I’ve just passed El Miralrio, a gated community of opulent and somewhat vulgar modern mansions on a hillside overlooking the river Guadiana as it flows lazily into Mérida. I can imagine the great and the good – the politicians, financiers, and heads of administration – looking down on us all from this walled citadel as we scurry around trying to find a way to sustain all of their excesses. Just a kilometre or so down the road, though, I find myself gazed down upon from an altogether different high society.
The Stork Hotel, as Sue and I have come to call it, is comprised of the ravaged shells of a number of adjacent buildings set among the river’s tree-lined south bank. All that’s left these days is a collection of crumbled walls and a dozen or so masonry columns of varying heights, each now topped by the typical two-metre bowl of twigs and dried foliage that the cigüeña likes to call home.
And it’s now a home that’s every bit as protected as that security-staffed bastion back along the road; for the safety of the storks, though, acts and statutes are apparently more effective than night sticks and razor wire.
In each nest one or two a stately figures impassively watch the world go by. While I look on, absorbed, the birds are completely indifferent to me; they either don’t notice the tawdry, day-to-day antics of mankind or, more likely, they just couldn’t care less.
Storks are everywhere here in Extremadura. In 1997, the small town of Malpartida de Cáceres some 11km from the city of Cáceres itself, was named the Pueblo Europeo de las Cigüeñas (the European Home of the Stork) by the Fondo Patrimonio Natural Europeo, there having been over fifty nests on just the church and the surrounding buildings, plus many more throughout the parish. The town celebrates a ‘Week of the Stork’ every year.
Up close, these are imposing birds. The adults, with their red legs and long pointed beaks, can easily top two metres in wingspan. The nearest one, by way of confirmation, silently unfolds his own wings to their full extent. Pausing for a moment, he beats them once, twice, each time launching a ripple along the length the charcoal plumage like a housemaid shaking a hearthrug, before furling them smoothly back into his flanks. The characteristic tok-ok-ok sounds out from another, this beak-tapping call of the mating season then picked up and echoed by others in earshot.
I needed today’s trip into Mérida to organise the myriad details of a forthcoming overseas trip. These fabulous birds have their own journey planned for a little later in the year, as they do every year. By May, there’ll be smaller heads peeping cautiously from these nests; in June they’ll be taking their first flights, and in July will begin the exodus for sub-Saharan Africa.
At least, it will begin for those birds that choose to go; every year more and more are foregoing the migration. Por San Blas la cigüeña veras, says the well-known refrán – around the festival of San Blas (in early February), you’ll see storks, the saying recounts, as they return from their winter season in Africa. But many of the stork population instead now spend the whole year in Spain. There’s much conjecture over why: Climate change? More food available from rubbish tips and contenedores? In the end, nobody’s sure. But if you want to join in the discussion, the entry credentials seem to be (as for much modern media debate) a big mouth and no real evidence.
I think I’ve achieved all of the goals I set myself for today;s trip – arrange insurances, boarding kennels, hotel reservations and travel tickets, book a car service and ITV (Spanish MoT) inspection, check passport expiration dates, and all the rest. After all, when we make our trip, one set of the denizens-on-high will be checking on our every move.
The other set, I suspect, won’t give a damn.