MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Don't worry; they're not delivering babies. But the Wood Stork, the only species of stork that breeds and nests in the United States, is a regular visitor to Alabama in late summer.
As recently as four decades ago, scientists believed the American Wood Stork might not exist in the wild in the United States sometime after the turn of the century. (A distinct population of Wood Storks that breeds from Mexico to Argentina is not as threatened.) Loss of crucial habitat in South Florida, where most of the American Wood Storks nested at that time, caused the numbers of nesting pairs of Wood Storks to decline precipitously.
"The southeast United States breeding population of the wood stork declined from an estimated 20,000 pairs in the 1930s to about 10,000 pairs by 1960, and to a low of approximately 5,000 pairs in the late 1970s," according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.
In just the Florida Everglades, formerly a prime nesting area, the number of breeding pairs plummeted from 2,500 in 1969 to just 100 in 1994.
But the bird proved a little more resilient than scientists believed. Over the past three decades, the Wood Stork expanded its breeding areas farther north in Florida and in Georgia and South Carolina. The number of breeding pairs stabilized, and the Wood Stork was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2014. However, the species remains on the Threatened List.
There is speculation among naturalists that the Wood Stork is a likely breeder today somewhere deep in the swamps of Alabama, but confirmations have been hard to come by. Anyone who believes they have spotted a Wood Stork nest in Alabama should report it to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources or to a reputable birding group such as the Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org) or Birmingham Audubon (birminghamaudubon.org).
However, even though regular nesting in Alabama remains to be confirmed, Wood Storks are common visitors to the state from late July to early fall.
After breeding season, Wood Storks spread out from their breeding areas into much of Alabama and Mississippi. (Less regular sightings have been reported far up the Mississippi River Valley, up the East Coast and even into southern Canada.)
Last summer I was able to photograph two adult Wood Storks at a farm pond off Mount Zion Road in South Montgomery County. A few weeks later I and a friend visiting from Maine, birder Rob O'Connell, spotted three flying about 10 miles farther south.
But a few weeks ago fellow Alabama Ornithological Society member Larry Gardella reported seeing Wood Storks in South Montgomery County off Trotman Road. When I stopped by to check it out about 7:15 p.m., I knew from more than a mile away that something was happening because I was seeing several Wood Storks flying in that direction.
But I never thought I would see 36 Wood Storks, six juvenile White Ibis, a Great Blue Heron, a Little Blue Heron, and a Great Egret all in the same small slough at the same time. There were so many I could never get them all in one photo. (See photos.)
The light was terrible; close to sunset and overcast between me and what little was left of the sun, so the photos were just so-so. Still, it was a magical moment.
I posted a few photos on the AOS Facebook page and on the Birding Alabama Facebook site, and Greg Harber of Birmingham Audubon pointed out that all of the storks in the photos appeared to be juveniles because of yellowish bills -- a good field mark. So I enlarged all the photos on my computer and checked them, and while there were about six birds for which I could not definitively tell bill color, all I could identify had the tell-tale yellowish bills. So my guess is that all 36 of the birds I saw were in fact juveniles. (See photo gallery.)
I came back the next day with friend David McVay, but the birds were missing from the slough. However, just before sunset, they started flying in -- wave after wave. The light was again poor for photography, but we did manage to get a few photos. (See photo gallery.) I estimated 45 birds flew over, landing this time too far into the swamp to see them on the ground.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife report lists sightings of Wood Storks over the years in 40 counties in Alabama. They have been reported as regular visitors to the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge and to lakes in Hale, Marengo and Perry counties. But it's likely that they can be seen virtually anywhere in Alabama this time of the year, with sightings more likely in the southern and western portions of the state.