Rare US sighting of South American stork

Published 4:42 pm Thursday, August 7, 2008

A stork that’s abundant in South America but rare farther north was spotted in Louisiana, one of fewer than a dozen sightings of the bird in the U.S.

Michael Seymour and Josh Sylvest, 20-year birdwatchers and employees of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, eyed the jabiru with its blocky, slightly upturned black beak among a flock of wood storks, egrets and ibis.

“We were both speechless. The only thing we did was high-five each other,” Seymour, an ornithologist with the department’s Louisiana Natural Heritage Program, said Wednesday. “We both knew what it was. There’s nothing else that looks like that.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

It’s the first sighting recorded in Louisiana, said Seymour and Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

The jabiru (JAB’-uh-roo) has a black head, a stocky white body, and a red ring at the base of its neck. It is widespread in South America but rare in Mexico and Central America, which are at the northern end of its range, Butcher said.

He said jabiru nest in the same areas as wood storks, and wander with them to forage after their nesting seasons are over. This one was on private land in Iberville Parish, near Maringouin and the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area and about 100 miles from New Orleans.

Only a few are in U.S. collections. Lee Schoen, curator of birds at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, said he believes they all are at the Dallas World Aquarium. And there have been fewer than a dozen confirmed U.S. sightings of the wild birds.

The most recent previous sighting was at a catfish farm last year in Isola, Miss., about 200 miles north-northwest of the Iberville Parish area where Seymour and Sylvest saw the jabiru during a shorebird survey last Friday.

Butcher said there also have been about eight sightings in Texas and one in Oklahoma.

He said the main significance is for birdwatchers, but he also sees it as “sort of a prize we might get if we take good care of our wetlands.”

Seymour said he has fielded dozens of queries about the stork from Louisiana birders, and three from Florida and Oklahoma, but he hasn’t seen it again.

“I think a lot of people think of jabirus as being one-day wonders, so people don’t want to invest much time and money in searching for them,” he said.

Mississippi’s jabiru hung around for a few days after it was identified, but turned out to have been seen a week earlier by fishermen who didn’t realize it was unusual, Seymour said.

“It’s one of these freak occurrence type of things that gets birders really excited,” he said. “Josh and I have talked about it. Both of us have been birders for 20 years in Louisiana. We’ll never top this. That’s our opinion. We’ll never, ever, top this particular bird sighting.”