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.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

INLAND BIRDS: where and what to see in winter

Because of our Mediterranean-type climate, many species that breed in the Algarve are not so insistent as they might be in northern climes about spending winter elsewhere. Indeed, because of the relative mildness of our winters, some species are already well into their annual reproduction process.

While some of our birds have migrated to spend the cooler months in sub-Saharan Africa, others have just seasonally dispersed within Iberia, or gone further abroad only on a short term visit.

Among the larger raptors, for example, most of the Short-toed Eagles that nest in the hills across the north of the Algarve are now down sunning themselves in the African tropics, but a few have either stayed behind or have returned early. Rarer Bonelli's Eagles are usually steadfast residents who remain in our rolling hills all year round.

There are two lots of hills stretching east-west from the Spanish border almost to the Algarve's west coast. The Serra do Caldeirão range rises in the north-east of the province, a wonderful, widespread wilderness area. There is a gap at the town of São Bartolomeu de Messines, north of Albufeira, through which runs the Algarve-Lisbon motorway. West of there, it's back to nature in the well-wooded Serra de Monchique range, with a highest point of 900 metres at Fóia.

The easily accessible terrain on either side of the roads running northwards up into these hills from the coastal plain are excellent places to see birds. The Odelouca Valley, which starts west of Silves and climbs steadily and quite dramatically up to the village of Alferce, east of the town of Monchique, is usually bountiful for birdwatchers

But back to raptors.... Of the smaller ones, Kestrels and Peregrines are to be found in winter both near the coast and well inland. Of the owl clan, the Little Owl is the commonest. Because of its diurnal habits, it is frequently seen as well as heard. Often you have to look no further than the top of a nearby telephone pole. The hooty Tawny Owl will start making its presence known in woodlands from February. Meanwhile, not only is the mighty, deep-voiced Eagle Owl oo-huing, some are probably already passionately sitting on eggs.

Hoopoes are also already incubating, though the population of adults generally increases substantially in spring. In contrast to the Hoopoe's repetitive, sombre, double-syllable call, Crested and Thekla Larks are singing their little hearts overheard on open countryside. So is the melodious Woodlark that likes stony terrain with plenty of cistus undergrowth and scattered trees.

Of the aerial experts, Crag Martins - strictly winter visitors - will soon be replaced by House Martins and Swallows arriving from the south. One or two early swallows may not make a summer, but they are a sure sign that even though it is technically still winter, spring is already here. That is abundantly clear in the colour of our most characteristic trees. And that's the subject of my next blog.....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

COASTAL BIRDS: where and what to see in winter

More than 60 species of birds are known to regularly inhabit or visit the coastal areas of the Algarve during the winter months. They are to be found in marshland and tidal estuaries, as well as in coves, bays and the open sea.

The best places to see coastal birds are the three areas that have been officially designated nature reserves. In the far east of the region, a salt-marsh area extends over some 2,000 hectares near Castro Marim and next to the Guadiana estuary. The shallow-watered Ria Formosa reserve, sheltered from the open sea by sand spit islands, stretches almost from Tavira all along the coast to Quinta do Lago, west of Faro Airport. The third reserve covers the whole of the west coast and the south-western tip of the region and features rugged cliffs and headlands. In addition there are excellent wetland birding spots among the golf courses at Vilamoura, at the Salgados lagoon between Albufeira and Armação de Pera, and next to the Alvor estuary.

What birdwatchers are on the lookout for, of course, is the unusual. There are plenty of species here that visiting watchers from the UK and other northern climes are unlikely to see on their home turf.

A cliff-top watch with a strong pair of binoculars from Cape St Vincent or Atalaia Point on the west coast, or better still, on a boat trip out of Sagres, may reveal a few Cory's Shearwaters. They sometimes keep loose company with more northerly-orientated Great and Manx Shearwaters, or even the occasional globe-trotting Sooty, but that is less likely at this time of the year. Cory's do venture as far north as south-western Ireland and England in winter, but they are mainly a southern species.

Cattle and Little Egrets are certainly southern birds and here they are plentiful. Cattle Egrets really do like feeding among cattle in dry fields. They also take advantage of tractor-ploughing activities. By contrast, their similar-looking cousins, Little Egrets, always feed in wet areas. Both species come together in the evenings at communal roosts on certain stacks along the western half of the south coast.

White Storks are familiar summer visitors over a huge chunk of continental Europe, from Estonia to southern Portugal. They mostly winter in Africa , but some hang around here throughout the coldest months. Sometimes you'll see a group of them feeding together in a marsh or wet field. Otherwise you'll see a lone individual or a couple soaring about without a care in the world, or sitting haughtily on a well-establish, but still empty, nest of sticks atop a high chimney.

Another very imposing species, especially when seen in flocks of up to several hundred feeding on a wide expanse of still water on a fine day in winter, is the Greater Flamingo. It's always an exotic sight. Flamingos enjoy it here away from the frantic atmosphere in their breeding grounds in southern Spain.

In contrast to viewing extrovert flamingoes, the Purple Gallinule is a bashful chappie who likes to keep out of sight. That said, quiet and careful observation should result in good views of this fine-looking fellow foraging on the edge reed-beds at Quinta do Lago and Vilamoura. The rich violet-blue plumage and bright red bill and legs are a give-away.

