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Those that leave, those that stay, those that pass through …

European Bee-eaters feeding up as they migrate south for the winter

Driving out to the village this morning, the van rattling along, my mind concentrating on nothing more than the track ahead when suddenly I heard them, European Bee-eaters flying south, flying so high they were invisible to the naked eye, and, dammit, I hadn’t brought my binoculars out with me, but their burbling chirrups filled the air overhead, their last goodbyes floating in the breeze.

I saw a previous band, (flock? colony? I’ve even heard “Squadron”), a few days ago as they overnighted in Corte Brique valley. I was there before the sun had cleared the western rim the following morning, shooting the shots above and below through low-lying wisps of overnight fog tangled amongst the branches of their perches, but it wasn’t long before they were off again, ever southward.

See you next year! Boa viagem!

As many of the Quinta’s guests know, we’re enthusiastic birders and photographers here, and have long days in the field showing people what’s around, and I’ve been having fun with Little Owls over the last two weeks.

There’s one below if you can spot him …

Master of concealment

but let me make it easier, as they’re tricky little devils if they don’t want to be seen.

He’s tucked tight in below those two triangular rocks dead centre, keeping a wary eye on me.

A wary lookout

These shots are some of the Little Owls I’ve managed to photograph during the last two weeks.

They’re always a delightful subject, and fairly thick on the ground so we must pass dozens every day without noticing them, but sometimes I’m lucky enough to find small family groups, especially during July, like the one below.

But it’s not always so easy.

Near the Quinta we have our “Water Rail and Kingfisher Hide“, and waiting down there a couple of days ago I noticed a species of bird that only passes through here on migration. It was stuck in behind the first few reeds on the opposite riverbank, stationary, preening, but I couldn’t get a clear shot.

Then it started feeding and slowly made its way towards me – but always keeping just inside the first few reeds.

It was a Sedge Warbler, a regular visitor though one that is only here a few days every year. It’s small, brown, unobtrusive, shy and another master of inconspicuosity.

I dearly wanted to get a good shot, but it was invisible to the naked eye and if I tracked it with my binoculars I might miss the shot if it popped out into the open, so I had to follow it carefully with my camera lens.

My camera and lens are heavy, just under 5.5 kgs, (over 11.5 lbs), and I hadn’t brought my monopod with me. How I cursed quietly under my breath over the next 15 minutes as I struggled to hold its flitting passage through the reeds.

My forearms ached as I followed it slowly ever closer … but then, sadly, it turned, and before long was lost in the deeper reeds.

I never did get a clear view, the best being that below, enough for a clear identification, but not enough for me.

Ahh, well, it just means I’ll have to go down there again, doesn’t it? Next time I’ll remember my monopod!

Despite the awful news that we’re flooded with every day, it is, still, a wonderful world! We must re-double our efforts to leave it intact to our children.

The benefits of a little global pandemic

Well, we’re whizzing through year 2 of Covid 19 with vaccinations under way all over the globe – and new variants appearing to keep pace and keeping us all on our toes.

The hospitality industry is hurting more than most, businesses are dropping by the wayside with ever-increasing rapidity, but our chins are up here at the Quinta.

So how come we’re not all glum and depressed? It’s not as if we were any better prepared than anyone else so it appears to be a non-sequiter …

Well, we decided last year when this pandemic first raised its ugly head that we were going to make the most of the opportunity offered of suddenly having so much time on our hands to improve the Quinta by extending our tiny greenhouse – and working to improve the Quinta’s garden in general so as to become even more self-sufficient, for who knew how long this was going to affect our lives and livelihood?

So we set to work …

You’d think a greenhouse would be easy wouldn’t you, but not a bit of it here, for flattish land is at a premium when one lives on as steep a slope as we do, so first of all, and most importantly really, we had to build a huge retaining wall with a pile of stones that never seemed to decrease in size – or weight! First off came the foundations …

… and then the wall …

… and then, after lots of digging and levelling, the added bonus of a larger parking area.

Then the security walls in case anyone left the handbrake off …

And finally, after rotavating in a ton or so of good compost, we could begin on the greenhouse proper …

Well, it was a success – but perhaps too much of a success!

