A reader travelling from Barnham to Bognor by train had quite a surprise last week. As she watched the flat meadows floating past with their flooded pools and rifes, she suddenly saw a ‘group of three tall, elegant birds’.
“Heron-like in shape but about three feet in height, they were pure white with black lower parts. I was so amazed by them I didn’t register their beaks, only starkly contrasted plumage.
“My very out-of-date bird book would suggest they were white storks but says they are unknown in this countjry. Is this possible? Could they have been blown in on recent gales?”
Yes indeed. Speaking to a well-known veteran birder in Havant, he called the white storks ‘the three gay bachelors’. He had tracked them from midsummer down near Bersted when they had flown up over Soughton and Kingley Vale, then heading eastward to land again in the Arun valley on the Pulborough Brooks.
It is very unusual to see one white stork here, let alone three all together. Even so, this as far as I can discover, is the third time three have been in Sussex together. The first recorded was in May 1892, 120 years ago, when the gang spent a few days at Portfield on the outskirts of Chichester. Later in the same century one was even seen over the Downs at Bignor.
In those days most countryfolk wanted to shoot them because taxidermists in Chichester and Brighton had a ready market for glass-cased ornaments among the newly-wealthy Victorian super-rich. I know one of my ancestors by marriage, a banker in the family Drummond, had a white stork in a glass case in his drawing room.
In 1922 a white stork standing on the roof of the workhouse at East Preston was bagged as it wondered what to do next on its journeying around the world. It had been ringed the summer before in Sweden. Then in 1929 one of a party of three made its way inside a glass case into the museum at Bramber.
The problem with coming to England in those days was that the natives did not have fertility rites as did the locals in Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal and others. Even to this day the white stork is just about the only bird, as far as I have witnessed, which is not shot in Portugal. You would not dare risk your fertility and all that which could compromise a full and happy life.
So their electricity board makes special platforms on the pylons for these magnificent birds to nest upon. The farmers and fishermen along the larguas who would salute, however hopelessly, a mallard up to 100 metres away with their 12 bores, smile happily as they watch the ponderous yet graceful birds poring over the plough a few metres behind their tractoss, knowing their sex lives will remain intact. One day, who knows, the white stork might extend its normal range northward and we too could benefit from its presence.