Katherine Taylor, Digital Content Specialist
What does it take to ensure the survival of a species? John Robinette, former Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex biologist at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, knows that in the case of wood storks, it takes a bold vision, teamwork, wood, rebar, some fencing and a hefty workout.
As we celebrate the reclassification of the wood stork from endangered to threatened, let us look back on one of the innovative projects that contributed to their population increase in Georgia.
As a biologist at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge for 20 years, Robinette was instrumental in the ongoing recovery of wood storks. In 1987, the first wood stork nests were observed at the refuge’s rookery, Woody Pond, with 18 nests producing 43 chicks to flight stage. The following year, raccoons raided the nests when water levels dropped in the nesting pond. To protect nesting storks from predators, the pond was expanded and the water level increased by six feet.
In order for wood storks to thrive they require deep water in their nesting pond throughout the nesting season. Herein lies the problem. Wood storks need trees for nesting, but raising water levels can mean losing trees because many types of trees cannot tolerate being flooded year-round and will die if the wetland is kept flooded year after year.
It was Robinette who in the early nineties proposed the idea of building artificial nesting structures as a solution to the loss of trees. Though the proposal was originally met with some skepticism from fellow biologists, the refuge adopted it. Under Robinette’s leadership, Harris Neck staff built six artificial nesting structures from wood, rebar and fencing. They also planted cypress tress.
What started as six artificial nests grew to 50 in a few years, with wood storks using the artificial nests until the planted cypress trees were large enough. By 2002, the per fledgling rate at Woody Pond was 20 percent above nests in other rookeries, and in 2012 biologists counted a record of 484 nests.
Ever humble, Robinette will be the first to tell you this success takes a village.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources was a key player, helping to build the nest platforms and lay them out in the pond, and both Ducks Unlimited and the Service’s Southeast Regional Office provided funding. Harris Neck staff and countless volunteers dedicated their time to the effort, and Orangeburg National Fish Hatchery provided fish for the ponds.
“It was a huge cooperative effort that was very rewarding,” said Robinette.
For Robinette, recovering wood storks was more than just a job; it was a passion and a family affair. Keeping count of nests is extremely time consuming. Fortunately, Mrs. Robinette loves birds as much as her husband, so when the refuge needed to know how many birds fledged per nest on average, she would accompany him and help count.
“For me it was a great experience to share with my family,” he continued. “My youngest daughter spent hours watching wood storks snap their bills or come up with a fish to help to determine the success of our feeding ponds.”
Service biologist Billy Brooks had the opportunity to work closely with Robinette and perfectly describes him in one sentence:
“John was a can-do biologist.”
For more information on the wood stork, including additional conservation planning tools and the recovery plan, visit http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/WoodStorks/wood-storks.htm.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
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