The 2004 White Stork at Eton

24 May 2004 | Chris Heard

On 1st April 2004, while most of Britain's birders were debateing whether an internet report of a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Gloucestershire was an April Fool, many Berkshire birders were wondering if they could catch up with a White Stork in East Berkshire - and if it would be countable on their county lists!

The bird was in fact first sighted the day before, when a homeward-bound Brian Bennett was shocked to see it fly across the M4 at Bray, apparently heading towards the Jubilee river at 4.49pm. However, although several birders were on-site at the Jubilee River, it wasn't seen there until around 7pm when London birder Dave Morris got a call to say it had just flown over the Manor Farm bridge. That evening there was some speculation that it was likely to be an escape but it all became academic when birders at the Jubilee River the following morning could not relocate it. Then, just after midday, Mike McCarthy and Bucks birder Dave Ferguson noticed it circling low over the Dorney wetlands section. Thanks to a timely call from Lee Evans, I was able to shoot straight over to the Lake End car park from where I watched it circling over towards Etonwick (from 12.20pm). Opting to follow it, I drove the couple of miles to Etonwick and watched it circling over Windsor racecourse for some time. Meanwhile Derek Barker, who had been working at Bray, had driven to the Windsor byepass and was watching it from there and Brian Clews was watching it from Eton. Eventually it flew away to the South-east of Windsor Castle - and I had to gamble on whether it had headed for Windsor Park or more directly East... I plumped it for the latter and raced to Runnymede where I soon spotted it to my left flying steadily eastwards over Wraysbury (at 1.20pm). I pulled into the Runnymede Pleasuregrounds car park and, fortuitously, it came directly overhead, before drifting off low South of Egham, Surrey (at 1.40pm). It was subsequently reported flying NE over Chertsey (2.15pm) and then later over Leatherhead.

From my excellent views at Runnymede I was able to confirm that it was un-ringed (on both the upper and lower portions of the legs) and to note that the plumage was heavily soiled on the mantle, neck and breast. I also observed that it was missing 1-2 of the innermost primaries on the left wing and, on the upperwing, I noted silver-grey edgings to the secondaries - which indicate that it was in first-summer plumage (see Birding World: 11;195-197).

The following day the stork continued eastwards over Sittingbourne, Kent (4.15pm) and later flew over the car park at the Tesco supermarket in Faversham and it was assumed to be this bird which roosted on the Campbell's building in Ashford, on 3rd, before reappearing in East Kent in the Sandwich Bay area. From the reference to "stained underparts" it may be this bird which then turned-up at Ninfield, East Sussex, on 12th, and maybe also in West Sussex subsequently.

I now feel certain that the White Stork in Berkshire is the same bird which wintered in Kent during 2003/2004. It showed similar plumage soiling (see Jan 16th photo on and, on it's return to Kent, it was noted that it was "missing primary 7 or 8 on the left wing" (see April 9th entry on - comparable with my own observation.

Although the exact origin of the Kent bird is unknown, PlanetThanet argues that there is no reason to believe it is not wild. Apparently it soiled it's plumage while spending much of the winter in a muddy field by Swanton Court, near Ashford. Lee Evans believes it to be the same bird which first turned up, as a juvenile, in Oxfordshire during August 2003 and was subsequently seen at Harefield, Greater London and in Buckinghamshire during September. August is a good time for the dispersal of wild White Storks and indeed I saw my first BBRC accepted one at Romney Marshes in Kent in August 1976.

Several previous White Storks in Berkshire have been of known or presumed captive origin but so far only two records have been deemed to refer to wild birds: 1 flying East over Ham Island towards Wraysbury GPs, on November 2nd 1968, seen by Ken Nalder, and one over Walbury Hill seen by an ROC group (including Martin Hallam, Z. & J. Karpowitz et al) on March 16th 1975. A sighting over Englefield on May 22nd 2000 may also prove fully acceptable once local assessment is completed.

In recent years the status of White Storks in the UK has been plagued by a number of known escapees. On the other hand, White Stork sightings have dramatically increased in SE England - perhaps associated with various reintroduction projects in Western Europe. Faced with this situation all that county records committees can do is judge each record on its merits. The fate of the 2004 Berkshire bird is inevitably linked to any further conclusions regarding the Kent winterer, which at present is assumed to be of wild origin. Those who missed it in April can take heart from the fact that it has apparently wandered to this part of the country twice already.

© 2004 Chris Heard