A barney and a rumpus

Lavender and gum rock rose and red earth

Guarding her eggs and spying on us at breakfast


My attempts at avian social engineering have worked. I kept what was left of the red-rumps’ nest masked by its rough net of tape until the barn swallows had given up on it and established themselves elsewhere.

‘They don’t seem to have a good concept of space,’ said a friend, seeing the shallowness of the beam the barns started building on in the middle of the veranda. It was newly painted; that must have been what they liked.

‘Or perhaps it’s time they lack a concept of,’ said Husband, as the birds arrived almost simultaneously at the nest, beaks jammed full, and one would have to wait it out, muddy feet on our washing line, until the first had finished positioning its mud-gobbet.

The nest was completed after a week or so. It has a flattish, raised prow, and without doubt eggs have already been laid since the female spends a lot of time in there, sideways on, her rufous face in view, watching us when we’re busy on the veranda.

Once the barn swallows had built enough of the nest to convince me they’d committed to the site, I took down the masking tape from the red-rumps’ old nest, especially since I’d been hearing snatches of their radio-tuning song as they flew overhead. In a short space of time, they arrived at the hook – their nest was built around a hook in the ceiling, as you may recall – and started staking it out. They also started making flying passes at the barns. Wings would sometimes collide. A fat carpenter bee got feather-swatted out of the air, an innocent bystander caught up in the rumpus.

‘This place, this place, this place is ours, NOT YOURS!’ the barns declare constantly, the ‘NOT YOURS’ delivered as two raspberries, the second of which is ratcheted up to the fullest. They have the louder, more demanding-sounding song. It isn’t aimed solely at the red-rumps. They are more than capable of a barney with their own kind when a new male comes a-calling to see if he can get in on the action.

The red-rumps seem unaffected by the song. They are now steadily rebuilding their nest, some of which got damaged by sparrows, and some of which came down at the accidental brush of a human hand, so delicate was its construction. It took the birds a good ten days to build and us only seconds to dislodge. Still, they are well on the way to completing it anew.

I don’t know if it’s common for red-rumps and barns to nest together in the same space – I suspect not – but it’s working out well enough here, small competitive displays of flying ability aside. It’s working out so well that the sparrows, those clumsy birds with their heavy flight, are now nosing in. The female sparrow, who liked to look at herself in the glass of a smartphone, moved her attention a few weeks ago to the metal outlet pipe of – actually I don’t know what exactly; the gas water boiler that’s the back-up when there isn’t enough sun to heat the water? – whatever, it emerges by the bathroom roof, and for some weeks now the sparrow has been tapping it regularly, forcefully, and audibly to whoever is on the loo. The male was obliged to turn his attention, too, to this hot, bright, wholly unsuitable nesting site; mostly he just looked on while she rang her beak against the metal. But they are now attracted by all the fruitful activity on the veranda, perhaps trying to see where they can fit in there.

My other main activity in the four weeks since I last wrote a blog has been, aside from work, the raising of seedlings, a first for me and something in which I felt I had little or no competence but wanted to do anyway. All manner of greenery has emerged from the soil compartments in the storeroom, and I cursed my overuse of seeds and my complicated labelling key, which slightly fell apart when I turned the trays around to even out the light falling on them. Well, I don’t want to tempt fate by claiming any successes there. Early days.

Things have moved on the oil/gas exploration front here – and moved in a good direction – but I see I’m going to have to save that for another post, which I think will be sooner coming than this one was. Just to leave you with a note about scent: in the morning the air smells of earth spice, and as the day moves on and the breezes change, air-drifts of lavender, gum rock rose and orange blossom waft by. April in the Algarve.

The early stage of barn swallow nest-building involved straw, a piece of which you can just make out in the bird’s bill

We were very happy when the red-rumped swallows returned to the wire



Back to the watermill

Blossom by the watermill

I needed the medium-sized stepladder to reach the swallow nest. A roll of masking tape was left over from painting and I used this in strips to make a kind of basket suspended from the ceiling – sticky side inwards – that covered the entire nest without touching it. All this because the barn swallows, which until last week we’d never before seen around here, chased the red-rumped swallows away and took over the nest. I wasn’t having that. It was sad so see the red-rumped swallows flee, a day after arriving. (Why are they so fey and always give in so easily?) So the barn swallows must learn, just as the sparrows have done, that they can nest wherever they like, just not outside our front door. That space, along with what is left of the nest, belongs to the red-rumped swallows. Should they reappear, I will remove the masking tape. Here’s hoping, however faintly, that they do.

