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THROUGH THE WOODS: A strange visitor in Ghent

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DID GHENT TURN INTO JURASSIC PARK? It sure looked like it. Last week this large, 40” tall, strange looking, normally Florida-residing bird showed up just south of Ghent. It was a hungry young wood stork, our largest wading bird in North America that found a pasture with a marshy wet spot containing many delicious large tadpoles and frogs. An area birder happened to spot the bird, identified it as a wood stork, and promptly posted this information to birders. I got the email notification and immediately drove the few miles west to find it.

Some friends were already there, including photographers and birders from Dutchess County. The Taconic State Parkway makes a great route for birders. The wood stork was at the back of the field high up in a dead tree and an electric fence kept any aggressive wildlife photographers out.

The bird was surprisingly active, stretching its wings, raising a leg, and putting its long neck and bill toward the ground and peering at something. At one point it flew to another dead tree showing off the contrasting black wings against its white body. It was a young, juvenile bird evidenced by its fuzzy brown head. An adult bird has a bare gray head and neck. There are currently sightings of at least two other young wood storks in New York State and bird experts are trying to determine why they are so far north. One plausible theory is that there were many young raised in the south this year and they wandered away to find food in other territories.

This wood stork dropped in for a visit at a Ghent marsh. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

When I got home, I called birder friend Marion Ulmer in Chatham and offered to take her to see the stork. She quickly finished dinner and off we went to see it just before dark. All the people were gone and there was the stork next to the road in the pool of water gobbling up big polliwogs. These storks put their bills down into the muddy water, stir it with one foot, and can feel their prey swimming into their open bill. The captured prey is raised up in the bill and gulped down. We stayed in the car and quietly watched while I took a few close-up photos.

The stork was with its companion, another large white bird, a great egret. Soon a third large bird, a great blue heron, flew in to join the feast. Beautiful cedar waxwings with yellow tipped tails swooped above them catching dragon flies and numerous other insects. It was a birder’s dream scene. Near dark, and completely ignored, we left them to enjoy their dinner. I took Marion home and remembered it was her birthday, she said the next day, and I said her present from me was seeing the wood stork!

Marion and her husband, Willard, went back the next day and he got to see it too. Now it is gone, probably because the tadpoles were all eaten. The fate of the stork is unknown, and we hope it returns to the south. The last wood stork I saw was in Florida 35 years ago and it was certainly a treat to see one at my doorstep.

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