Wood stork nesting season in Florida a bust after a less-than-optimal wet winter

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Researchers don't have the data to prove it, but it seems this past wood stork nesting season was a bust. 

The iconic wading birds once nested throughout much of the historic Everglades, gathering in massive colonies in cypress strands and sloughs. 

But this year the birds faced less-than-optimal conditions as the beginning of winter was wet. 

And when it did dry, there probably wasn't enough time to raise chicks to the point that they could hunt and fend for themselves. 

"We started monitoring in December of 2019, and we saw wood storks hanging out in the trees," said Shawn Clem, a wood stork expert with Audubon at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary just outside of Naples. "We saw them congregating in a way that we suspected there would be nesting this year, and then we got a lot of rain in December. That raised water levels and levels continued to rise into February." 

Wood storks are long-legged, large-bodied birds with a concrete gray head. They've got long, curved bills, cotton-white feathers and pinkish-brown feet. The wingspan for adults can be 60 to 65 inches.

They feed on small fish, amphibians and reptiles in shallow wading pools and seasonal wetlands. 

Wood storks need ideal hunting conditions in order to raise chicks. 

Wood storks wade in a ditch filled with water from recent rains along North River Road on Monday. A front dropped several inches of rain over the last couple of days.

Extremely wet or extremely dry winters are not good for wood stork nesting. 

They feed by prowling 10- to 12-inch deep waters with their bills slightly open. 

Once a small fish or reptile comes in contact with the huge bill, it slams shut, trapping the meal. 

Wood storks come in for a landing at Imperial Marsh Preserve off of Corkscrew Road on Monday, November, 4, 2019. They were feeding in a pond and perching on nearby trees. The land is part of the Conservation 20/20 program.

Wood storks breed in Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outside of Naples was once the nesting stronghold for the species, but in recent decades the birds have expanded their range to the north. 

In a typical year, scientists like Clem fly over colonies and count nests, eggs and any chicks that may be visible. 

As Southwest Florida heads into the drier months, area waterways like ponds, sloughs and wetlands dry up causing the fish to congregate in a smaller area. This causes the wading birds to bunch up into feeding frenzies. Hundreds of wading birds including wood-storks, great egrets, white ibis, snowy egrets and one lone great white pelican were photographed on Tuesday 10/30/2018 off of Corkscrew Road near 20/20 lands.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary monitors three colonies — the one at the sanctuary as well as one along the Caloosahatchee River near Interstate 75 and a third one along Highway 29 near the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. 

This year the aerial program stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"If they were nest-building and maybe some of them got the eggs out in March, that gives them a pretty short time frame to raise hatchlings before the rainy season started," Clem said. "They really need to begin nesting in December. Once we get to January and into February, those late starts are generally not successful." 

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Few nests were successful in the Everglades area. 

“The Everglades can be like an ecological trap,” Mark Cook, with the South Florida Water Management District, who does aerial surveys of wading bird nests for the district, told the Palm Beach Post. “It can be great foraging, but not at the right time.”

A wood stork readies for landing at Imperial Marsh Preserve on Monday. The land is part of the Conservation 20/20 program.

Clem said the health of the wood storks reflects on the health of the historic Everglades and South Florida's water quality. 

"At the end of the day, it’s really not about the wood stork, it’s an indicator species that’s telling us about the quality of the habitat we’re providing," Clem said. "They’re large birds and they require more energy and more fish, so if we can keep wood storks happy, we can keep a whole suite of wildlife happy because they use that habitat. It also speaks to the water quality of the area." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.