Sunday, March 25, 2012

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

Our most brilliant birds are back

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.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Yellow splendour in springtime

Mellifluous, mellow yellow is one of the most predominant colours in the countryside at this time of the year. The immense variety of wild flowers providing it is bewildering.

The big yellow turn-on starts in February with various types of Mimosa trees blossoming along roadsides. In February too, swathes of Bermuda Buttercups emblazon fields, meadows and wastelands. Neither Mimosas nor Bermuda Buttercups are native to this part of the world but they have made themselves very prominently at home here.

By March, broom is in full in bloom and it greatly enlivens scrub land that might otherwise be rather dull. There are many species of broom, especially in the Mediterranean climatic zone. One of the commonest in the Algarve is the Great-flowered Broom (Cytisus grandiflorus), which is similar to the Common Broom (Cytisus scoparius) of Britain and other northwest European countries. Great-flowered Broom flourishes as big, bushy shrubs, often in the mild shade of cork oak trees, as shown on the right. The almost leafless Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum) grows even bigger, up to four metres tall. Closely related Genista Greenweeds or Gorses are shorter and spinier but often grow in close harmony with brooms.

Cork Oak and pine woodland are the normal habitat of Sage-leafed Cistus, a low, profusely growing shrub. The flowers, which usually grow singly on relatively long stalks, are small and white with a bright yellow centre. The much larger white-petalled Gum Cistus has a characteristic purple patch at the base of each petal. It clothes vast tracts of hillside, whereas the closely related Algarvian Rock Rose, easily identified by its yellow petals, is much less common.

The woody cones on pine trees are the female variety that produce seeds. The similar shaped but much softer and yelower male cones are full of pollen. Strong breezes distribute the pollen widely. Gusting winds can create minor dust storms and cause clouds of pollen to settle in swimming pools and other places it is definitely not wanted.
Mostly though, the lemon and saffron-splattered landscape is rejoicing with Crown Daisies, Field Marigolds, Yellow Lupins (right) and any number of other spring flowers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The love life of White Storks

There is a lot of bill clattering going on at the moment. It is the sound of White Storks expressing their affection for one another. It doesn't sound very romantic or melodic, but it's the best storks can do. They don't have the vocal chords of Nightingales. They don't have any vocal chords at all.

Storks don't have any inhibitions either. Hence, they don't mind conducting all aspects of their domestic affairs in full public view. Just as well they're monogamous and pair for life. Actually, that's not always strictly true, but since time immemorial they have been regarded as the epitome of fidelity.

The same cannot be said of all birds, of course. Some species of sweet-sounding songbirds are wantonly polygamous. Some demure shore birds are rather secretly polyandrous. There's none of that sort of rampant two-timing with storks.

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.

If a pair of storks decide to build a nest on a heavy-duty crane towering over a building site, such is their mythology that it can cause a dilemma for the building contractor. Work will probably have to halt. A few years ago a nest of storks delayed the filling of Portugal's newest and biggest man-made lake by five weeks. It only resumed after the youngsters were old enough to leave the nest.

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.

When the eggs hatch after about five weeks, the dual-care duties will continue unabated. Both males and females will feed the young for another two months or so before the offspring are ready to take to the air. Some of them will disperse. Others, both immature birds and adults, will congregate in large flocks in favoured localities during the autumn and winter months.

Apart from their passionate bill-clattering during the breeding season, White Storks throughout the year have another endearing characteristic. They like to take time out to soar around on thermal wind currents with their long wings fully outstretched, giving the distinct impression that they're at ease and without a care in the world.

Okay, admittedly this blog is anthropomorphism run riot, but maybe there's a lesson here for us all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Azure-winged Magpies on the way out?

Researchers have predicted that Azure-winged Magpies could lose up to 95 percent of their already tightly restricted range in Europe because of global warming. Surprisingly, some bird-lovers would welcome a significant drop in their numbers - though there is certainly no sign of it yet.

