Sunday 18 August 2019

A lonely stork lives in hope of some company

ELEGANT SENTINELS: White storks breed in colonies in Spain and Portugal and usually migrate to Africa for winter
ELEGANT SENTINELS: White storks breed in colonies in Spain and Portugal and usually migrate to Africa for winter

Joe Kennedy

A young, white stork cuts a lonely figure after losing its home in an abandoned walled garden.

A massive palm tree - one of three probably planted a century or more ago by a prosperous businessman or a sea captain at his palatial house, now long abandoned - snapped in a storm and crashed through tangles of unkempt undergrowth and the shaken fruits of orange and lemon trees, never gathered.

Undoubtedly, a notorious parasite, the red palm weevil, played a significant role in attacking and weakening the root over the years. Colonies of up to 1,000 of these insects, which arrive from tropical places with the young plants, can unobtrusively infest the palms, their destructive activities, initially, being difficult to diagnose.

For whatever combination of reasons, the tree came down and with it the tall structure of sticks that was home to a stork family. The three trees were probably between 20 and 30 metres high with massive trunks and still some small palm growth at the tips. One is ivy-covered, the remaining one blitzed, as if by fire.

The lonely bird has been standing on some half-hidden platform in the 'ivy' tree, the remains of the original parental home being slowly reduced to firewood by an elderly man who appears occasionally with a hatchet and bow-saw. The bewildered bird hangs about the place, a disconsolate figure hoping perhaps to attract a passing stranger and begin a new life.

In this area beside a major river, there remain great red-brick chimneys of demolished factories on which storks' nests several feet tall are sited, and which, by law, cannot be disturbed. The birds' larder vista is a marshland of frogs, snakes, fish and small birds. They are mute and communicate only by bill-clapping, an odd carrying sound that to some geriatric soccer tourists is reminiscent of the wooden rattles popular on the English league terraces a long time ago.

The storks in the area regularly take off from their chimneys to visit the tidal estuary and then return to stand as elegant sentinels or change places slowly on the nests and occasionally attempt copulation which is somewhat removed from a ballet exercise.

White storks (ciconia ciconia) breed in colonies throughout Spain and Portugal and in small pockets in some northern European countries, but not in Ireland or Britain. Most migrate to Africa for the winter but some remain in southern Europe during the balmy days of autumn. These great birds are used to mankind and are not shy, and man in turn is kind to them as they are considered to have a peaceful effect wherever they live. He helps by providing nest bases such as old cartwheels, as well as preserving the old factory chimneys.

The birds are considered exemplary parents and having brought food to their chicks may be noticed afterwards squeezing sodden moss carried in their beaks to drip water into their mouths. They are the stuff of folklore, with tales from Aesop to Hans Christian Andersen with babies being delivered to homes carried in sheets. The ancient Egyptians equated the bird with 'Ba', or the soul, and in Hebrew it is called 'chassidah', or kindly. A Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, wrote that it was a great travesty in his country to harm a stork's nest.

Meanwhile, my lonely stork may finally have found a friend. When I called by last week the bird had flown.

Joe Kennedy was looking at storks in southern Portugal

Sunday Independent

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