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Gentlemen of the Wetlands

Wood storks (Mycteria americana) — or American Wood ibis — are large wading birds native to North America, found from the coast of South Carolina, throughout Florida, and west to Texas. These guys are unmistakable — standing at three-and-a-half feet tall, with a wing span of at least five feet, they’re a stately presence in our wetlands. They have heavy, long curved beaks and a nearly featherless head, and are covered in white feathers, with black feathers on the wings and tail. They can be awkward in flight, but graceful on land, daintily and slowly placing one leg in front of the next as they make their way through the shallow wetlands.

Wood stork of the Florida wetlands: A gentleman

As one might imagine given their size, Wood storks are plentiful eaters, especially during the breeding season. They use their feet to stir the bottom of the shallow waters to collect their food, including fish, crayfish, lizards, tadpoles, shrimp, frogs, insects, and baby alligator. Feeding in waters no deeper than their beak, they use a technique known as “grope feeding” — because Wood storks don’t use their vision, but rather touch, to collect food.

Wood stork “grope feeding” in the shallow waters

Sadly, this gentleman wader is endangered: In the 1930s there were an estimated 60,000 Wood storks in the United States, but only 10,000 live today, mostly due to habitat loss and/or disruption of their environments. Like so many other species, the disappearance of the Wood stork would signal the loss of a crucial component of our wetlands.

Save the wetlands!

Fun Facts:

  • The reflex of a Wood stork’s bill after it touches food is considered the fastest of any reflex in the vertebrate world!
  • A typical Wood stork greeting involves both birds raising and lowering their heads, with bills agape.
  • Wood stork courtship involves bill clapping. Sometimes bill clapping is on the part of a male challenging other storks who may come too close to his chosen nesting site; other times, the loud and distinctive bill clapping can be heard throughout rookeries when the male uses his bill to strike the bill of the female.
63 Comments Post a comment
  1. Pam #

    I think these birds are incredibly wonderful – one of my favorites! You got an amazing exposure – it is quite difficult to get the black of the head and white of the feathers just right.

    October 1, 2012
    • They’re so elegant and graceful, for their appearance, aren’t they?

      Thanks so much… You’re ABSOLUTELY right about the difficulty of getting a decent shot of these guys, with their contrast!

      October 1, 2012
  2. Glorious shots paired with such interesting facts about these gentlemen! Simply wonderful. Sharon

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so much! I love these gentlemen — they’re surprisingly graceful. I learned about the reflex bit, myself… Although I get to hear their bills clacking in our wetlands. 🙂

      October 1, 2012
  3. Jim Collinge #

    These gentlemen are truly awe inspiring – particularly when they come in for a landing. It’s like watching a jumbo jet landing.

    Best site I’ve found for these guys is in John Prince Park in Lake Worth – try the southeast corner by the bridge to the campground. Also look for Roseate Spoonbills hanging out with the Wood Storks – they seem to get along together.

    October 1, 2012
    • GREAT comparison — it really is like a jumbo-jet landing! And you’re right, they always seem to hang out with the Spoonbills (even nesting in the same rookeries).

      I’ll have to check out the park — THANKS! I know the hiking meet-up often strolls around there, but I’ve never been. I honestly didn’t think there would be much to see, but that’s what I get for making an assumption…!

      October 1, 2012
      • jimbey23 #

        John Prince is great for most of the wading birds, including little blue herons and limpkins. Also great for pelicans – my avatar is a super closeup of a John Prince male pelican. The key is to stay SOUTH of 6th Avenue – away from the speed boats and such.

        October 1, 2012
      • GREAT to know, thanks so much! Next time we don’t want to partake in a far-away / longer hike, we’ll definitely run up there! I had no idea…

        October 2, 2012
  4. Fantastic photos. Thanks for sharing

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so much — I love these elegant guys.

      October 1, 2012
  5. These are outstanding! I don’t think I have seen a better wood stork portrait then your first photo! Super well done!
    It has been said that they have a face only a mother could love, but as you stated they are elegant flyers and are quite interesting birds.
    And they really do make a LOUD clapping sound when banging their bills together.
    It is also fascinating to see them come down for one of their parachute type landings when they dangle those longs legs in the air.
    Great pics and beautiful setting in the reeds for your third photo!

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks SO much — very kind of you to say!