The Azure-winged Magpie is one of the Algarve's most distinctive birds. For visiting birdwatchers who haven't already see one, it is high on their tick list. Few will be disappointed because there are plenty of Azure-wings around and they are usually both highly visible and noisy.

The species takes its name from the colour of its wings and tail, but this may not be the first colour you notice. The velvet black forehead, crown and nape contrast with the white throat and the pale underparts. The back is a warm ash brown next to the cool blue of the long wing and even longer tail feathers.

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.

Estimates put the number of breeding pairs in southern Iberia at well over a quarter of a million, but that could change drastically over the next 50 years if the predictions of a major study published in the journal Nature in 2004 are to be believed. The report concluded that a quarter of all land and plant species in the world may be driven to extinction if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced.

Researches in Britain and the Netherlands, including ornithologists from the RSPB, named the Azure-winged Magpie as one of the top ten climatically threatened bird species in Europe. They anticipated a loss of between 50% and 95% in its range, depending on its ability to disperse and occupy new suitable areas in response to habitat changes brought about by global warming.

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.

Each pair bonds monogamously for life and both immature and adult birds within a non-territorial breeding colony help their fellow Azure-wings in a highly flexible way with nest building, supplying food to incubating females, feeding the young and even removing faecal sacs from nests.

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.”

Colin (who took the three Azure-wing photos) has personally witnessed a group of ten or so attack and kill a Song Thrush for no apparent reason. They will also take eggs and young from the nests of other birds. “Their aggressive behaviour is having a detrimental effect on the populations of garden breeders such as Blackcaps, Serins,Woodchat Shrikes, Blackbirds and Golden Orioles,” says Colin.

If Azure-wing numbers continue to increase at the current rate, he thinks “a controlled cull might be in order to halt the decimation of our passerine population".

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weevils and caterpillars ready for action in the palms and pines

This is a pivotal time of year for the Red Palm Weevil and the Pine Processionary Moth. They are regarded by many as the top two most destructive and least endearing creatures in southern Portugal - but you've got to admire them for their tenacity and will to survive.

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.

It is the ravenous appetite of the tunnelling grubs that causes the most damage to the trees. By the time obvious symptoms are showing, a tree is likely to be already heavily infested and its fate sealed.

On emerging bloated from the trunks and ready for the next stage in their short lives, the grubs construct oval cocoons of palm fibre in which to pupate. A fortnight later the metamorphosis is complete and yet more long-snouted adult weevils are gung-ho to reproduce on the same tree, or fly off to others within a radius of five kilometres.

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.

Each nest consists of a silky ball - larger than a tennis ball, smaller than a football - secured in a sunny spot in the outer foliage. The nocturnal caterpillars occupy it throughout the autumn and early winter, snuggling up together during the day, venturing out to feed in fine weather at dusk, returning at dawn. Ah, what a life!

In February and March the fully-grown caterpillars descend and trek overland in long, head-to-tail lines to find suitable soil in which to bury themselves, form cocoons and pupate so that the whole life-cycle can start again.

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

Almonds, wattles and witches' weeds

The dominant colour in the Algarve countryside at any time of the year is green. There are a great many shades of green thanks to the myriad types of evergreen trees, shrubs and undergrowth plants that thrive here. Amid all this greenery, the most outstanding colour now is the pinkish white of the almond blossom and the yellow of the Bermuda buttercups and mimosa.

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.

Like the almond blossom, mimosas are blooming earlier this year. Some are are already in full colour even though it is usually late February or early March before they are looking their best. Covered with their vivid yellow flowers, they look lovely lining the road from the Portimão area up to Monchique for example.
Otherwise known as acacias or wattles, they are highly invasive foreigners and not universally popular because of their tendency to barge their way through gardens and countryside, pushing aside indigenous or more desirable flora.

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.

Datura is one of the 'witches' weeds'. Hell's bells, they say it's strong stuff. Ingest any part of it and you are liable to be off with the fairies – and perhaps off to hospital too. This might explain why the princess thought that outside her castle window suddenly looked like the land of Santa Claus.