Monday 19 August 2019

Country Matters: Graceful birds on high-stick nests

GRACEFUL: Peaceful, long-legged storks like occupying historical buildings
GRACEFUL: Peaceful, long-legged storks like occupying historical buildings

Joe Kennedy

I spotted Isabella among the parked cars at the Clube Naval riverside, Portimao, in Portugal's Algarve.

She was immaculate. White and beautifully restored, she sat serenely among an eclectic group of vehicles in autumnal sun which would bring temperatures up to 20C by lunchtime.

My food needs would take me to a more modest establishment. I was there scanning a bird on top of a crane gantry at a marina. Isabella was a Borgward, a unique German post-war car. I had once travelled in one in Ireland about 60 years ago. (My colleague, motoring editor Campbell Spray, who knows a thing or two about such vehicles, might have waited for the owner, to have a chat.)

I was catching a movement of life on what looked like an abandoned pile of sticks. But was the crane out of use? How could birds nest there? But there was a stork fiddling about. Amazing. But then, these birds make their homes in curious places on Europe's mainland.

Two disused red-brick factory chimneys nearby were homes to pairs of ciconia ciconia. From one had come the bird's characteristic sound of beak-rattling - they are mute - a welcome to a partner who had dropped in with, perhaps, a mouthful of frogs for lunch snatched further up-river in eddying shallows between islets.

Storks are graceful, peaceful birds, comfortable with humans and of whose welfare mankind has generally been conscious. It is no surprise to learn that numbers are increasing in its range in the Iberian Peninsula and central and eastern Europe.

Although there is seasonal migration to Africa, via Gibraltar and the Bosphorus, some birds do not join these high-soaring flocks but stay at the old nesting places which are growing warmer.

In the great steppe-like province of Extremadura in Spain I have watched them, along with wonderful birds of prey in the countryside, but storks love buildings and in historic Carceres they are in occupation.

They may be challenged for attention by lesser kestrels (falco naumanni), grey and rusty-red, which hunt for insects in the evenings like swifts through high buildings over cobbled streets. On Caceres Cathedral may be seen what is probably the greatest concentration of storks' nests in Spain, one on every abutment and pinnacle, it seems. Spain and Portugal are favourable to storks with an endless supply of nesting places on church towers and belfries, cart wheels and special platforms on houses and barns placed by caring people. The relationship between stork and man is considerate and kind. In ancient Greece storks were believed to look after their aged parents: the Greek law of antipelargia (pelargos is Greek for stork) made caring for the elderly a requirement.

The birds were also revered in Egypt (where the hieroglyph for 'soul' is a stork), in Israel and by Islam. Hans Christian Andersen had them delivering babies! Wherever they are found their lives seem to be bound up with humans. There is a word for this in Spanish - convivencia - that should not need translating.

Joe Kennedy reports occasionally from Spain and Portugal.

Sunday Independent

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