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An unlikely nesting place
A retention pond is filled to the brim, but not with water. A group of birds have made it their home.
By LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN
Published July 8, 2007
A wood stork tries to keep its balance on a branch at the Embassy Roost.
[Lance Aram Rothstein | Times]
PORT RICHEY - Embassy Crossings is a great place for one-stop shopping. You can drop a letter off at the Post Office, get your hair done at Fantastic Sams, then pick out that birthday gift at Bed Bath & Beyond before gorging on breadsticks at the Olive Garden.
But the one spectacle that turns the most heads at this U.S. 19 shopping center isn't the 75 percent-off sale at Fashion Bug. It's the amazing number of birds that nest in the retention pond behind the Books-A-Million.
Locals call it the Embassy Roost. As busy shoppers cruise past it via the side entrance from Embassy Boulevard, many of them slow down, astonished to see the hundreds of birds perched in the cypress trees that grow in the green waters of the man-made pond.
A 5 1/2-foot-tall, green chain-link fence surrounds the pond. Step out of your car to take a look, and inevitably a driver will stop to ask, "What kind of birds are those?"
Cattle egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, and anhinga all nest there, and as many as 20 different species frequent the area. But the most prevalent - and perhaps the most important from an ecological standpoint - are the endangered wood storks.
"The first time I came by here and saw all those wood storks, I just couldn't believe it, " said Diane Corbett, a New Port Richey resident who stops by to enjoy the birds. "They're endangered and there must be at least a hundred of them in here."
Up close, the wood stork isn't much to look at. Its bald, charcoal-colored head and thick, down-curved bill are downright ugly to some people. But it is a magnificent bird in flight, boasting a wingspan that reaches 5 feet. As it flies away, its snowy white body, framed by jet-black wings and tail feathers, disappears into the sky.
* * *
Wood storks were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1984 and had been experiencing a relative increase in numbers over the years. But this year will be different.
Last year there were nearly 12, 000 nesting pairs in the southeastern United States, according to Billy Brooks, the lead biologist monitoring the recovery of wood storks for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He expects only half that number, maybe less, for 2007.
The main culprit: the drought.
"The storks need water to be able to eat, " said Brooks. "They catch fish in the water using their sense of touch."
Wood storks use a specialized technique called tacto-location. They sink their slightly open bills into the water. When a small fish touches it, the bill snaps shut at an astounding 25 milliseconds - one of the fastest reflexes recorded in all vertebrates.
The drought is likely to be a temporary event, so Brooks expects the population to rebound. The wood storks have seen a jagged increase since their devastating low of just 2, 500 nesting pairs in 1979.
The Tampa Bay area is lucky to have a relatively large local congregation of wood stork colonies, but development and the drought have been pushing this South Florida specialty northward.
"Prior to 1980 there were not regular nesting colonies in north Georgia and South Carolina, " said Brooks. "But now we've seen close to 30 colonies there with almost 4, 000 nesting pairs."
Brooks expects the storks will continue their northward range expansion. "They adapt more quickly and are more tolerant than some other species."
The unlikely ally
Despite the drought, you may find small groups of storks just about anywhere there are shallow ponds in the Tampa Bay area. They often congregate with other wading birds such as those at the Embassy Roost. But the storks and other nesting birds here are getting some extra help from a most unlikely ally:
Most people expect the medium-sized alligators in the pond to be a danger to the nesting birds. In fact, the exact opposite is true.
"If there are no gators there, then there are no birds, " says Ken Tracey, president of the West Pasco Audubon Society.
The birds have to leave their nests to get food for their young. When they do, the nests become susceptible to marauders. Specifically raccoons.
"Raccoons can devastate an entire rookery in a single night, " said Tracey.
That's why the birds make their nests near the water. They are high enough to avoid the gators, and any raccoon foolhardy enough to risk the short swim for a tasty meal of hatchlings is more likely to encounter the jaws of death and become a snack himself.
As development continues north of the Tampa Bay area, thousands more people will move closer to the birds' nesting areas - and closer to the gators, which they will likely want to remove. According to a report on its Web site, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received more than 21, 000 nuisance alligator complaints in 2006.
People are often concerned about having alligators near their developments. But removing them may significantly affect the wading bird population. These endangered wood storks rely directly on the alligators to patrol the waters around their nests.
The Embassy Roost is now surrounded on all sides by development, with newly begun construction of mini-storage units on the south side. The fence and a grouping of tall cypress and pine trees currently keep the birds safe, the gators in and the humans out ... for now.