However, the proof of the pudding is that, when we can find them, we’re VERY self-sufficient in tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuces to mention just a few of the varieties of vegetables that we’ve got going in there now.

And it’s not just the greenhouse that’s being productive either, for up at the far end of the garden we’re just about to harvest our wonderful corn,

and the cabbages and beans are looking good too, so salads really are no problem at all this year!

And as for the fruit, the mind boggles … plums galore,

apples too,

as well as pears.

we’re going to be fine for plum wine, dried plums, plum chutney, apple cider vinegar … and if anyone wants to send us some other ideas we’ve still got several trees full of plums to harvest. The birds are loving it too, which is excellent news for our other little business, “Birding in Portugal“.

And y’know the best part about it all? It’s all grown biologically – and it all tastes DELICIOUS!

Now all we need are these lockdowns to end and people to start booking instead of cancelling, 😂, so hope to see you soon.

Ciao!

Just a couple of hours …

I managed to have a couple of hours all on my own down at our Water Rail and Kingfisher Hide this morning and it was buzzing – not like a couple of days ago when I sat down there for two hours in the afternoon and saw next to nothing.

First of all came the Common Kingfisher,

Common Kingfisher

followed by a juvenile White Wagtail,

White Wagtail

catching insects off the lilly pads. Unlike the other two species of Wagtail in this part of Europe, White Wags prefer a dry habitat and it’s not often that they venture onto water.

Then along came a juvenile Common Moorhen, checking out each individual flower for insects,

Juvenile Common Moorhen

followed by one of the local bunch of House Sparrows who always use the same fallen branches off which to drink.

Then, out of nowhere, there was the first of the morning’s Water Rails, a juvenile heading downstream.

Right on the far side of the pool and stealthily making its way through the reeds it was difficult to get a shot, but, just when I was giving it up for a bad job, there was another one, this time right out in the open and making its way upstream. Two juveniles at the same time and both well advanced with no sign of the adults who are probably already on their second clutch.

Juvenile Water Rail

I managed a few shots as it hunted across the pads,

Juvenile Water Rail
Juvenile Water Rail

before it merged into the deep shadow on the far side of the stream where the water level has dropped recently. A whole lot of fun trying to get the camera settings right to get the following shots, so not the best ones, I admit, but not too disrespectful for a skulking brown bird in deep shadow against a dark brown muddy bank …

Juvenile Water Rail
Juvenile Water Rail

The Common Kingfisher had flashed by a few times, gone before I could get on to it, but it wasn’t long before it was back, this time successfully catching a small fish,

Common Kingfisher

before perching annoyingly just the wrong side of a bunch of leaves.

Common Kingfisher

Then it was the turn of the original juvenile Water Rail, this time heading upstream again,

Juvenile Water Rail

being closely followed by a more advanced juvenile Common Moorhen than the first I had seen earlier.

Juvenile Common Moorhen

There’d been a Blackcap calling earlier and Golden Orioles’ fluting calls accompanied the morning, but no Nightingales today, just a solitary European Serin for a few seconds.

European Serin

On the far bank a large group of about 20 Spanish Terrapins clambered one atop the next searching for the best sunbathing spots, every now and again being gripped by mass panic and plopping into the water, only to re-emerge five minutes later to begin the mass scramble up the bank again. These Terrapins live an awfully long time, the ones in the picture below probably in their 50’s or 60’s.

Spanish Terrapins

The next caller to the little pool in front of the hide was another juvenile, this time a Grey Wagtail,

Juvenile Grey Wagtail

a Wagtail that frequents streams and inland waterways. Interestingly it was hunting and catching small fish hiding among the lilly pads.

For the whole two hours a Blue Emperor dragonfly had been cruising its beat backwards and forwards past the hide, so I thought I’d have a go for an in-flight shot and was lucky enough to get this one.

Blue Emperor

Finally, just as my alarm started buzzing to tell me I had to get back for lunch, an Iberian Chiffchaff paid a quick visit to the bushes on the hide’s side of the stream.

Iberian Chiffchaff

No Otters this morning, nor Southern Water Voles or any other mammals, but there were times when it was a difficult decision to know where to concentrate, and it sure made up for the two hours of nothing two days ago when the weather was decidedly colder and nothing wanted to move at all.

All in all it was a lovely morning!

This is the week!

European Bee-eater

For those of our guests who stay with us for the Nature side of things, this is the week when there suddenly appear to be many more birds around – and it’s true, there are, for the last week of May and the first of June is when the main exodus of fledgelings from their nests takes place.

One of the most spectacular species to see of course is the European Bee-eater as shown above, but another stunning bird to capture on film at this time of year is the Common Kingfisher … here’s the back …

Common Kingfisher

… here’s the front …

Common Kingfisher

… and here it is in flight.

Common Kingfisher

Only a photographer will understand just how difficult it is to capture a shot like the one above, for this bird flies extremely fast and that’s how you’ll normally see them – in flight and disappearing fast – but around this week in any year that’s the exception for the juveniles are seemingly fearless of humans during their first few weeks out of the nest, and will perch in the open right in front of our Kingfisher and Water Rail Hide, so, if you want good shots of this species, time your visit here for the first week in June and you won’t be disappointed.

At the same Hide the Water Rails are often seen in the open at this time of year and it’d be a shame if I didn’t include a picture of one here,

Water Rail

but this week’s not just good for the gaudy birds, though there are plenty of these.

There’re chicks of all kinds leaving the safety of their nests for the big wide world. Things like Iberian Magpies with the dappled head and short tail showing their youthfulness,

Young Iberian Magpie

and the same might well be said of the head of the cryptic Common Skylark youngsters with their diagnostic white tipped headfeathers.

Common Skylark

And so the circle of Life continues – and I must get out of this chair and capture more of it while the going’s good! Ciao!

Trumpet blowing time

We’re in the top 1%!

It’s about time we blew our own trumpet a bit – just a little mind you, as I don’t want my head to become too big, but it’s good every now and again to take stock and see how we’re doing.

So, as you can see from the picture above, we’ve just been awarded Tripadvisor’s “Travellers’ Choice” Award again. That’s the third time in the last five years – and it takes some doing too, because it’s only awarded to the top 1% in any country, so we’re pleased as punch. We feel far prouder of this than any other award as well because it’s generated solely through genuine Guest Reviews, submitted by the guests themselves when they take the time, having stayed here, to submit a report about us to Tripadvisor. We also still have their Platinum Award as a Green Leader, reflecting our sustainability ethos, so that’s a double whammy, and, as I said, we’re over the moon about them both.

What else?

We’ve recently been taken on by Flown, an upmarket “Remote-working” agency who have recognised the Quinta’s suitability as a venue for individuals or groups to engage in this activity, describing the Quinta as “the ideal space to find a sense of perspective”. Couldn’t agree more!

Then there’re the agencies who continue to put their trust in us to look after their guests.

Lovely people like “Secret Places“, who we’ve been with for more years than I care to remember, and the same goes for “One-off Places” who have also supported us through thick and thin.

So if you’re feeling like getting away – I mean REALLY getting away – then there’s no place better, and with so much space around us we’re safe too, as Sawdays can testify.

There’s another bonus also as, in these “uncertain times”, we’re thrilled to hear that Portugal has been included in the UK’s Green List as being a safe place to go for a sunny summer holiday, and we’ve immediately seen an increase in the number of enquiries, so, as Daniela has succinctly reminded me, I should stop “scribbling” and start replying to emails.

Looking forward to seeing you!

In the absence of large numbers of guests, an update on our little friends at the Quinta …

We’re blessed!

Despite living in the middle of nowhere and being blessed with sunsets like the one above, our lives, like everyone else’s, are proscribed at present by Covid which just seems to rumble on – and on and on and on …

Of course the Quinta is about as safe as one can get as regards the pandemic, so it seems ironic that we’re still in Lockdown, which has been permanent here for the last six months. One wonders how the economy will recuperate should this state of affairs ever change, but I won’t go into this further – enough to say that, while our chins are still well up, it is starting to become rather boring.

We’re a whole lot luckier than most of course as we’ve plenty of space in which to move about and we’ve been able to keep ourselves busy in the Quinta’s garden which is looking as gorgeous as ever this year.

