MYCTERIA MADNESS

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Wood storks (Mycteria americana) are large, colonial-breeding wading birds that are endangered.   Most breed in south Florida in late winter, and by May, the breeding birds and their offspring begin to move north in irregular wanderings.  They had been in the central Florida area since mid-spring, and I had seen a few birds occasionally at Emeralda, but on October 7, wood storks  were everywhere.

Wood storks have  very specialized feeding behaviors, which in part explains why they breed at such an atypical time compared to most other wading birds.  They are tactile feeders, and find prey by wading with their bill partly open in the water.  When something contacts their bill, they snap it shut, and sometimes find a fish or other aquatic animal inside.  As you might expect, they are most successful when feeding in areas with concentrated fish populations.  Drying of temporary pools during winter's dry season produces these concentrated fish populations, allowing them to obtain enough food to feed their offspring.  They don't breed in abnormally wet winters because feeding conditions will not allow them to properly provision their nestlings.

            
They may feed as small flocks, often with coordinated movements, as pairs, or as single birds.  It would be interesting to note whether birds feeding cooperatively as a group have a higher feeding success, due to the ability of the group to herd schools of fish into catchable locations.   Maybe the study's been done... regardless, I didn't see many storks catching fish while they were feeding at Emeralda.  Fish concentrations are probably not particularly high there, and a lot of birds just spent their time loafing around.       

One of the distinctive features of wood storks is the bare skin on their head, leading to the colloquial names of "gourd head" or "flint head".  Young birds retain a light covering of tan feathers on their head at least through their first winter (left) and are therefore easily distinguished from the adults.  These bizarre birds also have bright pink feet (right), which probably help them elicit movement in prey as they stir them around underwater.  Snowy egrets with their bright yellow feet use a similar foraging behavior.

It was fun while it lasted - by the following week, the numbers of wood storks had dropped from perhaps several hundred birds on October 7, to a handful.  I've seen a dozen or two birds each week since then.   I guess they went looking for better fishing elsewhere.

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