Wood stork - wikimedia commons photo

As we started over the bridge on the Isle of Palms Connector, I noticed a line of large black and white birds through the pine trees. “Gourd heads,” I must have said out loud, because my wife said, “what?”

“Wood storks,” I said pointing to the undulating line of five or six wood storks, alternately flapping and gliding across the marsh at low tide.

The sight brought back memories of late summer and/or fall afternoons watching small flocks of these large ungainly-looking birds glide in wide circles over the delta wetlands of northeast Louisiana. A sight that became more and scarcer by the time I left Louisiana in the early 1980s.

In the early part of the 20th Century wood storks, Mycteria, Americana, nested across the southern coastal states from South Carolina to Texas. But due to a loss of habitat – the draining of suitable wetland habitats for agriculture and development, plus “improved” flood control methods, which dried up thousands of acres of overflow wetlands and swamps, wood storks were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1984.

The wood stork is the only North American stork. This large wading bird can grow to nearly 4 feet in height with a wingspan of more than 5 feet. The large bare head is dark brown with a blacker face, which led to the colloquial monikers – gourd head and/or flinthead. The body is snowy white and the flight feathers are black. Wood storks have large, thick, grey beaks that are slightly curved. Wood storks fly crane-like with neck and feet extended. They are fond of riding thermals and where they are common one can often see flocks turning lazily in the hot late-summer skies. They tend to wander after nesting and while they nest from southeast North Carolina, down the coast to South America, post-nesting dispersal has sent them as far west as California and as far north as Massachusetts.

Wood storks feed on similar fare as most waders – fish, amphibians, crustaceans – but their foraging style is quite different and probably contributed to their dwindling numbers. They feed by shuffling slowly through marshes and other wetlands with their open beaks submerged, feeling for prey. When there are groups of them in an area they shuffle their feet, nudging prey out of hiding and perhaps into one of their neighbor’s beaks. This rather haphazard way of foraging requires higher prey densities than is needed for most waders who are more active stalkers.

These foraging habits are probably why the tidal marshes of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida provided the last population strongholds for wood storks. High tide brings fishes into the marsh. As the tide recedes these fishes are forced into smaller and smaller areas where they are more likely to bump into the beak of a foraging wood stork.

In more inland situations like the delta of northeast Louisiana, heavy rains used to cause bayous, sloughs and rivers to overrun their banks and flood low lying areas. As these areas dried up, they forced the critters in them into smaller and smaller pools – easier prey for gourd heads. Channeling for flood control, development and “clean” farming has done away with most of these ephemeral delta wetlands.

But U.S. Fish & Wildlife recovery efforts appear to be paying off for the wood stork. The recent move into North Carolina that occurred in the early 2000s bares witness to these efforts.

It is really nice to gaze out and see a line of these flying dinosaurs flapping and gliding over the marsh. Perhaps one day in the near future they will once agin be common in the skies over Louisiana and Texas.