Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Bird Watch - March 2009, Storks

I have never given a lot of thought to Storks because although they are a bird that will occasionally visit the British Isles in the summer you have to be very lucky indeed to see one and recorded sightings are generally less than a hundred birds in an average year. I have seen them now and again in Greece and once in Latvia and another time in Croatia but it is not really a bird that I have ever really come across with any real regularity. Until that is last month when I visited Spain and there were dozens of them everywhere I went.

The only thing I previously knew about storks was that according to folklore they deliver new born babies but that of course is just a convenient story for parents to tell their inquisitive young children so that they can avoid having to go into any sort of detail about the embarrassing details of conception. This stork story is used pretty much everywhere now but before it caught on in Spain the story there was that babies came from Paris and were brought in the night by a Frenchman. I wonder if anyone ever questioned the fact that they didn’t then speak French?

The population of storks in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today. In fact there are now so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has traditionally been the country with the most Storks in Europe. This increase in numbers has been so dramatic that the conservation status has been changed from amber to green.

According to bird experts the rise is due to a number of factors; firstly, Spain is getting hotter and because of the longer summers and the generally warmer weather, White Storks are migrating less and less, thus removing the need to make a dangerous and exhausting journey south each year. In the past, just about all storks would fly south to Africa at the end of summer and return to the peninsula at the end of the winter but in the last twenty years or so they have begun to stay all year round. In 2004, some thirty-two thousand stayed over in comparison with only seven thousand five hundred in 1995. Other reasons for their recovery lie in a greater respect for their nests, more nature reserves and the easy availability of food from rubbish tips. Another important factor is the huge rise in environmental awareness among the general public and as it is considered lucky to have a stork living on the top of your house then they are generally encouraged to take up residence and there are stork reintroduction programmes all over Spain. Finally, fewer storks are being electrocuted on lines and pylons due to bird-friendly adaptations.

In March I was visiting the central Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha where there are nearly twelve thousand storks nesting on churches, on pylons and on the tops of telegraph poles, but the best place of all was in the mountain top cities of Ávila and Segovia in neighbouring Castilla-y Leon where they could be seen on the roofs of the cathedrals and in the tops of tall trees. White Storks it seems like the company of humans and build their nests in and around towns and villages. This is unlike the much rarer Black Stork which keeps well away from humans.

On an early Sunday morning walk in Ávila I was delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the cathedral. They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers. Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form. Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire. They gave the impression of being perfectly happy couples and apparently some Storks will remain monogamous for a lifetime but others who are more promiscuous will select a new breeding partner each year during the annual migrations.

When one returned and the noisy performance was over and done with then the other would take to the skies and as they did so their huge wingspans could momentarily block out the sun or cast great shadows in the streets. They flew directly overhead and I was mindful of the fact that whilst it is comforting to know that birds that flap their wings in flight must suspend bodily functions, a gliding bird like the Stork can take a crap while flying so I made sure that could take evasive action if necessary because at over a metre in body length these are very big birds and I imagine can make quite an impact with a direct hit!

Sometimes they were away for quite a while and sometimes the flight was relatively short and they were back quickly with the food to share. Like most of its relatives, the Stork feeds mainly on frogs and large insects, but also young birds, lizards and rodents.

A couple of days later I was in Segovia, the sun was shining and in each of the tops of the forty metre high pine trees in the gardens in front of the Alcazar there was a nest and a pair of Storks going about their own business and at the same time entertaining the visitors who were all risking neck and back injuries as everyone strained to get the perfect in flight photograph. These pictures are two of my efforts, not perfect but not bad either. As they took to the skies they caught the thermals and gained height quickly as they went off in search of food, or perhaps it was to deliver a new born baby?

I liked the Storks, it is nice to come across something new and unexpected, I was surprised at how sociable they are and how they seem to be able to live in harmony with humans and their environment and I look forward to seeing them again when I return to Spain soon.

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