By Kathleen McMenamin Vicars, Master Naturalist
Wood storks can be seen gracefully soaring over marshes or feeding in the shallows during low tide all over Hilton Head Island. These large wading birds are the only breeding species of storks found in the United States. This once-endangered species is currently making a great comeback along the Southeast coast and especially in Beaufort County.
Wood storks, Mycteria Americana, have the distinction of being the largest wading bird in the United States. They stand at almost four feet tall with an impressive five-foot wing span. Also known as Wood Ibis, these birds are all white with black tips on their wings and tail. They have a buzzard-like face with a dark grey neck and head. Wood storks have a long, thick black bill used for tactile foraging. They tend to gather in colonies, whether feeding or foraging in shallow water or low tidal marshes.
Wood storks are found from South Carolina to South America. Prior to the 1980s, they primarily nested in Florida during the late winter and spring. The birds migrated into South Carolina’s marshlands as a post-breeding foraging area. Human development in their natural nesting habitat in Florida has moved them further north into South Carolina for all stages of life. Currently, South Carolina coastal areas offer an ideal nesting and foraging ground for wood storks.
The first nesting colony was documented in South Carolina in 1981. By 1984, the wood stork was put on the Endangered Species List. As of June 2014, these birds have been downgraded to threatened, rather than endangered. In 2014, there was an increase of 500 nests, bringing the total South Carolina nest number to 2,501. Beaufort County boasted 9 nesting colonies in 2014, the largest number of colonies in the Palmetto State.
Large colonies of nests are found in the upper branches of black gum and cypress trees rooted in standing water. Nests are made out of live willow sprigs and then cemented together with Spanish moss and guano. Breeding wood storks can be identified by their pink feet. Females will lay between three and five eggs. Both the male and female will incubate the eggs for 30 days.
The hatchlings stay with their parents for about 55 days before fledging. On average, two of the young will make it to adulthood and will begin breeding between three and four years old. The placement of wood stork nests in standing water is very important to the survival of the young. Mammals are a common predator of eggs and young, and the standing water prevents them from accessing the nests.
Wood storks are known as tactile feeders, as they dip their open beaks into shallow water and feel around for fish and crustaceans. Due to this type of feeding, they prefer shallow water no deeper than 20 inches, which is why they are commonly seen foraging in estuaries at low tide. While wading in the water and dipping their beaks, the wood storks will use their feet to rustle animals out of the soft mud. On average, a wood stork will consume up to one pound of fish a day. During breeding season, a pair of wood storks can forage 400 pounds of food for themselves and their growing young.
While on Hilton Head Island, keep your eyes out for this impressive wading bird. You won’t be disappointed!
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