Life

Saturday 17 November 2018

High-rise martins and two turtle doves

Vigorous: Turtle doves
Vigorous: Turtle doves

Joe Kennedy

From eight storeys up at the top of a building, crag martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) zoom and soar close to windows.

There are canyons of smaller and taller structures and these plump, sturdy cliff dwellers are chasing insects through shafts of brilliant sunlight. Their dwellings are on a cliff-face not too far off over a timbered walkway set back from a long beach.

Up to a week ago, hundreds of holiday-makers strolled here every day, few paying any attention to the birds except myself. There is no brilliant feather livery to attract attention, no trilling burst of warbling song; these little birds just go about their frenetic daily lives.

They do not migrate to Africa; they are happy here on Portugal's rocky cliffs, free to adventure over the sandy beaches, scout out cliff-top paths, rough terrain and the apartment blocks for insect protein.

I am regularly quite close to them. They either don't notice, or care, but they are beautiful creatures, smart and efficient troops immaculately turned out. Yes, some passing tourists give me curious looks!

The martins may be the smartiboots of the mornings but the humble tree sparrows (Passer montanus) continuously forage where they may - beneath outdoor cafe tables, under human feet and in dusty places where no food appears visible to the naked eye. But there are those proprietors who leave out scraps for them, diners who will brush crumbs from tables. They won't starve.

I observe their antics where possible and it was an upset to find a regular tree roost abandoned after many years.

This was an assembly place for hundreds of birds from around 6pm each evening as they settled for the night in endless chattering. This year they were gone.

I finally tracked them down to another roost not a million miles away, with good garden planting cover and bang in front of a hotel food source. Clever sparrows! The birds looked well groomed and there may have been a spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) occasionally on the fringes.

Easier to see are turtle doves (Streptopelia turtur), neat vigorous fliers, usually in pairs, sometimes singly and purposefully like kestrels, smaller than the collared doves, now common in Ireland and Britain.

Turtle doves winter in tropical Africa but all have not yet departed - though autumnal weather changes should soon send them packing.

From within the easy confines of a cafe, the beautiful bounty of tracts of red and purple bougainvillea is shedding petals which are blowing casually inside and gently down the paths all roses go.

They swirl outside an old villa - now uninhabited, its owner having died - and have taken over the facade completely so that the entrance is obscured in a blaze of protective blossom sealed like a great quilt.

Lemon and orange trees drop their fruits in small side gardens unattended. Nobody bothers, it seems, to collect them except, occasionally, a nimble waiter dispatched by a cook in urgent need of a tangy essence.

Sunday Independent

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