternoon. If you’re out looking for a Wood stork, don’t be surprised to see them alongside the White Ibis or Great Egret. The black, nearly bald head of the Wood stork is unmistakable and this graceful flyer yet awkward walker will probably be moving very slowly through the shallow waters in search of that “snap” and grabbing of a meal.