Sagres birdwatching festival
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.