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Beguiled by Algarve birdlife

Outdoor Living

ROOFTOP RESIDENTS Storks can be found nesting atop  telegraph polls and tall chimneys in Portimão, Portugal.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

In the Algarve back on February 3, the first swallows were overhead. There were only three that came through a chink of blue in an otherwise overcast sky – but there they were, hopeful travelers heading north, even to Mayo, where we might meet with them again in a few weeks time. Two days later and the air seemed full of them, though only for moments. House martins were there as well, shining white-rumped in the sun. And what sun! What blue!
White painted houses topped with terracotta tiles line the roads. Their gardens are filled with purple bougainvillea, with camellia reds and citrus yellow, with orange and lemon and more greens than any Irish hillside. There are no people. At least, that is how it feels. And when we do meet someone they are tucked up with sweaters and warm woollen caps while we are down to T shirts, which identifies us immediately as tourists.
We found storks, first on tall chimneys in Portimão and later lining streamside fields on the road to mountainous Monchique, where every second telegraph pole holds a thick pile of sticks. Some of these nests are immense three-foot thick structures that looked as though they should topple if subject to anything more than a gentle breeze. They don’t; they are well built.
The storks are protected and welcomed by local people, who consider themselves lucky if a pair nest on their property. For those who grow their own food these birds are a great asset. There won’t be many rodents get past those massive bills. Larger insect pests are also kept in check by a hungry stork family. The need for expensive chemical controls is reduced, or even eliminated, so their food is healthier too.
Until the mid 1980s the stork was very much a tourist here; just a summer visitor to Portugal as in the rest of its European range. Since then increasing numbers have chosen to stay year round. Now there are upwards of 10,000 of these giant birds that live here permanently, mostly in the south of the country. Perhaps they have the right idea.
Yesterday, we went to explore a river valley and were disappointed to find the water reduced to a few semi-stagnant pools. The red soil between these was compact and hard; there were no fish and very little other life. A local lady told us in broken English that the previously reliable supply of water to her village had dried up for each of the past five summers.
Miles upstream, huge dams have been constructed in an attempt to secure water for the booming tourism industry, making life difficult for those who, like her, depend on the rivers and streams for irrigation and domestic water. Here as anywhere, the answers are hard to find.
The early spring mornings are bright and filled with birdsong. Some voices are familiar, such as the ubiquitous blackbird, which sings the same here as he does at home. Others we are unacquainted with. We have a couple of new ones. A hoopoe crossed the road in front of the car, bizarrely pink and flashing black and white. Azure-winged magpies abound. A large, tawny-coloured eagle lifted from a hillside orchard in front of our eyes. Forests of cork oak and eucalyptus harbour such a diversity of other species that we could only marvel at the multitude. Given time we could start to identify them.
Our apartment, set in a small resort, has a small pond which is home to frogs and newts. It also hosts an unenviable population of mosquitoes, as we discovered to our cost.
In compensation, in a market we found a dust-covered bottle of 1983 Dao Garrofeira for €3 and a huge pile of seafood for a fiver. And somebody said there are bee-eaters just a few miles away, and a peregrines’ nest on the cliffs nearby…