Wood storks were so thick on the cyress boughs where they made their nests that Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge seemed to have been struck by a pop-up blizzard. Of course, the mid-summer heat melted that illusion during my visit there in early July, but the population on the refuge's Woody Pond was so large, it was nearly impossible to imagine wood storks were ever endangered.
In fact, the efforts to monitor and protect nesting wood storks at Harris Neck is one reason the birds were upgraded from "endangered" to "threatened" status in late June, and one reason that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made that announcement at the refuge near Townsend, Ga. The reclassification means wood storks are no longer considered to be at risk for extinction.
According to a CBS News article about "de-listing" of the wood storks:
Standing nearly 4 feet tall with a wingspan of about 5 feet, the wood stork is the only stork species that nests in the U.S. The birds' survival depends on ability to nest in wetlands with an abundance of fish and trees surrounded by water to protect eggs from predators.
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The stork population was once anchored in Florida, but destruction of wetlands in the Everglades and elsewhere to make way for development decimated their numbers from an estimated 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to roughly 10,000 in the 1970s.
Researchers say the species has made a remarkable resurgence by expanding its territory from southern Florida - where 70 percent of the population once lived - to establish nesting colonies in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. After nesting season, wood storks also can be found in parts of Alabama and Mississippi. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are as many as 9,000 breeding adults.
About 800 of those adults migrate in late spring to Harris Neck, to a manmade swamp created in the late 1980s.
Harris Neck is a 2,824-acre compound and part of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge complex. Wood storks that spend the summer breeding season there have come to define the refuge to a large degree -- indeed, photos of juveniles adorn the home page of the refuge website. But 341 other species of birds have been spotted there, and 82 other species breed on the refuge, according to the website.
Harris Neck also is a convenient drive down Interstate 95 from Beaufort County. Frequent Untamed Lowcountry contributor Karen Marts recounted a trip there for us last summer and also contributed a video and a few of the photos that I've attached to this story.
The refuge supports a host of wildlife besides birds, on a mix of salt marsh, open fields, forested wetlands and mixed hardwood/pine forest. It also has an interesting history that explains another of its defining traits -- an old airfield.
Livestock and lumber were cultivated there in the 1700s, according to the refuge website, and Sea Island cotton was grown starting in the 1780s. The Civil War brought an end to the cotton production and the plantation was subdivided for recently freed slaves.
In the late 19th century, tobacco tycoon Pierre Lorillard purchased several tracts of land there and built a mansion, formal gardens and a deep-water dock. In the 1920s, a Civil Aeronautics Authority Landing Field was built nearby to serve the Jacksonville-Richmond Airway as an emergency strip. About 20 years later, the U.S. government condemned tracts on the north end of Harris Neck to establish an Army airfield. The site served as a gunnery training facility for World War II fighter pilots serving in Europe, according to the refuge website. In 1962, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the former Army airfield. Starting in the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy helped further consolidate the land and the acquisition of 200 additional acres.