Birdlife

Week 47: Taxi driver

Thanks to recent rain, the swimming spot is even clearer and deeper . . .

Thanks to recent rain, the swimming spot is even clearer and deeper . . .

. . . and much, much colder. A wetsuit would be required to swim now

. . . and much, much colder. A wetsuit would be required to swim now

Convolvulus (bindweed): a newer flower on the block

Convolvulus (bindweed): a newer flower on the block

Borage doesn't show its pretty face to the world; I propped this flower up on a stalk of grass

Borage doesn’t show its pretty face to the world; I propped this flower up on a stalk of grass to photograph it

 

Our car – the big jeep, not Rolie the Quatrelle – developed a noise as we were driving along: some kind of bearing. We dropped it off at a garage, got a lift from the mechanic into town and a taxi ride back home from there. The taxi driver, a smooth-talker wearing a large gold ring, drove his big car along the final stretch to our house, the two kilometres of dirt track, at something like walking pace. He raised not a speck of dust. I might have suspected him more of concern for his suspension than for the natural environment were it not for what he was telling us. He had by now switched from English to Portuguese and picked up a bit of Fado-like melancholy too. He told us something that made us rather sad. I’ll come back to it.

Birds

Our little owl has been very perky and active these past few weeks, particularly at around 3am. At this time of night, its call is like that of a drunkard who has lost his keys, or at least lost the dexterity to use them. It emits a long whistle in the direction of the bedroom, hoping to raise the occupants of the house. I imagine it lurching from side to side as it does so. It thinks the whistle is fine, low and perfectly directed to do its job. In fact, the whistle is uneven and raucous enough to raise the entire street (were there a street to raise). After many repeated whistles, all clearly being ignored, it gives up. It sits back on its feathery haunches. Luckily, it is a contemplative drunk, not an aggressive one. So it entertains itself for a while trying out a few other, gentler sounds: various kinds of ‘Ooooh’. Then, finally, it flies off.

We sometimes hear the little owl during the day, too, but haven’t yet seen it in clear light. I guess it doesn’t want to make itself known after its carry-on in the night. No doubt a bit of shame attaches to its feathery mien of a daytime.

The serin is another bird we have become accustomed to: a small, yellow creature, brown-streaked, bustling and busy. What identifies it strongly is its manic song. Imagine a glass-bead necklace breaking and the beads shattering, one by one, on a tiled floor. Then speed that up about twenty times and repeat it. There you have it: the call of the serin.

We are also getting plenty of visits from a pair of red-rumped swallows, who swoop in under the terrace roof and check out the nest. Splats of mud below tell a tale of home improvements under way. The sparrows also continue to show an interest in the same spot, and their recent broken egg – tragedy or mistreatment? – was evidence of their stake in it. The two couples, sparrow and swallow, are often to be seen on the wire together. Is it some kind of stand-off?

What the taxi driver told us was that our valley was once much more full of wildlife than it is now, and he put the blame firmly on the hunters. This made me look at the abundance of our birdlife in a different way. Perhaps it’s not that abundant. Some of the birds we know individually – can that be right? The skies should be a flight path of birds migrating north from Africa now, but we have seen only one booted eagle. Then again, some species hang out on their own. It’s breeding season, so none of the birds will be going round in flocks. We don’t scan the skies all day long for migrants; far from it – there’s work to do. But still. Even in paradise, one worries.

The only time we’ve been aware of the hunters ourselves is when they made Horse bolt (see Week 32). Apart from that day, we haven’t heard gunshot. What we have heard is plenty of negative opinion about hunters, and from many different people. Then again, you can’t have your wild boar and eat it, can you? And I’ve eaten some delicious wild boar since we’ve been here. If the hunters are after boar, rabbit and partridge, would they have an effect on small birds too? I’ve got so much to learn. Talking of which:

The remarkable fig tree, Ficus carica

continues to absorb me. My inexpert summing up so far goes like this. You don’t see the flowers on the fig tree (see Week 45) because they are inside out or, rather, outside in. They are hidden in a structure called a syconium. Fertilisation is by a specialised insect, the fig-tree wasp (a entire, tragic, fascinating story in itself), which can get in but not necessarily out. The syconium increases in size and becomes ready to eat: the fig. Cut a fig open and you expose the flower for the first time. Staggering, and wonderful. And apparently this has been going on for tens of millions of years.

