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Environment

Wood Stork Deaths Attributed to Record-High Rainfall

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barloveentomagico via flickr
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  Record-high rainfall could be responsible for a number of recently reported wood stork deaths.  Environmental experts say a lack of favorable foraging habitat could be causing the birds to starve.

The dead wood storks have mostly been found in and around the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.  CEO of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center Thomas Hecker said he saw several wood storks killed by vehicles last week on State Road 29 on the eastern edge of the Fakahatchee Strand. 

“They had feathers on their heads which probably means they were born last spring,” said Hecker.  “They had a good spring a year ago.  Then within the forest, you would see them and if you really wanted to, if you had a net or something, you could just probably run up and capture them.” 

That’s because the struggle to find food is making the birds lethargic and more susceptible to vehicle strikes.  Hecker says other dead birds have been found deeper in the woods where they would not have been killed by cars. 

The birds hunt for fish in shallow wetlands. And in the dry season, prey is usually concentrated, whereas this year, heavy rainfall has dispersed their food source, making it more difficult for the birds to survive.

Hecker calls the combination of younger inexperienced birds and a wider ranging food source a “the perfect storm for a die-off.”

“I think everyone’s observing it and saying its nature, but it’s not ‘true’ nature because we’ve kind of altered the way water floods these areas,” said Hecker.  “It’s probably much higher than it would be naturally because its more water in a smaller area and so the levels will go up much higher.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are monitoring the situation, but so far are not taking action.  The birds’ protection status was downgraded from endangered to threatened in 2014 because the birds expanded their range to coastal wetlands in Georgia and South Carolina, but south Florida wildlife advocates say the stability of the wood stork population remains in question.

“They’ve expanded their range because they had to,” said ornithologist and retired Florida Gulf Coast University professor Jerry Jackson, Ph.D.

“They’re forced out of Southwest Florida because we have dried up our wetlands.  We’ve drained the areas where they traditionally would have been looking for fish at this time of year.  That has nothing to do with the water levels right now, but it has a whole lot to do with why they expanded their range and they’re not nesting in the numbers up there that they used to nest down here so wood storks should be looked at as still very much in trouble.”

The birds are only successful in nesting about one year out of every six in the South Florida shallow wetlands that make up their most historically significant rookery.

Jackson expects 2016 to be a bad year for wood stork nesting success noting that if foraging conditions aren’t favorable, the birds typically won’t attempt to raise young.