Time to fly

Snow and birds

5 min readFeb 17, 2019


We were lucky to get out of town. First, I worried about the government shutdown and back-ups at the airport. Then, flights were canceled by a cold snap in the Midwest. I was afraid the winter weather would meet us in New York and stop us at JFK.

But my husband and I arrived in Lisbon without a hitch on Saturday, a day or two before the snowstorm hit back home in Seattle. On Monday my recycling app canceled Monday’s garbage pick-up due to snow, saying they’d come on Tuesday. Tuesday the app chimed in again, “No, not today; save it for next Monday,” as heaps of snow piled into Instragram.

Pictures of our deck at home, courtesy of our housesitter Al

From Lisbon we drove south to the coast and shopped for groceries. Returning to places we’ve been before and staying longer, we make meals as if we were at home, ferreting out the stores we like. We experiment with local food at lunch while exploring the terrain.

Now excuse me for a moment while I venture into the unfamiliar territory of bird watching. I’m not a watcher, but here they’re hard to ignore. My first sighting came last year, during our first trip to the Algarve on the southern coast of Portugal. We noticed a big bird nesting on a chimney outside the apartment we were staying in, in the town of Olhao. Big and white with black on its wings. We looked it up: it had to be a stork. I checked it every morning and throughout the day. Sometimes it was there, sometimes not, its chimney just beyond easy viewing. I have some fuzzy pictures.

This year we’re back, having achieved our aspiration of leaving Seattle in the winter instead of the better-weather months of fall or spring. Two days after the garbage pick-up was canceled in Seattle, we were driving back from Alvor when we sighted storks again: a colony of nests in a field outside the town of Odiaxere.

Exploring the beach at Alvor on the southern coast of Portugal — only at low tide!
Along the road outside Odiaxere. Storks are protected in Portugal. It’s against the law to demolish or disturb a stork’s nest. Farmers appreciate them for keeping the number of parasites down in their fields and consider them good omens. So do we.

We stopped. Tens of storks this time, nesting atop a row of posts. Some picking their long-legged way across the field. One bending its neck until the top of its head was resting on its back. Two chatter-clicking their bills in conversation. As we turned away, they began to rearrange themselves, stretching their wings to lift and tilt and fly and land nearby, nest to field, field to nest, and to a field across the road. We drove home — home being the spot to which we’ve flown to miss the winter — and I looked them up.

White storks. They congregate in flocks, except in April when they pair for breeding. Their nests are built of twigs on top of rooftops, chimneys, or pylons, sometimes growing to 6’ across and 10’ deep. They eat frogs and fish, insects, earthworms, and small mammals found in fields and shallow water.

Storks are voiceless, but they clatter their bills when they’re excited, the speed of their chatter growing louder as it lasts and changing rhythm to fit the situation. See a wonderful video of chattering at The Birders Store. As another means of communication, a stork may throw back its head, until its crown rests on its back.

Storks used to migrate to Africa for winter, flying across the narrow passageway at Gibralter or around by way of Israel and the Sinai to catch thermal currents rising from the ground’s heat. Ourselves, we’ve just begun to migrate to beat the weather. Here in Portugal, it seems that storks are sticking around, migrating less. Recently, the storks that used to fly to Africa from all over Europe flock to the Algarve instead. Some stay year round. 14,000 storks are thought to call the Algarve home, which may be the result of climate change. Or perhaps it has to do with open landfills, where they can feed in any season. A study shows more nests situated close to landfills now, with storks finding food in the rubbish and junk. With upcoming EU regulations, covered waste facilities may replace the open landfills. No one’s sure how the storks will respond to the loss of their local supermarket.

Serially monogamous, storks sometimes inhabit the same nest for years, with older storks in better nests at the center and younger pairs in new ones not too far away. Both parents tend the nests, incubate eggs, and forage food to raise their brood.

We continued getting weather news from Seattle. The snow was deeper, the storm longer than in the decades we’ve lived there. The news showed cars in ditches along the roads, people shoveling snow off roofs, and empty grocery shelves. My recycling app canceled garbage pick-up for another Monday, finally telling us we could put it out for the second Tuesday.

Yesterday we moved west to Olhao where we had our first stork sighting last year. After days of sun, we’re seeing some clouds. Today we’ll find a grocery store or market to stock our kitchen for dinner tonight.

Garbage, food, winter, snow, weather, storks, unfamiliar territory, piled-up heaps, flight, migration, change… Travel doesn’t always bring epiphany but it does spur contemplation. We’ll be here watching for storks and whatever else might come.

The storks began to fly
Five in the air at once