Georgia notes record number of wood stork nests as U.S. says they no longer are an endangered species

By David Pendered

Georgia has noted a record number of wood stork nests this year, news that the state announced as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited the Georgia coast Thursday.

This wood stork lands on a branch near a colony that is among the record number observed in Georgia this year. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

This wood stork lands on a branch near a colony that is among the record number observed in Georgia this year. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

Jewell traveled to Townsend to say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is down-listing the wood stork from an endangered to a threatened species.

“The down-listing of the wood stork from endangered to threatened demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can be an effective tool to protect and recover imperiled wildlife from the brink of extinction, especially when we work in partnership with states, tribes, conservation groups, private landowners, and other stakeholders to restore vital habitat,” Jewell said in a statement.

Tim Keyes, of the state Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, said in a statement Thursday that surveys conducted this spring result in estimates of 2,932 nests in 22 colonies. The nests were found from Brooks to Camden counties, Keyes said.

Annual fluctuations are normal, according to the DNR statement. Recent counts include:

  • These wood stork nests near Townsend are among the record number counted this year in Georgia. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

    These wood stork nests near Townsend are among the record number counted this year in Georgia. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

    2013: 1,873 nests;

  • 2012: 1,903 nests;
  • 2011: 2,136 nests.
  • 2010: 2696 nests – the highest since Georgia began keeping records in the 1990s.

The DNR statement said wood storks are the only true stork in the U.S. The tall, wading birds nest in colonies over water and feed by running their opened beak through the water and closing it when the beak touches prey.

Jewell said the recovery of wood storks is the result of the country’s environmental conservation efforts.

“From the Cypress swamps of Georgia, to the inland waterways of Florida, wetlands and their wildlife are emblematic of the American Southeast,” Jewell said in the statement. “Through important conservation partnerships, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to rebuild a healthy wetland ecosystem, which, in turn, is helping restore the wood stork’s habitat, double its population since its original listing and keep the bird moving in the right direction toward recovery.”

Wood storks nest near Townsend. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

Wood storks nest near Townsend. Credit: AP via seattlepi.com

According to the statement:

  • “When wood storks were listed as endangered in 1984, their population was dropping a precipitous 5 percent a year. Since then, the U.S. breeding population has shown substantial improvement in the numbers of nesting pairs as a whole and an expansion of its breeding range.
  • “Since 2004, the three-year averages (2003 to 2012) for nesting pairs ranged from 7,086 to 10,147, all above the 6,000 three-year average identified in the 1997 recovery plan as the threshold to consider reclassifying the species to threatened status. However, the five-year average of 10,000 nesting pairs, identified in the current recovery plan as the threshold for delisting, has not yet been reached.”

The DNR statement included the following list titled the “Wonder of Wood Storks:”

  • Wood storks use freshwater and estuarine wetlands for breeding, feeding and roosting.
  • They are colonial nesters – they nest in colonies – and several nests are often in the same tree.
  • The stick nests are built in trees over water, a setting in which alligators unwittingly help protect the eggs and chicks above from raccoons and other predators.
  • The first record of wood storks nesting in Georgia was in 1965 on Blackbeard Island.
  • This year, colonies in the state ranged in size from 387 nests at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in McIntosh County to nine nests at a Brantley County site. Colonies were documented in 12 counties: Berrien, Brantley, Brooks, Camden, Glynn, Jenkins, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Mitchell, Thomas and Worth counties.
  • Colonies in southwest Georgia depend more on rainfall and are less stable than those in coastal counties, where many wetlands used by storks are influenced by tides.
  • Wood storks also may be spotted soaring on thermal updrafts or gliding to feeding sites. They sometimes range into north Georgia.
  • More than 75 percent of the stork rookeries in Georgia are on private land. The success of conservation efforts for this species depends on landowners’ willingness to ensure the protection of viable freshwater wetland nesting sites.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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