The main thing that has kept me somewhat sane during this time of a global pandemic is watching birds.
While Ogeechee Audubon has suspended its field trips, I have been able to get out with one or two friends, maintaining correct social distance, to visit a few favorite locations including Webb Webb Wildlife Management Area in South Carolina, the Solomon Tract of Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and the Chatham County Wetlands Preserve.
On May 24, we opted for a trip to “the Neck.” This coastal peninsula about 30 miles south of Savannah was originally named Dickinson’s Neck. William Thomas Harris became the principal owner in the mid-18th century, thus the current name Harris Neck. I’ll refer you to fws.gov or Wikipedia for a more detailed history of the area.
In 1962, some 2,762 acres were deeded to the federal government to establish Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. It has a variety of habitats including salt marsh and tidal creeks, live oaks, pine forests, freshwater ponds and overgrown airfield runways.
One of the main attractions is Woody Pond, where thousands of wading birds are nesting on man-made islands planted with cypress trees. It is noisy, with wood storks, white ibis, great egrets, snowy egrets, little blue herons, tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, cattle egrets and anhingas croaking, murmuring, honking and snorting in a dissonant cacophony of sound.
We watched wood storks bringing in sticks to reinforce nests, strangely white-necked baby anhingas poking their heads up, baby wood storks stretching their black-and-white wings, snowy egrets flashing their signature yellow feet and even a group of five roseate spoonbills feeding in a nearby pond.
Later in the week, I was searching early editions of The Marshlander — the newsletter of Ogeechee Audubon — for an interesting bit of history to include in the June’s 50th anniversary edition. I came across a 1972 report on nesting success on the various refuges. The article mentioned wading birds doing well at Blackbeard Island NWR and at Savannah NWR, but there were no wading bird statistics from Woody Pond.
This got me thinking again about history. With the help of Savannah Coastal Refuges staff member Amy Ochoa and volunteer John Metz, I was able to come up with a timeline of events that brought Woody Pond to its current level of amazing wading bird productivity.
In 1987, the first wood stork nests were observed at Woody Pond with a total of 18 nests. In April 1989, there were 40 nests, but by late May the number fell to four nests because of declining water levels and predation by raccoons. Because wood storks were then on the federally endangered list, actions were taken to attempt to improve their nesting success rates.
In 1990, the dikes around the pond were raised 6 feet. This resulted in higher water levels but caused the death of some of the black gum trees where the birds had been nesting. That same year, refuge staff under the direction of biologist John Robinette created the first islands in Woody Pond and planted them with cypress saplings. Metz recalled that it was hazardous work, as they had to take flat-bottomed boats out through the alligator-filled water to build the islands and plant the saplings.
In 1992, two large nest platforms were constructed at Woody Pond, followed by six smaller structures in 1993. The storks did not take to the platforms until after they were draped with artificial greenery.
Eventually, some 150 platforms were installed and the majority of wood storks nested on these, with some nesting nearby on low trees and bushes. By 2006 and 2007, the cypress trees on the man-made islands had grown large enough that most of the wood storks abandoned the nest platforms in favor of the trees.
In the early days, ponds were stocked with small fish to help ensure that the growing chicks would survive. Metz recalls that for a graphic demonstration, refuge ranger Pat Metz had him use a cast net to catch 350 small bait fish — the number needed to raise a single baby wood stork. Currently there are more than 400 pairs of wood storks nesting at Woody Pond, each raising two to three babies, and feeding them some 280,000 fish.
In 2014, the wood stork was upgraded from endangered to threatened. Woody Pond exists now as a great testament to the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” Thanks to the refuge staff and volunteers for their foresight and hard work. Good birding!
Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.