The White Stork has long been one of my favourite birds. What is there not to love? It is a truly beautiful bird, with a smart black-and-white plumage, stately posture and a gentle expression. Its impressive nest is larger than most bird nests, and they famously build these huge structures on rooftops all across Europe. But what stands out for me is their courtship, a tender ritual of bill-clacking and head-tossing that marks the start of a life-long partnership.
Ever since I've been going to the Parc Naturel du Marquenterre in Picardie, North France, I have wanted to photograph and film this courtship. Unfortunately, being a 4-hour drive from my Normandy cottage, and passing there only en route to the Eurotunnel, I rarely get the chance to photograph the storks - until this April, when I went with my birding friend Charlie Kitchen. He had never visited before, nor had he seen storks - the perfect excuse for a nice long trip with my camera.
This brings me onto the fourth thing I really like about storks: they are very approachable. And nowhere is this truer, in my experience, than at the Marquenterre. In early spring, about 25 pairs can be observed in the pine forest heronry from a specially-made Heronry Hide, nesting alongside Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Great White Egrets, and the occasional Black-Crowned Night-Heron or Cattle Egret.
A further 5 stork pairs however can be approached VERY closely on the park's boardwalk trails, and no sooner had we arrived that we met this bird tidying her nest nearby.
Her nest was elevated on a pylon, erected by the park wardens to encourage nesting. As it was off the path, surrounded by bushes, we could get to within 5 metres without disturbing her or posing a threat. She busied herself with carefully rearranging branches, so I fired off a few shots. I was limited with composition options, so I positioned myself as close as I could to just get the white sky without any distracting vegetation. What I was waiting for was her mate to return, so that I could see the courtship. As she clacked her bill and stiffened her tail, it was clear that he was nearby.
He was a short distance away, looking for the perfect branch to contribute to the nest. His careful consideration would ensure his mating sucess, so he was took his time to find the right one. I like his purposeful-looking expression here and his posture which matches the reeds.
Finally picking one with the right degree of appeal, he flapped up into the nest. Storks are very ritualistic, or shall I say familial, as they always greet each other in this same way. My exposure settings were giving me a high shutter speed so, with some quick thinking and careful handheld panning, I managed to just about squeeze the whole bird - with its 6 feet wingspan! - into the frame as he flew in with a twig offering.
Both together, at the same time, they clacked their bills gutturally and tossed their heads back. They were more vigorous than I have usually seen, suggesting they were in the mating mood.
The female stork was very vocal so, keeping my hand incredibly steady, I rapidly fired off a series of shots as she clacked her bill. Below, I've stitched these into a composite shot to show how she greets her mate.
With both birds now on the nest, I changed my angle to focus on the male bird as he tossed his head back. The shot below gives a slightly more dramatic, in-the-moment perspective in my opinion.
And now for the moment of truth. Sufficiently convinced that he had clacked to his best ability, the male gently mounted his partner. Rather than going for a portrait shot, I stuck with a tight landscape framing, cropping up from the female's back to focus on this intimate act.
This was all over in about 20 seconds and afterwards, they resumed gathering material for their nest. It was an amazing privilege to watch the whole courtship but, whilst the photos showed the behaviour, I don't feel they express intimacy so well. Maybe that's the downside of using the 400mm lens. So, before we had to leave to catch our train home, I went to the herony to watch the storks courting against the backdrop of the pine forest. A more magical and intimate photo, and one which reveals the essence of stork courtship.
Thanks for reading and have a great month!