      The background was a happy accident (no altering in these photos), due to the setting sun… And the other shot was fairly far into the wetlands.

      But like you say, they’re such interesting birds. They’re deliberate and seemingly elegant — and their size! I love seeing them come in for a landing. One other compared it to seeing a jumbo jet, heh! In our area, they often roost with the spoonbills, so that’s a great sight — but the rookery’s too far for my camera (need bigger lens, hahah!).

      Thanks again — any attention for these amazing endangered animals is wonderful.

      October 2, 2012
      • One other possibly interesting note about these birds is that they can really displace a lot of air when flying.
        We have had large groups of them fly low over our heads and to feel that air and hear the wings in an amazing experience.

        October 2, 2012
      • I can imagine!! I haven’t had that experience, but I have had the swooooOOOP of a solitary stork come nearby, as it comes in for a landing. They’re so large, and seeing them in flight is amazing…

        October 2, 2012
  6. marialla #

    Quite the dude indeed!!!

    October 1, 2012
    • Hahaha! Thoroughly an elegant and civilized gentleman. 🙂

      October 2, 2012
  7. Wow…beautiful pics and a lesson! I love your blog! Thanks! 🙂

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so much!

      These guys deserve much more presence, given their current endangered status, but I hope to include more in the future. And, at least they’re now protected… Now to protect their habitats and our land!

      October 2, 2012
  8. You captured the essence of this bird so well! So crisp, clear and close. Thank you!

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so much! I hope so… They’re such an elegant bird, and to see them glide through our swamps and wetlands is a lovely sight. I love their faces. 🙂

      October 2, 2012
  9. Love your photos! How do you get such wonderful pictures?

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so very much! Lots of practice, and time spent in environments to which I’m accustomed…. 🙂 Still learning though, believe me.

      October 2, 2012
  10. A wonderful bird and a shame they’re so few in number…I do hope to hear their bill-clacking someday. Also a shame that Oregon isn’t tropical enough to have a few. I guess that’s just another reason to plan a trip to the South.

    Thanks for the great pictures! I too am impressed with the exposure of the white/black. Well done!

    October 1, 2012
    • Thanks so very much! These guys are definitely a sight to see — their sheer size, but also their elegance and grace. It stuns people at first glance.

      The background was actually a happy accident of the setting sun (no photo alteration) — and I was just happy that the whites of the feathers and the blacks of their heads were somewhat visible! Thanks again. 🙂

      October 2, 2012
  11. The face in the top photo is overflowing with character. In the second photo I was really surprised that the food was pink — that made the foot seem more hand-like.

    So in carrion eaters, there are no feathers on the head so their heads don’t become a habitat for the nasties living in their food. I wonder how baldness is adaptive for these creatures?

    In related news today, there was good news for bald men. In a study, bald men were rated as being more manly and dominant than men with hair (just like Mr. Clean in the commercials! :lol:):

    October 1, 2012
    • I love that first image too, for his character — and they’re all like this. So very graceful as they glide through the swamps / wetlands, and thoroughly elegant. Hard not to love!

      They have the same diet as the other waders (herons and egrets) though — so I’m not sure about the baldness factor, or how evolution came into play.

      Hahahah!! That article is hysterical… 🙂 I saw similar studies on that awhile back. (Bald men = more testosterone, or something to that effect.)

      October 2, 2012
  12. Absolutely stunning photos, and hearing Phil’s compliments, they are well deserved. You truly are an amazing photographer and thanks to you, nature has a voice in the human world.

    October 1, 2012
    • What a kind thing to say…! I haven’t made it to his comments yet, hee, but I love that — “nature has a voice in the human world.” I can’t tell you how much that means, besides being exceptionally poetic.


      October 2, 2012
  13. I love your photos here, and I especially love the title!

    October 1, 2012
    • Heh, thank you!! If you saw them in all their glory, gracefully gliding through the swamp with their bald heads — it’s hard not to envision them as such.

      October 2, 2012
  14. this is informative … and your photos are beautiful as usual

    October 2, 2012
    • Thanks so very much! I adore these guys… 🙂

      October 2, 2012
  15. You managed to get so close! Such stately beauty! Magnificent shots.

    October 2, 2012
    • Thanks so much! Two of the guys were definitely closer… One wanted to stay more regal, far out in the wetlands. 🙂 They ARE stately — I love that.

