Reclaimed habitat leads to rebound for endangered wood storks

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

CAMILLA, Ga. -- For more than seven decades, nearly 90 acres of Mitchell County bottomland lay mostly dry, drained by a ditch that cut through the middle of the bowl-shaped tract.

The ditch, dug in the 1930s to fight mosquitoes and malaria, got rid of most of the mosquitoes, but it also removed a important nesting area for wood storks, cattle egrets, ahingas and blue herons.

That changed in 2003 when property owners James and Sue Adams applied to enroll the site in a federal wetlands restoration initiative called the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service approved a permanent conservation easement and in 2006 the hole was plugged.

The water returned and so did the birds. Of special interest are the wood storks, which were listed as an endangered species in 1984.

The tall, gangly wading birds originally nested in Florida, but with wetlands loss in the south of the state, their numbers fell and the birds moved north into Georgia and South Carolina.

In the 1930s, population estimates were about 20,000 nesting pairs. By the 1960s the numbers dropped to 10,000 with a low of just 2,500 pairs in 1978.

Current estimates are in the 10,000 range with around 2,000 in Georgia. The Mitchell County site now holds an estimated 125 nests and, according to the the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is the furthest colony to the west of which the department is aware.

That's good news to Adams and even better news for the wood storks.

"My wife and I are pleased and extremely satisfied to see this habitat restored," Adams said. "We in south Georgia and it's nice to be able to do something for our ecosystem and give these birds a chance."

Wood storks are completely dependent upon wetlands for nesting and feeding. In Georgia, nests are typically constructed in cypress, gum or willow trees, often with several nests per tree.

The birds' diet consists primarily of small fish, but also includes tadpoles, salamanders, grass shrimp and snakes.

Adams says each nest requires around 400 pounds of food per nest until the chicks are able to fend for themselves. That's 25,000 tons of food for the Mitchell Co. colony, but Adams says that number is "sustainable."

Biologists discovered the new site after a banded stork the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was tracking by satellite moved from Florida into south Georgia.

Keith Wooster, state wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Georgia has about 16,500 acres in 45 sites, all in the southern part of the state. Wooster rates the Adams' property as the top "two or three sites in southwest Georgia."

Georgia's State Wildlife Action Plan, a strategy that guides Wildlife Resources Division and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity, emphasizes such technical and financial assistance, Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris said. "One of our top five areas of focus is working with private landowners, and I think this is a good example of a program that restored some valuable habitat," Harris said.

The option for restoration and permanent protection helped attract the Adams. "I think we have a responsibility number one to look after the land," Adams said. "We're just holding this land in trust. It's a win-win for us and the birds."