I am, I know, a little obsessed with the nest and its rightful occupants. I am also obsessed with the ruined watermill at the foot of the path to the river, which equally deserves rightful occupants. My fascination comes and goes. It depends how much spare time I’ve got, and whether I can interest anyone else in it. Luckily this week we had two friends visiting us whose interest was piqued. They arrived in blissful weather which lasted their whole stay, and once we’d finished exploring the permaculture project and opened the swimming pool for the first time this year, we visited the mill.

Previous nosing about had established that the impeller wheel would have been underground, positioned horizontally, while a sluice gate in a rear room released the water from the reservoir at the back to flow through, under the building, and drive the wheel and its various gears and shafts. Broken millstones lie about in the main room amid shattered tiles and cane from the fallen ceiling. A cut-out circle can be seen in the centre of the floor, where the millstones would have been, and in the middle of this space is a small square opening that leads down into the underground chamber. This is as far as the explorations had got, but then Neil, combining slender hips with an adventurous spirit, dropped himself down through the square, a tight fit, to land on his feet in the silt below. His head soon disappeared as well, but his voice echoed back.

No equipment remained underground except for a rusty pickaxe head, but the shape of the underground chamber revealed itself: a dome. The inlet for the water is set at an angle to encourage centrifugal force. The whole device is a turbine. The outlet would presumably have led back to the river, perhaps running underground until it got there. Mill water could, I imagine, be diverted for irrigation, but this is an isolated mill on a bend of the river and the water must surely have ended up back in the stream. The wheel was likely to have been wood, long since rotted away, which would explain its absence. It might be possible to dig some remains out of the silt. That’s for another day.

Neil made his way out of chamber again, having taken photographs on my camera for later inspection.

It’s an overlooked thing, this mill. It’s still up for sale as a tourist project with no requirement whatsoever to protect the Portuguese heritage it represents.

Rollie, my Renault 4, my own little bit of heritage, is doing rather well. He’s been running smoothly for many months now. In April he needs his annual service and inspection, and I began to think of getting in touch with Costa, even though it had been a while since I’d spoken to or seen him, to ask if he would take care of this as he has done the previous two years. On Monday I drove to Tavira. I planned to call Costa on my mobile while I was out and could get a signal but I was rather busy and didn’t. Almost back at home, at the top of our dirt track, I remembered. I pulled into one of the passing places and took out my phone.

I’d missed a call from Costa by minutes.

I swear, when it comes to the Renault 4, we have a perfect, telepathic understanding. We’re going to meet up later in the week.

Underneath the mill. The water inlet

The water outlet. Here you can clearly see the dome shape

A millstone in the grounds

Perfect joy (or was it?)

This wild pear tree predates our arrival, but has never done much. Certainly its few and hard small fruit have never been of interest to us. But as if the permaculture project on the hillside above has given it a boost, it produced more blossom this spring than we’ve ever seen. The blossom is sweetly fragrant and thrumming with bees and wasps. If you get too close for a sniff you are in danger of inhaling the stinging insects


Tuesday 7 March: a day to remember. The red-rumped swallows returned – much earlier than we’d expected them. It was warm enough for breakfast on the veranda. It’s rather exposed there now since we cut the bougainvillea back to a coarse heart-shape bristling with cut arteries that isn’t even visible over the front wall. We had to do it for the painting work. I miss its colour and exuberance and trust it to come back in full vigour. In the meantime, we now enjoy sweeping views from the full width of the veranda across the valley to the Meditation Hill. The same change of perspective has occurred inside the house, where you can glance up from the kitchen table or sofa, through the window that gives on to the veranda, right through to the other side of the valley. Our horizons have broadened.

