O ano novo
The river has risen and spread. It’s not in full spate yet. My ‘Love’ artwork is submerged; I recently had to replace the ‘L’ but otherwise it’s holding strong. I had never expected it to last more than a day and it’s been there for weeks now. The pre-teens got up early every morning and took themselves down to the river to see how the water level had changed, and to rearrange stones, create new water features and select heart-shapes to add to my collection. The ability of the river to entertain them before breakfast was a boon for slumbering adults.
I, too, spend time by the river most days. Now, after several days of heavy rain, I need to wade through it in waterproof sandals if I’m to get anywhere. It’s not particularly cold. In parts the flow is quite strong and pulls at my ankles; in other parts there’s no discernible movement. If the British government were here, no doubt they’d dredge the river to create a single deep channel that would act as a water chute and flood Tavira.
I have my binoculars on me when I go to the river so I can spy on the small birds: White and Grey Wagtails, Long-tailed Tits, Goldfinches, Stonechats and Corn Buntings are among the most easily seen and recognised right now. We also still have our lonely, piping wader. We can’t get close enough for a clear identification, but it’s sure to be something common. My rule of thumb is that if you aren’t sure what a bird is, it’s going to be the most likely option and not a rarity. In this way I have finally decided that the small, olive-brown birds, yellowish underneath and with a stripe through the eye, which fill the reeds with their energetic activity, are Chiffchaffs: common and widespread. You don’t get the opportunity to focus on them for more than a second or two because they are so busy. The best chance to see them is when they come to our garden to feed on the aloe, currently in flower in full view of our bedroom window. What confused me for a time is that they have a dark mark on the face and whiskery-looking feathers around the beak, but I’ve concluded that this is a temporary feature that comes from dipping into long, tubular flowers.
This week I spotted among the Chiffchaffs in the reeds by the river a group of birds of similar size but much stiller. I focused my binoculars on them and was astounded: a thick, orange-red beak and a bright red pennant over the eye. I’d never seen a bird like that before, neither in the flesh nor on a page. Not in Europe, anyway. They were a little like an African finch. How exciting. I went back up to the house in a hurry.
No such bird in our bird bible. I turned to the ‘extras’ at the back, and there I found it. It’s the Common Waxbill: introduced into the Iberian peninsula from Africa. (It would be interesting to know who by and what for.) And guess what? It’s common and widespread, especially in Portugal where it has got a firm claw-hold. No doubt I’ll see it everywhere now.
Maria called. She wanted first of all to thank us for the Christmas gift. They weren’t there when we dropped by with it so we’d had to hang it from their gate. It included a loaf of Husband’s bread, which she said they very much enjoyed. (Their gift to us was a bag of lemons, a bag of oranges – and their oranges are the sweetest and best – half a dozen eggs from their hens and a plastic bottle of their own olive oil: heavenly.) Then she told me that Estrela had had her puppies – this was much sooner than I expected – and did we want any? We didn’t have to decide immediately but over the next couple of days. No problem if we didn’t want them, they just needed to know.
I was pretty proud of myself for getting through a telephone conversation in Portuguese, even if my side of it was stilted and garbled. Maria’s a smart woman and knows how to speak slowly and clearly for those with comprehension difficulties. But the puppy question . . .
We went to see them. Lordy and Estrela met us at the gate: Lordy barking dutifully but wagging his tail; Estrela, however, yapping like a wild thing. We asked Eleuterio if we could see the puppies. The home their mother had chosen, in spite of efforts to encourage her into something more suitable, was the narrow confines of the brick barbecue. She shot back inside at our approach and now she was silent, as though not to disturb her pups. One by one Eleuterio picked them out and showed them to us, while Estrela snatched at the tiny limbs to get them back. They were all returned and she settled down. ‘You’re sitting on one,’ said E to her, rescuing it. But we’d already decided: we were not going to take a puppy. We realised our roots here aren’t deep enough yet, and a puppy is too great a responsibility for now.