Naturalist Fact: Wood Stork

wood stork 1

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Wood Stork is a large, white wading bird with black flight feathers. This bird has a long, decurved bill on its bald head. Its wingspan averages 5.5 feet, making it unmistakable in flight.

Wood Storks are the only species of stork breeding in North America. In the United States, they breed from Florida to southern North Carolina. Other breeding sites are in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are social animals, so they nest in colonies and can have up to 25 nests in one tree. Cypress and mangrove are their preferred nesting trees. On average, a pair of nesting Wood Storks and their young consumes 443 pounds of fish during the breeding season.

Due to a decline in population, Wood Storks have been on the Endangered Species List since 1984. The loss of wetland habitat by development, agricultural practices, and water management practices are reasons for their endangerment. Wood Storks are an indicator species for a healthy, wetland ecosystem.

Wood Storks feed mainly on freshwater fish, and use tactilocation to obtain their meals. Tactilocation is feeding by groping with a bill, and not using eyesight. Wood Storks submerge their bill under water, walk slowly, and sweep their bill side to side. When their bill snaps shut on a fish, their 25-millisecond reflex action is the fastest among vertebrates.

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Norm’s Pond Rookery

For years, a variety of wading birds have gathered at Norm’s Pond to nest. Wading birds typically look for islands surrounded by freshwater wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are home to American alligators, who act as the birds’ best defense against mammalian predators, such as raccoons.  According to Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Non-game program, there are 10 other nesting colonies, or rookeries, like this one on the coast. All of these colonies are monitored by GADNR at least twice a season by fly-overs and some are monitored additionally on the ground.

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm's Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Our wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond is winding down, but not for lack of activity earlier in the season. This year we saw activity begin at the end of February. Tim Keyes noted that the mild winter resulted in earlier wading bird nesting along the coast. Breeding season also varies between species and this is to ensure less competition in the highly desirable nesting locations.

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Little St. Simons Island’s rookery at Norm’s Pond provided perfect nesting habitat for 7 species of wading birds. The first of the wading birds to arrive were the great egrets, shortly followed by snowy egrets, tricolored herons, anhinga’s, cattle egrets, white ibis, and black-crowned night herons. Nest building, courtship, and copulation were observed as the birds brought sticks to the islands and danced with their partners to show off their brilliant breeding plumage.

The new two-story observation tower provides a spectacular view of the nests on one of the two islands at Norm’s Pond and along the perimeter of the pond. It also allows us to more accurately monitor the nests. We have been following the nests since the end of February and have found that as predicted, the nests on the islands fared better than the nests on the edge of the pond. This provides a perfect example to the important role that American alligators play as a keystone species, here on the coast. Without the American alligators to patrol the waters at the rookery, raccoons and other predators would be more likely to take advantage of the buffet of bird eggs.

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

The middle of the nesting season is the busiest time at the rookery. In May we had over 80 nests that could be observed from the viewing tower! We knew of additional nests on the far side of the pond and deep in the vegetation on the islands that could not be easily seen from the tower. Woodstorks and a couple of roseate spoonbills in breeding plumage visited the rookery but did not nest here.  There was also a yellow-crowned night heron fledgling seen recently which was an exciting find – this was the first sign that yellow-crowned night herons’ had nested at the site.

Four anhinga pairs were nesting earlier in the season and two of those nests each fledged (produced chicks that can fly) three chicks. Twenty nests are currently active at the rookery and are all most likely re-nests from pairs that were unsuccessful during their previous nesting attempts. We expect nesting at Norm’s Pond to be done by the end of September. Overall, the rookery has been successful this year and we are fortunate to be able to have such up-close and personal viewing opportunities during such an important part of the wading birds’ life cycle.

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Naturalist Fact: Reddish Egret

Photo from Animalspot.net.

Photo from Animalspot.net.


©William Newton

©William Newton


Reddish egrets are large wading birds that can be found on Little St. Simons beaches during the Summer. When identifying a reddish egret, make sure to account for the two different color morphs: one has a slate blue-ish gray body with a rufous ruff around the neck and head, while the other is pure white. Both are pictured above, and you might notice that in both cases, the bill turns from pink to black—a characteristic that sets them apart from other white herons. To that end, here’s a fun fact: all egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets. The word “egret” refers only to the white herons; it’s derived from the French word “aigrette”, which translates to “silver heron” and “brush”, in reference to their beautiful wispy breeding plumes. Those same lovely feathers were prized for women’s hats at the turn of the 20th Century, leading to their extirpation from the United States. Luckily, with the enactment of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reddish egrets received Federal protection. Today, their numbers are increasing, yet they still haven’t fully recovered; this time, habitat loss is to blame. As coastal specialists, reddish egrets need protected lands such as Little St. Simons.

To find a reddish egret on Little St. Simons, check Sancho Panza during the early morning and late evening hours. If you do spot a reddish egret, be sure to stop and watch! Reddish egrets are extremely active hunters, and their unique style sets them apart from their heron cousins. When in pursuit of a fish, reddish egrets will flap their wings to reduce glare on the water and give chase, rendering what looks exactly like a “dance”!

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It’s nesting time… with a special guest appearance!

Male (dark neck) and female (tan neck) Anhingas at Norm's Pond.

For the past couple of years, wading birds have set up a rookery at Norm’s Pond. This year the usual suspects in their stunning breeding plumage have already shown up.  There are at least four pairs of  Great Egrets who have already nested and are incubating their sky-blue eggs. The Snowy Egrets are in putting on a great show of courtship as they pick their mates. There are also some Tricolored Heron’s hopping about the branches.

The ones that have really gotten everyone talking are the Anhingas! Similar in appearance and ecology to the Double-crested Cormorant that is common here, the Anhinga is a rare visitor to our island. The Anhinga’s range extends from the coast of North Carolina through Texas. They prefer slow-moving freshwater habitats, presumably why we don’t see too many on Little St. Simons Island.

Like the Cormorant, the Anhinga is a dark water bird with a long slender neck. However, the Anhinga has a sharply pointed bill, and whitish/silver feathers on the top of its wings. When in their breeding plumage (like the ones at Norm’s Pond shown in the pictures) they have a brilliant blueish green ring around their eye.

Anhingas nest in small trees or shrubs near the water, and the male begins gathering nesting material before it has a mate. The pair at Norm’s Pond has a nest built, and we eagerly await the eggs, and about a month later, the chicks!

For more information on Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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