Into these broadened horizons on Tuesday morning floated the shiny elegance of two red-rumped swallows. They surveyed the veranda in two broad sweeps through the airspace, then one returned and settled upon what remains of the nest on the hook. He – I think it was the male – delivered a peroration. It sounded like: ‘We’re back. This is ours. Sparrows, get lost. And you humans could have done a better job of caretaking. You realise we now have to rebuild, don’t you? Don’t you think we’ve had enough work to do, flying here from Africa?’ Then off again. We sat there in perfect joy, despite the telling-off.

Later the same day, we saw barn swallows on the wire outside the house. Barn swallows, not red-rumped. Had we been mistaken in the morning? Still half asleep over breakfast, not fully with it? Over-keen to see one of our most beloved birds? We’re going to have to wait and see. If they were barn swallows on the veranda in the morning then it raises the uncomfortable possibility that we might have to protect the red-rumpeds’ home from the barn swallows, too.

We want the red-rumped swallows. They belong here. They’ve been a big part of our lives and we want them back.

And if it turns out that 7 March is memorable for nothing else then at least as the first night we didn’t light a fire in many a month. It seems to have been a long winter. Even if days were warm and bright, nights were always chilly – until now.


A Mediterranean Garden Fair took place near Silves, about an hour’s drive west, on Saturday. We went in Rollie with two friends. Four people in Rollie for a longish drive: this was a first. We’d have used the jeep but its engine packed up a couple of weeks ago and it’s undergoing a complex repair at a local garage. Rollie was well up to the task, including the transport on the return journey of a number of new plants for our land. We’re putting smaller trees and shrubs between the larger trees now, and after that we’ll probably start putting in vegetables in the reducing spaces that are left between. The small lavenders, sages and succulents went into Rollie’s boot. Into the rear footwell went the two grapefruit trees we selected on the advice of our permaculture expert to fill a couple of gaps in the irrigated swales. At roughly shoulder height they just fitted in, their young leaves brushing the roof. They were held securely between the two rear passengers, of whom I was one, for the return journey. Already showing blossom they ensured the journey home was bathed in heavenly citrus scent. Another kind of joy.

Then it turned out that the grapefruit trees were an error in translation. Our permaculture advisor does us the kindness of speaking in English, her third language. But ‘grapefruit’ tripped her up. She had meant to say ‘pomegranate’. And when you come to think of it, ‘grapefruit’ is a silly name. How did that stick? It came about because of the fruit’s tendency to grow in clusters, like grapes. This tendency has never been very evident in our one pre-existing grapefruit tree, even in its most abundant fruiting year, which was the year we moved in when we hardly knew what to do with all the fruit it gave. The name was a stretch of someone’s imagination.

According to Jane Grigson, in her Fruit book, the citrus’s earlier name was shaddock, after an English sea captain who brought its seeds from their native Java and Malaysia to Barbados in the eighteenth century, beyond which they spread to Europe. Alan Davidson, in his Fruit book, describes another old English name: pimplenose, a mishearing perhaps of the French name pamplemousse. Pimplenose! Such a brilliant name. I wonder if I can make that stick?

PS Three years ago when I began this blog journey I met another would-be blogger, Penny Johnstone, a lovely, warm person who was a huge encouragement to me. This week I learnt from her daughter that she has died of cancer. Pen: this one is in memory of you.

Damp crevices. One day after heavy rainfall the water-retaining capability of the swales is clear

Fava beans are sprouting all over the land after our broadcasting of the seeds: this is green manure

Our guest dogs, Estrela and Lordy, found something interestingly smelly on the veranda floor

With the bougainvillea cut back, Estrela and Lordy have found a new vantage point. In view top right is the inevitable plastic bag, used in the bakery for proofing doughs then washed and hung out to dry


Permaculture start

An almond tree in the morning fog, the sun trying to break through. The view is from our veranda and is of the land going down to the river, which isn’t ours. The land we are working on is behind us but I’m not able to show it, for reasons explained below . . .


