Storm’s Stork at the Kinabatangan River

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Kinabatangan River Storm's Stork

The Kinabatangan River is home to a dazzling array of bird species, including the endangered Storm’s Stork (Ciconia stormi). I was fortunate enough to see this magnificent bird during a recent trip to the Kinabatangan in June 2023. Due to its eye-catching appearance and endangered status, I feel it’s worthwhile to let it be the subject of its own article.

This article is part of a planned series of articles aiming to highlight some of the more notable birds that can be seen at the Kinabatangan River.

Storm’s Stork at the Kinabatangan River

My encounter with the Storm’s Stork

While I was planning the trip to the Kinabatangan, the Storm’s Stork was the number one bird on my wish-list. This was because the stork would be a major lifer for me. Additionally, the Kinabatangan was  likely the easiest place for me to see this bird. I was also aware of its precarious conservation status, which made the desire to see it even stronger. On further research, I found out that seeing this bird is not a given; occasionally, it can prove elusive.

Fast-forward to the morning of the third day (out of four) of our Kinabatangan trip, and this bird was still nowhere to be seen. By now, I was a bit anxious that I might not get to see this stork after all. While it certainly wouldn’t ruin the trip, not seeing the stork would have been very disappointing indeed. 

As our boat meandered slowly along a tributary of the Kinabatangan, I saw a pair of silhouetted birds perched on a tree. Could this finally be the stork?

Finally!

Lo and behold, the pair of birds turned out to be Storm’s Storks after all! As our boat got closer, more details could be seen. The birds were preening themselves, possibly preparing for foraging flights later in the day. They were unperturbed by the significant boat traffic just below them; instead, they appeared indifferent. It’s almost as if they are already quite used to all the commotion.

Preening Storm's Stork
This stork was busy preening its feathers, oblivious to the onlookers below.

Our boat stopped by the riverbank near where the birds were perched. This gave me plenty of opportunity to observe and photograph them. We stayed there for about 20 minutes, before moving off looking for other birds. As we left, I wondered whether we would encounter the stork again before leaving the Kinabatangan.

Sure enough, we saw three soaring over the main river two hours later (might be the same birds?). Moreover, we spotted three more upriver of Bilit during the afternoon cruise. 

Needless to say, I headed home the next day feeling very happy indeed!

Information on the Storm’s Stork

Identifying the stork

This stork has a very distinctive appearance. At close range, the pattern and plumage of the bird is unmistakable. It has the typical profile of a stork – long legs, long neck and a long beak. The bird is mostly black; however, the lower belly, vent, undertail and parts of the neck are white. The white underparts are especially visible when the bird is soaring. The bill and legs are red, and there is a yellow area of bare skin surrounding the eyes.

Perched Storm's Stork
One of the birds was seen perched on a dead tree. Notice the yellow area surrounding the eye.

If you’re lucky enough to see one perched, look closely at the black feathers around the neck, breast and wings. You may see a colourful greenish or purplish sheen, especially in good light.

In flight, the neck is outstretched, and the long legs can be seen trailing behind. This is similar to many stork species, and serves as a useful way to differentiate storks from herons and egrets in flight. In herons, egrets and the Lesser Adjutant (the other stork at the Kinabatangan), the neck is retracted in flight (held in an S-shape).

In-flight appearance of the bird
Storm’s Stork in-flight. Notice how the neck is held straight forward and the legs trail behind.  In good light, the yellow area around the eye, as well as the white parts of the belly and tail can be seen clearly.
Lesser Adjutant in-flight
This is a Lesser Adjutant Stork in-flight, also from the Kinabatangan. Compare it with the Storm’s Stork profile in flight. Notice how the neck is retracted and held in an S-shape.  There is also more extensive white on the underparts of the Adjutant.
Where can you see it at the Kinabatangan? 

You can potentially see the stork throughout the Kinabatangan; nevertheless, you may have a higher chance to see it in certain areas. For example, the Menanggol river is a good place to look for it. This tributary of the Kinabatangan is densely vegetated, and relatively pristine compared to sections of the main river. Therefore, the Menanggol is ideal habitat for these shy storks.

section of the menanggol river
The Menanggol river is a tributary of the Kinabatangan. It is quite pristine, with lush vegetation on both sides.

The Storm’s Stork can sometimes be seen perched along the river; however, most sightings are usually of the bird soaring over the Kinabatangan. Like other storks, they make use of thermals (upwellings of warm air) in order to make their flights as energy efficient as possible.

This stork is sparsely distributed throughout the Kinabatangan. It is usually encountered singly or in pairs; nevertheless, small groups occasionally appear. If you’re lucky, you might encounter a bird foraging on the forest floor or along the riverbanks, sometimes near the vicinity of one of the forest lodges.

Where else can this Stork be found?

The Storm’s Storks distribution is limited to the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and of course, Borneo. However, in most parts of its range, it has declined and become rare. For example, in Peninsular Malaysia it can only be found in certain protected locations (i.e. Taman Negara) in very small numbers. It is possible that Sabah, especially the Kinabatangan River, is one of this species’ most important stronghold.

Its preferred habitat is rivers within pristine lowland forests as well as peat-swamp forests. Occasionally, it utilises disturbed areas (such as logged forests); however, these areas are probably not ideal for their long-term survival.

Conservation status

As previously mentioned, this magnificent stork is endangered. According to the IUCN Red List, it has been classified as Endangered (EN) since 1994. The main threat to this bird is habitat loss. Its preferred habitat is disappearing rapidly due to land conversion for agriculture (oil palm plantations), logging and urban development. Additionally, what little pristine habitat that remains is now very fragmented.

According to the IUCN, it is estimated that only 260 – 330 mature individuals are left in the wild (most recent assessment in 2016). It’s possible that this number has since decreased, due to ongoing destruction of forests throughout its range. Clearly, this species is at risk of extinction if action is not taken to protect what’s left of its habitat.

More information on the Storm’s Stork

Click on the following links for more information on this threatened species

  1. Its Wikipedia entry has plenty of additional information on this species, including the reason for the interesting common name
  2. The eBird page has additional images, sighting locations and distribution.
  3. The Birdlife international page provides more habitat and threats info, as well as conservation actions underway and proposed.

Go and see the stork for yourself! For further information on birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River, click on the link below:

Conclusion

The Storm’s Stork is a magnificent bird that is endangered owing to loss and fragmentation of its favoured habitat. The Kinabatangan River is a stronghold for this species; consequently, it is one of the best places in the world to see it.

Hopefully, the Kinabatangan River will continue to be provided proper protection, thus ensuring the long-term survival of one of its most iconic inhabitants.


References:

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Robson, C. (2005). New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (Concise Edition). New Holland Publishers, London, England.

BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Ciconia stormi. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/storms-stork-ciconia-stormi on 27/08/2023.

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