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.
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.