Five loaves: walnut, olive & sage and many-seeded

Five loaves: walnut, olive & sage and many-seeded

Always my favourite

Always my favourite of Husband’s wonderful breads

Week 45: Simple pleasures

A meadow in our garden

A meadow in our garden

Long shadows by the river. The weather has become warm enough at the same time that the river is still deep enough in places to swim in, though we have yet to try it out

Lavender

Lavender

I cannot resist the gum rock rose; the resinous scent of its sticky leaves fills the air

I cannot resist the gum rock rose, as commonplace as it is; the resinous scent of its sticky leaves fills the air

Bugloss on stony ground

Bugloss on stony ground

 

Most weeks this blog writes itself, which is lucky. Over the course of the week impressions coalesce, an idea forms, and when I sit down to write, the piece emerges almost complete from some unconsidered part of my mind. But not this week. This week there is such a clamour of impressions and thoughts that I don’t know where to start.

The week started cold. We lit the fire at nights, and a couple of times in the morning, too, to take the chill off breakfast. Now a fire is a laughable notion. Our lives have moved outside. The evenings are warm enough to sit out, wrapped in a warm breeze, stars alight in the deep-dark sky. (I have longed for this time.) The beach, empty and windy when we visited a week ago, is today full of people enjoying the heat, with sun-loungers and umbrellas spread out for hire. The sand glints and the sea is silver-bright. Hoopoes sit by the roadsides that lead to the beach, then fly up and display their 1930s-dressing-room glamour in peach and black-and-white feathers.

I’m learning to temper my impatience to know what everything is, though I was pleased to identify the curry scent along the tamarisk-lined walk to the beach as a plant: helichrysum. In the garden the scene changes daily: new leaves in vivid green; fattening clusters of carob pods; ever more blossom in shades of pink and white; increasing numbers of flowers, both garden – white iris has taken over one corner – and meadow. The vegetable beds are producing radishes and sugar peas, the first of our own crops.

The red-rumped swallows swoop in and out but still have not taken over the nest. House sparrows, on the other hand, are paying it intermittent but rapt attention. I noticed a yellow smear on the ground nearby, then bits of pinky-beige-speckled eggshell. The internet helped me out on this one: a house sparrow egg. An unfortunate loss on the part of the sparrows, squatters unaccustomed to a mud nest, or sabotage by the swallows, who, though they seemingly don’t want the nest, don’t want any other bird to have it either? Impossible for me to know.

And then a few days ago I spent a fruitless hour driving in circles around a large golfing and leisure resort, a Truman Show kind of setting. I never found the place I was aiming for, and I had to give up and go home. My internal compass (frankly, never that good) decalibrated itself totally in the midst of all the bright green grass, white mansions, polished pavements and clearly delineated but undifferentiated roundabouts. Another side to the Algarve; I prefer my lifestyle a little less luxurious.

Recycling

Recycling

The flourishing, if mysterious, fig tree

The flourishing, if mysterious, fig tree

False fruit?

False fruit?

Fig

From all this clamour emerges a small obsession with the fig tree. Ours, only weeks ago a bundle of smart but dead-looking sticks, is now covered in leaves and fruits. Leaves and fruits: how does that happen? The budding botanist is baffled. Alan Davidson, brilliant twentieth-century polymath and foodie, does not help. In Fruit he writes: ‘The fig is botanically not a single fruit but almost 1,500 tiny fruits, which are normally what are thought of as the seeds.’ I see. He goes on: ‘. . . its fruits [are] fixed to the inside of a vase-shaped structure, termed syconium. Earlier, at the flower stage, the syconium is the same shape but much smaller. The syconium contains both male and female flowers.’ I am no nearer to understanding this one. Clearly the only thing to do is to wait and see what happens on the tree.

