IT is very hot, about 77F – I feel it – where I walk, about two-and-a-half hours from Dublin or Cork, near the bottom of the Iberian Peninsula.
Beside the road to a town that was once more prosperous than now, are old olive trees, the black fruits falling and fallen on to a narrow path and a road fringe.
I think of the title of a travel book, by an English ex-pat, called Driving over Lemons, describing his adventures in the countryside of Andalusia.
Here I am walking over olives, wizened in the heat and dust, and barely a patch on the plump fruit for sale in the marcados. Olives are recommended for oldies with dietary considerations. Eggs, cheese, chocolate and fruit are also on the menu. Little or no 'high purine' stuff is encouraged – animal flesh, certain fish species (even the local and plentiful sardines). Nor oatmeal! It's too much. I've just had some goat's cheese; now for a piece of dark chocolate!
But where are my friends the tree sparrows (passer montanus)? Have they gone elsewhere looking for food? They were abundant in early spring, chattering endlessly as they settled into their evening roosts in a hectic co-mingling before the sudden fall of silence as night quickly fell.
Perhaps they have moved as once before when tree surgeons laid into their bedroom with landscaping saws, and will return, as they did, when it suits them. They can't be hungry. Most people here eat outdoors and the cheeky, bullying little brown fellows drop down to search for crumbs from the masters' tables.
Sparrows of hedge and house once bred prodigiously, copulating in a highly public manner which made them synonomous with sex and lechery.
Roman courtesans kept them as pets. The poet Catullus mourned the loss of a girlfriend's bird: "passer mortuus est meae puellae ... .quem plus illa oculis suis amabit – my girl's sparrow is dead/whom she loved more than her eyes".
The birds' breeding activity was once so phenomenal that millions populated the six continents. Thousands were caught and eaten, to cull flocks. Sparrow-pie is still remembered in rural England.
No more. In the past 30 years there has been a catastrophic collapse in numbers with up to 90 per cent, six million birds, disappearing. No one really knows why.
Many reasons have been suggested – unleaded petrol, mobile phone radiation, increasing use of pesticides and herbicides, modern house roofing soffits, more predation by cats and magpies. It could be food supply.
One UK expert, Dr David Hole, says farming practice changes such as winter grain sowing could be a reason. Birds need a food source in the lean months. Cleaner farm holdings, tidier parks and fewer seeding weeds are all part of the pattern.
Another expert, Dr Denis Summers-Smith, has also examined the sparrow saga. He sees a darker picture. Wild birds are an indication of the quality of life, he says. Is something nasty going on that might affect us all? Is the house sparrow today's equivalent of the miners' canary? (Carried underground in cages to test the presence of gas).
For my part I will be making evening checks on the old roosts. Somehow I feel the birds will return with peaceful nights when the current batch of holidaying revelers eventually depart to their homelands.