Reptiles

Chains

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the 'ghost' nest again. We still hope they will rebuild it. Plenty of mud by the river . . .

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the ‘ghost’ nest again and, what’s more, carrying mud to it in their beaks. Spots of the mud have fallen to the ground. I guess it takes a while to get the foundations to stick

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

 

We wake up to birdsong. We get up to find the kitchen covered in thrumming wires of ants. They crisscross the floor and travel up the walls. It doesn’t matter that we leave the kitchen spotless at the end of the day, it only takes a homeopathic trace of something sweet in an overlooked spot to bring them in overnight. Confident in nature’s sustainable surplus, we vacuum them up, the sound of the hoover drowning out the birdsong. This goes on for half an hour as they continue to stream in. Not only are we confident that the species will survive whatever we do to it, we are also confident that our own colony will survive whatever we do to it. Somewhere beneath the soil in the garden is an ant volcano, spewing ants.

After four days, they stopped coming in. The lava flow dried up. The message filtered back to the colony that the house was out of bounds.

Another distinctive note in the house’s soundscape this week has been a snake throwing its body against the garage door. I heard the strange bumping noise before I saw the cause. At the moment our eyes met, it stopped what it was doing and shot off to the other end of the garage wall to disappear around the side. Dark silvery grey on top, pale silver underneath, about 120cm long; I don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I did later discover what it had been trying to do. It had been trying to get back inside the hollow of the garage door.

The snake must have had a few days of calm when we weren’t using the garage. Probably thought it had made a very clever choice, this thoroughly modern dwelling, all angular and metallic. Then the solar engineers arrived and needed to use the garage space, and up and down, up and down went the door, the poor snake’s tail protruding from one side, its home turned into a hideous fairground ride. I think it’s gone somewhere else now. Human beings – we’re not easy to live with, are we?

These speak for themselves

Aljezur protest crosses

Human chain

We travelled east to west, to Aljezur on the other side of the Algarve, to take part in an anti-oil human chain. Aljezur is close to where the first offshore oil drilling is due to take place in July. The meeting time and place was three o’clock outside the town hall. It was quite a long drive but we arrived in good time at about twenty to.

Will we never learn? There was nobody there. Really, not a soul. We went away to drink coffee and came back at five past three, rather guiltily late, and now there were three or four souls there, quite a long way off the amount you’d need for a decent chain. So we hung around, and kicked our heels, and got into a conversation or two, and over the course of the next couple of hours the other links in the chain rolled up. It ended up as a very good solidarity event. Several hundred people, including the local mayor and other dignitaries, and plenty of press too. We made a good display, waving banners and singing and dancing.

It has to be said, it was not a risky chain. We were not surrounding an oil drill or heavy machinery or hostile operators. The only risky part was when two ends of the chain were instructed to move and set off in different directions, and Husband and I and our immediate neighbours somewhere in the middle got stretched out slightly more than was comfortable. The problem was resolved with the help of a loudspeaker, and the chain began moving with more singularity of purpose. We probably need to take chain lessons from ants.

The petition I mentioned last week needed at least 4000 signatures to give rise to a debate at the Assembleia about the west coast drilling plans. It has exceeded its minimum target.

No blog next week because of another kind of overstretch – workload. This means that the next time I write, the results of the UK’s referendum over its EU membership will be known. My postal vote has already been returned to Tower Hamlets in east London. I’ve voted to remain, but in two weeks’ time I might find myself out of sync with my countryfolk, and be typing through a veil of tears.

At Aljezur câmara

At Aljezur câmara

No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies

‘No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies’

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

 

The self-made man – undone?

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda . . .

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium Angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We'd never seen a lizard of this size before. The photo also serves to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We’d never seen a lizard of this size before. Its arrival also served to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

 

When you hear a whistle at your back, a sharp, clear Fee fee-ooo, of course you turn to see who is calling you. It turns out to be the Golden Oriole, whose fluty call is one of the dominant sounds of the valley right now. The bird is about the size of a blackbird; the male is brilliantly yellow with black wings, the female drabber in olive and yellow. Despite the gloss-paint shine of the male bird, he is well concealed in sunlit leafy trees. A couple are often in our back garden and might be nesting there.

