GA Wood Stork Nest Numbers Down, But Count Within Expected Range

GA Wood Stork Nest Numbers Down, But Count Within Expected Range

Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Georgia Department of Natural Resources

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – -( The estimated number of wood stork nests in Georgia dropped to 1,676 this spring from a record high of more than 2,200 last year, according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources surveys.

Wood storks, an endangered species, are struggling to recover to healthy population levels. Aerial surveys done by the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division in May recorded the decrease in nesting. However, this year’s numbers are a marked increase from 2007, when drought helped shrink the estimate to 1,054 nests.

“While numbers are down from 2008, last year was a record year and this year’s count is well within the range of nests over the last several years,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. “There is wide fluctuation annually, likely due to several factors, including local water levels for both nesting and feeding sites, as well as quality of nesting sites farther south in Florida.”

Of more concern than the dip in nest estimates is the high hatchling mortality because of rain and cold early in the nesting season. Wet, chilly weather hit before many of the young were large enough to regulate their own temperature, and many died.

The objectives of the annual wood stork survey include:

  • • Surveying all known nesting rookeries from the air to determine annual reproductive effort, or active nests.
  • • Marking new stork nesting sites.
  • • Identifying potential threats to the integrity of wetlands that support the breeding storks.
  • • Determining the ownership of existing sites to educate landowners about the value of private lands management to ensure the species’ existence.

Survey flights completed in three days in May located wood storks nesting in 19 colonies across south Georgia. Sites were found in Berrien, Brooks, Camden, Chatham, Glynn, Jenkins, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Thomas and Worth counties.

The species was federally listed as endangered when breeding populations in the Southeast slid to 4,500-5,700 pairs in the late 1970s, down from record populations of 15,000-20,000 pairs in the 1930s. Loss and alteration of habitat due to ditch building in south Florida are considered the primary reason for the original decline in the U.S. wood stork population.

Regionally, populations would have to climb to a three-year average of 6,000 pairs with a productivity of 1.5 chicks per nest to reach the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery goal for down-listing the species to threatened status.

Standing about 3 feet tall, the wood stork is the only true stork found regularly in the U.S. First discovered in Georgia in 1965, they are now found across the state but tend to nest primarily in south Georgia.

These lanky birds feed by wading with their opened beak partially submerged, snapping it shut when it touches a fish or other prey. The storks may also be spotted soaring on thermal updrafts or gliding to feeding sites.

Wood storks have very specific habitat needs for nesting. With a majority of nesting colonies located on private land in Georgia, the future of wood storks and other water-dependent species depends heavily on property owners. In recent years, many private landowners have worked with the Wildlife Resources Division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that ecosystems surrounding nesting sites remain healthy.

No state or federal laws protect the isolated and temporarily flooded wetlands that wood storks need for nesting. Unfortunately, ditching and draining wetlands to create dry land for development is still a common practice. Wildlife on land in south Georgia reaches the highest diversity in and around freshwater wetlands.

Georgians can support the conservation and management of wood storks and other nongame wildlife through buying license plates featuring a hummingbird or a bald eagle and by donating to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff.