Spring in the Alentejo .jpg

Spring in the Alentejo

By JOHN OLIVER & JEANETTE ELLIOT [email protected]

John Oliver and Jeanette Elliott moved from the UK to Portugal around five years ago and live in Ourique, Alentejo. John now follows his lifetime love of documentary photography, while Jeanette trains dogs and breeds Bengal cats as well as teaching belly dancing.

All across the Alentejo spring has arrived. After a damp winter and very frosty January the days have at last warmed up.

Winter didn’t leave without a final battle when low pressure came in from the Atlantic and threw everything it could at us. It reminded me of the old fable about the bet between the sun and the wind over who could get the traveller’s coat off! At two thirty on a Sunday morning, when the wind relented enough to venture out, I was paddling up to my knees in a torrent of water rescuing the Buff Orpington chicken, whose house was half submerged.

The two saving graces of this trauma were that the pigs went the night before, saving them from drowning and that the barragem is nearly as low as it was in the drought year so all that water had somewhere to go and disappeared as rapidly as it came.

I get very strange looks from the expat fraternity who have not lived here for long when I say I hope we get more rain. Although all the small barragens and water deposits were replenished by the deluge, the main water storage at Monte de Rocha and Santa Catarina are only at 40 per cent capacity. With more housing, tourist accommodation and intensifying agricultural activities in the area, we need to see less of the lake side and more of the water.

While human activity is putting a strain on reserves, so too is the natural world. People come from many miles around to see the Alentejo population of storks. After a winter in Africa – aka -on the landfill tip near Beja, they are back cleaning and repairing nests alongside the N123. The recent storm left some a little ragged but there is plenty of nest material from the olive prunings and old rushes.

Finally, ousting the rival. Photos: JOHN OLIVER
Finally, ousting the rival. Photos: JOHN OLIVER

After a few seasons with successful hatchings, there are now too many pairs for the telegraph poles (36 between us and Ourique at the last count). While a few birds last year started to utilize various trees in the locality – live and dead – others are looking to take over established sites. Today we stopped on the roadside by a Holm oak, which has been a nest host for four years now.

Battle camp

Thinking we might get a nice photo of the dutiful mate bringing home some repair material, we were instead witness to a major battle between the incumbent pair and two interlopers. The two males were locked in combat on the nest for some 10 minutes, huffing, pushing and pecking while their anxious mates circled over head.

Finally the dominant male pushed the other over the edge. His mate flew in and a session of beak clacking followed. Then the interlopers returned, another battle ensuing. After a minute or two of fierce clashing, both flew from the nest, landing the other side of the road in the montado on a natural arena – a grassy hummock. Here they continued, at one point joined by two other storks and surrounded by 18 or 20 who flew in to stand in a circle and watch. It was a bit like a Saturday brawl outside a night club. Who won we don’t know, as we eventually left them to it.

When populations of any species become too numerous for the available resources, fights like this will always happen, getting more vicious as the problem escalates.

During the 18 months drought, we even witnessed an eagle harassing a stork mother, trying to drive her away from her nest to steal a chick.

Our other spring adventurers, the swallows, have also arrived a week later than last year. We saw the first pair the day before ours returned, in Castro Verde, sunning themselves on a telephone wire against a white wall, like sunbathers on a beach. It is a pleasure to wake up to their chatter in the mornings as they check out last year’s nest sites under the terrace and evict the sparrows who have used them all winter. Again their population is rapidly expanding so conflict will eventually change the equilibrium.

Three weeks later than last year, we are sampling the first asparagus spears. January 2008 was very warm followed by a very chilly February. This year we are back to more normal weather with the warmer days bringing out the bees – hopefully to fertilise the apricot blossom this year – but we will still need the rain!

John Oliver & Jeanette Elliot can be contacted by emailing [email protected]