Fritz Pölking

In the worlds capitol of storks with a camera

White storks come back to their nests about every 1-3 hours to take their turns at sitting on the eggs – sometimes this takes a bit longer. When you are standing below the nest, on the street, it takes even longer or at least that is what it seems like. Then when a bird does approach the nest, he most certainly is flying from the wrong direction – from a cameras point of view – or he is approaching too low or you are just too surprised when he suddenly appears. Should any of that not happen at any given time, then the sun will more then likely not shine or there is a great big cloud right behind the nest.

For pictures of storks in flight you have to have the sun behind your back and blue skies behind the stork. Before all of these conditions come to play in Germany you either have to have a whole lot of luck or you end up investing many weeks of time for maybe just one decent flight-picture.

For that reason Uwe Walz and I decided to take these kind of pictures about 2 hours further south by plane, at the cathedral San Miguel in the small Spanish town of Alfaro in the Ebro valley and the capitol of the world for storks



There a nature photographer is presented with an overwhelming picture: you will see over a hundred nests on the rooftop, battlements and towers of this church. In addition to that the photographic possibilities are terrific: as is expected in Spain, you almost always have sunshine and blue skies as well as storks, storks and more storks. You don’t have to wait until one of them comes sailing in every 2-4 hours for a change of shift. With more then two hundred parent birds – not counting the ones who are not breeding – you hardly have one moment during the day where there is not one or more of the storks ready to land at the same time and from all different directions.

Add to that the luck you need: the cathedral is built on a hill and there is an apartment building directly next to it with a gigantic set of open air stairs which – due to the hill – are not at the foot of the cathedral, but up about halfway. This takes away the sharp upward camera angle and you are almost on the same height as the roof of the church when shooting the pictures of flying storks which is an absolute positive asset as far as the size and perspective of the subject at hand is concerned.

Then you have these great possibilities on top of that, for instance this technology of the auto focus with pictures where you move the camera along with the flight of the bird, which is actually a "tracking auto focus". With this technology which is in principle the same with all different types of camera systems but has a different name with each, the path of movement that will be taken from the object until the actual picture is taken is pre-determined and thus guarantees an unbelievable accuracy in respect of clear and sharp pictures of moving animals in a totally unexpected way.

I am not sure just how well this AF works while taking pictures of a rabbit’s choppy path, but I know it works with approaching storks in flight just great. Simply said it is unbelievable and works like a charm: No matter if you use a Canon, Nikon, Minolta or Pentax SLR, you just adjust your camera to the tracking auto-focus setting and when you see a tiny speck far away and up high in the sky you take it into the AF-field – when the speck gets a bit bigger, and watch in awe when it stays in focus and completely clear. The stork gets closer and closer, gets bigger and bigger in the view finder – but the razor-blade sharpness is constant.

What a fantastic possibility for taking really clear pictures has been presented to us by modern camera technology.

The both of us stood there, at times for hours, on that great big open staircase and just took pictures of flying storks – hundreds. Sometimes many storks came at the same time and we didn’t know which we should point the lens at.

A small problem with these flight pictures was the right exposure: A white stork with the blue sky in the background is sure to be lighter then the middle measurement on the grey scale and would need a slight correction in the exposure time. After several trials I ended up with an optimal setting through the automatic timer and an overexposure by 0.3 to 0.7 on the grade, meaning 1/3 to 2/3 apertures. With this small correction of the exposure time, it turned out flight pictures with an optimal exposure. We used the automatic timer because it is the only automatic measuring method with an open aperture and guarantees the absolute shortest possible exposure time.

So if for instance we use a focal length of about 500 and 600 mm with an open aperture of 4.0 to work with, then the cameras are able to obtain the shortest exposure time from the automatic timer on their own. It is not as easy as that if you use an automatic program or aperture. The manual setting of time and exposure was also difficult – even though we prefer that method – because the exposure had to be adjusted depending on the angle of the approaching bird, which again was not really acceptable because of the time involved and of course we would much rather concentrate on the subject itself and not on the working of the equipment.