Our battle with the sparrows has escalated. The natural world is boss, but we’re not above a bit of engineering where we can. The sparrows are not going to squat the swallow nest, whatever they think. Their latest attempt was to push our cork barricade down into the nest since they couldn’t remove it – rather like we might do with a wine bottle we don’t have a corkscrew for but are desperate to get into. I positioned a stepladder under the nest, then reached in to retrieve the corks. The half of the tunnel entrance that had not been pecked away by the sparrows came away in my hands, so after filling the nest interior with a scrunched-up plastic bag I blocked the widened entrance with the broken-off bit of nest.

They breached the mud barricade in no time. It was in pieces on the veranda floor the next time I looked. The plastic bag was working, however. They couldn’t get round that. This time I returned the two nailed-together corks to the entrance and added a third for good measure. So far so good. I believe I get malevolent looks from the sparrows every time I go out but I’m up to that.

Land engineering is our other preoccupation. Our permaculture project has got under way: we are beginning to create swales on the hillside. ‘Swale’ is a little-used word, possibly east Anglian dialect but don’t quote me on that, meaning a damp or shady hollow in the landscape. Little used, that is, until taken up by the world of permaculture, where the swale is a favoured piece of landform technology. I think of a swale as like a swag, the soft, drooping curve of a piece of gathered fabric. We are taking the wrinkled, uneven material of the hillside and bunching it into smooth ridges and furrows that curve along its contours. The ridges and furrows will slow down and capture water run-off. The furrows will also be where organic material can gather and topsoil can build up, with a bit of help from compost and mulch. You can build swales painstakingly using a pick and a shovel if you have masses of time and good muscles but we are getting a machine in to dig them out.

The first step was to work out the contours using a large A frame from which a rock hung on a string like a plumb line. I got to spend a precious morning away from my desk marking out the swales as assistant to our permaculture advisor, which was heavenly, especially on the warm day we were blessed with. I moved across the face of the hill, swinging the A frame from point to point like a large pair of compasses, waiting for the rock plumb line to determine the exact position of the frame’s forward foot so that my companion could hammer in an iron stake there, fluttering with a red and white strip for visibility. We marked out four swales on our neglected hillside in this way.

The next day the digger arrived to start the work of carving out the furrows and building up the ridges following the marked-out routes. Rain stopped play, however. The red earth turned claggy and unworkable. We must wait until the sun shines again before continuing.

I took pictures to show you but the internet is not cooperating with me today. It might be the rain that’s slowed it down to an impossible degree. I hope to have progress to report on next week – but we are in the hands of the weather gods.


Snow in the Algarve

Carpenter bee in the bougainvillea

The snow of the Algarve: the almond trees are in blossom


While our swallows are far away in West Africa, the sparrows have tried again to take over the nest. The same old story. So we nailed two corks together, side by side, using heavy U-shaped pins, and slotted them into the entrance to the mud house. We went away for a couple of nights and came back to find the corks had done the job: the sparrows hadn’t been able to remove them. What they had done instead, however, was to start to peck away at the mud gobbets placed by our indefatigable swallows in order to get in behind the obstruction. They hadn’t removed enough to gain access so we pushed the corks further in to block them. The only sure-fire way to protect the nest is to hang around on the front veranda for ever. The sparrows don’t like us near. The feeling is mutual.

Our permaculture journey is about to begin. Behind the house, the neglected hillside is to be ‘engineered’ into water-retaining swales and terraces and planted with a variety of young trees. We will slowly sow seeds and plants between the trees, as well as allowing pioneer seeds to take root for themselves. From here, the biotope will do its own thing. The health of the soil will gradually be enhanced and it will increasingly sequester carbon and hold water. In the few weeks since our eyes were opened to this possibility, I have tried to teach myself about permaculture and developing a food forest. Some of the things I have learned:

  1. Diversity is key.
  2. The soil is queen.
  3. Mulch is king. All kinds of things, not just plant material, can be mulch: old clothes and cardboard, for example.
  4. No such thing as garden ‘rubbish’. It’s all useful biomass.
  5. The biotope is a natural, self-sufficient energy system. Nothing in, nothing out – except for food produce.
  6. Weeds are good, not least for soil cover.
  7. Don’t be purist. What works, works.
  8. It isn’t always pretty in the short term. In the long term, it will be beautiful.
  9. It is an agricultural system for humans (and animals) to live in.
  10. Small-scale farmers feed the majority of the world – some say 80 per cent – while having access to less than a quarter of all farmland.