Nightingales are singing outside my window as I tap away, the first three nests of Barn Swallows have fledged,

and second clutches are already being sat on. The Golden Orioles are back, Collared Doves coo, Blackbirds trill, Blackcaps call, Serins and Greenfinches are incubating in the Cypresses while Goldfinches prefer the Jasmin outside the rooms – in general the Natural world is buzzing fit to bust.

A few nights ago I was chatting to a Portuguese couple on the covered terrace outside the bar when a Merlin flew through chasing a Swallow, passing so close to my head that I felt its wingbeat. A startling occurrence to be sure, but one that filled me with joy as the first phrase that came to my mind was, “Done it! This garden is a real “living” environment. We’ve got there!”. We’ve had Eagles, Buzzards and Sparrowhawks drop in on a fairly regular basis before, but a Merlin? That’s a new one, and especially flying through a covered terrace. It was a split-second moment but one that’ll live in my memory forever; when Nature gives you a thumbs-up like that it’s an unforgettable experience and makes the last thirty-five years of work seem very worthwhile.

And it’s not just the birds that have come to see the Quinta’s garden as a success. We’re always on the look-out when walking anywhere after dark as we have a fair selection of “Gardener’s Friends” to choose from, the most common being the Spiny Toad (Bufo spinosus). They’re widespread in the garden and grow to an impressive size, thankfully keeping the snails and slugs down to manageable proportions so our veg patches aren’t decimated.

Spiny Toad (Bufo spinosus)

Other friends that help around the place include Stripeless, (or Mediterranean), Tree Frogs (Hyla meridionalis),

Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis)

and Moorish Geckos (Tarentola mauritanica).

But it’s not just Toads, Frogs and Geckos …

It rained the same night that the Merlin flew past my head and the couple I’d been talking to went out with a torch and came across two species that, while not rare, are certainly difficult to come across. First they found a Southern Marbled Newt (Triturus pygmaeus), an Iberian endemic, wandering around,

Southern Marbled Newt (Triturus pygmaeus)

and then they came across another, a real thriller, a Sharp-ribbed Salamander (Pleurodeles waltl), sometimes called an Iberian Ribbed Newt.

Sharp-ribbed Salamander or Iberian Ribbed Newt (Pleurodeles waltl)

This last species is a delight to have helping us. Perfectly harmless to humans it has a wonderful defence strategy when threatened by a predator that involves those red spots along its flanks in the picture above; go on, click on the link to find out – it’ll give you something to do the next time we’re locked down!

Say Goodbye to the Summer with a touch of Yoga in Paradise

Breaking News is that the Quinta is hosting a Weekend of Yoga on the weekend of the 2nd to 4th October.

Kaian, the Quinta’s Yoga Instructor, is giving three hour-long Yoga sessions during this two night break away from all the mayhem to say “Goodbye” to the Summer. A shared room for the two nights of the 2nd and 3rd, along with the Yoga, two lunches and two dinners will set you back only €230, so it’s eminently affordable and just the way to make the transition from Summer to Autumn.

Get in touch if you’d like to make the most of this opportunity – we’re going to have a fun time!

Nature watching at the Quinta

Yoga Groups, Retreats in general, Family gatherings, Romantic Getaways and Family Holidays are some of the reasons why our guests choose the Quinta as a venue, but perhaps the favourite reason is as a base from where to watch nature, birds especially, but Nature in general, and recently we’ve been having some wonderful views of a particularly difficult species to get to grips with, European Otters.

This one gave us a real show the other day as it caught crayfish after crayfish right in front of us, surfacing every now and again to munch on them above water.

We have a very good place to watch them from, our Water Rail and Kingfisher Hide – and the otters seem to enjoy watching us too! Although this one could hear our cameras he seemed more interested in catching his dinner, but took some time out to float right in front of us. It was a real bonus to be able to be there and see it so close.

We had wicked views of some Water Rails too on the same day, another species that usually likes to stay well hidden, but our Hide is right in front of a little short cut they like to make use of across the tops of the lily pads.

If you’re at all interested in Nature you really couldn’t choose a better place to be!

So …, how’s it been for you?

