SIGULDA, Latvia — The Latvian capital city of Riga is probably not the place to be if you’re trying to get away from the cacophony blowing out of Washington these days. Latvia has its own Russian question, the residual of a long hegemony by Moscow that began in 1710 and ended only in 1991, with an interruption between the world wars when Latvians first enjoyed self-determination. Many Russians have settled in Latvia. Today, ethnic Russians make up half of Riga’s population, and some still subscribe to the previous regime’s russification policy. On the first day of our two-week visit, we saw hundreds of people marching in the embassy district where we stayed, protesting state-mandated learning of Latvian in secondary schools. Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! they chanted.
So, how to get Russian meddling, Cohen, Avenatti, Giuliani, and Stormy out of mind? How about storks?
It’s a good thing we had decided, before we arrived in Riga, to rent a car and venture out of the city, or we would’ve missed the birds. We wanted to see the quieter parts of this country of roughly 2 million people (in an area slightly smaller than Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire combined) — especially its medieval towns and villages, some of them boasting majestic old churches and stately manor houses, peaceful farms, and the odd castle ruin here and there. We were not disappointed: Our five-day drive and walkabout west, south, and northeast of Riga gave us a delightful smorgasbord for the senses and imagination.
But it was the white storks, those magnificent birds that return from Africa by the thousands to the Latvian countryside each spring to nest, that truly carried us away. My wife and I like birds anyway. But, remember those fairy tales of storks and babies, or Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Storks,” from childhood? Suddenly, the birds are before you, 4-foot-tall creatures with 6-foot wing spans, in nests perched no higher than the top of a utility pole or in fields scrounging after plows. After not even thinking about storks on this trip to Latvia, we soon forgot about Trump and Mueller and all the other mess back home and began trying to spot as many as we could of these funny-looking birds with the knobby head, long pointed red beak, white plumage with black wing tips, and impossibly long, pink legs.
We saw a nest first, on a chimney at Šlokenbeka, the first manor we visited near Tukums, some 35 miles west of Riga. Storks typically lay two to six eggs, which hatch in 33 or 34 days. Both the male and female stay with their young, taking turns to feed them. The round of sticks we saw was empty, but we instantly knew what it was, having seen a few of them years ago on a bicycling trip through the Hungarian plains. The nests can be huge — as much as 5 feet across and 6 feet deep, and weighing 500 pounds or more. You definitely don’t want one to fall on you. But in most places in the Baltics and beyond where they return to breed, the storks and their distinctive nests are welcome. The bird is viewed as a symbol or harbinger of fertility, faithfulness, longevity, and general good fortune. In a more practical sense, the nesting carnivore’s foraging for food in the meadows and fields is a comforting sign that all is ecologically well here.
As it so often happens when you purposefully set out to do something, our first sighting of an actual stork came accidentally, after we stopped in a village to admire a little Lutheran church just off the main road. The nest was on a pole maybe 25 feet tall, across the street from the church and a small sundry shop. We could hear men working in a cluster of buildings a short distance away. Soon they were all quiet, perhaps amused by us gawkers giddily raising our cellphones to take pictures of the nest and barely visible stork in it. The bird didn’t seem to care. I cursed myself for leaving my Nikon and 200mm lens at home.
We would see more nests and many more birds. We gave each other points for being first to spot them: 10 for a nest, 20 if someone’s home, and 30 if it’s standing up, and so on. Sightings in a freshly turned field came quite frequently, so we stopped counting those after awhile. But storks encountered in unusual or unexpected places were amply rewarded. With my poor eyesight, I was struggling to compete. Soon enough, she wiped me out when, with a barely suppressed shriek, she spotted a beautiful specimen on a chimney as we climbed up to a crumbling castle in Aizpute. The bird watched us warily as we clambered around for a better look. We happily snapped away but somehow missed the shot as it flew off, swooping not more than 20 feet above us. (Nyet!)
No other encounter would top that until another surprise sighting at Pilsrundale, a splendidly lavish palace and grounds 50 miles south of Riga. Walking through the palace’s expansive courtyard, we soon saw the nest on one of the complex’s many chimneys. A stork was home feeding its hatchlings. The palace’s carillon was playing Mozart, announcing 11 a.m. We would spend more than half the day wandering through the palace, its collections of baroque and rococo art, and formal gardens. But seeing the storks on the palace chimney was the magical part.
There was another sighting we thought was special, of a pair in their nest on the edge of a wooded area in Jaunpils, home to a 14th-century Livonian castle of the same name. Most nests we had seen were built on utility poles and man-made platforms; this was on a decaying tree trunk. Mr. and Mrs. Stork didn’t mind us trying to get as close as we could, the crunching of twigs and undergrowth not scaring them one bit as we trampled around.
We saw maybe 50 birds in all, just a tiny sample of the estimated 10,000 pairs that return to Latvia each year starting after mid-March and leaving again by fall. By the end of our road trip, we thought we had seen more than our share — having taken up stork-spotting serendipitously. But as we drove out of Sigulda and turned southwest toward Riga, another wondrous sight appeared on the side of the road in front of a simple farmhouse — two pairs on massive nests maybe 20 yards apart. All four storks were standing tall on the edge of their nests, as if to announce their formidable presence, or to signal good riddance to email@example.com.