      October 2, 2012
  16. Love the details on the first image… how did you get a black background? Photoshop? or Lighting? Just curious as it looks like it was a studio shoot 🙂

    October 2, 2012
    • Ah, Photoshop…. This is something I have yet to learn! A friend is in the process of installing it for me, though. Wish me luck!! 🙂

      As of now, none of my images are altered. The background is a happy accident — it was late dusk, which made bringing out his details tough, but made for a nice portrait!

      October 3, 2012
  17. Thanks for the back story…. fascinating… beautiful pics.

    October 3, 2012
    • Thanks so much! They really are unique creatures, fully worthy (like everything on this planet) of their place in the wetlands.

      October 3, 2012
  18. I think Wood Storks are wonderfully ugly. I would love to see their mating display.

    October 4, 2012
    • Wonderfully ugly they are! But ever so graceful — they literally glide through our wetlands and swamps. To hear their *clacking* reverberate throughout the wetlands is definitely an experience. 🙂

      October 18, 2012
      • Hey, FeyGirl… been missing your blogs. Haven’t heard their clacking. Next time I am in Florida.

        October 20, 2012
      • HULLO! Hahahah… I’m so sad there’s been no clacking! I was away, got a new OS, had Photoshop installed (what…the…!@!!@(!??)… I’m finally able to post once again! Hoorah! Just posted the baby gators and their momma I’ve been waiting on.

        When do you come to FLA?

        October 22, 2012
  19. I’ve never seen one of these, though I see they do come as far west as Texas. I’ll have to do some research. One of the things I love about your site and others is that I can get good looks at the birds and have a little more idea of what I’m seeing when I’m out and about.

    We do have a different stork in Houston – there’s a pair of shoebills at the zoo. They’re even funnier, but immensely appealing!

    October 5, 2012
    • How wonderful! Thanks so much, for that — I’m thrilled that this info and the accompanying images will potentially help you in your investigations! I hope that you spy some soon — although they may be migrating, if your area gets a bit nippy.

      Oooooh those storks are FASCINATING!! Wow. I’ve never, never seen (or heard of) them!

      October 18, 2012
  20. narhvalur #

    Reblogged this on Ann Novek–With the Sky as the Ceiling and the Heart Outdoors.

    October 6, 2012
  21. Fine images of a majestic bird. I hope the remaining 10,000 get some protection, it would be a real tragedy if they weren’t to survive.

    October 9, 2012
    • Thank you! And, I’m with you wholeheartedly… I’m thrilled about their protection, but it behooves us to protect their habitats as well. Otherwise, it will do no good. Such magnificent and graceful creatures…

      October 18, 2012
  22. This is a new bird for me. Not totally, but these photos are marvelous. I really love reading all the critter info that you post. Thanks, Gretchen

    October 10, 2012
    • Thanks so much! I really love these guys; so very large but elegant as they glide through our swamps. I always learn a bit more as well, when I write about them… 🙂

      October 18, 2012
  23. That is one handsome fella. ❤

    October 18, 2012
    • Heee! I love these guys. They can’t help but be stately.

      October 22, 2012
  24. Amazing, amazing, amazing photos. The first photo of Gentleman of the Wetlands’ side profile is unbelievable how you captured his soul. Beautiful. Loud WOOF WOOF from Maggie applauding your talent. 🙂 🙂

    October 27, 2012
    • Heee!! Love the applause, you’re so very kind!

      These guys are so graceful and regal — and enormous! That dark background is natural, out of the camera (I was lucky, it was dusk) — and I love how you say his soul was captured. I really do look at it like a portrait. They’re incredibly elegant to me.

      October 29, 2012
  25. My blue heron Ethel loves these Florida wetland birds.

    October 27, 2012
    • Heee! They’re so regal and graceful, what lady WOULDN’T?

      October 29, 2012
  26. I love your stork portrait- do you grant artists use of your photographs for inspirations
    in their paintings ?

    January 13, 2013
    • Ah, I’ve always thought he would make such a wonderful portrait… And given their endangered status, I think that’s a wonderful idea! Any and all representations of these critters in need, I emphatically endorse!

      I’d love to see your completed work when it’s finished… 🙂

      January 14, 2013

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