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Look! Up in the sky! It's a (big) bird!
The White Storks of the Alentejo and the Algarve
Last year, on our way to Tavira in the Algarve for the Christmas holiday, we noticed a community of giant bird nests high up on tall electrical distribution towers along the A2 highway. There was no safe place to stop on the side of the road, so to the naked eye, as we sped past, we thought they might be egrets because they appeared to be tall with pointed bills and long lanky legs. It turns out, they were not egrets, but white storks who nest in the lower parts of the Alentejo and in the Algarve in Portugal.
I’m not an expert on birds, but I have always found them fascinating to watch especially when they build their nests. In Arizona, our backyard and our Anthem community was full of many kinds of birds – including hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail, mourning doves, egrets, hawks, Canadian geese, turkey vultures, great horned owls, ravens, and finches. But I don’t believe I have ever seen an actual stork other than in fairy tale stories or in infant diaper service advertising.
It’s a big bird.
The white stork (called Cegonha-branca in Portugal) is a member of the Ciconiidae stork family. Adult birds measure forty to fifty inches tall with a wingspan of sixty-one to seventy-nine inches and can weigh between five and ten pounds. The storks are white with black wing feathers, and long red bills and legs. White storks are monogamous and pair for life and can live for more than thirty years. They are generally quiet except for when adults meet at the nest and clack their bills to one another (kind of like a castanet sound).
The white stork diet primarily consists of fish, frogs, earthworms, scorpions, and other insects as well as small reptiles, rodents, and smaller birds and eggs. An observer can see them wading in water to catch their prey or soaring over farm fields and open spaces in search of a critter. They also feed on organic trash found in landfills.
The storks typically leave their nesting grounds in late September or early October, and migrate for the winter in tropical Africa, south of South Africa, and in the Indian subcontinent.
In late January into early February, they return to breed primarily in the warmer portions of Europe such as Portugal, as well as in northwest Africa and southwest Asia.
Setting up permanent residency in Portugal
In recent years, some of the white storks apparently have decided to set up permanent residency (called overwintering) in Portugal rather than head south for the winter and there have been increased sightings of these giant creatures in parts of the Alentejo and the Algarve. Some theorize that it may be due to climate change while others believe that it’s due to the abundance of available organic trash in landfills. One such landfill is Aterro Sanitário do Barlavento where reportedly hundreds of white storks can be seen picking through the garbage.
Nests like condos.
The white storks prefer massive nests and return to the same nest every year (or in some cases as I mentioned, they never leave). They like to build nests on tall electrical utility towers, in trees, or on the tops of churches or the tops of the columns of castles or other large buildings. They often form small colonies and prefer to build nests near the human population. For example, on a road dappled with farms and local shops near Monchique Portugal, we were able to stop by the side of the road to observe a field of white storks in their nests.
There are threats.
Despite their size, there are threats to this species. Since the storks often use electrical distribution towers for nesting, there are frequent bird fatalities from electrocution. These incidents often occur when the perches don’t have enough space to accommodate the stork’s height and wingspan. Utility companies in Portugal have been working to help mitigate these fatal incidences.
Loss of habitat is also another threat. According to this resource, in the countries of Central Eastern Europe, industrialization, changes in agriculture, and the drainage of wet meadows, is a major threat to the storks.
Another threat is poaching. During migrations especially when the storks fly to Africa via the Bosporus and the Middle East, large numbers of the birds fall victim to poachers.
A somewhat protected species.
White storks are not on the endangered species list (yet), but under the European Birds Directive, the white stork is listed in Annex I. Currently, Annex I lists 193 bird species and sub-species which among other points, are in danger of extinction and vulnerable to specific changes in their habitat.
They are fascinating to watch.
If you have the chance to visit the Alentejo or the Algarve (or if you already live in the area), take the time to stop and observe in fascination, the magnificence of these large, graceful birds.
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Until next time…