Winter treasure 10: Storks & Swallowtails

25/2/2018 I admit it. I cheated. Slightly. In December, worried that I might struggle my way through to spring, and thinking it prudent to book a holiday after the dreaded tax returns and before the new B&B season got underway, I arranged to visit friends in Alcalá de Henares, a university town near Madrid. It is not necessarily the first place that comes to mind for winter warmth, lying at an altitude of nearly 600m and with much more unpredictable winter weather than southern Spain; but nevertheless I knew there was a much greater chance of sunshine than at home, and that by February the Spanish sun would feel warm regardless of how cold the air was. In any case, a change of scene and some restful time with friends would be just as good a tonic as sunshine.

I was too slow in booking my flights for the beginning of February, receiving an unexpected 5-night B&B booking, and so had to delay my trip until the last week of the month. But I think it worked out for the best: my guests were a delight, and after an idyllic weekend of mild weather in England, it was due to turn icy again. I arrived in Spain just in time for a week of unbroken sunshine. And, returning home, I knew there would be only one day left of February. The biggest mental hurdle of winter would be past.

But I had forgotten about one particular highlight of Alcalá de Henares: the storks. I have had a soft spot for storks since assisting with the ringing of nestlings in Doñana National Park during a year in southern Spain for my languages degree. Luis, biologist and bird ringer extraordinaire, would put up a ladder against a tree, climb up and hand down a large, floppy, upside-down bunch of black and white feathers and long legs, with a collection of soft, rubbery toes sticking out above his fist. Once placed the right way up on the ground, they would sit passively while they were ringed and then replaced in their nests. They couldn’t have been too many weeks off fledging and it was astonishing how unconcerned they seemed about their undignified excursion to the ground.

StorksI knew that the storks left Alcalá for some weeks of the year, but I didn’t know when or for how long. I suppose I assumed they left for the winter and returned in early spring to breed. But, it turns out, many of them no longer migrate to sub-Saharan Africa; they go to North Africa or stay in Spain the whole year. Their short period of absence from Alcalá occurs from late summer to mid autumn, not during the winter.

So they were back in town. It was a delightful surprise to hear beak clattering on my first morning stroll, and look skywards to see them coming into land or busily refurbishing their rooftop nests for the coming breeding season. Some of the nests have been in use for so many years that they have begun to look like bunk beds, and apparently the piles of twigs can come to weigh up to a quarter of a tonne.

That same morning, we went for a wander around the Roman town, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Alcalá. It was fascinating, but my favourite part was undoubtedly my first two butterfly sightings of the year. I was happy enough with the first, a small white; but then to my amazement, I spotted a swallowtail. It took me a moment to believe what I was seeing. Despite their presence in a place not far from my home – the Norfolk Broads – the last time I remembered seeing one was in Switzerland at the age of 8 or 9. And certainly not in February.

Maybe I cheated. But I haven’t entirely escaped winter, I’m just enjoying a different version of it for a few days. The air is icy in the morning and evening, the trees are still bare and the temperatures fall well below freezing at night. But knowing that such February wonders can be found only two-hours’ flight from home is a great reassurance. If winter gets on top of me in future, I will know there is a remedy within reach.