The change of seasons brings a number of different birds to Florida. My favorite of these seasonal visitors is the Mycteria americana, the still-endangered Wood Stork. They live year-round in South America, and come to central Florida to breed. Winter is our dry season, and its prey (fish and frogs and crabs and such) become concentrated in the shrinking pools.
It catches them in a unique way: by feel. They wade patiently through muddy water with its beak submerged and partially open, and when they feel a fish touch their bill, they instantly snap it shut and the poor creature is history. The closing of a Wood Stork’s beak is supposedly one of the swiftest moves in the animal world.
The stork is one seriously Big Bird. Three or four feet tall, with up to a six-foot wingspan. Blackish-gray legs, pink feet, with a decidedly ugly head: dark brown with a bald, black face like some vultures (which gave rise to a couple of its nicknames, ironhead or flinthead), and a long, thick, dusky yellow, downcurved bill like an ibis (hence another nickname, wood ibis). Brilliant white bodies that reveal black edges and tips when they fly.
And oh, how they fly! They soar with amazing grace, neck and legs extended, wings powerful and elegant and confident. When they walk, they are slow and stately, with shoulders hunched, wings folded like hands clasped behind theirs backs, like scholars deep in thought. One startling habit is for one stork to stand opposite its companions—up to a dozen of them—and face them with wings outstretched, looking for all the world like a preacher in clerical robes giving a sermon. This is where it got its most famous nickname: preacher bird.
Mom loved Wood Storks. The Northern Mockingbird was her clear favorite, but I’d say the Northern Cardinal and the Wood Stork probably tied for second. I remember the day she called me to our back yard, where one preacher bird was giving quite a long homily to his congregation, gesturing with his wings as if he were calling down fire and brimstone upon them. The other storks were, for lack of a better word, sitting down and listening patiently. They crouched close to the ground in a group, and all faced the preacher, beaks upturned, except for a juvenile who looked restless and kept finding insects to eat, which would cause his mother to nudge him periodically, as if to say, “Pay attention, young man!” Mom told that story countless times over the years, it so delighted her.
Today I started doing errands in preparation for my trip to Virginia, my first Christmas without her. It was such a comfort to see six or seven Wood Storks by a small pond, and a little further down the road, another three wading in a brook under the trees. “Don’t mourn me after I die,” Mom would tell me, rather frequently. “Just think of those things we loved together, and hold me in your heart. That will be enough.”
And it is.