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Friday, 9 September 2011

Portugal Diary

I am currently writing up my account on Portugal day by day. Its taking awhile and as such I will upload on here instalments in fortnight chunks.  More will follow as i type it up. Hope you enjoy.

Day 1 - 27/6/11 - Arrival

Today I set off for my adventure in Portugal. The flight from Bristol was delayed by 20 minutes so I met up with Sam and we went for a quick drink. The flight was over quite quick but nether the less by the time we set down at Lisbon it was already dark (22:15).
Waiting at the gate for us was Inês and Ana, who we will be working with the next 2 months. As they drove us to the farm we had a quick overview of the project and our roles.
The cottage is nice inside but too dark to tell from the outside. I have my own room with an en-suite and air conditioning which is handy to have as it’s reading 25oC on my thermometer and its 00:55hrs! There are a lot of spiders in here and I don't know if they are harmful or not, lets hope not.

Day 2 - 28/6/11 - Introduction

After a hot night, which I slept like a log, I unpacked and ate the “emergency ration breakfast” provided to us by Inês and Ana. At 10:30 Ana arrived at the cottage and introduced us to radio tracking which seems straight forward at the moment. We will see if this is the case when it is applied in the field.
We were then driven out to a nest box which had tagged owls in to give us a live demonstration of the tracking equipment in action. The area is very flat and looks a bit like Hopefield in South Africa. There are lots of nice bright butterflies in the fields here.
After this we drove to Porto Alto for lunch which was nice as well as cheap. Next stop was Freeport, the big outlet village, then to the supermarket. We stocked up and I found fanta grape (uva) and Ceres mango juice. Driving around we saw a lot of storks.
We spent the rest of the evening at the cottage listening to Portuguese learning C.D’s, reading and talking. I did a bit of birding seeing a booted eagle and a shrike.

Day 3 - 29/6/11 - Part 1:Baby Owls

After a breakfast with mango juice from Ceres, Inês took us to the military base. A soldier of a high rank (don’t know which) drove us around in a little 4X4 toyota. the area is a big dusty empty area much like the Western Cape of South Africa (but not as nice).
We stopped at a tower which Inês and Sam climbed up to collect 3 young barn owls who where almost ready to fledge. They where really cute! Inês ringed them, weighed and measured and took feathers for D.N.A. I helped Inês return them to the tower and collect a small dead owl.
We moved to another building and did the same again with 3 owls a few days younger (the first 3 were about 50 days old). One had a tutu of baby feathers. I measured the wing of one owl. The next nest we visited had newly hatched owls so we didn't take any data. As we took photos the mother appeared and we promptly left. We are doing night tracking later.

Day 3 - 29/6/11 - Part 2: Radio Tracking

After returning to the cottage , showering and eating we waited for Ana and Inês to arrive. We saw a few hare close to the cottage. The sky at sunset was the lilac purple “desert sky” colour and nice to see again.
So we drove out at dusk to the fields that the barn owls live in. First thing we noticed was how many mossies (mosquitoes) where about. The torch beam was filled with them. While Inês and Ana sorted out the G.P.S Sam and I tested the trackers and seen if we remembered how. We did. I am sure I heard a nightjar and Inês said they are around.
To decide who had the car was a difficult task. In the end it came down to rock, paper, scissors. Me and Inês stayed on foot. We did some simultaneous fixes on the owls locations until almost 02:00hrs. Most owls stayed in the barn as they are still young. However owl 31 was flying for a while. I’m tired now.

Day 4 - 30/6/11 - Hot!

Got a lie in today as we were supposed to collect the car from Lisbon but plans changed and Lisbon is now set for tomorrow with radio tracking again tonight. As we had the whole day free but unable to travel we cleaned the kitchen which was in a terrible mess.
Later we went for a walk and it was very hot but I had learned in the pass to wear my hat. We saw lots of rabbits and some baby ones too. The road we walked was long, straight and dusty with no shade. At the end was a small wooded area which we will hopefully return to when we have the car. After the walk we came back hot and tired, showered and had a rest.
We went out tracking again at dusk with me and Sam having full control of everything in an observed practice run. The owls where mainly on the nest so it was perfect for a test as we knew where they where.  I took my night-vision scope tonight and saw only horses. We did get a big spider, a hairy one with huge fangs, on the flask. We saw a few owls flying around on the way home and finished at 02:30. Car tomorrow.

Day 5 - 1/7/11 - Lisbon Car

Today after another lie in until 11:00 we headed to Lisbon and the SPEA office to sign our agreement forms and sort out our allowance. Lisbon is a big busy place and the part of Lisbon we went to had the odd old building scattered here and there.
SPEA’s office was an old tall building with many flights of stairs leaving you tired out at the top. We met the team and signed our forms before getting some cake.
The next stop was the airport, not to go home but to collect the car. The car was a brand new VW polo with only 1000 km on the clock. I cant drive as the insurance is too expensive for under 25’s so it is Sam’s job to drive.
At night we did the tracking. On the way Sam missed the turn so we entered the site a different way seeing frogs, mice, owls and cows. We saw lot’s of owls who now are just starting to gather in the area.
At about 01:30 all the owls had stopped flying. We decided to do 1 last check on the 4 tagged owls. This all went fine and we where about to leave when we lost the last one. We drove everywhere with the antenna out the window. We gave up on this as it yielded no results and went up to the highest point in the city of Villa-Franca. This allows a large range to be scanned to try and locate the owls. We didn't find the owl so called it a night at 04:00.