Sousa Cintra heard a whistle at his back this week. He has finally been stopped from drilling on a site in Perdigão in the western Algarve. Under guise of drilling for water he was covertly, and slightly ludicrously, engaged in oil exploration. Activists had been monitoring the site, where chemical froth was pooling on the land and running into a nearby stream. A geologist employed by Portfuel – Cintra’s hastily put together ‘oil’ company – was found to have been on site for much of the time; a hardly necessary appointment had Cintra simply been drilling for the water. In a joint action of planning and environment agencies, along with the GNR (the national republican guard), Cintra was told on 27 April to suspend the work.

On 28 April, Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-Minister for the Environment, faced a joint hearing of the parliamentary committees on environment and economy about the onshore oil concessions in the Algarve. He continued to make the mutually-self-cancelling defences that the contracts are for exploration only, and that the people of the Algarve deserve the wealth and the development opportunities that oil will provide. He said that all the fuss about the oil was being kicked up by retired foreigners who wanted to preserve the Algarve as ‘uma terra de índios’: a land of indigenous poor people. As a politician’s view of the people of the Algarve, it’s revealing. Until 1911 when Portugal became a republic, the country was known as ‘the kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve’, and this sense of the Algarve as being ‘other’ seems to prevail.

The money argument is a difficult one. The idea that oil brings wealth is deeply embedded in human culture. However, even if you kick all the environmental arguments into the long grass and pretend that it’s still a good idea to dig up Mother Nature’s fossil fuels, it isn’t going to make Portugal rich. If you compare the planned payments to the public purse of the explorations in Portugal with those of, for example, Norway, the difference is startling. The Portuguese concessions must pay, after all their expenses have been recovered, 3 per cent (to begin with); in Norway it’s 80 per cent. And by the way, why have the payment terms been stipulated when the contracts are ‘only for exploration’?

But we cannot kick the environmental arguments into the long grass. The law which allowed these oil concessions to be awarded is dated 1994, not so long ago in human years, but aeons ago in human consciousness. We emphatically know the risks of global warming now that we only suspected then, and we have dangers now that we’d barely dreamt of then, such as fracking, and its release of methane gas, even worse than carbon dioxide. And we are compelled to act upon this new knowledge. Or we should be, especially if we are the Minister for the Environment. But not so Moreira da Silva.

Then, just to show that he truly is shameless, we learnt that he stood for the post of executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reached the last two in the competition. He didn’t get the gig; it went to Mexican Patricia Espinosa instead. Small mercies.

The local mayoral organisation, who are vocal in their condemnation of the contracts given to Sousa Cintra to explore for oil onshore, are less vocal about the offshore concessions, which are due to start activities in October this year. That’s a whole other battle.

One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender

vetch

Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

Tiny lanterns of Quaking Grass which, true to their name, shudder in finely tuned response to the merest movement of air

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended. A second after this picture was taken, it had disappeared into the water below

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended; disappearance is imminent. A second after this picture was taken, it had dropped into the water below. I was surprised it let me get this close

 

Had I continued to keep count of the weeks, this would be number one hundred. I’m quietly celebrating that milestone. I’m celebrating the rain, too. The sky today has been dark grey, with blooms of white cloud and shafts of yellow light. Our dirt track is running with brown streams and the river is the highest I’ve seen it for well over a year. I dropped into Flaviano’s emporium to collect the post – Nada!, always more of a disappointment for Flaviano than for me, it seems – and the round lady greeted me. ‘How’s about this for rain then?’ she said. ‘Yes!’ I replied (my Portuguese still so limited), and we each raised a thumb, simultaneously. Shared pleasure over rain. Since the relationship between rain falling out of the sky, our well filling up and having water to wash in, cook with and drink is so intimate and direct, it’s impossible not to love the rain.

A few days ago at breakfast Little Owl arrived on his perch (a telegraph pole) and gave us a hard stare. I went to grab a camera but was too late, it flew off. Every day its calls rebound around the valley. At night, the Scops Owl adds its unique sound. We lie in bed at night and hear its solemn and restrained sonar beeps, so unlike the shrieks of the Little Owl. I looked the birds up in a book and discovered that the Scops Owl is smaller still than the Little Owl. Two tiny owls filling our days and nights with sound. We wonder if the Scops Owl, so present in our garden at night, is interested in the nest box we placed in a carob tree up the hill, not far from the bank of solar panels. The box is designed for hoopoes and small owls. I crept up for a look this week: no sign of any habitation.

Our little bend-in-the-valley world is filled with melodious nightingales, cisticolas (whose flight pattern and matching call seem to have tightened up: the loops are sharper and the calls more frequent), babbling swallows, whistling orioles and, impossible to ignore, the frantic call of the serin, that tiny, bursting bundle of yellow feathers. I feel for the serin. I hope its energetic song is born of triumph and not desperation.

The effort not to waste lemons continues. The pickled lemons I made a good few weeks back using a Diana Henry recipe, which involved briefly salting the sliced lemons then packing them up in paprika-dusted layers with oil, has been to my satisfaction, but not Husband’s. To appeal to his tastes, I’ve taken a recipe from the Prashad book, which comes from a small, northern English-based Indian restaurant. The first stage is under way: 1 kilo of chopped, pipped lemons – from Maria’s tree – are macerating in a terracotta sludge consisting of turmeric + salt + the juice that came off the chopped lemons. I give the plastic box a good shake every day, and after three weeks they will be ready for the next stage of flavouring.

I have turned my back on the nespera (loquat) tree, whose boughs are weighed to the ground with pink-flushed yellow fruit. There are just too many. The birds can have them. Our fig tree now has full-size, still-green fruit; not for nothing does the oriole (the papafigos, or fig-eater) turn up at this time. I’d like to get the figs before they do, though. They are so exquisite, and last year we had only the first harvest; the weather was too dry for the tree to manage a second fruiting.

We went this week to a day-long discussion session at the University of the Algarve about the ‘economic, social and environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploration in the Algarve in the 21st century’ – a long title for a well-presented but very ill-attended day. More disappointing than the lack of attendance was the presentation from the Portuguese Association for Renewable Energy, who are – it seems to me – failing to promote solar energy, while still spreading the now-discredited theory that natural gas is a halfway house between fossil fuels and renewable energies. We learnt the extraordinary fact that the solar contribution to energy in the UK is twenty-two times greater than it is in Portugal. I don’t need to tell you how much more the sun shines here than it does in the UK – even if this week might have been an exception.

One day this week I noticed something sticking out of one of the back doors. I bent down and took a closer look: it was a little skull. I opened the door to find the rest of the skeleton inside the door jamb. It was a small gecko that had been unintentionally garrotted. I detached its tiny skeleton from the door and let it be taken by the breeze, feeling out-of-all-proportion sad about this tiny, accidental death.

grotto

I like a bit of religion. Here’s Mary in her grotto in the church of Santiago, the pilgrim, in Tavira

When the heart is full . . .

. . . the tongue is empty. This is a saying from the Philippines, or at least how I remember it after many years. This week my heart is so full – with visits from friends, trips to places new and old, the extraordinary, ever-increasing spectacle of spring flowers – that my fingers are silent on the keyboard and pictures can tell the story instead.

At home:

lizard

Lizard. Photograph taken on front veranda by Joseph Karg

lavender2

Lavender

cistus

Rock rose: Cistus crispus

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Asphodel

Asphodel

Meadow

Meadow with shadow

Going back to Culatra:

Man on jetty

Man on jetty

Man on boat

Man on boat

Child on boat

Child on boat

Throwing rope

Throwing the rope

Century cross

Century cross

Worn umbrella

Worn umbrella

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Man in Olhão

Man in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Thank you for your support

Thank you for your support

 

Bufo bufo

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins were swimming through the air, sunlight turning them liquid

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins filled the air above, sunlight turning them liquid

River sparkle

River sparkle

Wading through the river in my new wellies

I can wade through the river in my new wellies

 

I arrived back from England wearing a pair of new, knee-length red wellies, which I’d found on sale in my mum’s village. I had worried about arcane airline regulations that prevent the wearing of long rubber footwear – who knows? – but they weren’t confiscated, though I did have to take them off to get through security. They are the Best Thing. The calf-length wellies that landed me in such cold water a couple of weeks ago have been cast aside, and in my knee-length ones I can wade properly through the river. I was happy to see the river hadn’t dried up in our absence, but equally it has never gone into spate like it did last year, when a torrent of brown water came down and filled the wide, shallow river bed from bank to bank.

At least there was enough water for the toads (Common Toad, Bufo bufo), who came into the water to mate. It was last week, just before we left for England. I saw something moving in the river: a squat and immobile thing, which pulled its head underwater on the approach of a human being but didn’t swim off like a turtle does. It turned out to be one of about half a dozen toads, each the size of a fat fist, waiting around for something to happen. The something was happening in one spot only, as you can see from the picture below. Whether there was only one female – the large one underneath is the female – and the others were males waiting their turn with her, I don’t know. I was disconcerted that they’d chosen one of the fording routes as their mating site and hoped they survived. Mind you, there is only about a car a day – usually ours.

Mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Underwater mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Bufo bufo waiting and hoping

Waiting and hoping

 

So when I returned from England in my wellies I went to see how the toads had got on. Clearly, mating had gone well. They must have all returned to their dry land sites because they were nowhere to be seen, but their translucent tubes of black eggs were left carelessly all over the place. The tubes often lay in pairs, looking like traffic-heavy dual-carriageways, following straight routes until forced to loop around rock obstructions, or piling up into occasional spaghetti junctions. This is Nature’s sustainable surplus at work. If all these eggs resulted in toads, the hillsides would be carpeted with them. As it is, only a tiny few of this vast number will survive. I had a go at working out how many eggs there might be; I quickly gave up. Even estimating the total length of tube wasn’t easy: certainly dozens of metres, maybe even a hundred. With so many eggs, and so few toads needed to sustain a stable population, the parents can afford to abandon them to fate – including the chance of being run over.

Toad egg roads - found on our return

Toad egg roads all through the river at the ford – found on our return

Toad eggs: Nature's miraculous abundance

Toad eggs: Nature’s miraculous abundance

 

Lemons

The lemon trees around here are doing a good job of sustainable surplus too. We had a picnic with friends among sobreiros (Quercus suber; cork oak trees) just before we left for England. It was a perfect day for walking and sunny enough for picnicking. On our way there, driving up the two-kilometre dirt track that is the high street of our local community, we passed Maria and pulled up for a chat. I had a Bulgarian cheese pie cooling on my lap – my contribution to the picnic. ‘She makes nice things,’ said Maria to Husband. (When your Portuguese isn’t that good, you get talked about more than to. I’m happy with that – I can listen in, like a child, trying to learn.) Husband said it was for a picnic, and then Maria insisted we take armfuls of their oranges to add to the spread. Theirs are the sweetest, juiciest oranges, so we were happy to. She also exhorted us to help ourselves to the abundant lemons. As we reached into the trees, gently twisting the fruit to see which were ready to fall into our hands, Maria said how much she liked a chocolate cake I’d made recently. It had been too much cake for us – the mood to bake a cake had arrived but without enough mouths at home to eat it – so when Eleuterio appeared on his tractor I had offered him a quarter to take away. It was very well received. ‘I like to bake cakes,’ I explained to Maria, in a sudden burst of Portuguese. ‘And I like to eat them,’ she replied, grinning broadly. She was less impressed, however, with my plans to preserve the excess of lemons with salt. Sweetness rules the day.

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, along with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Week 53: We really live here

Jacaranda in Tavira

Jacaranda in Tavira

Oleander in Tavira

Oleander in Tavira

Back to the beach: we saw dolphins this time

Back to the beach: we saw dolphins this time

Close-up of a gecko: we love these creatures, and most of all when they come inside the house

Close-up of a Moorish gecko on the walls outside: we love these creatures, most of all when they come inside the house

Lizard by the garage:

Lizard by the garage: Large psammodromus (reptile photography by Husband)

A house in the agave (spider version)

A House in the Agave (spider version)

 

It transpires that Husband was not so enchanted with the miracle of sparrow reproduction as I was. In fact, it turns out he was irritated by the whole noisy, antsy, macho procedure. And it’s true that the cessation of that particular din allowed us to tune in for the first time to the lovely song of the goldfinch. We sought to discourage a second clutch. I took down the part of the washing line that was strung below the nest. ‘Good, you’ve got rid of his advertising platform,’ said Husband, of cock sparrow. ‘He’s been shagging every female in the neighbourhood with the promise of that gaff. It’s not even his.’ A few flowers appeared at the entrance to the nest: Husband’s gentle attempt to dissuade the sparrow. The flowers were soon removed by the bird. Next a twig appeared across the entrance: Husband’s second attempt at dissuasion. This proved a little harder for the sparrow to shift, though not impossible. Husband put it back again.

Then, joy of joys, a pair of red-rumped swallows swooped elegantly into the terrace area, just as I was sitting there. The twig sticking out of the nest served as a perch, the pair of them landing together on it with ineffable grace; the twig didn’t move a millimetre. They are unruffled in the presence of humans – unlike the nervy, what-you-looking-at sparrows – and yet they entirely lack the face to deal with the feathered rivals who have ousted them from their home. If only they weren’t so fey. The tension is rising on our terrace, let me tell you. I thought it was over when the sparrows won out the first time, but it seems that was only the start.

We didn’t replace the twig when the sparrow removed it for the second time. Let nature take its course, even if it’s not the course we want it to take.

Heat

The temperature is rising too. The wild flowers are almost completely faded away. In their place on the floral stage, the more showy offerings of jacaranda and oleander. Whereas in January the almonds announced themselves among the otherwise undifferentiated trees with their offerings of pale blossom, now a jacaranda with its fabulous purple ’do stands out among the green globes on a hillside like Molly Parkin suddenly appearing among the ordinary denizens of a small town.

Bakery

This is coming along, but progress has been hindered by the slowness of the electrical connections. That is to say, we trust the three-phase electricity will be fast once it is complete, but it isn’t there yet. The interior wall went up in a trice. Glass panes were made for the internal window above the door by Norwegian artist Taran Flaten. A visiting friend helped Husband get all the painting done (thanks again, Neil). But the electricity company have delayed throwing the all-important switch. The electrical work went through different stages, certificates were produced and shown, payments were instructed at the bank, and personal appeals – accompanied by passports for ID – were made at the office of the electrical company in town. It seems that the electrical company is in the process of privatising and has divested lots of its responsibilities while still holding overall control. This means that work is done piecemeal by private individuals/companies, then has to be certified by other individuals/companies, then has to pass muster by the original electrical company, and ideally not on a Friday afternoon when they never have a working computer system. But I’m happy to say that the electrical company have now given us the go-ahead. Next thing will be the buying of the oven, then Husband can make more than the half-dozen loaves he currently supplies to friends and for home consumption.

Harvest of the second apricot tree: to eat a warm apricot straight from the tree is a considerable pleasure

To eat a warm apricot straight from the tree is a pleasure

I made apricot tarte Tatin using a recipe from a new cookbook I have:

We had so many that I made apricot tarte Tatin using a recipe from a new cookbook we have: A Year’s Cooking in the Algarve by a ‘misplaced’ English chef, Joe Devine

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