The Stone Curlew is even more secretive. While it is more often heard than seen in spring and summer, the numbers of these birds in sand-dunes and dry marshlands is boosted by winter visitors from outside the region. Your chances of seeing a Stone Curlew are severely limited by its dislike of human intrusion, its early-warning detection system and preference for making a run for it rather than flying.

The glamorous and often raucous Black-winged Stilt is a common breeding bird, particularly in the Castro Marim and Tavira areas. Get too close, especially during the breeding season, and they let you know about it loudly overhead. Many of them spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, but you are always likely to see some wading about in shallow water at Salgados, Alvor and elsewhere.

Spoonbills, Kentish Plovers and Black-tailed Godwits are among the other interesting species frequently encountered mingling with rafts of waterfowl and waders along the Algarve coast at this time of year.

That's the run-of-the-mill stuff. Serious twitchers will be on the look-out for far less common birds, such as Ferruginous Ducks, Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns and plenty more besides.

There are not many bucket 'n spade tourists around yet, but coastal birds are here in abundance.

NEXT BLOG: Inland winter birds

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A new species of cave-dweller discovered

It's a first for the Algarve, Portugal and the world. The newly named Litocampa mendesi has probably been around for millions of years but this hitherto unknown species of insect was discovered only recently because of the specialist skills of a young Portuguese biologist. She found it living in total darkness in Algarve caves.

Ana Sofia Reboleira, of the University of Aveiro, is a speleologist as well as a biologist, with a special interest in the ecology and conservation of subterranean water systems. She found the blind and wingless Litocampa mendesi in the Algarve while working on her doctoral thesis.

Sofia Reboleira is credited with earlier discovering three new species of beetle and a pseudo scorpion. This is reportedly the only exclusively cave-dwelling insect ever recorded in Portugal.
Residents and visitors to the Algarve cannot help but marvel at the many caves and caverns along the south and west coasts, but inland caves are much more tucked away and less known.

Elsewhere in the world, insect species that only inhabit caves usually have no close relatives above ground. They are also usually restricted to fairly confined areas. The depths of caves are home to many other types of life including molluscs, crustacea, mites, and arachnids such as harvestmen and spiders.

Nutrition is available to them in the form organic matter that has seeped into the subsoil or been borne along in streams. Another major source of nutritive material are the droppings and dead bodies of bats that sleep in caves by day and feed outside by night.

Sofia Reboleira has published her findings on Litocampa mendesi in scientific journals in collaboration with a Spanish biologist, Alberto Sendra.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A multitude of mushrooms

In more northerly latitudes, fungi are a feature of the late summer to late autumn period. Here in southern Portugal, the peak season is winter, especially with the sort of prolonged heavy rains we've had recently.

The Portuguese are wary of mushrooms and rightly so. Eating the wrong sort can cause not-very-nice hallucinations, sickness and, in exceptional cases, death. Unless you are absolutely certain that a particular variety of mushroom is perfectly safe to eat, look at it closely where it is growing, admire it, maybe even photograph it - and leave it alone.

The most notorious fungal species in Portugal is the Death Cap, Anamita philloides, usually found growing innocuously enough under trees. Unfortunately the Death Cap looks rather like some species of edible mushroom. The imposing cap is greenish or yellowish in colour, paler at the edges, with a white stripe. It measures 5 cm to 15 cm (2 to 6 inches) across and presides over a elegant, pale-coloured stem. Don't be fooled by the sometimes honey-like smell. It turns sickly sweet with age. Death Caps are said to taste quite pleasant. Don't test it. The toxins in this dastardly toadstool attack the liver and kidneys and have caused countless deaths since ancient times.

A walk though open woodland may reveal the weird and wonderful Helvella crispa, the Elfin Mushroom, otherwise known as the Saddle Mushroom because of its saddle-shaped crown. Creamy white in colour, it is easily identified by its thick, intricately ribbed and furrowed stem. Its cap is contorted and curly-lobed. The species is also found in China, Japan, other parts of Europe and the eastern United States. It has a faint odour but no distinctive taste. Opinions differ about whether it should be tasted at all. Eaten raw it may produce gastrointestinal symptoms. Research shows it may be carcinogenic.

So-called Earthstar mushrooms of the Geaster genus are puffballs that take their name from their star-like appearance when mature. Their outer casing breaks open, creating segmented lobes that radiate from a central ball, the spore sack. Earthstars are interesting to look at but of no culinary value.

The generic name of Phallus impudicus gives a strong clue about the shape of what is otherwise known as the Common Stinkhorn. The latter says quite a lot about it too. With its slimy, dark olive, conical head atop a thick white stem 15 cm to 25 cm tall, it may be found growing in garden or woodland mulch. Insects are attracted by its foul odour. They immediately zero in when the fungus suddenly shoots up overnight from its initial, underground egg-like state. Most people are repulsed by the Stinkhorn, but it is not poisonous and some Europeans, particularly in France and Germany, relish eating them. Yuk! There's no accounting for some people's tastes

Whether deadly or a delicacy, mushrooms flourish in an abundance of varieties and finding and identifying them is an excellent reason for getting out into the damp southern Portugal countryside at this time of year.