By Alice Baghdjian
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans are shrugging off their winter coats and peering through binoculars to catch a glimpse of the harbingers of spring: white storks who have started to arrive this week.
The gangly birds returned to Germany from warmer climates, where their arrival has been eagerly anticipated after a spell of bitter weather chilled much of northern Europe last month.
"People associate storks with spring and see them as a sign that winter is gone and warmer weather is on its way," said Bernd Mueller, chairman of one Friends of the Earth group in the eastern state of Brandenburg, a hotbed for the birds in Germany.
People flock to see the storks every year and the German media track the arrival of the first birds with the kind of zeal that U.S. media outfits reserve for Groundhog day.
Brandenburg's first stork -- named Little Kurt Redbill -- has already touched down in his nest for a spot of spring cleaning before his mate arrives, the environmental group said.
"Most storks winter further away, in North Africa, and have to wait for the right wind conditions to fly over," Mueller said. But Kurt, who returns to the same nest each year, is an exception.
"Little Kurt spends the winter in Spain, flying around rubbish dumps and rice fields there, so he doesn't have to wait for the winds to take him over the Mediterranean," he said.
"He's always the first stork to arrive."
(Reporting by Alice Baghdjian, editing by Paul Casciato)