Day 6 - 2/7/11 - Bert

Since we had such a late night I didn't get up until midday. The coffee maker which we have been using as a kettle for cups of tea started to leak so we had to resort to using a pan on the hob to boil the water.
We needed to check on the owls just to see if owl 32 had left the nest or not. On the floodplain we saw hundreds (not exaggerating) white storks. We will return with the camera. Number 32 had returned so has not completely left. Next we went to the supermarket to stock up and I bought more fanta grape.
After eating tea a little budgie appeared on the car. He kept looking at his reflection and pecking at it. We asked the house next door in our limited Portuguese if it belonged to them but it didn't. Its odd as there are no more houses for about 13km. He was a very tame bird letting you get very close. We decided to name him Bert. As its dry we cut a fanta bottles base off and made a small bath for him. He stayed with us all evening.
After dark we got the night scope out and saw some bats even though everyone we asked denied them being in the area. We also saw a nightjar. We then sat around talking and tried to do some star photography but it became too cloudy.

Day 7 - 3/7/11 - Boar Trackers

Another free day in which we decided to explore, on a mini safari, the Companhia das Lezirias. We found a map of the place in a cupboard and headed to a dam which is supposed to be a site for boars and otters (although on the key they look like dinosaurs.
We got to the dam which was low in water and walked along the “beach”. In the sand we found lots of tracks which we later identified as boars, otters, mongoose and genet. We turned back as the road got to sandy to drive and looked for a hide. We found the road blocked by a barbed wire fence. We decided to look for flamingoes by the rice fields. We saw none. We did however see lots of storks and purple heron. One we even saw catch a crayfish. On the way back we saw some big bulls used for bullfighting. We then returned to the house for a relaxing evening and tea.

Day 8 - 4/7/11 - Coruche

This morning we met Ana and went to Coruche, where Ana and Inês live. The town, as we would call it but they call a village, is on the river and very traditional. While we sorted the plan we drank by the river and saw an osprey attempt to catch a fish and fail. We left Inês in town to do computer stuff and we went to a farm out of town.
Here we hoped to tag a nest of owls. To get to the barn we had to climb a fence into a horse paddock whose occupants looked at us somewhat confused. The owl was unfortunately too young so we left him after taking a few photos. He was a big white fur-ball. We found some beautiful adult feathers which I kept. We then drove to Ana’s house and saw a bee-eater. Ana’s house was very nice both inside and out and she has a big soft dog named Sebastien. We then went to a viewpoint and had a quick tour of the town. On the way back a mongoose ran across the road in front of us.
Tonight Sam and I tracked alone. At one point the guards came and neither spoke each others language so we said “Boa Noite” and went on with our work. The owls stayed put in the nest all night. One untagged owl flew at me screeching. Towards the end of the night owl 30 disappeared so we drove around to look for him. We eventually found him later.

Day 9 - 5/7/11 - Villa Franca

Today we went back to the city of Villa Franca which we had been warned wasn’t very nice. We got to the centre and found cheap parking. The place was a pleasant surprise with little side streets with cobbled roads and patterned tile walled buildings. For lunch we tried a little restaurant in a courtyard with a canvas roof. I tried sardines which still had the heads on but tasted great non-the-less. We then visited the tourist information center and found a few places to visit.
In the streets a series of wooden gates cross junctions of the main street. This is for when the bulls run in the streets. This happened last week but we may be able to see it elsewhere. We paid another visit to the supermarket and got my kettle. We then had a rest before heading out alone to track again.
It was very cold and windy with the owls staying mostly on the nest. One disappeared, owl 31, so we set off in order to track her down. We never found her but did see some other owls. One was “dancing” by bobbing up and down and then stretching its wings and legs. We also saw 2 owls mate. Before leaving a fox crossed the road and reminded me of One-eye, the wild fox I know in Cornwall.

