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Author: richard

Sing a song

Sing a song

We are right into spring now. On my morning walks the countryside is a riot of green. The olive green is with us all year as is the green of the pine trees but now they have been joined by the green of a wide variety of oaks including holm, kermes and the ubiquitous Portuguese oak as well as the slightly different shades of the hawthorn and strawberry trees. As well as taking in the greenness of the trees we also have our eyes combing the ground as it’s also the orchid season and we always see at least a dozen species. I must admit to being a bit of a wild flower nerd as well and have compiled a list of almost 200 species of wild flowers found in these parts.

But this year I’ve also been trying to attune my ears. A couple of years ago I couldn’t tell the difference between the song of the Robin and the Blackbird so I made a concerted attempt to identify the common birds we get around here by their calls and songs. The tea-cher, tea-cher of the Great Tit and the calls of the Wood Pigeon and Cuckoo are obvious but there were many birds I could hear on my daily dog walk and without seeing them I had no idea who was making the sound. I therefore made a real effort to remember and if possible record the songs I was hearing and then check them on various websites when I got home. Fortunately there seems to be a progression from winter through to spring. Winter is pretty quiet on the whole but we get a few thrushes who are winter visitors to mid Portugal and they are the only ones singing, certainly in February and luckily they have a distinctive and clear song.

Thrush singing

The Robin is famous for singing all year round but on my walks in March I was hearing loads of them and they are not shy so you can often see them singing as well which helps. Later, another group of birds started up. After concentrating on this song, I identified it as the Chaffinch. I think of its distinctive call as reminding me of water tumbling over rocks rising to a crescendo. We don’t get many in the garden but this at least told me there were plenty in the countryside.

A week or two later I started hearing another very distinctive song. This turned out to be the Wren. It is supposed to be the most common bird in the UK. A bit surprising as you don’t see many but its song is so distinctive, once you hear it, you know it’s the little bird with the strong voice.

Wren in its nest in our courtyard (2018)

Another distinctive call we hear is the Green Woodpecker. Almost never seen but its call can be heard from distance with its distinctive laugh, or yaffle. I remember Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss (UK TV series from the 70s) and remembered it was a woodpecker.

Jackie’s favourite is next. They arrive within a few days of 1 April every year and are of course distinctive for singing at night – the Nightingale. This year when I take the dogs out last thing at night, I can often hear three of them. Although they often sing from the top of a tree during the day, if you get anywhere near, they disappear so are also rarely seen (by us at least). Also at night, I nearly always hear the Barn Owl with its distinctive screeech. Again rarely seen (as they are out at night!) but I was lucky enough to see one at close quarters a few years ago perched on a wall right above me. I know they live in the abandoned house next door so hopefully we will hear the higher pitched screech of some youngsters sometime soon. We also hear the distinctive Twit, twooh of the Tawny Owl but these always seem to be quite far away.

rare spotting of a Nightingale in our garden

Lately there is one songster that has been loudest of all on my daily walk but I never see him. He repeats his call which is very distinctive. Jackie thinks they are singing, “I don’t want to have lunch with Ed Meeeel iband”. Strange that we don’t see them in the countryside as they are highly visible in the garden – the Blackcap.

Blackcap (male)

Every year we get Blue Tits nesting in our nest box and I know we have already got some eggs this year, however, I have never identified their song. Listening to recordings it just seems like a high pitched tweet but I’ll keep trying. Lastly but not least, the one bird we always hear in the garden rather than on our walks is the Blackbird. They are around all year but have only just started to sing. No doubt they will already be building nests in the garden. And after all my research, I think I can finally distinguish it from the robin.

One of last year’s Blue tit brood

If you want to check out the calls and songs there are plenty of websites out there but I have found the Britishbirdsongs website and the rspb to be very useful.

The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees

This last month has been very busy on the wildlife front – both good news and bad. We’ll get the bad over with first. Jackie’s favourite hen, Rocky, was attacked and killed by a mongoose. I’ll spare the details but for whatever reason it wasn’t able to take Rocky away. So after the event we set up the trail camera and recorded this:

The other hens are in a different paddock and have beefed up defences, so fingers crossed they will be safe.

In better bird news, our Blue Tit nestbox was once again occupied this year and we saw at least four birds fledge. They were rather lucky as minutes after the last one flew the coop, I spotted a ladder snake in the nest box! It was only a small one, so maybe it wouldn’t have harmed the chicks but was investigating if there were any eggs left.

just fledged

That’s the birds and now for the bees. We have loads of bumblebees in the garden doing their stuff but recently I’ve noticed that there are often bees in the barn and now I know why. They are Mason Bees. These are solitary bees in that they don’t have a hive. The female finds a small hole or crack where it builds a nest and stores a supply of pollen and nectar. It lays an egg on this and then seals up the hole. Often there are a number of sealed compartments in any one nest. You can clearly see the sealed up nests in one of the photos below – in our wine store in the barn. In the spring the larva will eat the supply of food and when it is ready will tunnel out of the nest.

Not content with Mason bees, we’ve also got Ashy Mining Bees! These are also solitary bees but live in holes in the ground. We found this one in the kitchen.

This year I have decided to leave a lot of the garden uncut, which gives the wildflowers and wildlife in general more chance to thrive. It has provided a boon not just to actual bees but we have also found a bee orchid in our garden. A first for us.

We turn from bees to hornets. I found this chap had a taste for my beer. I carefully got him out and he, or probably she, recovered to fly off. Mistake! I thought it was a European hornet because it was so large. However, just now I have identified it as the much-vilified Asian Hornet. I think I am supposed to report it to the necessary authorities as the council will come round to find and destroy the nest.

see the miniscule ant as comparison

We also found a dead vole and mole in the veg patch and spurred on from watching a recent wildlife programme, I decided to get the skulls. Basically I left them out for the flies. In just a few days, the fly maggots devoured the flesh to just leave bones and hair. The cleaning was completed by soaking in water for a few days. Betty also found another javali (wild boar) skull which is now also being cleaned and will be added to the bone collection! Thankfully in this case the flesh had all gone so it is just macerating in a bin of water.

the maggots do their stuff

mole and shrew skulls with mandibles (lower jaw)

In other news, I’ve been playing with a few new toys to use on my bowl projects and here is the latest:

Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung

Spring has sprung so fast this year that we have forgotten to post pics of most of our fruit blossoms. The cherry, plum, almond, apricot and pear are already on the way out, the quince is looking really good and the courtyard is filled with the scent of orange blossom, only a week or two from picking our last oranges.

small orange tree

The best of the wild flowers is in May but already we have cistus and snapdragons showing off. Jackie does a tremendous job of picking the wild flowers and replanting them in our garden so we see both of these while out walking and in the garden.

cistus (and red robin)
wild snapdragon
someone’s always got to get in the shot

Following on from last month’s mention of the orchids, this month has seen a few more including the woodcock, conical, mirror and sombre.

Woodcock orchid
Conical orchid
Mirror orchid
Sombre orchid

I’ve been busy in the courtyard. I’ve made another bowl…

and also been busy making beer. We can’t run out of beer in these troubling times. Although this is my eleventh all-grain brew, I haven’t as yet described or put up any photos of the production. I’ve got a sack of barley malt which provides the bulk of the beer. To this I add some speciality malts depending on the type of beer I want. This is then steeped in warm water (mashed), the sugary liquid (wort) drained out into my Robobrew and then boiled for an hour and hops added. When the liquid has cooled to 20 degrees, I pour it into the fermentation vessel (a large plastic bin), add the yeast and leave it to do its job over a few days. Once fermented, it is bottled, conditioned and drunk. From sack to glass the whole process takes less than a month.

weighing the grains and boiling the wort
brewing is best in the sunshine. You have got to taste the product when brewing

Jackie has also been busy trying to make best use of the ever increasing number of eggs produced by our small flock. A new one for us but a staple of pubs throughout the UK – pickled eggs!

Progress?

Progress?

Ever since we moved in (over 9 years ago!) we’ve had problems with the water supply. Almost every month there would be a burst water main. Although it would be fixed promptly we always had to have spare water on hand if needed. So in September 2017 we were pleased to hear the Camara (local council) had decided to replace it. However, in their infinite wisdom they had also decided to not only replace the water main but also to give us a new and wider road. The fact that our lane sees only a trickle of traffic every day didn’t seem important. We were really dismayed to hear this because it meant that they were going to tear down the lovely old dry stone walls and also many olive trees which lined the lane. Why oh why? They were true to their word and in October the olive trees and walls came down. Of course, true to form, nothing was then done for almost 2 years. But then the diggers and road machinery trundled into the village in June this year and the job was done. An improvement? You be the judge.

And from the other side…

In better news, the plum harvest has been amazing this year. The yellow plums were first as ever. They usually put on a good show but we had so many more than we could ever use. The reds are usually the tastiest but also we never get that many. This time loads! Then we went back the UK for two weeks and came back to the greengages. So many we had a number of branch breakages! Next up are the damsons. Now we are left with lots of rotting fruit on the ground but litres and litres of cordial and plenty of plum jam in the larder.

yellow and red plums

Meanwhile the apples and pears are coming along but we will have a bit of respite before they are ready. We’ve also got a new intake of roasties. Following on from the success of the “Pallet palace” for the hens we now have “Fort Frango” for the roasties.

time to say goodbye to the pigpen
…and hello to Fort Frango!

We picked up our first batch from Penela market on Thursday and they are already settling in nicely.

And finally for this month. As always we have plenty of birds nesting in our garden and courtyard. This year we’ve seen blackbirds in the plane tree in the courtyard and the usual serins in the rose above the front door and of course every year we get blue tits in the nest box. It’s a bit late as these little guys fledged in May but I realised we hadn’t included any pictures on the blog. Interestingly there are two broods in one box. The bigger brood at the bottom of the picture fledged and then four more (you can just see two of them at the top of the picture) fledged a week later. We think that a second blue tit had secretly laid the second batch and let the parents of the first brood feed her little ones as well. This apparently is not uncommon.

Changing of the seasons

Changing of the seasons

The seasons are traditionally thought of as lasting 3 months each, however we have often noted that Spring and Autumn at Casa Azul, although in many ways our favourites, seem to slide by very fast. October is often warm and sunny, almost summery, but as soon as November begins we get the fire on and prepare for the frosts. This year was slightly different in that we lit the first fire on 28th October but we are yet to have a frost. I think that is the reason for the leaves on all the trees hanging on for longer than usual and providing a great show of colour. This is especially true of the grape vines.

 


Even the small vine at the front of our house has put on a bit of a show.

We’ve also had our first rain of winter and so mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Here is a parasol from the garden…
… and a particularly impressive Omphalotus olearius. There are many of these around here as they like to grow at the base of olive trees. This mushroom is very similar to the Jack o’ Lantern, famous for being bioluminescent.

Talking of olives, we’ve also completed our olive harvest. Very late indeed for us but actually we were amongst the first round here to harvest. In fact the local olive presses are only just opening up for the season and we managed to get ours done very quickly. It was a very good season as the olives have plumped up nicely from the recent rain and they were really good quality or so we thought. We got 200 kgs which is pretty good for us. This didn’t, however, impress the bloke at our local press who only gave us 7 litres per 100kg as opposed to the normal 8 litres. It’s a bit of a complicated story but if you have 300kgs or more you pay to have your olives pressed and then you get your oil. If under (like us) you have to swap your olives for oil at the going rate but don’t pay anything. As it happens our olives went into a batch with someone else and that was the oil we got anyway.
I suppose I’ve saved our biggest news until last. Every year around this time we get nightime visitations from wild boar (javeli as they are called here). We’ve got a thick bramble hedge around our property so they usually only root around the fields outside but this year they managed to find a hole in the hedge and one morning we woke up to find our garden had been ploughed! Fortunately they didn’t dig up any plants.

And they came back night after night despite us frantically trying to block up any holes. Of course, we never see them by day and wonder where on earth they go. We have a night camera and have often caught them on this but we have been a bit lazy this year and not set it up. However here is a video of a big porker from a previous visitation:

And finally another video. Although it’s November, as I said we haven’t had a frost and it’s been very mild. So mild in fact that we still have wasps (and a few bees). Here’s a video I took of a very active nest in the ground. They were very busy but not aggressive at all. (PS I’m not sure what they don’t do!)

Harvest festival?

Harvest festival?

As regular readers will know, Jackie is queen of the veg patch while I am to be found foraging for fruits or whatever I can find in the hinterland. Some things like the plum trees are scattered around the garden while others I find on my daily walk with the dogs. This year’s harvest has been a mixed one, as it always is.

It started off with the non appearance of the plums. A few desultory yellow ones as ever but very few from the half dozen or so other varieties we have in the garden. Our huge cherry tree as always, produced a few very small cherries.

That was basically in June and July,  since then things have looked up. We have a few peach trees which were here before us and have never produced much but this year a bountiful harvest! Well a couple of dozen at least.

The almond tree did the usual – half a dozen, which were so paltry, Jackie mistook them for something else and they ended in the compost. A mixed bag from the apples: lots of small but tasty ones from the big tree, one large solitary apple from the small tree. The pears which were fantastic last year, this year: nowt.

Surprisingly, given our hot dry summers, blackberries do really well round here. We don’t need a fence round our garden as over the years we have developed a very large and impregnable hedge of brambles. Of course blackberry and apple crumble is a perennial favourite.

And now as we enter October we are approaching the end. It’s been another good year for the figs. We have a few tiny trees but there are plenty of big bountiful trees on our morning walk and so lately I have been coming back to the house with a plastic bag full of them ready for Jackie to make chutney, jam and also bottling a few.

Also it looks like the prickly pears have done a good job, it just remains to be a bit careful when picking them. Eaten fresh they are delicious and last year we made a very nice syrup.

Although I’ve mentioned a number of fruits, the locals are only really interested in two. The grapes which have been rather disappointing this year and the biggest harvest of them all: the olives which don’t look too bad at the moment, but I don’t think we’ll be bringing ours in until at least mid November.

Meanwhile after the hottest September on record for Portugal and an equally unseasonably hot start to October, as I write this blog it seems we are in for some welcome rain. After a miserable start to the summer we haven’t actually had any since the start of July.

 

Weather woes

Weather woes

Being British we go on about the weather far too much, so, of course, that’s what I’m going to do now. Summer, what summer? while the UK seems to be enjoying their best summer in ages, ours is yet to start. OK we’ve had a few warm days and we’ve had our first swim but it’s been pretty dreary so far and all the fruits are at least a month behind. We are about to enter July and still no plums and it looks like we’re not going to get many anyway. Having said all that, there are lots of positives. The garden looks lovely. We don’t have a lawn but we do have a sea of dandelions.And many of the plants are thriving with a bit more moisture than normal. Especially the new trees that we planted late last year. Their test will come when high summer eventually kicks in. Also it has been a bumper time for the birds. We’ve had blue tits nesting in both our bird boxes and we’ve now got our third serin nest. The latest is in the plane tree right outside the kitchen. Eggs have been laid but they are yet to hatch. Meanwhile the four chicks in the nest above the front door fledged safely. Here they are just before they left home.

Meanwhile, spring is when we often see snakes. Here’s a ladder snake having a look in the kitchen window!

The birds haven’t been bothered by snakes, however, two of our roasties went missing and so we put a camera up in the roastie run and this is what we saw: a sparrow hawk!

Of course I have been busy with my little projects. I made a very simple incense stick holder and an even simpler bench made from a few pallets.


I’ve also been busy brewing more of my own beer. The latest have included a deliciously dark Irish stout and a sparkling red ale.


We haven’t just stayed at home either. We had a great little trip down to Sintra at the beginning of June and more lately had our first swim of the year in the Barragem de Cabril, not far from our house.

Pena Palace, Sintra


No doubt by the next post we will be moaning about how hot it is. We shall see!

Springwatch

Springwatch

We are avid followers of the BBC programme Springwatch which comes out about this time of year. It covers many plants and animals emerging from the long dark winter of the UK. However, we have our own Caza Azul Springwatch this year covering the birds and plants that have appeared here over the last month.

First up we had Blue tits once again nesting in one of our bird boxes. Unfortunately this didn’t end well as the five little brown speckled eggs were left and didn’t hatch. 🙁

Better news for the Serins however. Although not the best of places for a nest, they had made it on the end of the loquat tree five feet off the ground and in a position to catch any breeze. I’m surprised they didn’t get seasick. However, a good place to photograph and I was there to see two of the three nestlings fledge. And they stayed in the garden fluttering about for a few days as well.

one of the Serin parents

Two nestlings

In fact we have another Serin nest on the go now as well. It’s in the rose bush right above the front door. At the moment we think there are just eggs but hopefully (like last year) some youngsters will emerge from this nest.

Serins above the front door

We also spotted a wren nest. It was in a little crevice where the waterpipe comes into our courtyard. Here two wrens set up shop and we could see them for weeks, first bringing nest materials and then latterly insects, until finally the little critters fledged. They hung around for a few days as well and I counted at least 6 babies flying around the courtyard rather unsteadily. Amazing to think that they had been packed into that little space.

adult wren with supper for the kids

baby wren just fledged

Away from the birdlife, the orchids have put on a tremendous show this year. Although we have a page dedicated to them, I thought I would showcase a few photos I took this year:

Ophrys apifera, Bee orchid

Ophyrus lutea, Yellow ophyrus orchid

Ophrys speculum, Mirror orchid

Ophrys speculum subsp lusitanica, Portuguese mirror orchid

Anacamptis pyramidalis, Pyramidal orchid

Ophrys tenthredinifera, Sawfly orchid

Ophyrus scolopax, Woodcock orchid

Ophrys fusca, Sombre bee orchid

NB there are another 10 different orchids we’ve seen which I haven’t included!

