Thank you for visiting this site.
I haven't updated for a year because I've been concentrating on a new eBook, now published and available from Amazon. It's called People in a Place Apart. The subject of Nature - both its care and destruction by people - is featured in some the chapters.
Even if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle apps device, you can take a free dekko at the beginning of the book from your computer by going to an Amazon website and typing People in a Place Apart in the search box. Click on to the front cover and then on to the invitation to 'Look Inside'.
I'll soon be publishing as an eBook the English edition of The Fatima Phenomenon - Divine Grace, Delusion or Pious Fraud? A Lisbon publishing company, Guerra e Paz, brought it out as a print book in Portuguese entitled O Fenómeno de Fátima - Graça Divina, Ilusão ou Fraude? just before the Pope's visit to the Fatima shrine in central Portugal in 2010.
Monday, March 28, 2011
The glorious Golden Oriole is back from West Africa, or very soon will be.
For such a vividly coloured bird, the Golden Oriole does a good job of keeping out of sight. It's mainly a heard-rather-than-seen species of open woodland and orchards. Thrush-like in size, it feeds and nests among high foliage and is usually only glimpsed as it dashes from tree to tree.
You are more likely to see males than females. He's a very handsome chap. The brilliant yellow of the body contrasts with the jet black of the wings and tail. The much drabber female is mainly green with some yellowish and greyish bits. Before nesting begins, you may see a male pursuing a female at high speed, both displaying great aerial agility. It's their courtship behaviour.
The commonest give-away that orioles are back is their song. It is as distinct as that of the Cuckoo, though very different in tone. Tropical rain forests may come to mind when you hear the flute-like warble, short but loud, often repeated at ten-second intervals or so. Their other frequent calls are much harsher, more reminiscent of cats than rain forests.
The Golden Oriole's Portuguese name, Papa-figos, derives from one of its favourite foods – ripe figs. When suitably ripe fruit is not available, orioles will happily eat a variety of insects.
Another plentiful and extremely vivid summer visitor just back from Africa is the Bee-Eater. Travelling or hawking high overhead in loose flocks, Bee-eaters announce their presence with their distinctive bubbly trill.
As their name suggests, bees are a prime target, but so are all sorts of other flying insects. With their aerodynamically tapered profile and great manoeuvrability, Bee-eaters are well designed for feeding on the wing.
They are built for speed but, given their colouration, hardly for stealth. Their plumage is positively riotous. Both sexes are the same with great splodges of turquoise-blue and patches of bright yellow, green, chestnut and black.
Bee-eaters can be seen feeding over any kind of countryside but the best close-up views are to be had near sandbanks when nesting. Not only fine aviators, they are accomplished burrowers when it comes to family planning.
The arrival of Golden Orioles and Bee-eaters is all the more welcome because it is early confirmation that summer is really here.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
The bill-clatterers are currently occupying nests atop old factory chimneys, church towers and other prominent vantage spots, often in the middle of villages, towns and cities. They are perfectly safe up there. Humans don't interfere with them because, as we all know, from time to time they bring along human babies. Less well-known is their legendary ability to tell the future.
White Storks always nest within a short flight of meadowlands, marshlands or riverbanks. These are their preferred habits for stalking around on long legs and prodding with long beaks for small mammals, large insects, lizards, snakes, frogs and fish.
Widespread environmental destruction and use of pesticides have caused the collapse of stork populations in some parts of Europe over the past half century. Mercifully, they are still fairly plentiful in the Algarve all year round.
For the next few months they will be concentrating on raising families (like this couple atop a Silves supermarket). Mature adults are now adding sticks to the same nests they used last year and the year before. The males will stay on the great big bundle of sticks most of the time, only leaving to feed. The females will lay four eggs this month or next. Both parents will take in turn to incubate, with much bill-clattering at changeover times.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
This flamboyant colouration together with its boisterous habits and peculiar global distribution make this an intriguing species. The smallest member of the crow family, in Europe it is confined to southern Portugal and Spain. Elsewhere it only found across the other side of the world, in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. But they do not migrate between these two vastly separated locations. They are distinct resident populations.
Fortunately for the Azure-wings, they are not at all fussy about their diet. They enjoy soft fruits, acorns, pine nuts, berries, insects, grubs and other invertebrates. Even when surrounded by plentiful supplies of naturally available food in cork or holm oak woods, they can be easily tempted into the garden by kitchen scraps, even bread crumbs on bird tables. They are especially partial to cat biscuits. A band of azure-wings will come silently raiding with SAS precision for left-overs in pets' bowls close to the house.
The gregarious and energetic character of these birds is most noticeable in the winter when they dash around in foraging groups, usually numbering a few dozen but sometimes 100 or more, vigorously flapping and gliding, jabbering in an excited wheezy sort of way. They often squabble among themselves, but they are also remarkably sociable and co-operative when it comes to breeding.
They are brainy too, among the brightest in the bird world. Along with other members of the crow family (Corvids), azure-wings have a brain-to-body ratio equal to that of the great apes and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). It is only slightly lower than ours. Experiments show that Corvids can out-performs cats and dogs if given clues about the whereabouts of food. They are believed to have a well-developed memory and a capacity for imagination.