Another journey, begun long ago, has reached a new destination. When my grandparents ran away from County Offaly in Ireland to Liverpool to get married – in the face of parental disapproval – they didn’t know they were extending a lifeline to a future granddaughter that would allow her to keep her treasured European citizenship. I applied to register at the Irish embassy in Lisbon as an Irish citizen of ‘foreign birth’, then, once that had been confirmed with a certificate, I applied for a passport, which a few weeks later arrived from Dublin, via Lisbon. It was straightforward and I dealt with nice human beings all along the way. Across the pages of my new passport run lilting lines of prose, among which are: ‘The Irish nation treasures its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’

Lordy visiting us

Lordy with his breakfast bread

Bony fig tree, soon to come into leaf

Bread: two spelt and seven alfarroba loaves. The alfarroba (carob in English, Johannisbrot in German) was a successful experiment. Almost half the bread’s flour comes from the alfarroba, the rest is rye, spelt and wheat; the crumb is firm and dark and mildly sweet, the crust has a hint of caramelisation. It slices well and keeps well. Not for nothing does the German name of the tree and its fruit translate into English as St John’s bread

Good news

Genuinely good news, at last. The onshore oil-drilling contracts are to be rescinded, and the Attorney General’s Office has declared that the holder – Sousa Cintra – is not eligible for compensation for alleged expenses, in spite (or because) of his ‘increasingly eloquent illegality’. Land-based oil and gas exploration across the Algarve finally looks like it will not happen. Whoever’s been slapping those ‘Fracking’ stickers on the Stop signs around the place can stop it (while being secretly glad that they did it). The sea – and the 14 contracts dished out there – remain a major concern, but this is a real step forward.

Here at home the council are still digging up the riverbed. They used some of the gravel to plug the gullies that had appeared in our dirt road after heavy rain. I’m grateful for that – it was not easy driving Rollie over them – but I have a better solution in mind. Next week we hope to start looking at the prospects for permaculture on our hill. Once we begin to develop the hill, one of the many advantages – as a result of having more trees and small plants, and more mulching – will be that its soil will hold more water and there will be less run-off to carve up the road in the first place.

The weather is chilly and the old men who sit on the bench in the village wear blankets over their knees. Rather touchingly, they had two between five, so two pairs of knees were under a red blanket and three pairs under a beige one. Husband always greets them when he drives past. He’s planning on being able to join them in years to come.

Short but sweet this week. I will leave you with a list of the birds that are keeping us company in and above the garden these days: red-legged partridge, song thrush, jay, blackbird, azure-winged magpie, black redstart, robin, crested lark, stonechat, crag martin, Sardinian warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, goldfinch, serin, meadow pipit, white wagtail, long-tailed tit, great tit, house sparrow, little owl, kestrel.

First grapefruit from the tree, for breakfast

On filling up at our local petrol station and stopping for a galão in the café, which came in this Renault 4 mug

Estrela often stops by our place to get some dry bread to chew on


Black Redstart

Our small hibiscus tree has managed never to be without a flower in the months since we got it

Our potted hibiscus tree has managed never once to be without a flower in the months since we got it

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill (‘9’ on the trunk means it was last harvested of cork in 2009)

It has been remarked that I don't show Husband's bread any more. I guess I've just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery

It has been remarked that I don’t show Husband’s bread any more. I guess I’ve just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery; here are the latest

Lemon in the early morning

Lemon in the early morning


The Little Owl and the Black Redstart were the very first birds that came into our lives when we moved into our house in the valley almost two years ago. The Little Owl has stayed around ever since. The Black Redstart left in our first spring and didn’t return for the winter; I missed it. But now it’s back, having skipped a year. It clicks and flicks and dips around the veranda and the roofs of our house and our neighbours’. It has taken a great liking to the swallows’ balcony. When the Red-rumped Swallows built their mud nest around a hook in the veranda ceiling this year, they began with a small extension facing outwards, which looked like it would be the entrance tunnel. They then turned their backs on the extension and grew the nest instead towards our front door, with the bottle-neck entrance facing just where we emerge from the house. The rear extension was perhaps a mistake, or a practice run. It stayed unused all summer – but no longer. The returning Black Redstart has found it to be the perfect perch and vantage point.