The building work in the courtyard continues. Joining the new wood shed, I’ve put a planter on top of the wall and Jackie has planted some geraniums. Let’s hope they put on a good show this year. I’m also going to tile it with some of our old azulejos when I get a chance. And when we sit on the blue bench hopefully we will get the aroma from the newly planted jasmine.

Talking of good shows, our climate seems to favour roses. I’ve shown the yellow rose earlier from above our front door, but our red rose in the garden is doing tremendously as well.

Renewal

Renewal

Six weeks since the new year and our last post and we have been as busy as ever. Last year, I built a new wood shed in the courtyard and flushed with success decided to make another one next to it. This was earmarked to store a few items from the barn to open up a bit of space there. I also got some more gravel to make the courtyard a bit more attractive. Possibly the only advantage of living close to a quarry is that gravel is very cheap – where else could I have got 2 tonnes for 8 Euros?

We’ve also done something we have been planning to do for the last 8 years – we went skiing in the Serra da Estrela! It’s just over 2 hours drive from us and despite there not being much snow, there was enough and the added bonus was that the slopes were almost completely empty.

One of the reasons we love living here is that the countryside is stunning and the misty mornings have made it even more beautiful.

In the photo above you can see a few willows. Jackie has started pruning the one in our garden and made some bird feeders out of the branches. Here is a Great Tit perched on one,  enjoying a treat. Other birds have also been out in force including one of our favourites, the Robin.

As well as pruning the willow, Jackie has been hard at it pruning the plane tree in the courtyard and getting sage advice from one of the hairy ones. The other hairy one, meanwhile, has been hard at it under the orange tree. This is the tree that keeps on giving. I must have made gallons of orange juice so far this winter and there is still more to come.

I’ve also got myself a new toy. I’m not sure what it’s called – a rasper? It’s an attachment to my small angle grinder and acts like a turbo sander. Anyway, it made short work of a piece of olive wood turning it into a small bowl. Watch this space to see how this new hobby develops!

before and after

Although we have had daffodils for a quite a few weeks now it is always great to see the first fruit blossom – and the winner this year is the apricot (I wonder if any of the fruit will manage to reach maturity this time?) and although there have already been some wild irises in the countryside, this is the first one to appear in our garden. Roll on Spring!!

 

From fires to frosts

From fires to frosts

This year, perhaps even more than most, has been all about the weather. The long, hot, dry spring and summer that caused the horrendous wildfires, the briefest of warm dry autumns and now, in early December, Jack Frost is already nipping at our toes. We’ve had a week of sub zero temperatures and as is usual here, if it’s cold, it means bright blue skies during the day and clear dark skies at night. And no rain. And it makes my daily morning walk with the dogs all the more pleasant.

 

And especially because the autumn colours are fantastic.

I’ve also been busy with my saw and nails. As soon as I finished the new wood store, I knocked this coffee table together. I’ve also been to a friend’s house and used his wood turning lathe. Maybe something to think about in the future?

They say the hardest part is the waiting, well it was with the cider (4 months in fact) but it’s now ready and it tastes pretty good.

cider

Meanwhile the harvests keep on coming. We’ve still got plenty of quinces on the tree but I have to say both me and Jackie aren’t that keen to make any more quince jellies or crumbles. Especially as the oranges are also now ready for marmalade making. Because we have had so little rain, although there are plenty of them, they are very small and so not really worth juicing.

Latest update: As I type, it seems the drought has been broken – to a certain extent. Storm Ana has passed by and dropped 57mm of rain over the last 24 hours. It’s also taken the leaves off the plane tree in the courtyard. Below is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago and then another taken this morning (with hailstones). We still need plenty more rain though.

So all in all another busy but thoroughly enjoyable year at Casa Azul and plenty of projects planned for next year too. We hope you like the ‘new look’ blog and all there is to do is to wish all our readers a very happy festive season and may your gardens and lives be bountiful in 2018!