Sleepy dog on a warm pavement in Tavira

Sleepy dog on a warm pavement in Tavira

Week 44: Picapau

woodpecker

Lesser spotted woodpecker on our telegraph pole; the bird is about 15cm long. Not a great capture, but you get the idea

 

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, we have poor mobile phone reception here at the end of the world. The best place to get connected is by the bougainvillea on the front terrace. When the kitchen installers were here, the bougainvillea was hung with so many mobile devices hoping to pick up incoming calls that it got nicknamed the Empfangsbaum, or Signal Tree. The fixed line can be very clear, however, and we have internet access, albeit slow. But over the past ten days or so, our landline and internet connection have been dropping off as well. We’ve also had some real downpours during this time. (Rain! We love it. It’s filling our well and drawing even more spring-time fecundity from the land. Not so great for our current visitors but, since the forecast is for incessant sunshine from any moment now and for the rest of their stay, they are sanguine.)

The telephone engineers came out a couple of hours after we first called. Carlos, the older of the two, climbed the telegraph posts in heavy rain – we all worried about him – and soon got a connection back up. He left his number, and we are to call him directly if we have any other problems over the next thirty days because the issue remains his individual responsibility for that time.

A couple of days later we had to call Carlos again. No answer from him, so we went to the sea to eat fish for lunch and called him again from there, rejoicing in the five-bar connection. By the time we reached home, he was already in our garden, at the top of the telegraph pole.

Picapau,’ he declared definitively, coming into the house to check our telecoms were working again, which they were. The woodpecker takes the blame. It is beyond doubt that the beautiful, tiny woodpecker spends a lot of time rat-a-tat-tatting the posts. We can hear him and see him. The power he delivers is considerable, but the main impact is taken by his own, tiny, specially reinforced-by-mother-nature skull. I don’t quite see how it affects the line. He’s interested in the wood, not the cables and the metal. And couldn’t the rain be a factor? Well, the engineers point the finger firmly at the picapau, and they must know.

Not that the bird cares, I’m sure.

Red-rumped swallows

The birds that are confiding enough to come right on to our front terrace are the black redstart and the robin. They both drink from the bowl of water I leave there at one end of the wall, for their benefit and for mine, because it allows me to watch them from my desk. They each bob, then dip into the water and lift a silver bead to the sun, which disperses from the end of their beak. A few days ago I heard other birds on the terrace, out of sight at the far end, swooping and curving in and out of the space, squeaking and trilling. I went to take a look: red-rumped swallows were checking out the nest. Bigger than the barn swallow, with less glossy colouring and beautiful tail streamers. At last! I was very excited and happy. I had never seen these birds in my life before, and here they were on our terrace, looking for a place to raise their young.

But they haven’t nested, and they haven’t been back. I read somewhere that they only nest in abandoned houses, and perhaps their mud-beaded home dates from a time when the Sensibles were away – they never lived here full-time like we do. Unlike barn swallows, perhaps the red-rumped ones won’t nest near human beings.

This is a shame. On the other hand, their nest is just above the point where two small flights of steps converge on to the front terrace and lead you up to the front doors. (Two front doors because it used to be two houses.) Everyone coming into and out of the house would therefore be risking a journey through prime guano land. And perhaps to add to one tiny bird knocking out our phone and wifi connection another one raining shit on our heads, would be to add indignity to inconvenience. But it’s OK. We know who’s boss here, and it isn’t us. We are still hoping the swallows might come back and take over the nest.

Kitchen

Finished kitchen

Finished kitchen

The kitchen is complete, and for us it’s perfect. The next task is to work on the bread-baking studio. Husband has managed throughout the rebuild to keep us, and everyone who comes under our roof, well fed with his fantastic bread, without any let-up, partly thanks to having frozen some loaves for when we had no working oven; his bread freezes very well. Hats off to him. Then hats back on if the swallows decide to nest here after all.

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