Something that would give any historical landmark preservationist in Germany a heart attack leaves Spaniards – much to the advantage of nature photographers – apparently completely unconcerned.: In Spain you can build an apartment building about 6 to 8 meters next to the cathedral in San Miguel, which is a National Spanish monument. The apartment building being so high, that you can look down into the nests of storks from the highest apartment. It is unbelievable: ten meters in front and two to four meters below you – at an optimal angle – you can find the active undisturbed family life of the white storks and with all your lenses at hand, no matter if it is 80-200 mm, 300 mm, 5 mm or 600 mm, you can work and create in a photographical paradise.

Of course you can find other exquisite view points from other places around the cathedral that would make the heart of every wildlife photographer beat faster. You can practically find motifs from dawn to dusk. You can take wonderful pictures from the great square in front of the cathedral and the street called "Calle de Hospital" (Hospital Street). This offers a grand view of the colony during late afternoons and sunset - especially at that time, as that is when the birds return from their search for food.

Then just a bit behind the cathedral there is a hill with a platform that is situated in such a way that you have a great view of the colony and can take interesting pictures of it and of the city itself.

For all those reasons nature photographers will find Alfaro is certainly worth a short vacation or at least an extended weekend. Those who fly there sometime between March and July, let’s say on a Friday and return on Monday or Tuesday will have two or three photographic working days during which you will have the opportunity of taking more and much better pictures of storks then you would in Germany in a whole year.

The things you need are an AF-camera and lenses starting at 24 mm up to 500 mm or 600 mm and good tripod. You have to count on a minimum of 10 rolls of film a day. A tremendous amount of film material will be shot through your camera alone for the flight pictures. Not because it is absolutely necessary, but because it is so much fun. We did not just want great results, we wanted to just shoot photos in general and that’s what is so great here, you have such wonderful possibilities to just let the camera run really hot.

When you spend so many days and so much time taking pictures of storks you observe and discover many interesting things about the behavior of these birds: How the parent birds bring back water and offer it to their offspring in their goiter or that the Alfaro-storks feed a lot of fish. On many an occasion we observed the storks standing in the Ebro River to catch fish and during the transfer of their catch to the youngsters we saw that there were some sizeable specimen amongst them.

We also discovered that there was a chance here to take pictures of storks with back light during sunset. For that a dark background is very helpful in order to heighten the effect, something that is not a given in Germany while taking pictures of storks in their nest or at least not normally.

Here in Alfaro, on the southern side of the church there are aviaries where you have this situation in the evening with back light and that is an opportunity we certainly did not want to miss. But it wasn’t really that easy: the better the light was – meaning the lower the sun was on the horizon – the more direct the light hit the lens and then just before the sun set, when the light was absolutely at an optimum, not even the double sunscreens with the 600 lenses were of any use. So one of us always had to give up taking pictures, in order to take a piece of cardboard and shield the other’s lens so that no sunlight would shine directly into the front of it. It was astonishing and unbelievable to see and find the difference between absolute brilliance and a complete over-exposure depending on if you only worked with the two sunshades or on the other hand, the additional shielding of the lens with a piece of cardboard which hindered the sun from shining directly into the lens.

All pictures with the Nikon F5 on Sensia – 100
and with the 2.8/80-200 mm and 4.0/500 mm lenses.
Partly taken with a 1.4 x converter and using a tripod.

It is not to be disputed that we live in the best of all worlds – at least until a UFO lands. For nature photographers, Alfaro, with its colony of storks is a major part of it. The way to this paradise of and for storks is actually quite easy: direct flight with Aviaco to Zaragoza, then with a rental car to Zaragoza - Alfaro and the only hotel in place, the Palacio (0043-41-183944) and you are ready to take pictures to your heart’s content. I can recommend the book "storks – life on a cathedral (Störche-Leben auf einer Kathedrale) from the Tecklenborg Verlag (publisher) to those who are interested in wanting to know more about the "world’s capitol of storks". In this book we introduce the colony itself in detail and with many color pictures (In the German language).

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