Germany's Stork Route, a unique 459 km (286 mile) scenic journey along both sides of the Elbe River, passes through amazing landscapes and more than 100 picturesque historic villages, towns and five federal states: Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Lower-Saxony. All with sizable populations of "Störche".
Different tourist theme routes crisscross Germany, and traveling Die Deutschen Storchenstrasse means experiencing so much more than storks nesting: wading through fields and marshes foraging for insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, or flying over head.
It connects with other routes including the Niedersächsische Spargelstraße, "Lower Saxony Asparagus Route", Deutsche Fachwerkstraße, "German Half Timbered House Road" and Die Alte Salzstraße, the "Old Salt Route".
Here are just five of the historic towns to be seen along with nesting storks when following those "Stork in Flight" route signs...first "Lüneburg an der Elbe".
A picturesque old shipping town on the banks of the River Elbe, the narrow streets and half timbered buildings of Lüneburg go back to the 17th century and earlier, including 13th century Maria-Magdalenen Church and what remains of Lüneburg Castle. Built in 1181 it can still be seen from far away, and must have been an impressive sight in the Middle Ages.
If it possible to call a canal lock system "beautiful" then this describes the Lüneburg "Palmschleuse". On the International Canal Monuments List it dates from 1398 and was part of the medieval Stecknitz-Delvenau-Kanal, carrying traffic until 1900.
First documented in 1171, Boizenburg on the right bank of the Elbe lay just within what was East Germany, an area known as "The Inner German Border", and was isolated during the Cold War. Its few remaining occupants under constant Stasi observation.
Apart from spying on the population the DDR regime tended to ignore much of Elbe Valley region, the landscape as well as architecture and infrastructure of Boizenburg "Klein Venedig des Nordens", so most remained unchanged, and its forests are among the most successful habitats for storks. Surrounded by the original moat and connected to the river by a harbor, the Altstadt, Old Town, is filled with baroque half-timbered and brick buildings.
Still on the right hand side of the Elbe is 13th century "Rühstädt", known as the "European Stork Village", Europäisches Storchendorf.
The human population of the village is around 280, but the ideal conditions mean every year between 30 and 40 White Stork pairs arrive to breed and raise their young there.
Rühstädt is the center of the protected "River Landscape Elbe-Brandenburg"; headquarters for the Biosphere Reserve where, as with most of the other areas, it is not only possible to learn everything about lives and conservation of the red-legged birds with large bills, but also see live cams of village storks nesting. And these remain "online" until the storks, and their young, begin the 26 day journey to their winter quarters in the fall.
"Hitzacker" is also in the Mecklenburg Elbe Valley Nature Park; a part of the UNESCO biosphere reserve, the "Lower Saxony Asparagus Route" and the "Half Timbered House Road".
A beautiful small town on the left side of the Elbe River, its half-timbered buildings all have notices giving their very different histories.
The "Hitzacker Archaeological Center", an archaeological open air museum showing the region's Bronze Age settlements, holds hands-on "How-To" courses covering the region's past lifestyle, and they include everything from ancient baking traditions to casting bronze.
Hitzacker is compact and quick and easy to explore. Its old town, riverside, climbing the Weinberg, the local hill and vantage point with a great view of the entire town, Elbe River and the stork nesting and foraging grounds.
And back to "Lüneburg", an architectural gem with many buildings from its medieval heyday, as a beneficiary of the lucrative salt industry when there was heavy demand for its salt. This was used to preserve herring caught along the neighboring north sea coast; the Baltic and North Seas.
It was a major part of the Old Salt Route, "Alte Salzstrasse", the medieval trade route used for transporting staples, including "White Gold" - that salt.
And looking much as it did when he studied there is the Michaeliskirche, St. Michael's church, where Johann Sebastian Bach was at school 1700-1702 AD, before he became an organ virtuoso.
Although Neanderthal and Bronze artifacts have been found the city was not documented until 956 AD, and luckily its historical buildings were not damaged during WWII so not much work was necessary to restore them to their original state.
Lüneburger Heide, Lüneburg Heath, a spectacle of wildflowers and color, where white storks live together with the rarely seen black storks. Like so much of the Heath's wildlife it is somewhere they feel at home.
The first nature park in Germany, it is the largest remaining heathland in central Europe and one of its most impressive natural environments. A landscape of Scottish heather, common heather and juniper, wandering herds of Heidschnucke sheep the symbol of the Lüneburger Heide, farmland, beekeeping huts and ancient thatched roof farm houses.
The German Stork Route, Die Deutschen Storchenstrasse, a wonderful journey through history and the natural world.
Images: Stork Nest by ZB via Welt.de, photographer Matthias Trautsch - Die Stadt Hitzacker (Elbe)erdo-hitzacker.de - Shepherd Lueneburg Heath, via Germany Travel