I nearly lose my footing as the cherry picker shudders off the ground before jerkily swinging 16 metres up to the stork’s nest perched on top of a poplar tree.
It’s the highest I’ve ever been and I am absolutely terrified despite the spectacular views over the thickly forested wetlands of the River Rhine.
The two adult white storks sitting in the nest are terrified too – they flee as we approach, soaring over the swamp to land with a clattering of their bills on the other side of the water.
The cherry picker jerks to a stop just a few centimetres from the giant nest- a two-metre-wide, thickly woven mass of branches, twigs and leaves coated with a solid layer of vile-reeking stork droppings.
White stork nests can be used for hundreds of years but this one here is just seven years old.
Like feathered sacks of potatoes
Inside the nest, the baby storks play dead.
All five fledglings have fallen into a state of paralysis and look like feathered sacks of potatoes as volunteer bird ringer Stefan Eisenbarth grabs them and lines them up along the edge of the nest.
“We ring the storks when they are around six weeks old because at about eight weeks, this natural protective paralysis stops,” Eisenbarth said.
“Then you run the danger that they’ll try to hop out of the nest even though they can’t fly and they can injure themselves.”
Eisenbarth has been ringing baby white storks (Ciconia ciconia) on a stretch of the Rhine in the south western German state of Baden-Württemberg for five years and has become expert at it. He leans over the edge of the cherry picker, unfolds a long bony stork leg and matter-of-factly clicks a black plastic ring around it.
The rings are marked with ‘DE’ for Germany and ‘R’ for the national Bird Ringing Centre in Radolfzell, as well as an individual number to identify each bird. They will help researchers learn more about stork populations – where they go, where they migrate to, where they breed and where they die.
They don’t look like it but the rings are a high-tech piece of material specially designed so they won’t heat up in the sun and burn the storks’ legs. The ring also has a dirt-repelling surface – a must when dealing with birds which have the charming habit of squirting their legs with liquid droppings to cool down.
“We used to use metal bands but you often couldn’t read the numbers because they were so heavily soiled,” said Eisenbarth.
Locals gather to celebrate the stork ringing
He clicks a ring around the last stork’s leg before we make our shaky descent back down to the ground where a small group of locals from the nearby village of Elchesheim-Illingen are gathered.
They have been watching the fun armed with binoculars and telescopes.
“I’m here because my friends are here and we are just happy that the storks are here,” mayor Rolf Spiegelhalder said as the villagers hand around baskets brimming with pretzels, beer and apple juice to celebrate the successful stork ringing.
Many of those here are from a local volunteer group which watches over the storks in the area.
And the storks in the state can use all the help they can get.
Just over 20 years ago, there were only 15 breeding pairs left in the whole of Baden-Württemberg.
A successful reintroduction project helped numbers to reach today’s total of more than 500 breeding pairs but this still isn’t enough to guarantee the bird’s long-term survival here.
Fighting to keep the stork from extinction
Speaking in the soft Baden dialect of the region, local nature lover Peter Schneider gestures disparagingly over to the field of corn running along the side of the wetland.
“A field like that doesn’t provide storks with any kind of food,” he said, explaining that decades ago, families around here kept livestock which grazed on grassy meadows banks alongside rivers and streams.
The combination of open meadows and marshes created a perfect habitat for the wading storks, which feast on insects such as earth worms and grasshoppers as well as mice, snakes, lizards, frogs and fish. But when people stopped keeping cows and sheep, the stork-friendly meadows were replaced by fields of wheat and corn. These hosted nothing for the storks to eat.
This combined with the drainage of wetlands, deforestation and use of pesticides caused stork numbers to plummet in the 1960s and 1970s.
A noisy clattering of bills sounding like distant machine-gun fire echoes across the water. The parent storks have returned to the nest and are greeting their babies by throwing their heads back and knocking their beaks together.
In two weeks time the fledglings ringed today will start to fly. Sometime in August, they will flock with other young storks and migrate to warmer climes.
While storks in other parts of Germany tend to fly over the Middle East to winter in East Africa, these birds will soar on the thermal winds of the so-called western route, over Spain and Gibraltar to Mali and Mauritania.
From there, hopefully, they will make the long journey back to Germany in spring.