Day 10 - 6/7/11 - Great Complications

After a lie in Ana and Inês arrived with some money, a bird guide, gate card, and watchie talkies (walkie talkie watches). They had been to check on some owl boxes and found a kestrel had taken up home in one with some babies.
The walkie talkie watches had a test run which was a disappointment and struggled at just 500m although they were supposed to have a range of 7km. We put this down to the trees in the area and decided that we wold get better results in the flat open study area. How wrong we were.
Sam and I had another night of tracking alone as Inês had a doctors appointment at night, which seemed an odd time to have one, and Ana’s son was not well. Before heading out we met the vet, Helena, who is also staying here at the cottage temporarily but due to our odd hours we had yet to meet. She was friendly and will maybe show us around.
We needed fuel which presented us with the first problem.We couldn’t use the pump so asked the attendant, who didn’t speak English, for assistance. We eventually sorted it and got the fuel. When we got to the field we took one reading, went our set distances apart and the watchie talkies didn’t work. We then tried the normal ones. They died of low battery. W decided to return to the garage once again. We found the same man still on duty. We tried to ask him if he had batteries but failed so showed him a battery. He just shook his head.
We gave Inês a call and she decided that since nowhere around here would be open at 23:00 to call it a night. In a way we where happy as we got to rest before tomorrows first dusk till dawn shift.
The other day we saw a car parked on the edge of the cops and wondered what they where doing. It turns out that the fields have giant watering systems that move around the field watering the crops and also spraying the roads. They where washing the car. We had wanted to try and tonight as we pulled in it was back in a position for us to try. It did a really good job. Just at the end of the drive we nearly ran a barn owl over. He was just sitting in the road looking at us, no doubt having watched us wash the car.

Day 11 - 7/7/11 - Alochete

Today we awoke earlier than previous days but found it grey, windy and cold, so much so  that today was the first day that I have had to eat my breakfast indoors. Because of the weather we decided to go to Europe's largest retail park at Freeport. I bought here a metal BBQ for €3, not bad as a disposable one was €2.50.
After here we got hungry so decided to find some food in the nearby town of Alochete. We wondered around looking for a place to eat and saw lots of nice little traditional tilled houses. We went along the river front (which the tide was out) and got good views of Lisbon. We finally settled on a really good steak to eat.
After this we came back and rested ready for the night. After a sleep we found plans had changed and we only had a short night until around 02:00. We got there and it was the worst mosquito night ever In the fading light of the sunset we saw great clouds like smoke hanging over the waterways. I got bitten more times tonight that the whole time I have been here combined. On the way back we counted only 7 owls, a low number as we usually see at least between 10-15.

Day 12 - 8/7/11 - Night Watch

Not much happened today as we were going to do a night shift, and this time we did. We spent the whole day resting. We got to the field, this time with Ana accompanying us, at dusk around 21:00.
Not much happened other than the tracking. We had a 1hr break and looked for some food but nowhere was open. Next time we will spend the break sleeping. There where so many mossies out that I am bit over, especially my right knee which looks as if I have chicken pox.
We stayed until dawns early light washed the sky an apple green at 05:20. We drove back and hit the hay. We are off to Coruche for the weekend to see Inês play in a band. I got to bed at 06:05 with the day light breaking and the birds singing in the new day.

Day 13 - 9/7/11 - Coruche at Night

After the night shift we woke at 2pm and headed off to Coruche to watch Inês band. Ana had been kind enough to ask us to stay over at hers so on arrival  we dropped off our bedding and clothes and headed out.
The first port of call was Ana’s husbands parents weekend house. On the way up we saw her husband, Rodolfo, and the first sight of him we had was him at full speed drifting a quad bike down the road. We found from Ana that this is normal for him. We met the family and Lawrenco, Ana’s son. He was shy at first but after a sardine lunch I got in the pool and he wanted to play. The house here is a traditional Portuguese farm which grows all its own fruit, veg and herbs.
Later that evening we went to the town square which sits on the river. We had a lunch of snails which where surprisingly good. Rodolfo kept getting me different drinks to try and I eventually red wine and 7up, of which he kept getting me all night.
We went to see Inês play after lunch and met her son Za. Za is about a year older than Lawrenco who himself is about 2 years old but they get on well. After the concert Sam, Rodolfo and I went into Coruche for drinks while Ana took Lawrenco home. There are only 2 places to drink in Coruche, the best of which had darts which I kept beating Rodolfo at. After here we went to a disco which was closed. We eventually got in after a good night at 5.30am.

Day 14 - 10/7/11 - BBQ

We all woke at midday feeling ill except for Ana. I went o the toilet and heard Lawrenco shouting me. He was waiting by the door wanting to show me his toys. After seeing the toys and breakfast we returned to the weekend house for lunch. Rodolfos whole family including his grandparents turned up as well as Anas dad.
We had a meat stew which was good then went in the 4X4 along some dirt roads to a place that translates as “Rose Mud”. We had a coffee (i had a cola) and went back to Ana’s for a siesta. We got into the house where Lawrenco grabbed my hand and led me to the sofa to put the film “Cars” on, only it was dubbed into Portuguese. After that “Star Wars” came on (this time in English) and I fell asleep (as did everyone else).
After our sleep Ana and Sam prepared tea while Rodolfo set up the BBQ. I looked after Lawrenco in the garden who is very funny and full of energy. Before the food was ready Inês, her husband Normando, and son Za who had been invited arrived. I was then looking after both Lawrenco and Za. Za is very well behaved and understands the concept of sharing but Lawrenco doesn't, always wanting what Za has.
The food was really good, mostly pork, and an egg tomato thing, also good. Pudding was a sort of Portuguese version of bread and butter pudding which Normando had prepared. Again very good food.

More to come soon.