The trouble with Azure-winged Magpies, says Dr Colin Key, a resident authority on birds in southern Portugal, is that there are “far too many of them now - the population here must have trebled in the past ten years.”
Sunday, February 6, 2011
The success of the mindless Red Palm Weevil's spread from its native Southeast Asia all the way through the Middle East and right across southern Europe has been remarkable. It is in stark contrast to the hapless efforts to contain it by our own supposedly intelligent species, Homo sapiens. We should also mention in passing that while we blather on about the undesirable qualities of certain bugs, our own destructive instincts are immeasurably worse.
The first weevils to cross the Mediterranean were carried in infested adult palms imported from Egypt to the Costa del Sol in 1994. Although the weevil's traits were already internationally well-known, no importation restrictions were in place in Spain.
Two years went by before the Spanish government got around to imposing such restrictions. The relevant EU authorities dithered. Four years on, Spanish import restrictions were toned down. By then a lucrative trade in decorative palms was flourishing across open EU borders. The weevil was brought into the Algarve in 2007. It is now abundant and causing havoc.
What's happening in the weevil's world right now is that the adults are emerging from their winter hibernation. Females will start laying up to 200 eggs at a time in palm crevices, preferably in Canary Island palms.
The eggs will hatch within a few days and the larvae will start eating their way into the soft inside of the trunks. As these legless grubs devour their way deeper, they grow fatter and as long, if not longer than the adult weevils.
A single palm tree may play host to all stages of this life-cycle at any one time. Four successive generations of weevil may be produced in a single tree in a single year.
Meanwhile over in the pine woods, female Pine Processionary Moths lay their eggs in summer, covering and fastening them to the needle foliage with scales produced in their abdomens. About a month later, the caterpillars emerge and go a'wandering about the branches, spinning temporary shelters here and there before settling down into communal nests.
The processions that give this insect its name are fascinating. Each individual has a gland at the tip of the abdomen that serves as an attachment for the next-in-line. Columns a couple of metres long are common. Twelve-metre columns formed by as many as 300 individuals have been recorded.
The lead caterpillar is not a leader as such. It gets the number one slot by chance and if for any reason it becomes detached from its followers, the second-in-line takes over without much fuss. If the line-ahead formation is broken further back, however, the caterpillars immediately come to a standstill and remain flummoxed until they manage to restore unity or proceed as two separate columns.
Should you encounter a procession, by all means watch it – but also watch out! Be very careful that your natural curiosity keeps its distance. If disturbed, the caterpillars release fine, toxic hairs that float free and can cause severe skin rashes and eye irritations in humans. This defence mechanism is extremely effective against domestic animals too, especially nosy dogs.
The processionary caterpillars have a few other worries. Natural predators include the Hoopoe whose long curved beak is an ideal implement for hoiking pupae out of the ground. Some species of ant prey fiercely upon the young caterpillars. And those toxic hairs don't seem to bother the Azure-winged Magpie, the subject of my next Nature Watch article, next weekend.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Almond blossom always first appears around Christmas. By the end of January and early February the countryside is awash with it. It is now reaching a crescendo.
The almond tree is not native to Portugal. It was introduced during the Moorish occupation, which started in the 8th century and lasted until the 13th. The nitty-gritty of how it came to be here in such abundance is revealed in a sweet little fable about a Moorish princess that has been repeated so often that we are not going to retell it here. Suffice to say that when the princess looked out of her bedroom window in the castle one morning and saw all the almond blossom it instantly cured her homesickness for her native land in the far north. The countryside looked as if it was covered with snow.
Well, almond blossom doesn't look that much like snow, so perhaps the princess had been chewing or smoking Datura leaves, as some people have been doing to get relief from the real world since ancient times. Datura is famously hallucinogenic. But more on that later.
In the old days when almond trees were extensively cultivated for their profitable nuts, there were great swathes of blossom all across the Algarve at this time of year, especially across the Barrocal central belt.
The blossom is still plentiful and on full view if you look seaward, for example, from the road that runs past Alte. It is not in the same profusion as yesteryear, however, because harvesting almonds is of lesser economic importance these days.
Many unattended trees, rows in former plantations, or just a few or individual trees in gardens or by the wayside, are still a glorious sight at this time of year.
The fruit of the almond tree – both bitter and sweet varieties - are ready for harvesting in September. A common sound as well as sight is that of men with long poles knocking the nuts from the branches. After their laborious collection, the fruits are laid out to dry in the sun. The leathery outer hull splits open, curls outwards and discharges the inner nut, which then has to be shelled.
Portugal is still one of the world's main producers and exporters of almonds. Processed almond oil is used as a flavouring essence and by the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. In the Algarve, almonds are used mostly in the making of traditional cakes and confectionery.
Datura is also both bushy and pushy, though not a feature of the wild countryside. Gardeners have mixed feelings about it because it needs a lot of water to flourish well. It flowers erratically and for fairly short periods at different times of the year. When in full flood, it looks magnificent with its large, trumpet-like blooms.