The Wilder Side of Vienna

Notes from Nature: Sept. 2010

A black stork captured in mid-flight | Photo: Sergey Yeliseev

Each February or March, after wintering in Africa, black storks return to the Wienerwald Biosphere Reserve. Despite their considerable size, they can be seen effortlessly riding the thermals and skimming low over tree-tops as they seek out the best nest sites ahead of breeding season. Their long, outstretched necks, impressive wingspans and thin, trailing legs make extraordinary silhouettes.

“Their flight displays are quite spectacular; beautiful even,” says wildlife biologist Dr Richard Zink.

I’m finally making my long-planned trip to the Vienna Woods in search of the reticent bird. Richard has kindly agreed to be my guide, and as we leave the city behind, the countryside slowly engulfs us. We pass the Wienerwaldsee, the woodland lake with its grebes and herons and as we drive under the hulking concrete structure that carries the roaring traffic of Vienna’s West Autobahn high above us, our road becomes quieter and begins to narrow. We are now in Wolfsgraben; a name that harks back to when this village knew some wilder inhabitants. We pass a small chocolate-box church, a post office adorned by pretty hanging baskets and our first farm. Firewood is piled high outside nearly every property.

A little further on and we’re already in the forest, wending our way around hairpin bends as ancient stands of beech trees become ever denser all about us. We catch a glimpse of Vienna in the valley behind us, some 15km distant, before we finally leave the road for an unmade forest track. When Richard eventually stops the car and we get out, there is complete silence. We are near the centre of one of the Wienerwald’s core biosphere zones. “We’re still very close to a city of about two million inhabitants, but you won’t find any people here,” says Richard, sensing my wonder.

On foot, we head towards a known black stork nest site. The birds nest in the upper-most reaches of inaccessible trees, often commandeering the abandoned nests of other large birds such as the common buzzard. We spot the nest – a huge black ball of twigs and sticks up high. This one was used by a goshawk last year.

There are no storks here at the moment, but Richard is already upturning rocks in a small, nearby stream. “Crayfish,” he says, scooping a small specimen out of the cold, clear water. This crustacean, abundant here, is one of the reasons the stork is so attracted to the area. Mice and brown frogs are also favorites, and they too can be found in good numbers.

The light is fading fast, but I spot something moving in the near distance – a large shape flaps silently from one tree to another. After searching with binoculars for a few moments, we sight it. But it’s not a stork. This is also Ural owl territory since Richard and his team began reintroducing the species a year and a bit ago. We spot a shaggy juvenile, just 20 metres or so away. Not quite what we were searching for, but a striking sight nonetheless.

In the end, no storks on this visit. But we’ll be back another day.

To be continued…

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