Sunday, April 22, 2007

Observing Earth Day: Nest Voyeurs

"She's laid another egg," my husband calls from his study. "Is that number four?" I shout back from the kitchen. This is turning into a rite of spring. For a second season we've become enthralled by a website from the Rezekne district of Latvia. To promote the rural beauty of the Latgale region, the owners of a horse farm rigged a camera just above the top of a tree on which a nesting platform has been constructed. Every 10 seconds, or 6 times per minute, the camera snaps the activities of the pair of European white storks who moved in this month. The screen goes black during hours of darkness (from approximately 1:00-10:00 p.m. CDT), but all morning long and late at night we can keep tabs on the private lives of the stork couple at the following website:

"Untumi" is a Latvian noun that roughly translates as "quirkiness"--an apt descriptor for many Latvian enthusiasms, and one reason I enjoy visiting. This year terse captions in Latvian have been added to the site: On March 28, the male stork flew in (having wintered in Africa) and added a few tufts of grass and twigs to freshen up this previously owned nest. On April 5, the female arrived. Apparently, stork mating is more a matter of finding a good location than attractiveness of the opposite sex. These two also seem happy to participate in reality TV. The first egg was laid on April 13, and every other day another egg has been added until as of April 22, there are 4. Last year's pair had 4 eggs. The chicks hatched in May, were fed by both parents, and finally left the nest sometime in July.

Black Stork: Research subject

An ornithologist friend of ours, Peter Blums, is responsible for getting us hooked when he suggested we check out the website last spring. His expertise in banding ducklings in the Latvian marshes and following their migration patterns drew international attention in the 1990s and led to the migration of him and his wife, Maija, to University of Missouri's Gaylord Laboratory in Puxico about 14 years ago to study U.S. wood ducks with Leigh Frederickson. Peter tells me a European consortium of biological scientists from 8 countries has begun a project to follow the travels of the black storks, who are rarer and less accessible than their white cousins. They also find the forests and peat bogs of Latvia to their liking. By attaching a tiny radio transmitter to one of the stork's legs (see photo), scientists are able to following their flight of 10,000 kilometers southward in late summer and then northward again in spring and glean much more information than they could from banding them. Another website provides details about these efforts: The Latvian stork "ambassadors" are named Varis and Maija (and are described when you select "Black Storks ID Cards" from the menu on the left and then click on their silhouettes on the map).

Happily, over the past decade both white and black stork populations have been increasing in Latvia, which now hosts more storks than ever before. Unlike parts of western Europe where wetlands have been drained and pesticides have poisoned the bird's food sources (insects, frogs, the young of small birds), Latvian farmers have encouraged colonies of these waders. Enthusiasts have built substantial platforms (like the one at "Untumi") in convenient places for storks to nest, even scatterings some lime around the platform to make the stork think that another bird has already nested there successfully. One expert warns that the middle of a farmyard is probably not the best place for a platform. Storks eat a lot, and as Janaus says in her guide (citation below), "the white rain they produce over the edge of their nests can be powerful and frequent especially in June and July when the nests are populated with young birds."

Although we probably won't encounter any storks in Riga, no drive into the Latvian countryside is complete without sighting some storks sitting in the fields and atop the haystacks.

Resource for more information (in English) about Latvia's storks: Latvia--Land of the Storks by Mara Janaus (Jumava, 1999). It's a small paperback obtainable in most Riga bookstores from the series on aspects of Latvia's cultural heritage.


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