A few years ago, I took a trip to Peru with a biology class. As Peru is famous for its amazing bird diversity, naturally most of the class spent a good deal of time pointing into the treetops, gasping. "Oooh," they'd say. I usually said, "where?" Apparently, I can't seem to manage a pair of binoculars and squinting at bird-shaped silhouettes gives me a headache. In other words, I'm rubbish at bird watching. Another place known for its great bird sighting opportunities - at least in Georgia - is Saint Catherines. It draws hobbyists and ornithologist who want to see such winged wonders as the painted bunting, bufflehead, northern flicker, and eastern towhee. There are several annual bird counts, when citizen scientists collect information on the local and migratory species here. Even the awesome lady who turned me on to this internship is a great amateur birder. I do much better with finding things on the ground; things like mushrooms and insects.
Case in point: on one of my afternoon walks around the island, I wandered down to Greenseed Pond. It's a little spot south of the compound; a good-sized body of water completely blanketed by duckweed (or something like it). I stood at the edge of the water, peering at its emerald surface, and sighing to myself. I'd hoped to see an alligator or at least a few ducks. But, there was nothing. Or so I thought. As I prepared to depart disappointed, a rustling noise and motion at the edge of my vision prompted me to lift my head. There, in a tree not twenty feet away from the shore, was a cluster of very large, white birds. Although their numbers were supplemented slightly by a few great egrets, I counted as many as twenty-five wood storks. I felt like a fool. Even for someone as inept at spotting avians as myself, it should have been hard to miss this colony. Each animal was over three feet tall and bright white against the leafy backdrop.
The wood stork is the only stork native to the United States. But, because of poor water management practices in Florida (among other things), they are disappearing. Wood storks are on the federal threatened species list (a controversial downgrade from their endangered status) and are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So, it's a bit of a treat for me to see them here. They're likely gathered at Greenseed Pond to breed as it's the time of year when they start to lay eggs. Typically, there will be five eggs per nest, which are large structures made of sticks that both mom and pop sit on. Most of the eggs won't make it though, because a lot of critters like to eat stork eggs, raccoons being one of them (the raccoons like to eat the sea turtle eggs too, which doesn't make our conservation folks very happy). Both parents also share feeding duty. Even though wood storks are related to vultures, they don't eat carrion. They practice something called "tacto-location" which - aside from being a cool word - means that they drag their open beaks through the water and snap them shut when they bump into something. That something could be an unfortunate frog, minnow, crab, or baby alligator. That snap might even be the fastest reflex of any animal with a backbone.
My reflexes might not be quite so grand, but my research skills are on point. I'm very fortunate to have ended up with a coworker/roommate who seems every bit as curious about the natural world as I am. Between the two of us, we've built a respectable science library (which may or may not have been scavenged from other buildings on the island). Our collection includes a really handy book called Common Birds of Coastal Georgia that not only has an entry on the wood stork, but also helped me learn how to tell the difference between a great egret and a snowy egret - one has a black bill and yellow legs while the other has a yellow bill and black legs. So now I can correctly identify at least three of the local birds, even if they do have to be gigantic for me to find them. And practically glowing. And preferably making some sort of squawking noise.