The clocks have gone forward. It’s now easier for a lie-abed like me to get up and walk up the hill before sunrise (currently around 7 a.m.). The valley in the damp morning is fragrant: woody, spicy and herbaceous, and ambery, too, from the sticky leaves of Cistus ladanifer. The earth is also greening by the day. By midday the sun is warm and the season feels more like spring than autumn. We have made a cabbage patch and a lettuce patch with small plants we bought at Santa Catarina’s monthly market: 15 seedlings for 1 euro from a friendly farmer; we bought two lots of cabbages and one of lettuce. When the spring-like day comes to an end it feels chilly and damp again, so we’ve started lighting the fire: a treat.

I’ve finally done something I should have done two years ago, and joined the Portuguese language classes held in the town of São Bras. I was told about them at the start of our time here but I was terrified of driving then. Now me and Rolie are best mates and like nothing better than an outing. So we rolled up to a class where I found a charming and expressive elderly teacher, who places great emphasis on pronunciation – very important – and, even better, at the end of the class bumped me up to a higher level. Still beginners, mind you, but a little confidence boost is a good thing. Thursday will see how I get on at level II.

Assembleia da República

I have been to England again, this time to attend my uncle’s funeral, and missed last Wednesday’s trip to Lisbon for the debates in the Assembleia, the response to the petitions delivered by anti-oil group PALP. Three buses, filled by many schoolchildren and a few dozen adults, left from the Algarve. Husband was among them. When he called me that evening he sounded annoyed, even a little shaken, by the experience the adults had undergone. The schoolchildren and a small group of petitioners with prior clearance gained relatively easy access. For the remainder to get into Portugal’s proud ‘house of national democracy’ to witness an open debate proved almost impossible. Armed uniformed men took them in groups of three, having first demanded they deposit all their belongings into plastic bags that were sealed and locked away. Once through, Husband had his sweatshirt yanked up to reveal his ‘Don’t Spoil the Algarve’ T-shirt, which he was then ordered to remove. He was made to go out, add the T-shirt to the bag – which had to be opened, sealed again and put back in the locker – and return. The treatment was peremptory and intended to be intimidating. Everyone was given a text to read, available in Portuguese, French, German and English, which threatened a prison term of three years if any expression of opinion was made in any form once they were inside. When they finally got in, the debate was under way, but the petitions had been moved on to the bottom of the queue; in the end, most of the issues relevant to us were neither debated nor voted on. It felt like a day of democratic failure.

The bridge

Our next planned action is for Sunday, a joint demonstration with the Spanish to take place on and around the Guadiana International Bridge that spans the river border between the southern Algarve and Spain. As always, I’m anxious about it, but I’ll try to do my bit.


Sagres birdwatching festival

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)



Female Blackcap (close)

Female Blackcap (close)


A row of small white cloth bags hung from hooks next to a VW camper van. The suspended bags shifted and wriggled a little. Inside each was a bird, caught in a net earlier that morning and about to be ringed. We were in Sagres for a weekend of birdwatching, timed to coincide with the peak period of southward migration, and the ringing session was a fascinating event. It enabled you to get close to birds you never normally see more than a fleeting glimpse of, and to learn about them. As many were on migration but hadn’t yet travelled far, they were nicely fat. The ornithologists blew on each bird’s belly to separate the feathers so we could see the white spots of fat dotting the red muscle where the bird had been successful in feeding itself up. The audience of observers had the opportunity to release the birds once they’d been examined, measured, weighed and ringed. Husband held a Sardinian Warbler with infinite care then gently let it free. (I’m typing this in the garden and there’s a Sardinian Warbler in a bush just a few metres away.) My bird, a Whitethroat, got the better of me and was off like a shot before I’d barely registered its few grams of weight in my palm. I must have been too tentative in my hold. Now that I know the technique – even if not yet mastered – I’d have made a better job of freeing that small bird from the grille of the Peugeot a few weeks back. Or at least, in holding the neck gently between two fingers, I would have been able to avoid being stabbed by its ungrateful beak.

