Spoonbills and Wood Storks
Ro Wauer, June 29, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003
This is the time of year that some of our oddest birds put in their appearance. Although roseate spoonbills can usually be found in South Texas year-round, wood storks reside in our ponds and resacas only during the summer months. Both are large waders that are hard to miss, in flight as well as when feeding.
Spoonbills might be considered the "pink elephants" of the bird world. These birds are almost three feet tall and with a wingspan of about 50 inches. But their most fascinating features include their pinkish color and strange bill. Seeing a pair of large pink birds flying by can not only make one wonder about one's eyesight, but also question what or how much was consumed the night before. Not many birds come in pink! But yes, this one - most properly known as roseate spoonbill due to its color - shows lots of pink in flight. Breeding adults possess bright pink wings.
The spoonbill name, however, is derived from the bird's really strange flattened or spatulate bill, widest at the tip. Wading spoonbills utilize their partly opened bill to sift through mud while feeding in ponds. They sweep their head side to side. Tiny organs inside their bill are able to detect small animals such as various invertebrates, fish and frogs. They also are able to locate food visually.
Nesting birds frequent islands along the coast or further inland where their nesting sites are well enough protected from predators. A colonial nester, some colonies can include a dozen or more pairs, and often at sites also utilized by a variety of herons and egrets. But spoonbills often feed even further inland at ponds and other wetlands.
Wood storks also nest on islands and similar localities, but always south of the border, such as on mangrove islands in Veracruz, Mexico. Only post-nesting wood storks are found in Texas. These taller waders begin to arrive in South Texas in late May or June, and they can be fairly common at certain localities by late June into July. Although the two species - spoonbills and wood storks - are not related, both can sometimes be found feeding side-by-side in the same wetland.
Wood storks are even larger than spoonbills. Wood storks can be 40 inches tall and with a wingspan of more than 60 inches. In flight, they can be misidentified as white pelicans because of the black-and-white plumage. But white pelicans are long gone to their breeding grounds in the northwestern portion of the United States by the time wood storks put in their appearance. A flying wood stork shows white wings with a broad black border on the trailing edge. And they're long all-dark legs stick out behind.
Feeding behavior of wood storks is quite different than that of spoonbills. Wood storks wade slowly about a pond with its partially open and rather tender bill submerged in the water. When detecting an animal by feel or sight it will immediately snap its bill shut, capturing its prey. Researchers have found that a wading wood stork will shuffle its feet as it walks about a pond, presumably to flush prey. Like spoonbills, its diet consists largely of aquatic invertebrates and some small vertebrates, such as fish, frogs and snakes.
Both spoonbills and wood storks seem to be holding their own in Texas, but some populations, such as those in Florida, have considerably declined in recent years. The greatest threat to these large waders is habitat removal, when wetlands are cleared for malls and homesites. But they also are susceptible to the numerous pesticides and herbicides used by farmers and ranchers in fields surrounding their essential feeding sites. Spoonbills and wood storks, like so many of our wild neighbors, are dependent upon human beings for their long-term survival.