Corkscrew Swamp has
had the distinction of
hosting the largest nesting
population of wood storks
in the United States.

More than 5,000 chicks
fledged annually at
Corkscrew throughout
1958-1967. But only
540 chicks fledged
from 2003-2012.

The Beauty of Birding

by Brewster Moseley

IT'S PROBABLY SAFE to assume that you’re reading this article because you like birds. So what is it about them that interests you? Whether you’re a serious or a casual bird watcher, what is it that motivates you? Perhaps it’s a muse – a guiding genius, a source of inspiration – impelling your involvement in a truly joyful pastime. Many bird watchers have found not only inspiration but a renewed appreciation for all things natural – an awakened interest in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the natural world.

But why birds? I can only speak from my own experience. I suppose birds manifest qualities that appeal to an inner sensibility: beauty, freedom from earthbound fetters, majesty in the case of the eagle, childlike gregariousness in the case of the chickadee, artistry in the case of all – each bird a unique assemblage of colors and brushstrokes from the ultimate artistic palette.

But there are other reasons for birding. Perhaps you’re an artist or photographer. A beautifully composed picture in your scope, binoculars or lens: a shy Purple Gallinule stepping delicately across a lily pad as the rays of the rising sun dance over the water, or a Sandhill Crane, twisted like a Mongolian contortionist, carefully primping and preening, can certainly bring inspiration. Or perhaps you enjoy the expansive intellectual pursuit of a new natural-history discipline. Or you may simply appreciate the camaraderie of fellow birders, the caress of the elements, or the exercise inherent in the sport. Whatever your reasons for a new or renewed interest in birding, you’re sure to find this pastime richly rewarding.

As you’ve no doubt seen, Lee County has its share of interesting birds, and I’d like to discuss two of my favorites: the Pileated Woodpecker and the Wood Stork. As far as the former is concerned, I say PILL-eated. But did you know PIE-leated is also correct? In fact, purists prefer this pronunciation. That’s because the word comes from the Latin pileus and pileum, meaning skullcap or felt cap. And the Pileated’s brushy red top is certainly reminiscent of the horsehair plume on a Roman soldier’s helmet, meant to intimidate enemies with its blood-red color.

I’ve loved these birds ever since I began watching the old black-and-white Woody Woodpecker cartoons as a child. And I’ve had the good fortune to see several in the woods: in Wisconsin and Idaho, at Corkscrew Swamp near Fort Myers and, most recently, at McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach. My wife and I first noticed a pair at McKee as we were dodging large chunks of falling wood. The male (the one with the red ‘mustache’) was aggressively foraging for insects in the oak canopy above us.

Pileateds are often heard drumming and chopping in swamps and forests. They’re the size of crows, but you can distinguish the two species in flight. The Pileated’s undulating wing beats are different from the crow’s more direct flight path. And its whinnying call is quite distinctive. These large, non-migratory birds range, in the east, from the tip of Florida to the mid-section of the lower Canadian provinces. In the west, they’re year-round residents of California, up the west coast to British Columbia, and down through eastern Washington, Oregon, Montana, and the northern half of Idaho. The Pileated Woodpecker has a plain, black back and has a “kick- kick” call.

Most of us have seen Wood Storks standing patiently by golf course lakes, roadside ditches, and, as in the case of Fred, in our own backyards. Fred is our ‘pet’ Wood Stork, who seems oblivious of nearby golfers and gawkers. He spends most of his time behind our condo on the fifth hole of our golf course. Fred is fun to watch, since he loves to try to steal food from any Great Egret he can get close to. The big birds have a wingspan of five feet and can reach five feet in height.

Wood Storks nest in colonies, and Corkscrew is a great place to see them. In previous years, Corkscrew has had the distinction of hosting the largest nesting population in the United States (as have the Everglades). In fact, about 100,000 Wood Stork chicks have fledged there since 1958. Some 300 Wood Stork chicks fledged last season, making it the most successful hatch since the 2008-2009 season. No other American colony has been more productive.

But Wood Stork numbers have been declining in Florida, mainly due to growth in the state’s human population. The health of Florida’s wetlands affects Wood Stork populations and wetlands have diminished due to drainage caused by road and canal construction. At Corkscrew, more than 5,000 chicks fledged annually throughout the first ten years of monitoring (1958-1967). But only 540 chicks fledged from 2003-2012. The decline in nesting has been proportionate.

A family of four storks needs 440 pounds of fish each season, and water levels have to be just right to ensure successful foraging. If they aren’t, storks can’t find enough food. They nest in what’s called the dry season in south Florida – between December and late March. That’s when it’s easier to find fish, since pools of water shrink. Fish then become concentrated and easier to catch. Wood Storks also eat crayfish, snakes, frogs and even young alligators. They stir up the water with their feet and, using their beaks as ‘feelers,’ grab their food by touch rather than sight. Although the Wood Storks range stretches north of Florida, the Sunshine State is where the vast majority live. South of the border, however, their range extends to northern Argentina.

Years ago I had an aerial experience similar to that of Wood Storks’. I had a glider lesson in Middletown, New York. A glider is an unpowered aircraft also known as a sailplane. I sat in the front seat and had a joystick to steer the plane. The pilot sat behind and made me think I was in control by putting his hands on my shoulders (I still shiver whenever I review the experience). The glider was towed aloft by a Piper Cub, and the cable was released when we had gained sufficient altitude. We remained aloft for about half an hour by riding thermals – warm, rising air currents. And this is how Wood Storks are able to reach great heights without expending much energy. When they dive, they’re fun to watch.

So if you see a Pileated Woodpecker, watch out for falling wood. And if you see a Wood Stork high in the sky, you might be lucky enough to experience one of the most acrobatic displays of twisting, turning and rolling of any bird on the planet. But as talented as Wood Storks may be, there’s no evidence that they deliver babies. •

March-April 2015