There were storks swarming through every village along the wine road through Alsace. There were stork coffee-mugs, stork fridge magnets, stork key-rings. I wondered if these fake storks were a ploy to make up for the absence of the real thing?
The real storks of Alsace started disappearing 50 years ago. Climate change? Fleeing the tourists? Only the storks knew. Every year they left on their annual migration to Africa and fewer came back.
The Alsations built big metal baskets on their rooftops to tempt the storks to stay and nest. It seemed to work, going by the halos of stork droppings splattered on the roof-tiles. But all I saw were empty nests.
Now I was reaching Munster, the end of the wine road, and still no storks. Munster is famous for cheese and storks. In the main street of tall, pastel houses, a sign on the wall of a shop showed a large plastic Munster cheese-wheel with a wedge cut out. A tourist was inserting his head in the space left by the missing wedge, swaying back and forth, arms waving like Frankenstein. He was a Munster monster. My hopes for the town weren’t high.
But parking the car in outside the grim town hall I finally spotted real nesting storks.
It’s hard photographing a real stork. They sit, profile against the Alsace sky, ready for their close-up. You raise your camera, a hidden stork sensor kicks in, they stick their bill under their wing, ruffle their tail feathers, explore their behind, and rest their bill firmly on their chest.
I zeroed in on one stork perched in his nest and aimed my camera. He quickly stuck his bill under his wing. I got a photo of a tumbleweed atop a chimney.
I waited, looking up. Tourists joined me, looked up, saw nothing, left perplexed. A passing tour bus tooted its horn. I realised I was standing in the middle of the road. High above, my bird – it was my bird, now – rested his bill sulkily on his chest.
Minutes passed. He lifted his bill, showed his profile, ducked again. The bird was a tease. I wasn’t giving in. It was a battle of bills.
Then he lifted his bill and I got my shot. But when I looked at the photo I saw the stork was staring straight at me, bill aimed like a gun, beady eyes glistening angrily in the sun, as if to say, “Have you quite finished!”
This wasn’t the photo I wanted. There was no stork profile against the sky to prove I’d been in Alsace. But it was the photo I kept. Pursuing one stroppy stork I felt that, if I hadn’t gotten beneath the locals skin, at least I’d ruffled some feathers.