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Wood Stork Sighting

Oops! My bad,

Helping people identify birds is something I do on a daily basis. Sometimes figuring out a mystery bird is easy, while other times things don’t go as well. Most often the clues are the problem. People tend to under or overestimate a bird’s size, or they see field marks that aren’t there. This was not the case a few days ago, however, when four different people, on four different occasions, described the same bird to me. I told each one of them what I thought it was. It turns out, I was wrong all four times. Oops!

Earlier in the week, a customer told me about a large, white, heron-like bird he had seen in a marsh near Rock Harbor (Orleans). I told him it was probably a Great Egret. After all, egrets are large, white and heron-like. He replied that the bird also had black edges on the wings, which egrets don’t have. I next suggested a Snow Goose. Snow geese are all white, with black on the wings. Once again, he didn’t agree, telling me that this bird was much larger than any goose he’s ever seen. After few more of my suggestions, the guy left, not really happy with any of my answers. (That happens a lot.)

Fast forward to this past Saturday. I was at work, filling hats with potatoes (of course) when another guy came up to me and described the same bird. He thought it was a Wood Stork. I just shook my head, no. Wood Storks do fit the description, but they are southern birds, only seen in Massachusetts once every few decades, if that. I went on to explain why I was right…but before I could say something really stupid, a third and fourth guy chimed in with the same story. One of the guys also had a photo. And even though the photo was Big Foot quality (a bit fuzzy), it proved they were right. There was indeed a rare Wood Stork in the area. Once again, oops!

Later that same day, a group of veteran birders stopped by to chat and get their hats filled with potatoes. I immediately showed them the fuzzy stork photo and told them where it had been taken. The next thing I saw was the back of their heads. Chitchat was over. They were off to find the rare bird. For the rest of that day, and the following day and the day after that, birders from all over the Cape searched the Orleans/Eastham area for the Wood Stork, but they all came up empty. (It’s too bad they didn’t know about this rare bird a few days earlier, when the first guy described it to me and I said it was an egret or a goose. I didn’t dare mention that to them.)

Finding a rare bird can be challenging, but finding this particular species shouldn’t be too hard. Wood Storks are not shy like sparrows or secretive like rails. They live and feed in the open. They are also three and a half feet tall, with white bodies, black heads and large dark beaks. They have a bulky, prehistoric appearance and don’t look like any other North American bird. (Only an idiot would confuse them with a Great Egret or Snow Goose.) Like herons, storks spend their days in marshes, swamps and other wetlands. It should be an easy bird to find, but so far no one could relocate it. Still, they kept looking. (Serious birders hate it when novices see things they don’t.)

It’s not that Wood Storks are super-rare. People who spend time in Florida regularly see storks sitting in dead trees or foraging in shallow water. But seeing one on Cape Cod is quite unusual. A quarter of a century ago, a Wood Stork spent a few weeks in Cotuit (or one of those other Barnstable villages). Since that time, the only other stork around here was the one reported on the roof of the Captain Penniman House, near Fort Hill in Eastham…although nobody actually saw that bird.

From a distance, storks and herons might look similar, but it seems they aren’t even related. While both birds have long legs and like to wade in water, herons are sleek, with dagger-like bills. Storks are bulkier, with a thick, sturdy beak that looks like something used to change a car tire. A heron’s head is covered in handsome plumes, but a stork’s head and neck are naked and not at all attractive. Storks fly with their necks straight out, goose-style, but herons tuck their heads in, heron-style. A heron’s flight is direct, while storks often soar high above the ground like vultures. In fact, scientists think storks might actually be more closely related to vultures. Yes, vultures. (And you thought you had bad bloodlines.)

Here’s something cool about storks. They don’t need to use their eyes when hunting. Since storks tend to feed in murky water, they often can’t even see what they are looking for. When hunting, a stork will submerge its beak, half-open, into the water and then wait for a fish to come close. The stork’s beak is so sensitive that it can actually feel a passing fish and grab it without ever seeing it. To test this theory, researchers put blinders on a stork and even though the bird couldn’t see, it never missed a fish. I know some fishermen who should try fishing with their eyes closed…they might have better luck.

It’s been over a week since the rare Wood Stork was spotted here in Orleans, and so far none of the birders have been able to track it down. Where did it go? It could have headed back south or it could be in a hidden Cape Cod swamp somewhere, eating unseen fish. In the meantime, birders will keep looking for it. As for me, since I messed this one up, maybe I might focus on some other subject for a while…like potatoes.