For years the same pair have awakened us every morning with their beautiful singing, smooth as honey and melodious, bringing happiness and sunshine to us. Until a few days ago.golden orioles1 P1030250

Janet called me to say she found them on the front lawn, as you see here. They always fly as a pair, highly acrobatic, close together and fast. I think they must have flown head-on into the conservatory glass before dawn, not seeing it. Both had broken necks and died together.

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We were very upset and I buried them together in the woods where they had their nest.

We miss them immensely and hope their one little oriole will mate and come back next year.golden orioles3 P1030257grave P1030258

“Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap- tap-tap”,  and I looked up from planting melons. “That was slow and loud for a woodpecker” I thought. After a minute of silence “Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap- tap-tap”,  and I thought “That’s a bloody big woodpecker. This, I have to see !” I downed trowel and ambled off in the direction of the sound. We hear the woodpeckers every day, and the last time we saw one it was on the telephone pole near our house.

Walking along our drive I saw a Portugal Telecom van, and all became clear – work on the lines. The man on the ground told me that during the night about four hundred metres of the phone cable to the next village had been cut and stolen. They were replacing the cable.  That was last May.

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This morning we heard voices along the drive so I went to investigate. There was a  Portugal Telecom van in the drive and a man about to climb the pole. “Problem?” I asked. “Woodpeckers,” he replied (in Portuguese, pic-a-pau, peck the pole). I asked for details. He said a client in the next village along the line had lost his connection and the fault lay within fifty metres of this pole. He said that at this time of year woodpeckers are a big problem, just look at your telephone poles. Sure enough they had many inch-deep holes and were mottled with peck marks.

He said they also peck the wires, which is the problem here.

I was astonished as he went on to say they even peck holes in the junction boxes, rip out all the cables, and make their nests in the box !P1030091a

We have wonderful birds on the quinta.  Golden orioles are twelve inches long, JCB-yellow with black wings. A pair sometimes play early in the morning, flying head-to-tail around the pine trees where they live. One of my targets is to photograph them but it’s difficult because they are shy, and they fly very fast aerobatically.

Another target is to clearly photograph the top of a bee-eater. Their size is that of a starling.  They are fast and agile, and they usually fly high. However, two weeks ago I managed to catch these images, taken fifty metres from the birds. In the second picture it caught an insect by flicking its head backwards whilst in vertical flight.

We have a resident colony of perhaps thirty. Their call is like a pea-whistle, so they sound like a school for referees when they come out at dusk to catch their supper, flying high above us in the orange light of the setting sun.

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Yesterday there was a  dead kingfisher on the lawn. The blue feathers on the back are bright turquoise and its beak is as long as my fingers! I thought it may have been a bee-eater which for some reason had no tail, until my bird-watching friend Hugh put me right (thanks!). Puzzling how it came to be there, though . . .

 

The vegetable garden is in full production now. Janet has harvested thirty kilos of tomatoes and sun-dried many of them. We eat a very refreshing gazpacho – a chilled soup of tomato and cucumber – at lunchtime most days, with salad straight from the garden. In this picture the table isn’t blue, that’s the reflection of the sky!

We’ve grown almost 100kg of onions, they are a staple food for us. We use lots of them in curry or with salad so it’s not an excess.

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I wanted to store them in plaits and after reading several articles on the internet I left the onions to dry for a few days then made a plait whilst the stems were green and flexible.

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However as the stems dried they became thinner, more slippery and somewhat brittle, so the plait was not trustworthy to hang and joined the other onions in crates stored in the adega. Really I need the expert tuition of a French onion seller . . . if there are any left.

The identity of the mystery birds described in my last blog is resolved. They are “azure-winged magpies”; they only live in central Iberia.

After sparrows they are the second most common bird we have; there is a colony of at least fifteen of them and they glide across our fields throughout the day and eat seeds from the grasses in our fields and garden. Their wings are bright sky-blue. They are supposed to be very shy but as our farm is so quiet (when the builders are not around) they confidently hop around next to our house. It is thought that they live in co-operative community, sharing the task of rearing their young.

There are many unusual birds on our quinta. As a result of my frustration in not being able to identify them, even using the internet for ages, I bought from Amazon a pocket book  “Birds of Britain and Europe”.  Within ten minutes of opening this wonderful little book the mystery was solved.

Pic  Hoopoe credit: birdlife.org

We have exotic looking hoopoes with black and white barred outer wings and crested heads.  The name of the game for our birds this week and for the next few weeks is “Feed the Youngsters” and we see all our birds flying to and fro, unresting. A pair of hoopoes flew across the front of our house every minute this lunchtime as we sat eating our meal. They look just like the picture when they are landing. In bright sunshine the brown underwing is nearly gold.

Golden oriole, credit: birdinginspain.com

We see at least two kinds of yellow birds: we have one family of golden orioles at the bottom of our land; these are bright yellow birds as big as thrushes, having black wings. As we drive along we often have greenfinches flying near to the car.

A pair of house martins made a nest in our old garage last year. We demolished it a few days ago but, as our new house has no windows or doors yet, it is an open invitation to them. This year they started to make a nest on top of a light bulb but we had to take it down. The house martins and swallows (longer deeply forked tails) fly aerobatics near to our house in hot summer evenings.

I was scarifying the top olival one evening last week, with white wagtails (like the pied wagtail but having a light grey back whereas the pied is black-backed) hopping in the furrows. They are very confident being near to the tractor – Harry the Dog doesn’t like it at all!   I stopped to watch a flock of a dozen birds catching insects in the sky above. From my viewpoint directly below in the evening sunlight their wings were bright orange edged with black. Thanks to my new book and the internet I now know they are European bee-eaters.

Credit: Helen Heyes and Peter Basterfield

These bee-eaters live in the huge boulders and scrubland on the upper reaches of our quinta, not often seen. They are a memorable visitor when they flash past at low level, looking like a kingfisher out of context.

Janet’s eyesight is not good but she can see the storks drifting over us because their wingspan is about five feet. We see storks every day and on our drive to Fundão we pass several of their huge nests, always occupied. In this photo I took on 14th May, there is a baby stork in the nest too. There are usually a few sparrows next to the nests, probably scavenging insects from the straw. If a stork is on the ground it looks as big as a lamb!  On the way to Castelo Branco we pass near to a reservoir, Marateca, where the uncommon black stork resides.  Castelo Branco is home to over a hundred breeding pairs of storks which nest on disused chimneys, telephone posts; anything tall really. They eat creatures the size of frogs and mice.

Occasionally we see half a dozen cranes which look like a small stork (the bird, not the common Spanish town variety). In distant fields they too look like a flock of small sheep.

We are very happy to have to stop the car sometimes to allow a family of partridges to cross the road. They are not intelligent and purposefully walk slowly in a line, adults first then four or five youngsters, unaware of cars and, unfortunately, of hunters.

Throughout the night we have birdsong. In winter there are a few owls and other unidentified birds. From late March onwards the cuckoo calls from dusk through to dawn. We hear lovely birdsong at midnight, even at three in the morning, from woodlarks and nightjars. As they are nocturnal we don’t see them and have to identify them from their song. However, I once nearly trod on one during the day; I think it is a bird which hides in long grass to sleep and perhaps to nest.

I often see birds which are unfamiliar, and am starting to learn what’s what now. Unfortunately the locals either aren’t interested in birds or don’t know what type it is. They do know, however, that most are edible, even if they are only as big as a lark.