This year’s been a trifle daunting to put it mildly, don’t you think, and I apologise for beating a drum, but I must get something off my chest. I have never written a blog before that was not up-beat, but there has to be a first time for everything. Personally those of us who live and work here at the Quinta and those of us who run “Birding in Portugal” are happy, in good health and thriving, but I have a deep, dark well of anger that I am keeping bottled up inside. This post will alleviate it a trifle.

A pandemic that has swept the globe has been handled with the utmost crassness by several “leaders” of the world’s economic powerhouses. They responded firstly by minimising its threat and followed this up by valuing their economies higher than those members of the population who contributed with their lives’ work towards making those economies successful, all the while sending contradictory and vague messages that reassured no-one and which have materially prolonged the devastation.

When the world needed leaders, those in charge of the wealthiest economies were found wanting and a pandemic that could have been beaten was left to run riot through sluggardly action. 

I feel deep sorrow for the many thousands who have had their lives cut short, and for those other thousands who will face debilitating consequences to their health for the rest of their lives. Add to these the millions who will be affected by the global crash brought on by these leaders’ ineptitude and my anger at the charlatans who are responsible is limitless.

I sympathise with anyone who has not been as lucky as us, those unlucky souls trapped in a flat for months on end, those trying to cope in inhospitable conditions, those with no access to the outside world. They have drawn a very short straw and from everything I have read to date it appears as if this virus attacks the “poor and packed” to a far greater degree than the rich. It makes me feel guilty to admit that we have actually enjoyed the last six months. 

We have not missed the ringing of the telephone, nor the eternal emails. We have missed seeing people of course, but this has been more than offset by the joy of having the Quinta all to ourselves for once. We have had plenty to keep us occupied and plenty of space in which to attack many projects that have been staring us in the face for far too long. The business has suffered hugely but we have continued raising money for conservation, and I am confident that the business to which I have given the majority of my working life will survive. We’ve been through this kind of thing before, we survived then and we can weather this one out too, but I feel very sad for those who will not be as lucky as us, those who took a punt at just the wrong time, those who had a dream and have seen that dream crumble to dust through no fault of their own, their hard work or their commitment.

There have been very few immediate impacts of Covid-19 as far as the Quinta is concerned. Portugal as whole “went hard and went early” and social distancing and the obligatory wearing of masks in all public places was implemented throughout the country in March with general acceptance by the populace.  Why the devil the USA and the UK have not taken this obvious step is beyond me – and everyone else in the world quite frankly. Too little too late and  … oh, I must stop, but it beggars belief. I suppose the biggest difference is that there’s a culture here that is best described as “us, us, us” as opposed to “me, me, me” and this was obvious from the word go.

I’ll just put this one out there though … in the whole of southern Portugal, the Algarve and the Alentejo combined, we’ve had 25 Covid-19 deaths, despite the vast majority of the population registering most decidedly in the “at risk” group, having an average age of 65. Obviously population density has a large hand in this, but that cuts both ways as the local infrastucture is nowehere near as comprehensive or advanced as areas more densely populated.

And that’s enough from me. I believe passionately in positivity and always look for the bright side – and there has been one for us – but I have seldom felt so angry. It’s good to have lanced that particular boil just a little as the various lockdowns come to an end and the Quinta fills up once again with our many guests and friends.

It pays to have a flutter!

We’re very proud to say that in 2019 the Quinta raised over €40,000 for conservation efforts worldwide!

Every year we donate a holiday here to the Birdfair that takes place during August in Rutland, UK, but last year we also donated one to the British Trust for Ornithology and they used it as their top prize in a raffle; together, these two donations raised the princely sum mentioned above – so this year we’re doing it again! Read on for how to win one of these holidays, but first I should mention the lucky winners.

Chris & Derek Allnutt won the BTO Raffle and Ian & Debbie Dury won the Birdfair Auction

If you want to see some of the species we saw when we took them out birding then pop on over to our Birding in Portugal site and look at yesterday’s blog.

So, do you fancy your luck? Go on! Both options contribute towards Conservation.

If you want to go for the Birdfair Auction you’ll have to wait till August and travel to Rutland – worth going to the Birdfair in any case! – but the BTO Raffle is current right now and you don’t even have to leave your chair. Just click on the link – it’s not just the birds that can have a flutter!