We missed the planned release of two eagles, however. They were being kept back for the visit of the Minister for the Environment, a fairly useless fellow, it seems to me, and a waste of good eagles. He paid a visit to Tavira several weeks ago, and Husband and others were there to wave anti-oil flags in his face. When asked by a journalist what he had to say about the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil and gas producer, he said that, well, it didn’t have anything to do with him . . .

Sagres is in Vila do Bispo district, the Cornwall of Portugal. The light there is brilliant. I thought we were spoiled for sunlight here in the eastern Algarve, but there’s an extra quality to the light in the far south-western corner of the land. It’s still the Algarve, only one and a half hours’ away, but so different, with cliffs and surf and a wind that burnishes the skin.

We wore our protest T-shirts, of course. We also wore white wristbands as attendees of the birding event. The combination of matching T-shirts and white plastic wristbands made me wonder if we looked like we’d escaped from somewhere. We none the less got into a number of conversations with other visitors to the town, mostly Germans, who referred to facing similar threats from aggressive fossil-fuel extraction back at home. I don’t know why more British people don’t connect in the same way.

On the morning that we had left home to drive to Sagres, we saw our swallows leave their nest. They were down to three. (I will probably never know if the fourth’s early departure was for Africa or the great hereafter.) The third and last bird is one of life’s cautious types (I sympathise); it edged forward then back, forward then back, its big round eyes and small face framed by the mud of the narrow entrance it didn’t dare to leave. I had to turn my back on it in the end so it could fly off and catch up with the other two. We weren’t surprised when we returned home on the evening of the third day to find the nest silent and empty. We hope they fare well on their journey to West Africa.

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home, and admiring all their protests

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home and admiring their protest signs (and having so far forgotten to remove the wristband)

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo, showing a percebes (shellfish) collector getting spattered by an oil-filled sea


Red-rumped Swallows

One of our swallows on the wire

One of our swallows on the wire, looking at me

Another view

Turning away

And flying off

Its companion flying off

Every sunset, four young swallows return to their nest on our veranda. They arrive one by one, not always in close succession. Each swoops under the veranda roof, executes a 180-degree turn in the tight space between front door and tunnel opening, tucks back its wings and delivers itself into the nest. There will be some twittering between the first and second, and by the time the third and fourth arrive there will be a full radio-tuning session, no doubt as they negotiate turning around and aligning themselves in the tight space inside.

If we get close enough to watch them, they show some hesitancy, pull off a few dummy runs, then pour themselves into the nest all the same. They don’t dive for our noses any more; they must have chilled.

The next day, some five to ten minutes before sunrise, they leave, one by one. If it has rained or is cloudy – which has happened a couple of times – they are later getting up and we have a better chance of catching sight, or at least sound, of them. We are as sure as we can be that these four are the offspring, and that the adults spend their nights elsewhere. During the day we have seen all six together in the valley, feeding and flying.

One day soon they will be gone. We’ll miss them, and be keen for their return next year.

Father Christmas has gone, finally. A big and still ongoing tidy-up at Flaviano’s means that Father Christmas, the life-size, Coca-cola Santa with an American accent (yes, it sings), has finally been stashed away in a side room and no longer greets the grocery-shoppers and beer-drinkers. The round lady has been busy with orange paint on the cupboards beneath the counters; I think she is the force behind these improvements. She might also be the force behind the new pet: a tiny, bug-eyed, wobbly legged dog called Lassie. Lassie licked my fingers furiously, spindly legs going every which way, when I bent down to greet her on her blanket. Then I stroked her ribcage and she seemed to hover with delight, all mad shaking suddenly stilled.

Our bread sales go up all the time. The protest T-shirts are selling well too – all proceeds to the cause, of course. Oh, but these are not happy days. Every step forward gets rolled back. Among the latest is that the contracts assigning drilling and fracking rights across some 40 per cent of the Algarve’s land area to Sousa Cintra’s Portfuel have mysteriously been declared legal by the attorney general, even though they did not meet the legal requirements for such contracts. That seemed one of the easiest cases to win, so how come it lost?

