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.