So, yes, it was Spain. Specifically, rural northwestern Spain, at various points along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route to the supposed burial place of Saint James the apostle and, before that, to the westernmost point in continental Europe, the supposed End of the Earth, the Finis Terra.
But don’t worry, I’m not about to get all spiritual on you. My trip was far more concerned with the natural history of the region. It would be unfair to say I really explored the Iberian peninsula: the land of lynxes and Lammergeiers deserves more than a mere three weeks’ attention. But I saw some really cool things, and now I am going to tell you all about them!
My journey started off in the city of Leon. On the first day, before the sun was even properly up, I already had one of my target species under my belt: the storied and spectacular White Stork.
White Storks would turn out to be an ongoing theme of the trip — looking through my notes, I believe there were only two days when I did not see them, both days spent high in the mountains. Not only is Spain a stronghold for these birds, but they are hard to miss — huge, bright white, social, and not in the least shy of humans and human dwelling-places. They’re the classic charismatic megafauna, and it’s not at all hard to see why they’ve worked their way into so much folklore and why the people of Europe have made so many efforts to conserve them in the face of industrialization, pesticide overuse, hunting, and other threats.
The White Storks were also among the few birds that I reliably found other people interested in. My travelling companion, also from the University of Montana creative writing program, was not a nature girl at all, but she could relate to birds that played a role in stories. The other pilgrims we met along the way almost all had something to say about the storks, often bemoaning their comparative scarcity in their own home countries. One man even turned out, once I brought up the storks, to be an avid conservationist who had climbed buildings in his youth to erect nesting platforms.
The secret of the stork’s charisma is, I am convinced, its nesting habits. There are many big birds, many pretty birds. But the White Stork in Europe is a big, pretty bird that nests in plain view of humans, often in the middle of town on top of an important, prominent building. And as much as I’ve deplored the tendency to anthropomorphise the family lives of birds, this is one instance where I have to believe it’s worked solidly to avian advantage: seeing the birds tending their nests day in and day out tends to build up warm feelings. Storks are now not only inextricably linked with babies in the popular mindset but also have a folkloric reputation for being family-oriented in general, to the point that the Greeks believed that White Storks cared for their parents in old age. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that staying close to humans meant that many of the stork’s prey animals were drawn from the roster of rodents, reptiles, and other creatures perceived as pests. Sure, you could argue that a lot of this has to do with farmland being a good habitat choice for sheerly demographic reasons: the closely related Black Stork, which I did not see, is shy, sticks to woodlands, and is much rarer than the White Stork. But farmland hasn’t been as good a bet in recent decades as it once was. And overall, areas where good stork P.R. led to folk traditions of stork protection have managed to retain at least a fragment of their breeding White Stork populations in the face of industrialization, while areas that were more indifferent (like western France) are now storkless.
Though I arrived too late to see the White Storks’ noisy and flamboyant mating rituals, I did get to check out the nesting scene and get a taste for what has so endeared this species to so many over the years. And I have to say — though I’m not foolish enough to believe folktales about filial piety and babies dropped down chimnies, I do now find myself inexplicably fond of the White Stork, and I am also suddenly overcome with an urge to throw in a reminder that you should call your dad if you have a dad and he’s a good dad, so either storks are magic after all, or there’s something else up….