HALE COUNTY (WSFA) - Hale County
Natural Alabama 8-12-17
No need to leave Alabama to see Wood Storks
By Ken Hare
The daily newspaper in Alabama's state capital carried a headline last week that was sure to catch the attention of birders: "Birders can view rare stork near Baton Rouge." The article by The Associated Press highlighted a viewing event sponsored by the Louisiana Wildlife Agency that featured the Wood Stork, one of the South's more unusual birds.
The article was fine, as far as it went. But it would have been nice of the newspaper to tell its Alabama readers that they don't have to go to Louisiana to see Wood Storks. In the summer in Alabama, the birds can be seen by the thousands right here in the Yellowhammer State.
On the same weekend this article appeared touting Wood Stork viewing in Louisiana, participants in a Birmingham Audubon field trip to Hale County saw more than 800 Wood Storks scattered around the county -- and that is a very conservative number.
At one location, trip leader Greg Harber was busy counting 94 Wood Storks on the ground and in trees near catfish ponds when a huge flock of them flew into view. There were far too many to count, but Greg and I independently estimated their numbers at 400.
An aside: Experienced birders learn to estimate numbers in large flocks by focusing on a section of the flock and then multiplying that outwards. I've photographed large flocks and counted them on the computer and compared them to estimates made in the field. It's surprising how accurate such experienced birders as Greg Harber can be. Here's an article on how to do it.
In the past couple of decades, fish farming has become a huge agribusiness for Hale County and nearby areas. Those fish ponds have turned out to be magnets for Wood Storks and many other large, fish-feeding birds -- Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, for example. Bald Eagles also can be seen around the ponds -- we saw two on the recent trip.
Montgomerians don't even have to leave the county to see Wood Storks. I spotted 124 of them earlier this summer at a fish farm pond in South Montgomery County, and a dozen or more at scattered sites around the county.
Wood Storks are not truly "rare" birds; they are common in South America, for instance. But their numbers in the United States are much more limited. Loss of crucial habitat in South Florida, where many of American Wood Storks nested, caused the numbers of nesting pairs of Wood Storks to decline precipitously from 1930 to 1980. But over the past three decades, the Wood Stork has expanded its breeding areas farther north in Florida and into Georgia and South Carolina. The number of breeding pairs has stabilized, and the Wood Stork was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2014. However, the species remains on the Threatened List in the United States.
After breeding season, Wood Storks spread out from their breeding areas into much of Alabama and Mississippi -- and yes, even into Louisiana.
In fact, because Wood Storks and so many other interesting birds can be found in late summer in Hale County and nearby counties, I believe the area has the potential for hosting its own late summer bird festival. Such festivals have become significant sources of tourism revenue for many areas around the nation.
The Wood Stork, while an interesting bird, probably would not be enough on its own to attract enough birding enthusiasts to make such a festival a big success. But the area has many other interesting birds as well.
On recent Birmingham Audubon trips to the area we've also seen, for instance: Beautiful long-tailed Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers (see photo gallery); hard-to-spot Yellow-Billed Cuckoos; Pectoral, Solitary and Spotted sandpipers; and my favorite, the colorful Painted Bunting. Around nearby fields, the striking and uncommon Swallow-Tailed Kite and its more common but still beautiful cousin, the Mississippi Kite, soar in late summer as well. (See photo gallery.)
I am a fan of traveling to see birds, or more precisely, a fan of traveling to see nature and wildlife, including birds. But as much as I love doing that, Alabamians should realize that they don't have to go far from home to see many marvelous birds.
-- "Chirps and Chips," a casino-themed evening, will be Saturday, Aug. 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Rosewood Hall at SoHo Square, 2850 19th St. South, Homewood. Sponsored by Raptor Force, the junior board of the Alabama Wildlife Center, the event will feature games, live entertainment, a silent auction and a drawing, as well as heavy hors d'oeuvres. Proceeds will benefit the Alabama Wildlife Center to help with its rehabilitation program for native Alabama birds. Tickets are $50 per person. Details at their website.
-- The deadline for the Alabama Ornithological Society photo contest is Sept. 1. There are three categories -- Backyard, Flight and Natural Habitat. Details.
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it.