And we attended a summer university session in Olhão, as part of a ‘citizens’ legislative initiative’ (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – oil money, don’tcha know), about amending the decree law of 1994 which lays Portugal open for oil business. Husband, speaking good Portuguese, stood up to say that seeking to amend this law for the benefit of the environment was like trying to turn the Manual for the Inquisition into a Human Rights Charter. He got a round of applause, but it’s all to no avail. We’re trying to mop up a titanic oil spill with cottonbuds. The law needs to be scrapped, is all.

PS The spectacular bruising on my leg has abated, and the calf muscle is nearly fully repaired. Thanks for asking. How amazing the human body can be at fixing itself.

I know nothing of reptile reproduction, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a tiny gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool, and released it into the wild garden behind

I know nothing of reptile reproductive cycles, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a minuscule gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool and released it into the wild garden behind. I believe it’s a male Large Psammodromus; I failed to capture the full length of its tail in the photograph

Swallow family

Baby swallow: 'Where's my food?'

Baby swallow: ‘Where’s my food?’

Parent arrives with food, having decided - eventually - to ignore me and my camera lens

Parent arrives with food, having decided – eventually – to ignore me and my camera lens


A couple of days after the demise of the unfortunate baby swallow, an entire swallow family emerged from the nest: four fully fledged, perfect young birds. All the more reason to conclude that the dead one was the runt and considered superfluous to the survival of the family group. Nature takes no prisoners.

We think there are four juveniles. What with the occasional visiting adult of unknown relation, and all the fast and playful dipping and swooping done by the newly fledged, plus the fact that they are only just discernible from adult birds, it’s hard to be sure exactly how many there are. Nor have they completely left the nest. They spend most of their time back in there, being fed by the parents, and how they all fit inside is a mystery. They do not emerge at the entrance to the tunnel to take food but do peek out occasionally, then retreat if one of us is around.

The parents are less tolerant of us than they were. They endured the daily photography during the nest building. After nest completion, everything went rather quiet for a while. This wasn’t the loud, in-your-face hatching and rearing performed by the sparrows last year. Just the simple, sudden appearance after the appropriate amount of time – about five weeks – of a group of perfect young birds. Now that the parents have newly airborne young, if we stand too long at the entrance to our own home they are inclined to fly towards our noses then jink before contact. I wouldn’t say it’s aggressive, exactly. I don’t think it’s over-friendly either. All the same, we love them, the entire Red-rumped Swallow family, and it’s wonderful to think that they are likely to return year after year.

If we lie on the sunbeds in the garden at the end of the day (such as when a house-guest is taking care of the evening meal; see below), we can watch the parent swallows as they circle endlessly overhead, collecting food. We can also watch the Bee-eaters. They glide their fabulously coloured geometric shapes against the brilliant blue sky as they return to their roost in a nearby valley. Between long glides they will fast-flutter then brake and spin on the spot, perhaps plucking insects out of the air, perhaps testing and displaying their flying prowess.

A young visitor from New York stayed with us this week. She slept out under the stars, which is perfect in the month of August. I did it myself about ten days ago, to watch the Perseid shower at its peak on the night of 11/12th. I made a comfortable nest on the sunbed, gazed deep into the infinite stars and waited for the show to begin . . . then woke up as dawn was breaking, having missed it all. Our starlight-sleeper woke up after her final night with one eye half closed thanks to an insect sting. She googled a remedy, reluctantly concluded that sourcing it from the side of a hill in back-of-beyond Portugal was unlikely, and approached Husband for help.

Husband went to the knife drawer. This caused initial consternation.

He sliced a leaf off the Aloe vera plant in the garden and squeezed out some gel to soothe over the swollen eye. The eye was back to normal within a few hours.

‘Wow, you guys have everything here,’ she said. Coming from someone born and bred in one of the best-supplied cities on earth, this is something. And I think she might be right.

The googled remedy, by the way? Aloe vera.

Our next anti-oil action is scheduled for Sunday and is to involve kids. Among the activities there are to be human letters in the sand again, but I’m going to let it be more ad hoc this time. No more angsting over that for me.

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

I never tire of visiting beautiful Tavira. By the Roman Bridge at midday, low tide

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